About a week ago I attended a debate between Dr. Shabir Ally and Mr. John Tors on the topic of, “Did Jesus Rise From The Dead?” (click the link to see the debate).
To begin with, I need to say that the church which hosted the event did an amazing job. The congregation at the North York Chinese Baptist Church were helpful, accommodating and very pleasant. The event was well-managed and I think all attendees would agree with me on this.
The topic itself is a little unusual (which is a good thing) as to debate if Jesus rose from the dead, one has to first grant the argument that he did die. In other words, we can’t debate this specific topic if we say he never died. This point seems to have been missed by both Muslim and Christian debate enthusiasts, it should also be noted that granting an argument for the sake of the argument, is not the same as accepting that argument. One may well wonder why a Muslim debater would put themselves in such a contentious position in the first place. The answer for this question was provided in the debate itself in which the question was asked, “what does it mean for Jesus to have died?” Christians answer this question differently and so the “type” of “death” was a focus of this debate. An easier way to have framed the debate would have been to make a minor change to the title to emphasise that the topic was about death:
Did Jesus Rise From “The Dead”?
Before the debate I read through most of the relevant articles on Mr. Tors’ website and while at the debate, I found myself a bit confused after his opening statement. Practically his entire opening statement is what I had read the night before and it can be found on his website in the form of two articles:
- THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER AND THE EVANGELICAL BETRAYAL OF THE BIBLE: Exposing the Major Weapons Levied Against the Trustworthiness of the Bible
- THE RESURRECTION ACCOUNTS: “Incompatible Contradictions” or Coherent History?
In fact, during the debate I was sharing these articles with both Christians and Muslims, most of whom expressed surprise at what seemed to be general confusion as to why Mr. Tors would prepare in such a way for a debate. That is to say that he largely used articles from 2015 and 2018 with no new research being presented or accounted for. The attendees had no need for Mr. Tors’ opening statement, just granting us 10 minutes to do some quick reading would’ve sufficed. Mr. Tors began the debate with two important points:
- We shouldn’t base our views on assumptions,
- We shouldn’t base our views on presuppositions.
Rather, he argued, we should look at the evidence itself first and if needed, then at works of scholarship. The problem he quickly found himself in was then ironic, as he seemingly argued that he had evidence that Jesus died and was resurrected. This evidence turned out to be Mr. Tors just quoting the Bible. It was then I realised that had he believed in what he said at the start of the debate then he wouldn’t have assumed that the Bible was true or presupposed it as being factual. Indeed, it’s a tall order to hold him to his own words, but if someone lays out a specific methodology at the start of a debate then I largely hope that they would at the very least be superficially consistent but even this was not afforded to us (the audience).
This point did not seem to strike Mr. Tors at all and it left me completely bewildered at what he had hoped to achieve. Muslims don’t accept the Bible as a valid source for theology, and Christians don’t accept the Qur’an as a valid source for their theology, so what is achieved in ministering to Muslims in using a text we don’t accept? Dr. Ally at least attempted to reference both the Bible and the Qur’an throughout the debate. Mr. Tors or someone who works for his ministry later argued in the comments section (of the re-upload) of the debate video on YouTube that while the New Testament is a historical work, the Qur’an was not (in regards to Jesus) and so he did not consider any appeals to it as sufficient for the topic. This is despite the fact that he himself holds to a form of the New Testament text which is not wholly extant in any manuscript before the mid-medieval period (roughly from the 10th to 15th century CE). He holds to the Byzantine Priority position, a minority view in the world of Christendom.
Oddly enough, Mr. Tors later argued that it didn’t matter what date the earliest extant (still surviving) manuscripts of the crucifixion and resurrection accounts came from. At that point in the debate I lost any hope in Mr. Tors advancing any form of a consistent argument. Either it is the dates do matter or they don’t, either it is the gospel narratives do have contradictions because the gospel authors focused on different elements of the story by design or there are no contradictions and they give the exact same narratives, either it is he is arguing for the New Testament to be a theologically preserved version of the best witness testimony or he is willing to apply historical standards to the gospels. It just seemed like he was willing to flip-flop on his positions without care for consistency, reasonableness or intellectual humility.
As a Muslim who is invested in these kinds of debates, I look forward to them with a great deal of anticipation. Some times that anticipation pays off in the form of the robust debates between Dr. Shabir Ally and Dr. James White and some times they clearly don’t, as in this case. Mr. Tors’ primary (and seemingly only) argument for this debate therefore can be summarised as, “the Bible teaches that Jesus died and was resurrected, and this is true because the Bible teaches it”. While that may strike a chord with Christians, it doesn’t with the Muslims and it’s such an obvious point that I wonder if Mr. Tors cared for Muslims to even attend this debate in the first place. If one were to watch his opening statement, you would find him preaching directly to the Christians in the audience, word after word of caution about not allowing scholars and liberals to change their beliefs, to change how Christians should understand the Bible. Yet, I struggled to find an instance where he addresses the crowd as if there were Muslims in it, people who plainly do not accept the Bible as scripture. After all, he gave no reasons as to why Muslims should begin believing in the Bible, rather his focus seemed to be on keeping Christians Christian.
That is where a marked difference can be seen between Dr. Ally and Mr. Tors. Dr. Ally spent a few minutes at the start of his opening statement engaging with the crowd directly, he explained why he was there, what he hoped to achieve, what Muslims, Christians and those from other faiths can gain by being at the debate event. His words acknowledged the presence of other faiths in the audience, it provided a reason for us to pay more attention to what he said. Another point of note was the difference in composure and demeanour. While Dr. Ally was generally congenial and jovial, Mr. Tors at times appeared dismayed, upset or aggravated. This led to the second half of the debate being more contentious (which is not in itself a negative thing), giving rise to many instances of riposte between the speakers.
I’ve sat through classes by Dr. Licona and Dr. Habermas, evangelical scholars who are well renowned for their arguments regarding the positive evidence for the crucifixion and the resurrection. I’m writing a book myself on the topic of the resurrection, so I attended this debate to gain some knowledge that I could have hoped to engage with on multiple levels, but I left the debate event empty handed, there simply was not much presented on the Christian side of the topic that would allow me to analyze or engage with Mr. Tors’ arguments. In the end I had hoped for more substance but it was nonetheless a good event otherwise. I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Tors in person, he was kind, shook my hands and engaged in brief but meaningful conversation, and for that I sincerely thank him.
and Allah knows best.