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Dr Craig's Interview in the New York Times

March 03, 2019
Dr Craig’s Interview in the New York Times


Dr. Craig takes us behind the scenes of his interview with Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times concerning the truth of Christianity.

KEVIN HARRIS: What a great opportunity for Reasonable Faith! Dr. Craig is interviewed in The New York Times by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof.[1] Welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I’m Kevin Harris. Today, we’ll go behind the scenes with Dr. Craig and reveal the whole process of how the interview was conducted this past December 2018. What questions and answers were left out? And Dr. Craig’s strategy in dealing with the questions that Nicholas Kristof asked. And, as you can imagine, a firestorm of criticism from non-Christians as well as some Christians has flared up as a result of the interview. Dr. Craig talks about that as well on the way.

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Dr. Craig, you received quite a Christmas gift this past Christmas 2018 when Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times invited you to be interviewed for a Christmas piece. What was the genesis of this entire scenario?

DR. CRAIG: Our former executive director of Reasonable Faith, Chris Shannon, was somehow in touch with Nicholas Kristof and put us together. Kristof sent me a list of questions to which then I could respond in writing. So the interview was not personally conducted. It was a written interview. This allowed me to craft my answers carefully because there was a very severe word limit. In fact, after the interview was initially done it had to be reduced to just 800 words, and so a lot of the interview was cut out and never published.

KEVIN HARRIS: Nicholas Kristof, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, seems to be interested in this topic.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, he does. He has interviewed a number of prominent Christians. Some of the questions that were not included in the final published version were quite personal. I think that he has a definite personal interest. One of the things that surprised me about the interview, however, is the number of misunderstandings that Mr. Kristof exhibited in his questions that he asked. For example, his opening question was, Are you actually confident that Jesus was born to a virgin in a manger in Bethlehem? I was surprised that he would say that Jesus was born in a manger. Jesus was laid in a manger. He was born in a stable. A manger is a food trough. Jesus wasn't born in a manger. He was born in a stable, and then Mary laid him in a manger as a kind of little crib because she didn't have one of course. But that he would ask, Was Jesus born in a manger? – I thought that was odd. Then he went on to say, What about the three wise men? And, again, I was struck – well, the Bible doesn't say that there were three wise men. It just says the wise men came from the east and visited him. Again, he was under the sort of popular misimpression that the Bible teaches that there were three wise men. Then later on he says to me, How do you account for contradictions in the Bible? And I’m quoting now: One gospel says that Judas hanged himself; another that he was swallowed into the earth. And I thought, Where did he get that? It was very clear to me that there were just a lot of misunderstandings on his part. When I corrected these in the interview, then they got eliminated in the published version so that those elements were expunged. But the initial interview, I think at least, did show that this highly intelligent person has quite a number of popular misunderstandings of what Christianity actually holds.

KEVIN HARRIS: Were you surprised at the title of this interview?

DR. CRAIG: Yeah. This is the thing that troubled me the most about the interview actually.

KEVIN HARRIS: Which, by the way, was “Professor, Was Jesus really born to a virgin?”

DR. CRAIG: The focus of the interview struck me as entirely wrong. I thought this would be an interview on the big questions about Christianity, and instead, as you see, he was focused on: Was Jesus born to a virgin? Were there three wise men that followed the Star of Bethlehem and found Jesus? What about the death of Judas? For goodness sake. I thought, Why is he focusing on these trivialities? So in my response in the original interview I said, The questions you and I have been discussing so far, Nick, are, for the most part, peripheral matters. What really matters are questions like: Does God exist? Are there objective moral values? Was Jesus truly God and truly man? How does his death on a Roman cross serve to overcome our moral wrongdoing and estrangement from God? These are, as one philosopher puts it, the questions that matter; not how Judas died. So it seemed to me that the focus of the interview was just completely wrong, and that corrective got cut in the final published version of the interview. But it did seem to me that we were focused on the wrong questions.

KEVIN HARRIS: I have to tell you my overall impression when I first read this interview was: you showed tremendous restraint in order to not be led astray by how Judas died and things like that. Because our tendency is to: Oh, I can explain that. You know, I was in the seventh grade when I learned that how Judas died is not a contradiction and that his body may have fallen, the rope (after he hanged himself) broke and he could have ended up on the rocks below and his guts spilled out. Those are the two accounts. You put them together and you get a fuller version. But you wouldn't allow yourself to be led down that.

DR. CRAIG: Right. I didn't want this interview to turn into a discussion of the three wise men and the death of Judas. There were far, far more important issues at stake. Here's another example of that restraint that again got cut from the published interview. He says near the end, I've been tormenting you with tough questions, so turn the tables. What annoys or frustrates you the most about skeptics like myself? What do we not get? Boy, I wanted to say, You don't get it at all in terms of what are the important questions. But what I said was, OK, remember! You asked for it! I long for an intelligent conversation with an unbeliever about the truth of the Christian faith. But – I don't know how to put this gently, so just think of me as a sort of theological Simon Cowell, good-willed but ruthlessly honest – most unbelievers don't seem to be capable of carrying on such a conversation. I get the impression that they've never read much of anything on these questions, much less the New Testament itself. That was a restrained expression of the frustration I feel when one sits for an interview like this that is characterized by misunderstanding and the wrong focus.

KEVIN HARRIS: All of these questions came to you, the editors took it, and it ended up being about five questions.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, it had to be 800 words.

KEVIN HARRIS: What do you think about the questions that he did ask? You've said that it went kind of far afield when you're dealing with the wise men and the death of Judas, but did he keep it on track as far as the rest of his interview and the Christmas season?

DR. CRAIG: Well, there were the questions about the virgin birth. I think that he is hung up on miracles. That seemed to be very obvious from a couple of his questions. So he wants to know, Can I be a Christian if I don't believe in the miracles of Jesus, including the virgin birth? We did talk about the virgin birth. What problem is there with believing this? What historical or philosophical problem is there with the virgin birth? Then, in the end, and again this got cut I think in the final version, I said that in order to be a Christian a person needs to believe in Jesus’ resurrection, which is obviously miraculous. So if you expunge the miraculous, you cannot be a genuine Christian because you cannot believe that God raised Jesus from the dead which is essential to the Christian message.

KEVIN HARRIS: His first question right out of the gate, he said:

I must confess that for all my admiration for Jesus, I’m skeptical about some of the narrative we’ve inherited. Are you actually confident that Jesus was born to a virgin?

DR. CRAIG: Notice that “in a manger in Bethlehem” got cut in the final version of that question. It focused on the virgin birth which was his real hangup.

KEVIN HARRIS: Ninety-nine percent of us who had this opportunity, we would go, Of course I'm confident because of the avalanche of evidence! That would be our tendency. Again, you, in my mind, showed a little bit of restraint here and tried to answer as a historian and philosopher rather than as strictly a Christian believer. We'll talk about it in an upcoming podcast how you responded the way you did, what you had in mind when you were responding to some of these questions.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, these responses were not off-the-cuff. They were very carefully thought through and crafted in a way that would be appropriate for what I took to be a secular The New York Times audience.

KEVIN HARRIS: You mentioned as well that you were surprised at the avalanche of comments – over 1,100 comments on this article until The New York Times had to cut them off. I mean these things would go on forever, but there you were flooded with responses. We'll look at some of the responses later. Did you look through some of those comments?

DR. CRAIG: Oh, yes, I did. I did read them, and I must say I was mortified by them. I hear from folks that I get a lot of nasty things said about me on the Internet and Facebook and so forth, but I'm largely blissfully unaware of this because I don't browse the Internet. I don't look up my name on the Internet and see what people are saying. So I'm largely ignorant of this. But these comments on the interview brought me face-to-face with the ugliness and the vitriol and the ignorance, frankly, of so many secularists that I was pretty appalled by this. It shook me to see how hated I am, and how they accuse me of being a bad man.

KEVIN HARRIS: Bill, on a personal note, I have to wade through these personal attacks against you and against Reasonable Faith in order to prepare for these podcasts, and I literally have to stand up, go outside, and just get some fresh air for some time because the hate and the personal attacks. It's very telling because if you want to criticize someone, criticize their view and offer your view and back it up. But that's not what we find very often. We just find personal attacks. We would all do well not to go through those because it can be very disheartening. At the same time, we would want to know what valid criticisms there are.

DR. CRAIG: Of course! The difficulty that I had in reading the comments was that they were just based on ignorance – ignorance not only of Christian scholarship but ignorance of scholarship in general. So they were not, for almost 99%, substantive comments, but just based in popular-level ignorance.

KEVIN HARRIS: It seems that Nick really wants to embrace Jesus. He just doesn't want to embrace the miracle stories.

DR. CRAIG: I do think that he has a definite spiritual side to his personality and wants to have a religious belief, perhaps even to be called a Christian. But, as you say, for him miracles are a major stumbling block that he finds it difficult to get past.

KEVIN HARRIS: He brings up six-day creation and was Eve really made from Adam's rib. He, again, wanted to draw you, I think, into biblical accuracy and biblical authority. Merry Christmas!

DR. CRAIG: Yes, Merry Christmas! [laughter] He, again, exhibited the same misunderstanding that so many Christians exhibit where they think that if there's one passage of Scripture you don't interpret literally that this means you must not take literally every other passage of Scripture. That is so naive. It's so patently false. No one takes, for example, the poetry of the Psalms to be literally true. When the psalmist says “Let the trees of the wood clap their hands before the Lord” nobody thinks that the psalmist believes that trees have hands or that he's teaching botany. No Christian scholar reads the book of Revelation literally – that they're going to be sea monsters, multi-headed dragons crawling up out of the oceans and trying to take over the world. This is Jewish apocalyptic literature which is full of allegory and symbolism. So these slippery slope arguments that if you interpret one portion of scripture non-literally that then you cannot trust the historical reliability of the Gospels is simply fallacious because the Gospels are of a historical genre in contrast to these other portions of Scripture which are not.

KEVIN HARRIS: They did leave one thing in that you said that could have ended up on the cutting room floor, and that is he asked you a question and you said “I don't follow.” In other words, what you are saying here does not follow. He says,

people have had faith in Zeus, in Shiva and Krishna, in the Chinese kitchen god, in countless other deities. We’re skeptical of all those faith traditions, so should we suspend our emphasis on science and rationality when we encounter miracles in our own tradition?

DR. CRAIG: I puzzled over that question a long time. I thought: What is he getting at here? It just doesn't make sense. He says that we're skeptical of things like the Chinese kitchen god and Zeus and Krishna. Right. So why should we suspend our belief in science and rationality when it comes to Christian miracles? I thought, who said we should? Why does he think we suspend our belief in science and rationality when it comes to Christian miracles? The question didn't make sense to me. But I think what we see here revealed, again, is his assumption that Christian beliefs are in conflict with science and rationality so that he assumes that what the Christian does is abandon science and rationality when it comes to Christian beliefs, but the Christian exercises science and rationality when it comes to the Chinese kitchen god and Zeus and these other religions. Of course, that's not what intelligent Christians do, and it is not true that Christian beliefs in the incarnation, the miracles of Jesus, the resurrection are incompatible with science and rationality. So the question I think evinces a deep assumption that Christian beliefs are fundamentally in conflict with science and religion and cannot be believed without abandoning those.

KEVIN HARRIS: He, in the last question, I think perhaps tried to draw you into a political discussion when he said

You’re an evangelical Christian, and let me acknowledge that religious people donate more to charity than nonreligious people and also volunteer more. But I’m troubled that evangelical leaders have sometimes seemed to be moralizing blowhards, focused on issues that Jesus never breathed a word about — like gays and abortion — while indifferent to poverty, inequality, bigotry and other topics that were central to Jesus’ teachings.

 How did you think about answering that question?

DR. CRAIG: This was another example of where my initial answer was longer and had to be abridged for the final published version. What I wanted to do in my answer was to not back down on the issue of the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage. I wanted to stand strong on those, but at the same time help him to see that Christians are involved in a wide range of social issues besides these. My initial response was to say, yes, I hear you. I sometimes cringe at the people that the media routinely trot out as spokesmen for Christianity. The media shun intelligent and articulate Christians in favor of inflammatory preachers and televangelists. That's why I'm grateful for this interview. Just know that the Christian Church is involved not only in defending the sanctity of life and marriage but in a whole range of social issues such as poverty relief and feeding the homeless, medical care, disaster aid, literacy programs, fostering small businesses, promoting women's rights, drilling wells especially in the nations of the developing world. You alluded to Arthur Brooks’ Who Really Cares about Christian charitable giving, but see as well sociologist Alvin Schmidt's How Christianity Changed the World on the church's social involvement. Frankly, Christians have gotten very bad press. What I wanted to stress there was that Christians are involved in a wide range of social improvements as well as sanctity of life and marriage. Those who think that we are not are just ignorant. And I gave a couple of resources that you can consult. At the same time, I wanted to put the blame on the media for choosing these inflammatory people to interview instead of intelligent spokesmen for the Christian faith. I am troubled. That's one of the reasons we founded Reasonable Faith over ten years ago – because I was hungering for an intelligent and articulate voice in defense of Christianity in the public arena.

KEVIN HARRIS: In our next podcast we will look at some of the responses in the comments section of The New York Times, a video response from someone as well, but as we wrap up I'm curious as to where you think being interviewed in so prominent a publication as The New York Times, what kind of doors might that open for Reasonable Faith and for you?

DR. CRAIG: I don’t know. After doing it and seeing the comments from the people – so angry and vitriolic – I thought to myself, Was this really worth doing? Did it really make any difference at all? But my hope and prayer is that it did make a difference in the hearts and minds of some people, and that one shouldn’t think that the angry and hateful comments necessarily represent the universal reaction to the interview. So I am hopeful that it could lead to further exposure in the media, perhaps other venues or interviews, and that the Lord will use this in the defense and proclamation of the Gospel.[2]


[2]           Total Running Time: 23:04 (Copyright © 2019 William Lane Craig)