Interview with Sean McDowell, Part OneDecember 21, 2020
Dr. Craig is interviewed by Dr. Sean McDowell on his life story and the people who have most influenced him.
KEVIN HARRIS: Hello, and welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. It’s Kevin Harris. Today’s podcast is very unique in that you’ll hear a side of Dr. Craig that you only occasionally get a glimpse of. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at Dr. Craig’s personal story and some of the people and events that have shaped his life. I can tell you that after more than a decade of doing this podcast with Dr. Craig, I’ve heard these stories and they are scattered throughout the podcast episodes. But today you’ll hear them all at once – telescoped if you will. It is very powerful. Dr. Craig’s story is very interesting, and as you’ll hear today it is far from over. If you follow Dr. Craig, you may think you’ve heard it all. But I assure you there are a few surprises in today’s podcast. Doing the honors today is Dr. Sean McDowell of Biola University who recently interviewed Bill on the personal questions that so many are curious about. You know, Sean has a great story, too. I encourage you to follow his blog and YouTube channel and check out his books. Sean McDowell. He has established himself as an influential voice in his own right, despite having a famous father which I’m sure can sometimes be rather hard to deal with. So here we go. And as we get into part one of this interview, let me remind you that at this recording there are only a few days left to take advantage of the matching grant which will double whatever you give to Reasonable Faith. A generous donor will match whatever amount you give up to $300,000. It doubles the impact of your financial gift to Reasonable Faith. This matching grant is only in place until the end of the year, so please give now. And if you are listening to this podcast after the first of the year, remember that your gift is always appreciated. Any time of year, give online at ReasonableFaith.org. And now here is part one of Dr. Sean McDowell’s interview with Dr. Craig.
DR. MCDOWELL: I am here with William Lane Craig. You know him as a leading philosopher and apologist, but today we are going to do something a little bit different. We're going to take a behind-the-scenes look at the people that have shaped who he is and his experiences in life. Bill is a friend and also a colleague at Talbot Theological Seminary. I really appreciate your ministry and your friendship, so thanks for coming on the show.
DR. CRAIG: I'm very glad to be with you, Sean, today.
DR. MCDOWELL: We're going to get into some of the stories that maybe people won't know about you, but I’d love if you just begin with your story to faith because I know you didn't start as a believer but ended up becoming one in your teen years, I believe it was.
DR. CRAIG: That's correct. I wasn't raised in a Christian home or even a church-going family though it was a good and loving home. When I was a teenager I began to ask what I call the big questions in life: Who am I? Why am I here? What's the meaning of my life? And in the search for answers I began to attend all on my own a large church in our community. The only problem was instead of answers to my questions what I encountered there was a sort of social country club where the dues were a dollar a week in the offering plate. The other high school students who pretended to be such good Christians on Sunday lived for their real god the rest of the week which was popularity. This really bothered me because I thought, “Here I am so spiritually empty inside and yet these people claim to be Christians and I'm leading a better life than they are, at least externally. They must be just as empty as I am but they're putting on a false front pretending to be something they're not. They're just a pack of hypocrites.” And so I began to get very resentful toward the institutional church for the hypocrisy and phoniness that I saw there. Pretty soon this attitude spread toward people in general. Everybody, I thought, is a hypocrite. They're all holding up a plastic mask to the world while the real person is cowering down inside afraid to come out and be real. And so that anger turned toward people in general, and I turned away from them. I said I don't need people. I don't want people. I threw myself into my studies, and I was on my way toward becoming, frankly, a very alienated young man. But at the same time, in moments of introspection, when I looked into my own heart I knew that deep down inside I wanted to love and to be loved just like other people. I realized in that moment that I was just as much a hypocrite as they were because here I was putting on this brave front pretending I don't need people when deep down inside I really did. So that anger turned in upon myself for my own phoniness and hypocrisy, and this kind of inner-anger just eats away at your insides day after day making every day miserable. Another day to get through. One day I was feeling particularly crummy, and I walked into my high school German class and I sat down behind a girl who is one of these types that is always so happy it just makes you sick. I tapped her on the shoulder and she turned around and I said to her, “Sandy, what are you always so happy about anyway?” And she said, “Well, Bill, it's because I'm saved.”
DR. MCDOWELL: Wow.
DR. CRAIG: And I said, “You’re what?” And she said, “I know Jesus Christ as my personal Savior.” And I said, “Well, I go to church.” And she said, “That's not enough, Bill. You've got to have him really living in your heart.” And I said, “What would he want to do a thing like that for?” And she said, “Because he loves you, Bill.” And that just hit me like a ton of bricks. Here she said there was someone who really loved me, and who was it but the God of the universe! That thought just staggered me – to think that the God of the universe could love me, that worm named Bill Craig down there on that speck of dust called planet Earth. I just couldn't take it in. Well, I went home that night and I found a New Testament that had been given to me by the Gideons when they visited our grade school handing out New Testaments, and for the first time I opened it and began to read it. And as I did so, I was absolutely captivated by the person of Jesus of Nazareth. There was a wisdom about this man's teachings that I had never encountered before, but especially there was an authenticity about his life that wasn't characteristic of those people in that local church I went to who were claiming to be his followers. I realized that I couldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Well, Sandy introduced me to other Christians in the high school, and no matter what they said about God or Jesus, what I couldn't deny was that these people seem to be in touch with a different plane of reality that I didn't even dream existed – a reality that gave a deep meaning and significance to their lives that I really craved. So after about six months of the most intense soul-searching that I've ever been through in my entire life I finally just came to the end of my rope, and one evening about eight o'clock I just cried out to God and yielded my life to him. At the same time I felt this tremendous infusion of joy like a balloon being blown up and blown up until it was ready to burst and I rushed outside (it was a warm September Midwestern evening) and as I looked up at the sky I could see the Milky Way from horizon to horizon, and as I looked at the stars I thought, “God! I've come to know God!” That moment changed my whole life because I had thought enough about this during those six months to realize that if Bill Craig ever became a Christian I could do nothing less than devote my entire life to spreading this message among mankind. Because if this is the truth – if it's really the truth – then this is the greatest news ever announced. So, for me, my call to full-time vocational Christian service was simultaneous with my conversion.
DR. MCDOWELL: This girl you mentioned – her name is Sandy – does she know what you're doing now with your life and ministry? Have you touched base with her after that season at all?
DR. CRAIG: Well, we drifted apart after graduating from high school. She went off to Illinois State; I went to Wheaton. We didn't see each other after that. But years later – many years later – I was speaking at Bradley University in my hometown of Peoria, and after I was finished this middle-aged woman came up to me and she held out her hand and I shook her hand and she said nothing. She just looked at me and continued to hold my hand. I said, “I'm sorry. Do I know you?” And she said, “I'm Sandy.”
DR. MCDOWELL: Wow!
DR. CRAIG: And then it was as though the years melted away, and I saw in her face that 16-year old girl that I remembered. It was such a sweet reunion. She told me that her boys at Peoria Christian High School were in an apologetics class at that time, and their professor was showing videos from my debates to train her sons in apologetics. It was just a kind of the circle of life that was so beautiful. We have kept in touch since that time.
DR. MCDOWELL: That is so stunning. That a girl with joy and simply says, “I knew Jesus” led to this transformation in your life and your ministry. I mean, it's stunning to think about that. That six months for you that you were wrestling with this – were those apologetic questions or were they more . . .?
DR. CRAIG: They were not. I'm so sorry to disappoint people who think I went through this great intellectual search. I was convinced this was true just reading the New Testament, as I say, and the ring of truth about it that was undeniable. But I read books, for example, Peace with God, by Billy Graham, The Secret of Happiness. I read the New Testament from cover to cover and was just captivated by it. So, for me, it was a matter of making the transition from the head to the heart – from just believing that it's true to making a life commitment. I remember telling Sandy at the time, I said, “I just can't look five years into the future and see Bill Craig as a Christian.” And she very wisely said to me, “Don't think about the future, Bill. Just look at today and you decide now whether or not you want to make that commitment.” And eventually then I did.
DR. MCDOWELL: That's great advice. So you didn't start off saying, “I'm going to do philosophy and apologetics.” Where my dad's story was trying to disprove Christianity, so instantly it had that element to it. When did you start focusing on philosophy and apologetics?
DR. CRAIG: With respect to apologetics, when I did become a Christian my junior year in high school I was immediately faced with explaining to my family members and my friends why I had made this radical step. So right from the beginning I was involved in giving reasons for Christian belief. But this was focused and deepened when I went off to Wheaton College. Upon graduation I attended Wheaton which is a Christian liberal arts college in Illinois that has a very strong emphasis on the integration of faith and learning – not sticking your brains in one pocket and your faith in the other pocket and never letting them see the light of day at the same time. But rather integrating faith and learning to develop a Christian weltanschauung as they called it – a Christian worldview. And so it was at Wheaton that I was seized by this vision of sharing the Gospel in the context of giving an intellectual defense of the Christian worldview.
DR. MCDOWELL: That's fascinating. And when did you join Cru – right away? Or how did that fit in? Because my dad was on Cru and my parents are still on Cru staff. What season was that in your life?
DR. CRAIG: When I was a senior at Wheaton I wanted to go on to seminary. I knew I wanted to get theological training. But my senior year I was in chapel and John Guest was speaking in chapel – he was a band member of a group called The Excursions – and he challenged us. We had been soaking up for four years at Wheaton all of this knowledge and learning, and he said it's time to wring out the sponge. Take a couple of years out of your education and get involved in practical Christian ministry. I thought that sounds like a good idea. How could I best do that? For me, the answer seemed obvious – Campus Crusade for Christ. I had heard Bill Bright lecture at Wheaton. I was aware of staff members of Campus Crusade. So upon graduation I became a staff member of Campus Crusade for Christ and spent two years with Crusade. And it was exactly what I'd hoped it would be. It was a wonderful, wonderful practical ministry application of what I'd been learning – learning how to lead someone to Christ, how to disciple that person in the Lord. It was a fantastic experience.
DR. MCDOWELL: One of the things I've most appreciated about you – I've never told you this, but obviously first-rate philosophical work – but just a heart for the Gospel and a basis of why we do this. Growing up with parents on Cru, I see the value. Let me shift. I've heard you talk about sometimes in your life you had some physical challenges when you were younger. Now, I know you exercise – both you and I like to lift and have talked about that at times. But you've had some physical challenges that maybe kept you out of sports that maybe God used to get you to focus on debate and other things. Would you be willing to share?
DR. CRAIG: That's right. Sure. My brother and I both inherited from my mom a genetic neuromuscular disorder called Charcot-Marie-Tooth Syndrome. This is a neuromuscular syndrome that causes atrophy in the extremities. It is progressive. It gets worse and worse as you age, and it's incurable. Fortunately, it's not fatal. It's not like Lou Gehrig's Disease. It mainly affects you from the elbows to the fingertips and from the knees to the toes. So over the years this has become more and more advanced. My hands now look like some 90-year old man's. You know, arthritic-looking and atrophied. My calves have shriveled terribly. So right from youth this was an inhibition. I walked funny, and so other children would make fun of me and call me names and mock me because of this. This caused deep hurt and I think probably contributed to that alienation that I described earlier. One of the psychological effects of this was that it gave me an intense drive to succeed. I remember, for example, one day in junior high school – since I wasn't in athletics I didn't care about sports – the teacher gave us a math problem where we had to figure out something about baseball scores, and part of the problem said that every game played was a single game. I went up to the front and I said, “What does it mean to say it's a single game?” And the teacher said to me standing in front of the rest of the class, “Well, Bill, I would think any red-blooded American boy would know that.” And a girl – one of the popular girls sitting in the front – said, “Gee, Bill, even I know that.” I felt so humiliated, and inside what I thought was, “I'll show them. Someday I'm going to become something, and they won't be able to laugh at me anymore.” Now, remember I was a non-believer at the time, and so it seemed that in academics I could succeed where I couldn't, say, in sports. So I pursued academics, I think, largely (or at least partly) because of the self-worth that it gave to me. It enabled me to have a sense of self-worth and a good self-image because I could accomplish something as well. As a result of Charcot-Marie-Tooth, I'm extremely goal-oriented. I even get a sense of accomplishment when I empty the shampoo bottle in the shower finally.
DR. MCDOWELL: That's so interesting.
DR. CRAIG: Just very goal-oriented. This has pluses and minuses to it, obviously. It can make you achieve a lot, but it can also tend to make you insensitive and to run over other people. So after becoming a Christian I had to learn how to temper this by realizing that my worth is to be found in Christ and his love for me and not in what I can accomplish or achieve.
DR. MCDOWELL: That's really powerful. I appreciate your honesty and just vulnerability sharing about these things. It's moving and it's encouraging as well. One thing I would love to know is who are the people that most influenced you – and this could be philosophers, it could be a friend, it could be a professor. When you think of the top maybe two or three people, who are they and in what ways do they influence you?
DR. CRAIG: I think that my mother was one of the greatest influences upon my life not only physically as I've just described but she had an incredible curiosity and would take us children to every factory and manufacturing plant in the little Iowa town I was raised in in order to see, for example, how milk was bottled, how pickles were made, how cardboard boxes were done. We went to the big hydroelectric dam across the Mississippi in Keokuk, and just everything. She would feed that curiosity, that intellectual interest, in me. My parents told me as a young boy, “Anything that will contribute to your education, we will pay for.” And they were as good as their word. They paid for anything that I wanted that would contribute to my education. So that sense of curiosity. Also from my mom a sense of individuality and non-conformity that has served me very well in going against the crowd and being willing to be reviled or mocked. My mother always emphasized to be an individual, to not go with the crowd, to stand up for yourself. There was an Easter egg hunt in the neighborhood. She would tell me to run in the opposite direction of all the other children to find the eggs. I mean that was the kind of individualism that she instilled into me, and it was reconfirmed by my father as well who was a very upright, honest, good man. I mean, my parents belonged to the greatest generation – the generation that won World War II – and he modeled for me that kind of integrity. If I might just be permitted one story. Before I became a Christian, my family would sometimes on holidays attend that church that I eventually went to. And one day we were sitting as a family in the pew and it turned out to be a communion service. And row by row they were inviting people to go forward and take communion. And I thought, “What's going to happen when it gets to our row? My dad isn't going to want to do this.” And sure enough, when it got to our row, the usher said, “Would you like to go forward?” And my father looked at him and said, “No, we don't care to partake. We’ll just sit here.” And I said, “Dad, can't we just go forward?” And he just looked at me – it kind of silenced me with a look – and I just sat back and gritted my teeth. There, in front of everybody else going forward, we were the one family that refused to take communion that Sunday. That was a kind of integrity even my father's unbelief had. It was an unbelief with integrity, and that stood me very well when later in life I became a Christian and had to stand with integrity for what I believed and not compromise in the face of the pressure of the crowd. So my parents were a tremendous influence on me. Sandy – I've already mentioned through her I became a Christian. And then my wife, Jan, has been unbelievable in the partner she's been to me. She's been the wind beneath my wings. I told her early on in our marriage, “Honey, I can do anything if there's just one person who really believes in me.” And she later told me that at that moment she resolved that, “I will be that person” – and she has been over the years. She has made it her goal to make me as effective as I can possibly be in the Lord's work, and so I owe an incalculable debt to her.
Total Running Time: 24:32 (Copyright © 2020 William Lane Craig)