LA MIRADA, Calif. During a season when many were preparing to celebrate Jesus' resurrection, two men debated whether there is even a God.
A prominent atheist and a Christian apologist clashed in a debate titled "Does God Exist?" at Biola University.
Christopher Hitchens, regarded as a leader of the new atheism movement, went head-to-head with William Lane Craig, a Biola professor regarded as one of the world's leading religious philosophers. About 4,000 people watched the debate in the university's gym while an estimated 6,000 others watched it online or from satellite locations around Southern California.
While Craig had the home court advantage, Hitchens didn't hold back, exhorting, "Emancipate yourself from the idea of a celestial dictatorship and you've taken the first step to becoming free."
But Craig had his rejoinders.
"The fruit of the naturalistic worldview is that mankind is reduced to meaninglessness, valuelessness and purposelessness," Craig said.
Both debaters placed the burden of proof on their opponent. Craig said Hitchens would have to explain how the universe could create itself out of nothing, while Hitchens said Craig would have the formidable task of proving God's existence in the absence of complete knowledge about biology and the universe.
Neither was convinced at the end of the debate that his opponent had met those demands.
"We've heard attacks upon religion, Christianity impugned, God impugned, Mother Teresa impugned, but we haven't heard any arguments that God does not exist," Craig said. "Mr. Hitchens seems to fail to recognize that atheism is itself a worldview, and that it claims alone to be true and all the other religions of the world false. It is not more tolerant than Christianity in respect to these other views."
Craig accused Hitchens of holding more to agnosticism than pure atheism. He said Hitchens never definitively disproved God's existence. Hitchens said he didn't have to, arguing that atheism simply finds arguments for God unconvincing and thus is a statement of disbelief in the April 4th debate.
"I don't have to prove a-toothfairyism. I don't have to prove a-Santa Clausism," Hitchens said. "I think that those who do believe these things have never been able to make a plausible or intelligible case for doing so."
Hitchens largely shrugged off Craig's questioning about how the universe could be created out of nothing apart from God. Instead, he asked why God would create a world that will inevitably be destroyed. Craig said that's not a good argument against God because Christians believe in a resurrection and a new creation.
"The temporal duration of something is irrelevant to whether it's been designed," Craig said.
Hitchens admitted that holding to atheism can bring one to depressing conclusions about life. That fact, however, does not prove religions' "wishful thinking" about an afterlife, he said.
During a part of the debate for audience questions, a Biola student asked where one finds meaning in life apart from a belief in God. Hitchens said what brings meaning to his life is "helping others to be free."
Both men drew occasional laughter from the audience. Even in the heavily Christian crowd, a few chuckles erupted when Hitchens mocked Christianity's idea of freedom, saying humans have free will "because the boss insists on it."
The debate was moderated by nationally syndicated conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt and hosted by Craig Hazen, director of Biola's apologetics program. It began with 20-minute opening statements from Craig and Hitchens and then went to cross examinations in which the debaters questioned each other. A question-and-response time followed for student members of the audience, with closing arguments from each debater concluding the debate.
Heather Adams, a senior at Biola, said she enjoyed the debate but thought the debaters pushed their own points independently of each other.
"They were on different terms. They seemed to be speaking over each other," she said,
Many discussion circles formed outside the venue after the debate. A group from the Inland Empire Atheists, whose members wore distinctive baby-blue shirts, was especially popular. One member debated loudly with three students while others answered questions from reporters.
Daniel Dobbs, a Hitchens fan from Orange County, criticized Craig's argument that the truthfulness of a worldview shouldn't be based on its societal impact.
"How can you judge a religion if you don't judge its impact on society?" he asked.
However, Dobbs said the debate was fair, despite being held on clearly Christian turf. He also commended the student body for being polite and respectful, saying, "There's enough arguing and fighting in the world."
Dave Sormillion, an alumnus from Biola's Talbot School of Theology, was one of the first in a line that stretched around the venue more than three hours before the debate began. He said the sold-out crowd reflected the "caliber of the debaters."
"It's kind of one of those things where you have two solid boxers and you're looking to see them duke it out," Sormillion said. He emphasized, however, the need for Christian love and prayer in the midst of the warring words. "I don't think it's too much to pray for his salvation," he said, speaking of Hitchens.
Craig is a research professor of philosophy at Biola's Talbot School of Theology. He holds doctorates from both the University of Birmingham and the University of Munich and has authored numerous books on apologetics and theology, including "Reasonable Faith."
Hitchens was born in the United Kingdom and now lives in Washington, D.C. He recently authored "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" and has been a columnist for Vanity Fair, The Nation and Slate. He was recently named among the 25 most influential liberals in the U.S. media by Forbes magazine.
Hitchens had a debate in Dallas at a Christian book expo with four Christian apologists, including Craig, two weeks prior to the debate at Biola. In a news conference before Saturday's debate, he said he has accepted these recent challenges because he is tired of "the typical liberal publishing house talks" and wants to see "the godly come out and play."