The Great Debate: Does God Exist? Is Atheism Valid?

I am so incredibly thankful for @justinholcomb posting this on The Resurgence. If you are interested in a better understanding of faith, logic, worldviews and reasoning then you need to listen to this debate. This is the very debate that sparked an interest in apologetics and ethics in me. This will also come in very handy when talking to your family or co-workers.

Here is his post:

It became known as the Great Debate.

In 1985 the University of California at Irvine hosted a public debate between philosopher Greg Bahnsen and atheist Gordon Stein on the topic “Does God Exist?”

What Ensued

Stein came prepared to cut down traditional apologetic arguments for the existence of God, but the philosopher’s approach was unexpected. Bahnsen went on the offensive and presented the Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God: the God of the Bible must exist because no other worldview makes rational sense of the universe and logic, science, and morals ultimately presuppose a theistic worldview. He explained:

The transcendental proof for God’s existence is that without Him it is impossible to prove anything.The atheist worldview is irrational and cannot consistently provide the preconditions of intelligible experience, science, logic, or morality. The atheist worldview cannot allow for laws of logic, the uniformity of nature, the ability for the mind to understand the world, and moral absolutes. In that sense the atheist worldview cannot account for our debate tonight.

Remembering the debate, philosopher and theologian John Frame writes,

I was there, having driven up with several students from Westminster in Escondido. It was in a large lecture hall at U. C. Irvine, and the place was packed. The atmosphere was electric. I don’t know how many were Christians, but it was evident as the debate progressed that the audience became convinced that Bahnsen won the debate.

Borrowed Logic

Bahnsen’s approach focuses on the “presuppositional conflict of world views” between atheism and Christianity. In the debate he shows that his opponent has a precommitment to the rule that logic or reason is the only valid way to prove any statement. The atheist can’t prove this rule by using logic (that would be circular reasoning), or by any other method (that would be disproving the rule by using something other than logic). This is a presupposition, a fundamental belief held ahead of time that cannot be proved, but that grounds all your other beliefs. Bahnsen argues that the atheist is actually borrowing logic from the Christian worldview in order to make his claims.

In his book Van Til’s Apologetics, Bahnsen gives a formal definition of a presupposition:

A ‘presupposition’ is not just any assumption in an argument, but a personal commitment that is held at the most basic level of one’s network of beliefs. Presuppositions form a wide-ranging, foundational perspective (or starting point) in terms of which everything else is interpreted and evaluated. As such, presuppositions have the greatest authority in one’s thinking, being treated as one’s least negotiable beliefs and being granted the highest immunity to revision.

Presuppositions can be exposed and used to show that non-Christian worldviews are not rationally coherent:

The presuppositional apologist makes an internal critique of the non-Christian’s espoused presuppositions, showing that they destroy the very possibility of knowledge or ‘proof.’ He maintains that only Christianity is a reasonable position to hold and that unless its truth is presupposed there is no foundation for an argument that can prove anything whatsoever. Thus it is irrational to hold to anything but the truth of Scripture. The truth of Christianity is proved from the impossibility of the contrary (Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended).

The Impossibility of the Contrary

He also explains further about arguing from the impossibility of the contrary:

The unbeliever attempts to enlist logic, science, and morality in his debate against the truth of Christianity. Van Til’s apologetic answers these attempts by arguing that only the truth of Christianity can rescue the meaningfulness and cogency of logic, science, and morality. The presuppositional challenge to the unbeliever is guided by the premise that only the Christian worldview provides the philosophical preconditions necessary for man’s reasoning and knowledge in any field whatever.

This is what is meant by a ‘transcendental’ defense of Christianity. Upon analysis, all truth drives one to Christ. From beginning to end, man’s reasoning about anything whatsoever (even reasoning about reasoning itself) is unintelligible or incoherent unless the truth of the Christian Scriptures is presupposed. Any position contrary to the Christian one, therefore, must be seen as philosophically impossible. It cannot justify its beliefs or offer a worldview whose various elements comport with each other (Van Til’s Apologetics).

The Great Debate

Covenant Media Foundation has graciously given us permission to post the audio and transcript of the Great Debate. Take some time to listen to this audio or read the transcript for a great example of powerful Christianapologetics. It’s well worth it.



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Mike, I just read Drange's third rebuttal and, if I can be so bold, I believe his critique of Wilson's position includes a logical error which leaves TAG intact. First, Drange's intent is to counter Wilson's assertion that he -- Pastor Wilson -- is not really making an argument for God's existence. I'm not sure if Pastor Wilson actually claimed this, but if he did, I believe it was a mistake. Bahnsen's statements are certainly compatible with making an argument for God's existence. However, I believe Drange's refutation of that point contains error, as follows: In the first section of Drange's rebuttal, he cites Wilsons' example of a person who says, "I base all my thoughts on reason," and he assails Wilson for asking the reason for doing so and for saying, "How can an embrace of reason be justified through an appeal to reason?" I believe Drange's critique is in error here and Wilson actually has trapped the fellow. Notice Drange's suggested reply: "That's just the way I am and I can't help it." Now, if that statement is true, then the fellow does *not* base all his thoughts on reason! Thus, Drange's reply is self-defeating. Drange tries to circumvent this logical bind by defining the word "reason" as "motive." This is an obvious equivocation. The person in Wilson's example did not say, "I base all my thoughts on my motive." This is nonsense. Instead, they claimed to arrive at all mental conclusions through the process of reason. And Wilson was quite justified in responding, "What is your reason for doing so?"

Mike Russell
Mike Russell

This debate helped make a presuppositionalist of me for a little while. I think the key moment when I left presuppositionalism was reading the Wilson-Drange debate. The third rebuttal of Drange really showed me that the presuppositionalist tries to wear two hats - one where he says he has an argument, and the other where he doesn't. I think the problem Wilson runs into is not just Wilson's, but a problem with presuppositionalism


Without a doubt, this is the most significant Christian-Atheist debate of the last 30 years. It's a classic and should be studied by everyone with an interest in apologetics. Bahnsen won a decisive victory by "Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God." (2 Cor. 10:5)