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Notable examples include:

Given the well-established practice among (some) Christians of engaging in formal intellectual debates with atheists and skeptics to defend core tenets of the Christian faith, such as the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus, through philosophical arguments, reason, and evidence (as the examples above illustrate), what is the biblical basis for this?

The New Testament enumerates various spiritual gifts and ministries (1 Corinthians 12:4-11, Ephesians 4:11-13, Romans 12:6-8), but I am unaware of any ministry fitting the role of a "professional intellectual debater."


Note: there is some overlap with my previous question What is the biblical basis for proving God's existence using purely rational arguments, and how is this reconciled with the essential role of faith?, although the focus here is on the debate aspect, and the scope is broader in terms of what can be defended (resurrection of Jesus, miracles, etc.)

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    I am also unaware of any such function occurring in, or being encouraged by, the New Testament writings. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Apr 6 at 13:01

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I think the best precedent is in Acts 17, when Paul was in Athens. According to vv.17-18, Paul debated with Jews, Epicureans, Stoics, and with anybody who happened to be in the marketplace. It should be noted that the Epicureans were atheist (or at least, they rejected belief in any gods who interacted with the world) and materialist. They would have been right at home among the modern scientific atheists: They believed that everything that happens is merely the result of emergent properties of the microscopic particles which constitute everything. They believed in pleasure-based ethics, but not base hedonism as they knew that this would not lead to human flourishing in the long run. They accounted for the apparent fine-tuning of the universe with the multiple universes hypothesis.

We see quite plainly from Acts 17:18 that Paul took the time to reason with Epicureans. The Bible does not record any of the contents of their discussion, so we cannot say how Paul reasoned, but given the similarity of the Epicureans to modern atheists, I imagine the discussions were also probably quite similar to the modern debates. We might take as an example Paul's Mars Hill discourse in vv.22-34, which (from its contents) was evidently not primarily directed at Epicureans or Stoics, but rather the Pagan polytheists: Paul uses something from the Pagan practice in v.23 to launch into a simple description of monotheism in vv.24-25:

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.

A few things to note about the text: Paul is mostly just describing his beliefs to outsiders, but this is not devoid of logical arguments. He makes two broad points that logically follow from God being the creator of all, and both of which draw a sharp contrast with Paganism:

  1. God doesn't need anything from us, nor does he benefit from our gifts. Since God made the world, obviously if he needed anything he could simply fulfill his own need without our help. We depend on him and not the other way around. That's the logical argument. It also contrasts with Paganism's belief in gods who need us to make sacrifices to them and who feed on us or require our work in some way. I can imagine many people would find the multitude of gods each making distinct demands rather onerous, and these people would certainly perk up their ears at what Paul says here.
  2. God is the moral arbiter (v.27 - seeking God is the duty that he has allotted). This, again, follows from the fact that he designed us. Obviously, the designer of a thing is the one who determines its purpose. This, too, would be a breath of fresh air for people burdened by Paganism's multifarious gods. The Pagan gods fought amongst themselves and were poor teachers of good. None could claim authority as the arbiter of good. But if one God has made everything, this God can take that role.

Then, in v.28 Paul points to ideas within the Pagan tradition that seem to agree with the monotheistic concept of God. In vv.29-31, he draws his conclusion: If there is a creator God, then we are all accountable to him. In these verses, he brings the discussion back to simply explaining Christianity. He explains God's judgment, the call for repentance, and the resurrection.

In summary: Paul explained Christianity to the crowd, and drew connexions with Pagan tradition to help them understand, as well as to show why Christianity is more satisfying. It is reasonable to suppose that he employed similar tactics in discussion with Epicureans. Add in the fact that the Areopagus was a public debate forum and we have all we need as a precedent for formal intellectual debates with atheists.

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  • The first paragraph makes several statements about what Epicureans at the time of Paul believed, such as emergentism from fundamental particles and a multiverse to explain away fine tuning. Some sources backing up these specific claims would be helpful.
    – Mark
    Apr 6 at 15:43
  • I haven't read the Epicureans themselves, but Augustine attributes multiple universes to Epicurus in City of God XI.5; my translation cites Epicurus's "Letter to Herodatus" in a footnote. Apr 6 at 16:13
  • Emergentism is epitomized by Democrates's mantra of "atoms and the void" which was later adopted by Epicurus, who took a non-deterministic view of atomic motion, c.f. quantum mechanics, on which he based a theory of human free will. (Again, I haven't read the primary sources, but you can look at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epicurus) Apr 6 at 16:21
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Paul did it everywhere he went. He debated with the Jews in the synagogues (Acts 17:17), the Greeks in their temples, etc. (Acts 9:29). I would say there’s a precedent for it. No one is a believing Christian until someone brings them the truth and the Spirit opens their eyes. Faith comes by hearing (Rom. 10:7). And while it might be argued that it’s a pointless debate with such a person (Tit. 3:9), debate is the format of the atheist. Be all things to all people (1 Cor. 9:22). If debate is what it takes, then debate them. Just make sure you know your stuff if you try. They know theirs, and they’ll wipe the floor with you if you’re not prepared.

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Dark Malthorp already gave a factual answer to this question. I'd like to add a more introspective answer as well.

You ask about the Biblical basis for Christians partaking in formal intellectual debates with atheists and skeptics. To me it sounds like your question is part of the bigger question whether it's right for Christians to partake in these debates.

Not everything that is right has a clear and direct Biblical basis (like building hospitals, development aid, education). And not everything that has a Biblical basis is right in our times (polygamy for instance). What's more important than a direct Biblical basis is that something is in line with God's values. That often means we must try to see whether the motives and intentions behind something are in line with God's values.

In another question I mention that apologetics may serve two purposes. One is justifying faith for ourselves in order to keep our faith plausible. The other is justifying faith for others so that they may accept faith as well. Both purposes are about justifying faith, but their motives and intentions are entirely different.

Years before the debate in Acts 17, Paul encountered the Lord Jesus Christ on his way to Damascus and it changed his life radically. Paul therefore had no need whatsoever to justify faith for himself. During the debate in Acts 17 his sole intention was to justify faith for the people he's debating with, so that they might accept Christ. Paul himself gained nothing from these debates. In fact, some of these debates almost got him killed.

Now with Paul's motives and intentions in mind, watch a few of these intellectual debates. Can you see the motives and intentions behind these debates? Do they seem right? Do they align with God's values? And what are the fruits of these debates? I didn't watch them, so I can't judge. But if you watched a few of them, you can judge for yourself.

But even more important, can you see your own motives and intentions behind watching these debates? Ask yourself: What are my motives here? Perhaps I'm looking for arguments to justify faith? Perhaps I need intellectual arguments to keep my faith plausible? Or perhaps I hope to see Christian intellectual heroes wiping the floor with their atheist opponents? All fair enough. But if your honest with yourself, again you can judge for yourself.

Although not a direct answer to your question, I hope this might help answering the bigger question.

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Why do Christians debate? Are atheist born like that, shaped like that by the environment or did they choose to become like that? The same question can of course be asked about Christians.

Some aspects of the questions above can be partially answered by Romans 10:13-15:

13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!

From a biblical point of view debates between Christians and Atheists or people of other religions, are not done for the sake of the debate itself, or to win it in order to be right. That would be some sort of idolitry of the messenger. Instead, it is done as part of telling people good news, giving them the choice and opportunity to get to know more about the bible, God (Jehovah or Yahweh), Jesus, and the purpose of life for humans. Interest and participation is voluntary. As other answers mentioned, Paul did this on various occasions. Furthermore:

Proverbs 27:17 As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.

The discussions can, be interesting for their content and arguments, but also on meta-levels. It can be a nice exercises in discernment between motives and formalism. Some times the irony of such debates is that the atheists side can be almost as religious in their zeal to preach and spread atheism as the theists side, they can be just as dogmatic in their assumptions reasoning, and intollerance of other views as the other party. Although seemingly opposed both parties can be very similar in many ways.

How scientific is it to falsify the unfalsifiable? Often these debates seem more philosophical than scientific. And some times they have a more polarizing effect, than that they increase mutual understanding and respect. As we can recognize a tree by its fruits, question what are the fruits of such debates. Do they increase love and understanding, or anger and disagreements? Are they looked at by the audience in an attempt to change their existing views or to entrench themselves deeper? And do the debaters really address the other party with the purpose of helping them to understand something, or are they mainly seeking support from members of their own side?

Furthermore, there can be selection bias in the sense that this type of public debates attract particular types of atheists and theists that might not be representative of the entire respective groups. For some writing books about the evolution vs. creation debate has become a primary source of income by publishing books and giving talks. It is good to realize that there can be an element of show and (personal) commercial interest in such debates.

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