Bible Debates Evangelism

Debating in the Lions Den – Reflections on an interesting evening in Northern Ireland


“I have found David my servant; with my sacred oil I have anointed him. My hand will sustain him; surely my arm will strengthen him. The enemy will not get the better of him; the wicked will not oppress him. I will crush his foes before him and strike down his adversaries. My faithful love will be with him, and through my name his horn will be exalted.” Psalm 89:20-24

This was the verse I read on the plane as we approached Belfast City airport.   I was both reassured and troubled by it.   Reassured because I took it as a promise from the Lord, and troubled because clearly I was going to need it!

My whole time in Northern Ireland was fascinating.   I loved the debate with Michael Nugent on the William Crawley show on the Friday ( , and the café outreach on the Friday evening, and the apologetics training in Dundonald Presbyterian on the Saturday.   There is something warm, gritty and real about the people of Northern Ireland – which is just as well when you are stuck in a cold, wet and windy Belfast on a Friday afternoon! It was great to meet a wide variety of people, from the mother of one of our St Petes students through to the Catholic who wanted to know about the Cross, and the Protestant paramilitary who reassured his child that ISIS would never come to Belfast because they wouldn’t survive!

But the Thursday night was for me the key learning experience.   And not everything that I learned was good – especially about myself.  The evening was set to be a lively one, with a clear majority of the audience coming from an atheistic/secularist perspective.   You can hear the whole debate here –

Alan in Belfast helpfully has divided it up into segments.

If you can be bothered going through the whole lot I think you will find it interesting – although neither the video nor the audio show what I experienced and saw.   I am not going to analyse the whole thing but let me give you some of what I call the Good, the Bad and the Ugly!

The Good

  • It was great to see such an interest.  The Stormont hotel was sold out – with 400 tickets going. And to have so many non-Christians come to such an event was encouraging – whatever their motivation for being there!
  • Michael Nugent was excellent. He was warm, witty and intelligent. I thought he made his case well (irrational and illogical though it is!) and limited his usual mockery.   At a personal level I really enjoyed meeting him. Much as he might not appreciate this – he went straight on to my prayer list. May the Lord richly bless him and work in his life.  He will make a great advocate for Christianity – from Saul to Paul!
  • William Crawley is a very good presenter. Personally I thought he allowed things to get a wee bit out of hand at times, but that is his style and as a result I doubt he ever does a boring show. To me he is a consummate professional and I thought he was fair.
  • The Christians who organized this did a great job.
  • I loved meeting some of the atheists afterwards (four of whom came to apologise for the way I had been treated), another who had asked a great question and wanted to remain in touch.   It was also good to meet a couple of non-Christians who were clearly seeking. For these alone it was worth going. And who knows what good the Lord may yet do.

The Bad

  • I did not speak well – the intro was fine, and I especially enjoyed the interaction when Michael questioned me. But I allowed myself to get a bit frustrated, used irony and humour too much,  and I don’t feel I was as sharp on the answers as I should have been. I missed some obvious things. For example the lady who stated that the American Declaration of Independence was based upon the French Revolution – given that the former was written in 1776 and the latter was in 1789, that clearly cannot have been the case!  I also allowed William Crawley to get away with the statement that there are many churches in Europe that claim to have the bones of Jesus. Given that all churches believe that Jesus rose from the dead, I doubt any claim to have the bones of Jesus!   But it was not just missing things like that – at times I tried to be ironic and I also let a bit of frustration and fear get into my tone. I didn’t get angry but I did find it hard going. I had been feeling ill for a few days, but that was really no excuse. I don’t think I handled it well at all. Forcing myself to listen back to it (something I hate doing – I dislike the sound of my own voice), it was not as bad as I felt at the time…but I did feel it. And it was a humbling and difficult experience.
  • The Chilling Implications of the New Atheism – One of the reasons is that I was genuinely shocked by a couple of Michael’s statements, which were greeted with applause. Firstly his statement that we were moving from a majoritarian democracy to one based upon human rights.  The trouble with this is who determines what human rights are? The answer that is given is usually ‘society’. But who are society? If it is not the majority in a democracy, and if it does not come from the law of God, where does the understanding of human rights come from? Inevitably it will be the elites – the rich and the powerful.

In addition to this Michael presented an Erastian view of Church/State relations – if a theocratic state is one where the Church runs the show (something which the Bible does not accept), an Erastian state is where the State runs the Church. Separation of Church and State is meant to be what secularism is about. But Michael blew that apart when he declared that the State should tell the Church what to do. It was a genuinely shocking admission.   As I said it will be a cold day in Hell before I will accept that the state can tell the church what to do.

  • The destruction of morality – Michael is a moral being. We all are. In Christianity we have a basis and intellectual foundation for morality. Atheists seem to lack any rationale. Michael spoke of wanting a society based on empathy, justice, compassion, altruism etc. The trouble is that according to atheist philosophy these are just social constructs, and not part of the material universe (and remember that the material is ultimately all that exists). So whilst Michael stated these qualities as self-evident, they are anything but. Indeed what is just, for example in killing the baby in the womb? Where is the empathy?   Where is the justice? Simply using the words does not mean that the concepts are being practiced.

The Ugly

  • The abuse and mockery during and after the debate – The contempt was seen on some people’s faces and in the sneering and mocking laughter.   I was quite surprised at it. I have experienced it before, but usually on the Internet. The debate was largely like an Internet debate that was not helpful (I have to stress that none of this came from Michael – he was robust and I have no problem with that and can give as good as I get). This abuse continued after the debate….’no point debating with simpletons’, ‘A torrid and ill tempered debate thanks to the Mad Moderator’, ‘the man is utterly barking’, ‘he walks away from these debates telling everyone how bloody marvelous he was’ (the latter was demonstrably untrue but those who are determined to hate will always look for reasons to justify that hatred).
  • The stab in the back from a Christian – There was one lady who stood up and made a killer statement. She declared that she was a Christian who had a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ and that I was not like Jesus and that I lacked grace and was arrogant. I had my head in my hands at that point. Firstly I feared it might be true and it hurt. Secondly I knew that it would immediately be picked up by the enemies of the Gospel and be spread all over the internet (and sure enough before I got home I was getting tweets and reports of it!) and thirdly I knew that it would give an excuse to those who are not believers just to ignore what was being said. If she really thought what she said, I wish she had written me or spoken to me privately afterwards rather than make such a personal attack. It’s really not that easy standing up in front of a couple of hundred hostile people who only want to mock your Lord. Anyone who does so is going to make mistakes and get things wrong – and it is helpful when a sister or brother helps you identify the mistakes or sins. But it is not helpful when it is done in such a manner. Ironically it was a self-contradictory attack – it hardly showed the ‘grace’ that she was complaining was not been shown. Assuming that the lady was telling the truth when she said she was a Christian she must have known that she could not have said a worse thing in public. I would rather have been called a lying, bullying so and so, than be told that I lacked grace and was not a good representative of Christ. That one kept me awake at night.
  • The intolerance and intimidation – The body language, the sneering etc. was all designed, like the ongoing mockery, to intimidate and silence. As are the continual threats to report me for hate speech or Solas to the charity regulator – this gem from the Scottish Secularists “It might be just what we need for a wee complaint to the charity regulator.”

We live and learn. I will take a great deal from this experience. I hope by Gods mercy I can be more gracious and not allow myself to get so defensive. However I am not going to go away and I am not going to lie down.   If I am involved in a similar situation I would be more, not less robust. I hope I would not allow the Lords name and word to be blasphemed and mocked in the way it was. I will just have to take the brickbats from those sensitive Christians who seem to think that its not ‘nice/graceful’ to challenge those who mock and abuse Christ. But I am tired and weary of the weak and pathetic Christianity that seems far more concerned about upsetting people for not being ‘nice’ than it is about the honour and glory of Christ.  What people think of us is largely irrelevant.  What they think of him is everything.   Meanwhile we continue to pray that his kingdom would come, and his will be done!

This whole debate was put out as a podcast special on Unbelievable  It was good to have this as their tenth anniversary show…..







    1. David
      I was at the debate and think that your description is a very accurate summary of the evening. The image of Daniel surrounded by lions was already formed in my head as we left the Stormont hotel. However, you must deserve a certain amount of kudos to have produced a full turnout of our local atheists /secularists, plus a few who flew in for the event! One of the only two Christians who spoke during questions was quite wrong in her judgement of you. You were not ungracious or arrogant but measured in response to mocking questions/monologues, played to a very partisan audience. At times I felt that you were casting pearls and (mixing metaphors I know) wondered about the instruction to shake the dust off your feet. However, I know that you have a calling and a heart for this demographic and a firm belief in the ability of God’s grace to change any heart.
      I did have a raised hand but clearly left it too late, sorry for that. I had wanted to ask Michael if one could be an intellectually consistent atheist and fully reject his values which are “self-evident”. Next time, perhaps.
      My most chilling moment was the prepared speech from the floor suggesting that Christianity was holding Northern Ireland back by opposing abortion and assisted suicide!
      God bless you in all your work for the gospel and, although not recognised by many, the good of our society.

  1. Dear David, I have said this before but I will say it again :

    Here in Australia you encourage many of us greatly. Did you actually hear that ? In case you did not, you encourage us greatly here down under. Do you need to humble yourself more and perhaps not come across as arrogant or cocky at times ? – Well you work that one out for yourself with the Lord and with those you stay accountable to and not those who throw a remark in here and there. Discuss these matters with those who would take a bullet for you.
    In regards to the woman who said she was a Christian and lashed out at you publicly. How on earth do you know for 100% sure she is a born again spirit filled transformed Christian ?
    The fact is you don’t. She may of been sent there by Satan himself.
    To end what I write you is a quote I posted a while ago and it definitely applies to those like you who are willing to be identified with Christ and are do not call this place home as you are awaiting a better future with Christ.
    Quote from The Late Dr Walter Martin:
    John the baptist coud not please them with abstinence and Jesus could not please them with participation. What on earth makes us think we are going to make it ?
    Off to the prayer closet you go David.
    But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

  2. Listened to a good bit of the debate and David was excellent. I especially liked that you didn’t allow it to become a rehash of engaging in tired atheist arguments. Michael Nugent came across as more fair and measured than many atheists I have encountered. Can’t believe William Crawley came up with the curve ball about the bones of Jesus – his mistake not yours David. As for the lady who, as you say, ‘stabbed you in the back’ – I’m not excusing what she said but there is a frustrating cultural tendency in Northern Ireland of disliking confrontation and labelling any confrontation as ‘arrogant’ or ‘ungracious’. Not sure how they would have coped when Jesus was confronting the Pharisees or even Peter.

  3. Psalm 2

    Why do the nations conspire[a]
    and the peoples plot in vain?
    2 The kings of the earth rise up
    and the rulers band together
    against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
    3 “Let us break their chains
    and throw off their shackles.”
    4 The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
    the Lord scoffs at them.
    5 He rebukes them in his anger
    and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
    6 “I have installed my king
    on Zion, my holy mountain.”
    7 I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:

    He said to me, “You are my son;
    today I have become your father.
    8 Ask me,
    and I will make the nations your inheritance,
    the ends of the earth your possession.
    9 You will break them with a rod of iron[b];
    you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”

    Enough said!

  4. Keep going David. This is a spiritual battle and you’re in the thick of it.

    Sadly there are misguided souls out there who have substituted the Gospel of salvation through the shed blood of the Lord Jesus with the ‘gospel of niceness’.

    No amount of ‘niceness will ever wash away the sin of the unbeliever’…….salvation can only be found in Christ, and that means exposing sin and calling people to repentance…….most unpopular with the proponents of the gospel of niceness.

  5. Well, after your experience with the lady, just remember that at Mt. Carmel Elijah was vindicated and later on Jesibel was killed and he body eaten by dogs. The Cananite women was eaten by dogs. Canine-ite womand eaten by dogs – geddit?

    And if that doesn’t work for you think Rock ‘n’ Roll with Neil Young “don’t feel like Satan but I am to them, so I deal with it any way I can”

    Oh and also remember it’s impossible to be perfect, and it’s not about you trying to be but the work of the Holy Spirit in you that does that, with your participation and that God gives you grace for when you don’t get it 100% right. Maybe you could give yourself a break and practice some kindness and compassion on yourself – it is allowed :).

  6. Don’t overdo the self criticism, David.
    Watchman Nee stated the obvious in The Normal Christian Life something like: “a man may have two clumsy servants but only the one who actually does something at his master’s command will reveal his clumsiness.”
    Screwtape would be delighted if you kept quiet as a result of Wormwood’s lies about your performance based on the undeniable truth that there is sin in our finest actions (as, I think, George Whitfield once said).
    I started to pray that you would learn to like the sound of your own voice but then reflected that a positive answer to such a prayer might give credence to what your critics are probably already saying.

  7. Modern humans have been in Western Europe for around 100,000 years so why did ‘God’ wait for 98,000 odd years before making our ancestors aware of his existence?

    1. Alan,

      Christians believe humans have always been aware of his existence. God from the beginning has given human beings an intuitive awareness of his existence. He has also given the external witness of creation that all can see; what is shouts Creator. Further he has placed within every heart the sense that we are accountable to him.

      We have to work hard at suppressing these to convince ourselves there is no God.

  8. Hey David,

    I heard the debate through the unbelievable show/podcast. You did a good job presenting your side of the case to an audience that included a great many who were hostile to your words. That isn’t easy. The format of a debate makes it difficult to correct misunderstandings even if you have a receptive audience.

    All things considered, I think a lot of good was expressed and hopefully some of it got through to someone. You’re an encouragement and a motivation to folks like me that are making our way into these kinds of discussions. The event also raised my awareness of some of the issues pertaining to the people of Northern Ireland. All good stuff.

    Thanks for your great work!

  9. I also listened to the whole thing on Unbelievable. I think the lady who spoke probably was telling the truth ie was a Christian. I think she said she had atheist friends there and was probably concerned at the “heat” of the debate. It was not the right place to make that comment.
    You have been placed in an incredibly important position David with the intellect and many gifts that God has clearly given you, You can articulate truths in ways that almost none of us can (including me). Unfortunately it also makes you vulnerable and we need to pray more for you and others like you, that you will be able to discern and separate yourself from the frustration that must be overwhelming in these situations. I am reminded of Proverbs 26 which I am sure you will know:
    Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
    or you yourself will be just like him.
    Answer a fool according to his folly,
    or he will be wise in his own eyes.
    Both responses are correct of course – but at different times
    Thank you for your incredibly important ministry.

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