It was late 1982 or early 1983 when I found myself sitting in the soccer stadium east of Johannesburg watching (enduring, more accurately) Ahmed Deedat, the old Muslim warhorse, eat up the young Baptist preacher he was debating–and all the while smiling in the friendliest way. I had to restrain myself from rushing down the steps of the stadium and debate him myself.
But I got my opportunity a few months later when I saw a newspaper announcement that Deedat was to give a lecture titled, “Was Jesus Crucified?” It was to be held in the Johannesburg City Hall, and questions were to be invited afterward.
So I shined my shoes, put on my best (and only) suit and my success tie. I arrived early and took a seat near the front.
Ahmed Deedat went through the story I was familiar with. Using Biblical passages (he was billed as a Bible scholar) he said that Jesus was tied to the cross, not nailed. When the soldier pierced his side, the wound was little more than a scratch and revived Jesus. When Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea took him off the cross, they felt life in his body. After his burial, they sneaked back before the guards were set and set him free. Then his appearances to the apostles were stage-managed, and then Jesus disappeared.
When he finished I popped up and went to the front. I identified myself and said that I had two questions. The first: “Do you believe the theory you have explained?” And Deedat waffled all over the place, because Muslims have different theories about what happened to Jesus. The only thing they agree on is that He did not die.
I said, “I hope I get a better answer to my second question. Will you meet me in public debate? I will affirm that ‘Jesus Was Raised From the Dead.'”
He answered in his gravelly voice, “Any time, any place!”
And so the arrangements began.
It was Friday evening in late 1983. Clouds were building for a summer thunderstorm as the crowd began arriving at Cecil Payne Stadium on the west edge of Johannesburg.
We few Christians had done everything we could to prepare for the big debate. I was affirming, “Jesus Christ Was Raised From the Dead,” and Ahmed Deedat, Muslim, was denying.
When the management of the stadium found that we were going to have a religious service, they gave us the use of it free. We then built a stage on the track and installed lighting for it. There was a good PA system, and our son, David (Joel’s father), made a video of the debate.
As the people came in, each one was given a booklet I had printed. (You can see a scan of that booklet here: debate.pdf) It contained a drawing of the empty tomb on the front, the five questions I was to ask Mr. Deedat, and passages of scripture concerning the resurrection of Christ.
Estimates of the number who attended ranged between 1200 and 2000. There were a few white people who believed in Jesus, but most of the crowd were Indian Muslims. John Scholz was the MC, and Ray Votaw sat with me at my table and was my moderator.
I spoke first. Then Deedat went through his familiar routine. He did not attempt to answer any of my questions, nor even address any of my arguments. He simply gave the same lecture he had given at the Johannesburg City Hall (and elsewhere many times).
He knew how to work the crowd. His main argument was based on the sign of Jonah. He said that just as Jonah was alive when he went into the whale, and was alive when he came out, so Jesus was alive when he went into the tomb and alive when he came out. He got the crowd to answer him when he said, “Was Jonah alive when he went into the whale?” His disciples answered lustily, “Yes!”
In my second speech I pointed out that Mr. Deedat had not answered any of the questions I asked him (and which were in the booklet), and I showed why. He simply could not answer them and hold on to his proposition. Then I said that when there is a comparison, it is wrong to use it in any way except as it was intended. I told how Jesus said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so shall the Son of Man be lifted up.” I asked, “Was the serpent alive or dead when it was lifted up?” And I chided the audience for being reluctant to answer me! The point of comparison was very clearly that Jesus was going to be lifted up. Nothing was said about “alive” or “dead.” Similarly, when He said that as Jonah was in the great fish three days and three nights, the point of comparison was the time Jesus would be in the tomb, not whether he would be alive or dead.
It was a great night, and the thunderstorm broke as we left the stadium. We thanked God for keeping us dry during the debate!