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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
176 pages
Feb 2006
Baker Books

Paul Meets Muhammad: A Christian-Muslim Debate on the Resurrection

by Michael R. Licona

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt


Chapter 1

Into the Future

Many exuberant conversations take place simultaneously as nearly three hundred members of the press fill the Tang Center’s Wong Auditorium on the campus of MIT. Three people talk with one another on the stage. The third, who is more sharply dressed than the others, breaks away from the other two and approaches the microphone. “Good morning, everyone. Thanks for coming. I’m Robert Gordon, president of MIT. Prior to my arrival at MIT, two esteemed scientists were commissioned to come up with a scientific process for making educated guesses as to how those in the past who were known for their wisdom would have responded to contemporary crises. The two scientists selected were Dr. Ahmad Bahkr and Dr. Rebecca Sweeney. After fifteen years of persistent effort, the project known as Project Resurrection has achieved a level of success that could only have been dreamed of a few years ago. I’ve brought Dr. Ahmad Bahkr to explain everything to you. Dr. Bahkr is the director of Project Resurrection.”

A man dressed in a blue suit approaches the podium. He is in his midfifties and of Middle Eastern descent and speaks very clearly with an accent that is hardly detectable. “Good morning. For the past fifteen years, Dr. Sweeney and I have been working on a project named Resurrection. This project is designed to simulate how a person of a different era known for his wisdom might yield fresh insights for dealing with present world conditions such as hunger, disease, and volatile political differences. Project Resurrection works by entering into a computer database all of the known writings of a person, credible reports about him or her from outside sources, and additional data on that person from modern experts. Using quasi-artificial intelligence, the computer is able to think as that particular person would by identifying the person’s specific thought patterns, personality traits, and worldview. As a result, the computer can suggest how that person might have responded to a contemporary crisis, such as AIDS or terrorism, or even provide military strategy. We have been very pleased with what we’ve been able to accomplish and have arranged a public demonstration. I will now take your questions.”

At this point it becomes loud as many reporters begin asking questions. Dr. Bahkr points to a woman in the front row, who stands and says, “Peggy Jasper of CNN. Would you tell us something about the accuracy of Project Resurrection?”

“We’ve been able to achieve a high level of accuracy,” Bahkr replies. “About a year ago, we conducted initial testing. We entered the writings and speeches of the two final candidates from the most recent presidential election and played out a debate between them. Accuracy was measured by comparing the simulated debate with the historical one. Adjustments were made to the artificial intelligence component. The simulated debate was reenacted and a number of similar experiments were performed as well in order to test and gain further precision. We were amazed to observe an increase in accuracy from approximately 65 to 88 percent over a period of ten months.

“Then we put Project Resurrection through a second stage of tests in which we entered the writings of the famous philosophers atheist Bertrand Russell and Christian Frederick Copleston and simulated a debate between them on the existence of God. The results corresponded to their actual 1948 debate with staggering accuracy. Presently Project Resurrection is operating with an approximate accuracy of 95 percent and an error margin of plus or minus 3 percent. This accuracy is contingent upon entering a minimum of only two megabytes of information about the historical person being considered. I would now like to ask my colleague Dr. Sweeney to tell you about another amazing feature of this project.”

A woman in her early fifties, with slightly graying hair curling under just short of her shoulders, approaches the podium. She clears her throat quietly and begins to speak. “Good morning. Three months ago, Dr. Bahkr and I incorporated Virtua-Personi 6.0 hologram technology with voice recognition capabilities into Project Resurrection. This enabled us to have both a visual and a virtual reality interactive experience. We can now watch the selected person lecture, carry on a conversation, debate, ask questions, and receive advice. We conducted our first test using holograms one month ago. I had a discussion with Socrates and was absolutely astonished by how real it seemed. I could hardly tell the difference from a real person. I went home that night feeling as though I had been in the presence of an icon. I couldn’t sleep at all that evening.”

At this moment a reporter blurts out, “What are your plans for using Project Resurrection?”

Dr. Sweeney replies, “The United States government has been aware of our research and has demanded that it be allowed to purchase the fully completed project for military purposes. A separate version containing a software block prohibiting military use will be made available for sale to corporations within a year.”

Another reporter calmly asks, “What will the price tag be?”

Dr. Sweeney appears unprepared to answer the question and turns around to look at Bahkr and Gordon. The university president is very aware of the proposed sales price and steps up to the podium. He says, “That will depend on the corporate package purchased. For example, a robust package that includes hologram technology will have a much higher price tag than a package that doesn’t include it. A complete package will probably be in the range of five hundred million dollars.”

A hum of conversation starts throughout the auditorium at this revelation. Gordon sits down, and Sweeney steps back to the podium and points to her left, “The gentleman over there.”

“When can we see a demonstration of the corporate product?”

“As a promotion, we will stage a public exhibition in three months involving a debate between two famous persons from antiquity.”

“Have you chosen which two persons you will use?”

“Yes. My colleague Dr. Jeffrey Bowers from the Department of Philosophy here at MIT can tell you more.”

Dr. Sweeney steps away from the podium as a man in his midfifties, with a medium build and gray hair, walks from where he had been standing next to the wall on the side of the auditorium to Sweeney’s right. He steps up onto the stage and comes up to the podium. He appears to be very comfortable in front of a large audience. “The apostle Paul and the prophet Muhammad have been chosen to be our debaters,” Dr. Bowers says. “We have an abundance of ancient writings by or about these figures, so they will be very suitable as debate opponents. The topic will be the foundational event of Christianity: the resurrection of Jesus.”

He motions to a journalist in the front row, who stands and asks, “Aren’t you afraid that such a debate could create serious religious tensions between Christian and Muslim communities?”

Bowers does not hesitate. “We thought about that, and the consensus among us is that since this is a fictional debate and the topic does not concern whether Christianity or Islam is true or false, tensions should be kept to a minimum. Indeed, we’re hoping that such a debate will provide followers of both religions with a greater understanding of where the other is coming from. However, just to be on the safe side, adequate security will be provided for the debate. Yes, sir. Over there. You have a question?”

“Where and when will this debate take place?”

“We are in the process of making arrangements with TCN Field in Birmingham, Alabama, since it has a retractable roof. Then if the weather turns sour on us, we’ll be okay. We don’t have a firm date at this time. But if all goes well, we should have a debate in about three months, which will be late June.”

At this point Robert Gordon approaches the podium and places his hand on Bowers’s back, signaling that he wants to wrap things up. Bowers moves to the side and Gordon takes the lead spot at the podium. “Thank you, Dr. Bowers. Ladies and gentlemen, this is a noble project, and I speak on behalf of everyone here at MIT in saying that we are excited about seeing this technological leap. We are interested in doing our best to contribute to solving world crises. We are interested in helping our country, and therefore the world, become a safer place for us to live. Thank you for coming, ladies and gentlemen. We’ll look forward to seeing you in Birmingham.”


The night of the debate has come. The stadium is packed with corporate leaders from around the world. The event will be televised, broadcast over the Internet, heard by radio, and a transcript will be made available. All the major television networks are present, and the entire world is tuning in with great interest. In order to get the most accurate feel for the “reality” factor, Dr. Bahkr and Dr. Sweeney have taken seats among the crowd in the stadium. They are surrounded by undercover guards strategically positioned in their section. The stadium holds a capacity crowd of sixty thousand, and the air is peppered with various perfumes and colognes and the aromas normally sensed at professional American sporting events—beverages, hot dogs (all beef, of course!), hamburgers, mustard, popcorn, and cotton candy. Numerous languages can be heard in the plethora of simultaneous conversations. Not surprisingly, Arabic and English are dominant.

A strong police presence is visible in the crowd in order to thwart any show of aggression toward those of different beliefs. Long lines leading to massive security checks mark every entrance to the stadium. About ninety minutes of sunlight remain. The stadium lights are on in preparation for the approaching sunset and are brighter than the evening sky, which is clear and cloudless. The American flag can be seen flapping in the gentle breeze on this beautiful evening. Anticipation is felt by every faithful follower, wondering how well Paul and Muhammad will be represented and who will win the debate.

Because English is the most universal language, it will be the language of choice for the evening’s speakers. Various concessionaires walk around offering beverages, food, and battery-powered wireless headsets that will provide translation services. No music is played. The scoreboard displays a message: “Please respect one another. Aggressors will be removed immediately from the premises.” Every twenty seconds the scoreboard displays the same message in a different language.

Dr. Sweeney looks at her watch, then looks at Dr. Bahkr, who glances at his. “It’s time,” he says. Just then a hush quickly falls on the crowd as three black Mercedes-Benz sedans drive onto the field and up to the stage which has been set up in the center. When the cars come to a halt, ten men dressed in suits jump out of the first and third cars. Five of them form a scattered line up to the stage, and two take their positions at the rear corners of the stage. The other three approach the middle car. One opens the front passenger’s side door while the other two open the rear doors on each side. Simultaneously, three men emerge. The man from the front is the moderator for the debate, Dr. Jeffrey Bowers.

Out of the backseat on the same side of the car steps a man of average height. He wears a turban on his head, a beard that is nearly twelve inches long, and a long gown that is fairly plain in style and not very colorful. It is Muhammad. Out of the other side of the car emerges Paul, also of average height and with a beard that is cut fairly close. He has no head covering and wears a toga that is off-white with a burgundy overlay. The holograms of Muhammad and Paul are so realistic that from a distance one can notice no difference between them and Bowers. All conversations have ceased at this point. Very little sound is heard. Tens of thousands of camera flashes go off for a solid minute.

The three make their way to the stage and walk up the steps. Once onstage, Bowers invites Muhammad to sit on his right side and Paul on his left. Then he sits down. He has a pleasant yet commanding manner. He talks briefly with the two men, then stands up and walks to the podium positioned in the front center portion of the stage. The debate has begun.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. This is a historic moment. I think I can safely say that nothing like this has ever taken place in human history. It is as though two prominent historical figures have simultaneously returned to our world in order to explain and argue their particular beliefs. I would like to both thank and commend MIT and the scientists of Project Resurrection for the amazing job they have done! I am neither a Muslim nor a Christian. And yet I cannot help being in complete and indescribable awe of what I see. I am honored to be tonight’s moderator.

“Amazing technology allows us to hear these two major leaders share why we should embrace their particular worldview. We can easily misunderstand one another. Thus our hope for this debate is that we all will gain a greater understanding of one another and why we believe as we do. Let me explain our format this evening. The apostle Paul will start with an opening speech, not to exceed twenty-five minutes. The prophet Muhammad will follow with his twenty-five-minute opening speech. We will then hear rebuttals from each. Paul will go first with his rebuttal, not to exceed twenty minutes. This will be followed by Muhammad’s rebuttal, also not to exceed twenty minutes.

“We will then transition into a discussion period where I will ask questions of both Muhammad and Paul. My role in this part of the debate will be to serve as a facilitator, as I hope Muhammad and Paul will interact with one another. This discussion period will last about two hours. Finally, Muhammad will be invited to offer a five-minute closing speech. Then I will extend the same invitation to Paul.

“Ladies and gentlemen, as a philosopher I would like to encourage every one of you to analyze their arguments as dispassionately as possible. Recognize that most of us have a strong bias that can block our ability to reason. Seek to understand the other view.

“Our speakers need no introduction. To give them one, I believe, would dishonor them. So, without any further delay, I would now like to invite the apostle Paul to come up and share the Christian position.”

Paul stands and walks to the podium. As he does, a hearty applause breaks out from the large number of Christians in attendance. In the interest of peace, some Muslims present who would normally have jeered him sit quietly. Paul looks at the massive audience. He smiles as if pleased to have so many to talk to and begins to speak.