About 20 years ago, my wife Debbie and I started a small group comprised of a few Christian students at Old Dominion University (ODU) and an English professor there who were interested in becoming more knowledgeable in Christian apologetics. We ended up meeting at our home twice a month. One of those students was David Wood, a former atheist who had been imprisoned for trying to murder his dad. While in prison, David had a radical conversion to Christianity and became a model inmate. After being released, he actually led his dad to Christ, after he had seen David’s radical transformation.
While attending ODU, David had become best friends with a Muslim student. Both were brilliant, had charismatic personalities, and served on the university’s debate team. David asked if he could bring his Muslim friend to our new group. I said that would change the dynamic and, to an extent, the objective of the group. I asked the others what they thought and they agreed to include him. So, David’s friend began coming on a regular basis. That friend was Nabeel Qureshi.
Honest yet challenging dialogue
Our group accepted Nabeel and loved him. We ended up including a few more non-Christians in the group and loved them as well. It was a wonderful group where anyone was welcome to present their religious (or non-religious) view and try to convince the others to accept it. But they could also expect spirited pushback from the other group members. After all, this was not a group for the weak-minded. Each of us came to be intellectually stimulated and challenged in matters of the utmost importance. Everyone participated. Notwithstanding the spirited discussions that often involved strong disagreement, everyone knew they were loved and respected by the others. For example, we knew Nabeel wanted us to become Muslims because, at the time, he believed Islam was true and that it would be for our benefit to become Muslims. Conversely, Nabeel knew we wanted him to become a Christian because we believed Christianity was true and it would benefit him to become a Christian.
Nabeel gave the matter serious thought. He attended my first debate with leading Muslim debater Shabir Ally in 2004. After the debate, Nabeel and I left the auditorium together and were walking toward the parking lot when he said, “I’m still confused. I think Islam and Christianity both have evidence favoring them. I think you handily defeated Shabir this evening and that the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is really good. But the only thing I think Christianity has over Islam is Jesus’ resurrection.” I smiled in surprise and said, “The ONLY thing is Jesus’ resurrection? Nabeel, if Jesus rose from the dead, game over and Christianity wins.” He agreed.
David and I continually challenged Nabeel, playing the roles of “good cop, bad cop.” (I’ll bet you can guess who played which role!) I provided positive evidence for Jesus while David dove into research about Islam and was relentless with Nabeel: “How can you know and admit ABCDEFG about Muhammad and Islam and remain a Muslim?” Many times, Nabeel was without an answer. And this drove him to speak with Muslim authorities in the U.S., Canada, and the UK, even traveling outside the U.S. to meet with them.
Although Nabeel wanted to remain a Muslim, he was more interested in following truth. So, when the answers provided by the Muslim leaders did not satisfy, Nabeel prayed and God answered with three dreams. In one of those dreams, Nabeel was in heaven but a gate prevented him from entering. On the other side of the gate a magnificent banquet was in progress. Attendees were having a wonderful time and David was among them. Nabeel desired to enter and join in the festivities but was prevented. He later asked David how he would interpret the dream. David answered that the meaning is clear: Nabeel was seeing the wedding banquet of the Lamb and was prohibited from entering because he had rejected Jesus’ invitation (Rev 19:9).
A slow, dramatic conversion
Nabeel continued to pray, seek God, and assess the evidence. It was a journey that took him several years. At the end, he realized his eternal destiny was at stake and was compelled to go where the evidence pointed. While knowing it would devastate his family whom he loved with all of his heart, he renounced Islam, became a committed follower of Jesus, and was baptized by David in the presence of his pastor and others (Matthew 10:37-39).
Over the years that followed, I spoke with Nabeel many times on the phone. At one point, he surprised me by telling me he believed he was the first and only Muslim in the history of that religion to leave Islam. He had been taught that no Muslim had ever left that faith. I informed him that countless Muslims had left Islam and that I could immediately let him speak with one of them. Within five minutes, he was having a conversation with former Muslim Abdu Murray, an attorney living in Detroit who had left Islam years before after investigating the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection and had become a follower of Jesus. Nabeel and Abdu would become good friends.
From devout Muslim to Christian apologist
Nabeel was not credulous. He wrestled with a number of issues typically raised against Christianity by Muslims and was not satisfied with the answers some Christians were offering him. We would speak of these issues candidly and he would engage in focused research to find answers. Although he was asked to speak on Islam a lot, his love was for the New Testament. After completing medical school, he completed master’s degrees at Biola, Duke, and Oxford. He was about to begin his DPhil program at Oxford when he began having discomfort that led to the diagnosis of stage four stomach cancer.
As many of you know, Nabeel became a bold and powerful witness for Jesus, devoting himself to knowing and serving him. He became known all over the world, and was a towering figure and bestselling author. On Saturday, my dear friend and brother met his Lord and Savior at the age of 34 after battling with cancer for a little over a year. I will miss you, my brother. But I will see you again. The day of the wedding banquet of the Lamb is coming and you will be there and we will rejoice and dine together! Hallelujah!
Dr. Mike Licona is associate professor of theology at Houston Baptist University. He holds a PhD in New Testament Studies from the University of Pretoria, which he earned with distinction and the highest mark. He is the professor of the Mobile Ed courses Objections to the Gospels and Philosophy of History.