Preceding its 1996 Internet debut, this story was around across several decades — one reader recalls hearing it in 1968 while a freshman at U.C. Santa Barbara, California, and a telling of it in a 1977 book places the event as happening in 1920s Pennsylvania.
This is a true story of something that happened just a few years ago at USC. There was a professor of philosophy there who was a deeply committed atheist. His primary goal for one required class was to spend the entire semester attempting to prove that God couldn’t exist. His students were always afraid to argue with him because of his impeccable logic. For twenty years, he had taught this class and no one had ever had the courage to go against him. Sure, some had argued in class at times, but no one had ever ‘really gone against him’ (you’ll see what I mean later).Nobody would go against him because he had a reputation. At the end of every semester, on the last day, he would say to his class of 300 students, “If there anyone here who still believes in Jesus, stand up!” In twenty years, no one had ever stood up. They knew what he was going to do next. He would say, “because anyone who does believe in God is a fool. If God existed, he could stop this piece of chalk from hitting the ground and breaking. Such a simple task to prove that he is God, and yet he can’t do it.” And every year, he would drop the chalk onto the tile floor of the classroom and it would shatter into a hundred pieces. The students could do nothing but stop and stare. Most of the students were convinced that God couldn’t exist. Certainly, a number of Christians had slipped through, but for 20 years, they had been too afraid to stand up.
Well, a few years ago, there was a freshman who happened to get enrolled in the class. He was a Christian, and had heard the stories about this professor. He had to take the class because it was one of the required classes for his major and he was afraid. But for 3 months that semester, he prayed every morning that he would have the courage to stand up no matter what the professor said or what the class thought. Nothing they said or did could ever shatter his faith, he hoped.
Finally the day came. The professor said, “If there is anyone here who still believes in God, stand up!” The professor and the class of 300 people looked at him, shocked, as he stood up at the back of the classroom. The professor shouted, “You FOOL!! If God existed, he could keep this piece of chalk from breaking when it hit the ground!” He proceeded to drop the chalk, but as he did, it slipped out of his fingers, off his shirt cuff, onto the pleats of his pants, down his leg, and off his shoe. As it hit the ground, it simply rolled away, unbroken.
The professor’s jaw dropped as he stared at the chalk. He looked up at the young man and then ran out of the lecture hall. The young man who had stood up proceeded to walk to the front of the room and share his faith in Jesus for the next half hour. 300 students stayed and listened as he told of God’s love for them and of his power through Jesus.
With certain key details changed, the tale appears in the memoirs of clergyman Richard Harvey, wherein he dates it back to his time as a student at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. In his version, the antagonist is said to be one Dr. Lee, a revered chemistry professor. Dr. Lee was a Christian, but one who subscribed to the “benevolent caretaker” theory of God (that God created the universe and set it in motion but has been hands-off ever since) and thus did not believe that praying to Him affected anything.
According to Harvey, Dr. Lee began delivering a set of three lectures on prayer to his freshman chemistry class each year, with the third lecture culminating in the challenge for anyone to stop a glass beaker he was about to drop from breaking through the power of prayer alone. Twelve years later, a student did step forward and successfully do so, putting an end to this set of lectures. Or so we’re told. (Chalk is mentioned in one telling of the tale, a glass beaker is the subject in Richard Harvey’s book, and an egg is mentioned in another version of the story.)
Though this sighting gives a better idea how old the tale is, it fails to validate the legend. From the way this passage in Harvey’s book is worded, it’s clear he wasn’t present at the lecture where the brave student took up the challenge. He, too, heard the same inspirational tale we’re hearing now and chose to include it in his memoirs as something he believed.
And it is an inspirational tale of faith, one meant to encourage Christians to not waver in their beliefs even in the face of denunciation by a revered authority figure.
If USC (University of Southern California) has had a philosophy professor on staff who for the past twenty years devoted a class period each semester to disproving the existence of God, it’s news to them. “Professor Dallas Willard, who has been here for 32 years, affirms that nothing like this has happened during the time he was here,” said USC philosophy professor Edwin McCann in 1999 when the e-mailed version of the tale was running rampant.
No one has named this professor or stated he was in class the day of the anti-God lecture. Call this current piece of netlore just an update of a much older legend.
The “running from the room” motif shows up in many legends as a convenient way of ending one character’s involvement in the story or of bringing the legend to a close (see our Why Does It Taste So Salty? page for another example) because it forestalls the curious from asking the inevitable “What happened next?” follow-up. Even if a college professor had actually bolted from the room after a failed experiment, would 300 students really have remained in their seats for half an hour after he had departed to listen to a fellow student lecture on Christianity? “If it’s not going to be on the final, it’s not keeping me in my seat” is the typical student philosophy.
Chalk this one up as a charming parable, one not grounded in the facts as reported. It’s David and Goliath in a classroom setting, the shaking-in-his-boots student taking on the ogre of non-belief in the form of a fearsome professor.
A somewhat related Jack Chick tract builds on similar motifs of the professor of science’s challenging his students to disagree, one courageous student’s standing up to dispute him, the professor’s subsequent humiliation and hasty exit from the classroom, and the brave student’s ability to hold his classmates enthralled after the professor leaves the room.