It was a battle of heavyweights. The setting was the Theological School at Boston University. The expectant audience overflowed the auditorium, standing in the aisles, against the walls and in the doorways. The attraction was twofold: The speakers were well-known and highly respected, and the topic was one about which no one is disinterested.

The primary lecturer was Professor Jurgen Moltmann, a man reared in Germany but now on the faculty of the University of Tubingen in Switzerland. The author of many books, the best known of which is "A Theology of Hope," Moltmann has been a long-time power among European Protestants.

The second principal was the responder, Gordon Kaufman, recently retired Professor of Theology at Harvard Divinity School. In Kaufman's distinguished career, he has also been a prolific author and an articulate speaker. Like Moltmann, he was identified as a liberal Protestant. One would have assumed that the two had much in common.

The subject was "Is There Life After Death?"--a topic conspicuously absent in serious Christian discourse in the last century. Time magazine ran a feature on this topic in 1997, reporting that in neither conservative nor liberal circles of the church is this subject capturing anyone's attention. It is barely discussed in seminaries. The operative assumption is that all would-be Christian pastors believe in life after death, but few want to be tested on it. It makes an appearance in pious phrases and sentimental clichés when one faces death and dying. It is as if everyone wants to assure everyone else that there is no need even to raise the question.

But on this particular evening, the subject of life after death was coming out of the closet, and in a Methodist-related school of theology no less. Here permission would be given to look at this issue deeply, and two recognized Christian leaders were advertised to speak about it with great intensity. But this audience was destined to receive something quite dramatic and unexpected.

Moltmann first presented his paper. He ranged over the history of the concept of life after death. He shared some emotional stories out of his own life, reliving vividly a time when he, barely a teenager, was required to take his place as a soldier firing an anti-aircraft gun near Hamburg during World War II. He survived that experience, but many did not. He recounted the story of the death of his first child, the pain and grief through which he walked, and his existential wrestling with whether life had any meaning at all.

His conclusion was that, apart from a vision of life after death, it did not. In his mind, either there was a reality to the promise of eternal life or there was no ultimate meaning to which he could cling. He stated these convictions based on his faith and life experience openly, honestly, emotionally, thoughtfully, and powerfully. The audience applauded responsively.

Then Gordon Kaufman rose to respond. He, too, had recently endured a rending experience in the death of his wife. Those close to him attested to the depth of their relationship and to the grief he endured. Yet he spoke from a very different perspective. He attacked Moltmann vigorously for his sentimentality, expressing keen disappointment in Moltmann's paper. He challenged Moltmann's suggestion that there was no meaning in this life if the promise of life after death was taken away. He illustrated his remarks with references to countless numbers of people who did not believe in or count on survival beyond the grave and yet whose lives clearly possessed great meaning. He reacted sharply to what he felt was Moltmann's dismissal of their value and worth, implying that Moltmann was insulting these people. In a very aggressive statement, Kaufman called on Moltmann publicly to withdraw that conclusion or to explain just where Kaufman had misunderstood his message.

This attack was so pointed and so stark that when Kaufman completed his remarks the audience did not quite know what to do. Applause was tepid. Uncomfortable anxiety filled the room. Moltmann looked devastated. The host who had introduced both speakers said some words that indicated his own sense of unease, acknowledging sheepishly that this had been "a vigorous debate." Then he opened the evening to the audience's participation.

As is typical of such gatherings, the questioners gave what amounted to speeches far more than they asked questions. Almost all of them directed their comments to Moltmann. It seemed that Kaufman had given them permission to continue the attack. The nature of their questions was not to place themselves in opposition to Moltmann but to show how their understanding of life after death was a bit more sophisticated than his and, as such, not as susceptible to Kaufman's dismissal.

No one either took on Gordon Kaufman or his implicit assertion that death was the absolute end of our existence and that whatever meaning there is in life must be formed inside human existence.