The God Who Wasn't There
Flemming goes further than merely attempting to make a case against the existence of a historical Jesus of Nazareth. He also attacks religion in general. “For thousands of years, humanity has been obsessed with blood sacrifices. Is it an accident that the story of the crucifixion of Jesus gave Christians a suffering hero whose flesh they could eat and whose blood they could drink? Of course Christians today aren’t obsessed with blood sacrificing. Except that they are.” Clips from Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ are then shown. “For many Christians, The Passion of the Christ was the single most powerful experience of their lives.” He notes that this movie made “$370 million and still counting.”
Flemming turns to Carrier and says, “Let me propose something: Religion does no harm at all.” Carrier laughs then comments,
Well of course the evidence of history and even contemporary events refutes that. Even if we set aside the obvious conflict violence that has always plagued society and has gotten particularly worse under the Judeo-Christian religions, even if we set that aside, we have ordinary everyday things that are gone wrong. The sort of dehumanization and mistreatment of homosexuals for example is a prominent example and it’s getting worse in this country actually. It was getting better for a while but now there's this backlash and that's bad, that's bad for humanity. And religion that encourages or even allows that is wrong.
Later he says,
I do have serious concerns.... I'm seeing more and more the attitude of Christians toward secular humanists and atheists is very, very similar to the attitudes of pre-war Nazis to Jews. And it’s almost as if atheists are the new Jews. And the classic example of this is this book by Benjamin Wiker called Moral Darwinism, that is essentially Mein Kampf, except he just took out ‘Jew’ and put ‘atheism’ in its place.... What’s going to happen when we have like another depression, like we had right before World War II in Germany where the economy collapsed. Who’s gonna get blamed? When we have these Christians in power, who really think atheists are responsible for everything that's wrong, persuasion doesn't fix the problem, society is going south, the economy is going south ... Who are ya gonna kill? Well, the same people that Hitler killed, which is the Jews.... If we get into a situation where Christians like Bush basically gain a permanent foothold in power in society like they have now... if that stays that way and then something really bad happens ... what’s going to happen is that atheists are going to end up on the $@!# end of the stick.
Carrier seems to forget that the greatest slaughters in our world’s history came from atheist regimes. They were not religious wars. Consider Stalin, Mao, and the killing fields of Cambodia. These alone add up to more than 80 million people killed by atheists in the twentieth century, when they came into power for the first time. This does not include those killed by the aggressive governments of North Korea and North Vietnam who were actually attempting to eliminate religion and even now continue to work toward that end. Thus, it seems that if anyone should be concerned for their safety, it is those who maintain religious beliefs, rather than atheists. In his interview with fellow radical atheist Richard Dawkins, Flemming himself comments, “Often what atheists are after is an intolerance of religion and it’s very hard to get across.”
I like Richard Carrier, respect him, and regard him a friend. But he appears paranoid here. During the Great Depression or the recession of the 70s or even our very recent recession, was there a serious effort to blame atheists for the economic problems in the U.S.? Has Bush, whom Carrier fears, hinted that atheists are to blame for our country’s woes? There are certainly a few Christians who say that God is trying to get our attention and is, thus, responsible for disasters like 9/11 and Katrina. But these are a minority and most Christians are rightly embarrassed by them. So, let us stop with the alarmist rhetoric.
Carrier finds Lee Smolin’s arguments persuasive that there are multiple universes and that we happen to live in the one where everything is in place for life. (See David Wood’s decisive critique of Carrier’s use of Smolin: A Carriocentric Universe.) He then says that if the design argument employed by theists works, it would actually prove that God built the universe for black holes, not for humans. He continues by arguing that if Christianity were true, the universe would be as Paul and other early Christians believed: only one solar system, not zillions of galaxies billions of years old. There would be tons of evidence that the universe was created 6,000-10,000 years ago. We wouldn’t have any evidence for evolution. We wouldn’t need all the physical constants or subatomic particles. We would only need the five particles which Paul and Aristotle thought there were. The earth would be the center of the universe, since it is the center of God’s attention and the purpose for which everything else was created. Why would he make it any other way? Thus, the universe we have is not the universe we would expect if Christianity is true.
Even if Paul believed that the sun revolves around the earth, that there is only one solar system rather than the nearly one trillion galaxies now thought to exist, and that the universe is only 6,000-10,000 years old instead of around 15 billion years old, why would this disprove Christianity? Paul is, in fact, silent on these matters. Today’s Christians debate the age of the universe and earth. Many, if not most, of today’s Christian philosophers and scientists have no problem holding that the universe is 12-15 billion years old and that the earth is probably 4.5 billion years old, and they see no tension with the biblical record. So, one does not need to be committed to a certain age of the universe in order to be a Christian.
Carrier says that if Christianity is true, then we would not have any evidence for evolution. As we noticed previously with interpretations, data can be interpreted in a number of ways and evolutionary theory is no different. I am not at all persuaded by arguments for macroevolution. Not only do I find them highly problematic, but also the crusades by evolutionary activists like Richard Dawkins have persuaded me that the issue is more related to one’s worldview than to the scientific data. Dembski, Behe, Gonzalez / Richards, and others have provided a compelling case based on science that an intelligent Designer is the best explanation for the observable data. Atheists like Carrier apparently recognize the strength of their case. Otherwise, there would be no need to postulate undetectable multiverses. It is the appearance of design and the extreme unlikelihood of life in the only universe known to us that forces this sort of hypothesis.
Carrier then argues that the human brain has to be large in order to perform the function of consciousness. In fact, it is so large that, without modern medicine, it has to kill one in five women who give birth to children. (I cannot understand how this relates.) The brain is very inefficient and very vulnerable to injury. It’s not what a god would design. God could have just given us a mind without a body, since he is a mind without a body. Thus, if a god exists, we would not need a brain that kills its mothers and requires so much energy and be so vulnerable to injury. If it is impossible for a mind to exist without a brain, then it follows necessarily that the only way to have a conscious being is to have a brain. Thus, if we assume that there is no disembodied mind, it necessarily predicts that the only way that we could have a mind is to have a brain. We need brains if atheism is true. Thus, “the existence of large brains is positive proof that atheism is true, because the Christian God would build something differently.”
Let’s dissect Carrier’s argument and see what it looks like:
- If we have large brains, atheism is true.
- We have large brains.
- Therefore, atheism is true.
This is a standard modus ponens argument. The logic is valid. Thus, if Carrier’s premises are true, we have an airtight deductive argument for atheism. Having stated his argument, Carrier says that it may not be “proof or settle the issue, but it is evidence for the truth of atheism.” However, since this is a deductive argument, if any of his premises are incorrect, his argument fails.
Let’s look, then, at Richard’s premises. According to his first premise, if we have large brains, atheism is true. In order to support his view, he argues that the brain is very inefficient and very vulnerable to injury. It’s not what a god would design. God could have just given us a mind without a body, since he is a mind without a body. Thus, his supporting argument can be stated as follows:
- Necessarily, a perfect being creates a perfect product.
- The brain is not a perfect product. (It is large, inefficient, and vulnerable to injury.)
- Therefore, the brain was not created by a perfect being.
The problem with Carrier’s argument is that there is no reason for holding his first premise, that a perfect being must always create a perfect product. We might imagine a number of reasons why this may not be the case. For example, when a restaurant prepares a meal for a patron, it does not prepare it for a long shelf life. The cook has no intention of making the food so that it lasts past the night. What if a perfect being, for reasons unknown to us, did not want for humans to live forever? Or what if he had originally intended for humans with free will to live forever but allowed sin to result in eventual death for our benefit? Such a possibility is implicit in the Christian view and, thus, is not ad hoc. Let’s also suppose that God had created us with far greater abilities. Would we use them wisely or would we strip the planet by now? Imagine a world with an eternal Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Given a world of free beings, there may have been very good reasons for why God imposed time-limits on our lives.
Accordingly, there are no sound reasons for accepting Carrier’s first premise and, thus, his argument falls to pieces, even apart from considering whether his second premise holds. Remember that if Carrier’s argument fails, then his evidence for atheism fails.
Flemming turns to the Inquisition:
If the Bible is right, aren’t the stakes as high as they can be? If a little suffering here on earth saves more souls for all eternity, isn't that a good thing? The Inquisition was not a perversion of Christian doctrine. The Inquisition was an expression of Christian doctrine.... Imagine if you killed your own child like the father and the people you [sic] that you did it for didn't recognize your sacrifice. Of course you wouldn't hear their prayers. Mel Gibson was right to portray the Jews as evil. These must be the most despicable people on earth unless this book [the Bible] is wrong. And if this book is wrong, what the hell is moderate Christianity? Jesus was only sort of the son of God? He only somewhat rose from the dead? Your eternal soul is at stake but you shouldn’t make a big deal out of it? Moderate Christianity makes no sense. Is it any wonder that so many people choose the Christian leaders who actually have the courage of their convictions?
Here is Flemming’s argument broken down:
- If the Bible is right, then the Inquisition & Christianity are just.
- The Inquisition and Christianity are unjust.
- Therefore, the Bible is wrong.
This is a modus tollens argument and follows the same logic of the moral argument for the existence of God.
- If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
- Objective moral values exist.
- Therefore, God exists.
In both arguments, the logic is valid. Thus, the strength of the premises determines the strength of the argument. The weakness of the moral argument lies in the difficulty of proving the second premise: objective moral values exist. Most people believe that there is something intrinsically wrong with rape and torturing babies for the fun of it. Yet, we cannot prove this to be true. Thus, to the extent that one believes that morals are objective, i.e. that some things are really wrong irrespective of what others or a society thinks, one will find the moral argument persuasive.
What about Flemming’s argument? His logic is valid. But once again, his first premise is incorrect, since a great strain is required in order to interpret Jesus’ teachings in a manner that is compatible with the Inquisition. It was Catholic leadership that had gone way off track that brought about the Inquisition and the Crusades. One cannot find any teaching of Jesus stating that torturing a person atones for their denial of Christ. Accordingly, since the teachings of the Bible would not support the Inquisition or the Crusades, there is no reason to believe that if the Bible is correct that the Inquisition and Crusades were justified. Thus, Flemming’s argument from the Inquisition fails.
Flemming turns to a discussion of issues of eschatology. He interviews Scott Butcher of RaptureLetters.com who describes his beliefs in a pretribulation view of the return of Christ and adds that he believes this will occur during his lifetime. Atheist Sam Harris says this interpretation is “maladaptive” regarding avoiding global conflict, which is the precursor to the return of Christ. It is a “terribly dangerous state of affairs” when Christians of this conviction are electing our state officials.
Throughout the video, Flemming exhibits immense sarcasm that makes his work seem more like an impassioned justification of his atheism than a documentary about Jesus. One such statement appears in his interview with Sam Harris when he says, “When people stop believing in God, they tend to have sex with sheep.” Harris presents some sobering thoughts that relate to problems caused by Muslims who desire to be martyred. He asks how we can be neighbors with this mentality? Flemming asks Harris if we are doomed. Harris answers that “It’s hard to see a basis for real optimism.” This concludes Flemming’s case that religion is bad for society.
He then provides a short account of his past as a fundamentalist Christian in a Christian school named Village Christian School. He states that for the Christian, hell is a real place where you really go if you do not have salvation from Jesus. Jesus will forgive you from anything, except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the unforgivable sin (Luke 12:10; Mark 3:29).
And as luck would have it, the Holy Spirit is the easiest thing in the entire doctrine to doubt. God is out of your reach. Jesus was two thousand years ago. But the Holy Spirit is with you right here, right now. So, you better really actually feel the Holy Spirit. You can't deny it in your thoughts, because Jesus is in your thoughts. And if your mind starts to wander to the fact that there’s no more evidence for the existence of this Holy Spirit than there is for the existence of unicorns, guess what you may have done? The greatest crime in fundamentalist Christianity is to think. And when I was at Village Christian I was terrified that I had actually done this.
Flemming’s definition of blaspheming the Holy Spirit is bizarre. For him, if I question in my mind the existence of the Holy Spirit, I have committed the unpardonable sin. Most exegetes recognize that Mark 3:30 provides clarity of what it is to blaspheme the Holy Spirit. The scribes who came to destroy Jesus were attributing to Satan the works of the Holy Spirit done through Jesus. Thus, in essence they were insulting the Holy Spirit by calling him Satan. It is not the mechanical words by which the sin is committed. It is because they come from a heart that has hardened itself to the authority of Jesus, a complete rejection that caused people to want to destroy him. This is the precise opposite of the statement that “Jesus is Lord” that results in salvation (1 Corinthians 12:3). The words are not a magical formula that results in salvation by its mere recitation. It is only when they are the result of a heart that has submitted to Christ as Lord that the words carry meaning.
Flemming goes back to Village Christian School and asks the current school superintendent Ronald Sipus some questions. He reads a few of the school’s doctrinal statements. The infallibility of the Bible, the nature of God’s existence in three persons, and the belief in the resurrection of believers to eternal life and nonbelievers to eternal judgment are stated. Flemming then asks, “Tell me, what hard scientific evidence do you have that the world works this way?" Sipus answers that there is good evidence for the truth of Christianity, such as the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. But ultimately it is a matter of faith. Flemming jumps on him for the “faith” part and exhibits a misunderstanding of the matter as his interview with Sipus continues. Sipus is clear throughout that he thinks there is good historical evidence for the truth of Christianity. Flemming replies that earlier he said there was no evidence for it and that it was a matter of faith. Sipus says, no, he thinks there is evidence. But Flemming replies that he had said when it comes to matters of the future resurrection and judgment of the dead that it's a matter of faith. Sipus answers that he agrees. But Flemming asks why he is then teaching that this is the way the world operates. Let's look at it another way:
- Flemming: Do you think there is any scientific evidence for your theological statements?
- Sipus: There is scientific evidence for the truth of Christianity. But theological statements are a matter of faith.
- Flemming: Then why are you teaching that Christianity is scientifically true, when you say it is a matter of faith?
- Sipus: You misunderstood what I said. I’m not saying that I have scientific proof for theological statements.
- Flemming: But you said a moment ago that it’s (the “it” is where the switch occurs) a matter of faith. So why are you teaching theological statements as the way the world operates?
- Sipus: I’m not.
Sipus is claiming that theological matters, such as the triune nature of God and future resurrection and judgment cannot be tested scientifically and are accepted on faith. I agree with him. We can examine the scientific evidence for an Intelligent Designer and the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus and many of his sayings. But scientific arguments do not apply to matters of doctrine. Sam Harris, who is another of Flemming’s authorities, answers by saying that if one cannot provide justification for one’s convictions, you’re laughed out of the room. I agree. But this would be a misunderstanding of Sipus’ statement. If you were to ask him for a justification of his convictions, he would answer that Christianity has some very good scientific and historical evidence in its favor, which establishes the truth of Christianity. The Bible is a trustworthy source and, thus, the Christian is rationally justified in accepting truths of faith precisely because there are truths of reason.
Flemming then asks Sipus if he believes the Bible should be interpreted literally. He answers that there are certain parts of the Bible that may not be taken literally. Nearly all Christians would agree with him. Jesus taught in parables. Were the stories and persons mentioned in the parables meant to be understood as historical figures? We may almost certainly answer “no.” The personification of wisdom in the book of Proverbs is an obvious rhetorical device. Sipus notes that there are a number of interpretations of Genesis, ranging from a creation of everything within six, 24-hour days to believing that these days represent very long periods of time. He says that these are things upon which Christians debate and he is correct. The ages of the universe and the earth are not fundamental doctrines of Christianity.
In an interesting turn of events, Sipus graciously requests to ask Flemming a question off camera. Flemming refuses. Sipus charges Flemming with being dishonest in setting up the interview because Flemming was not discussing what he had originally communicated to Sipus. Instead, Sipus seems to believe that Flemming is there to make himself feel better about the discipline Flemming underwent while attending the school, perhaps trying to get some payback. It becomes apparent that Sipus wants to discuss this privately with Flemming, rather than to present it to Flemming’s viewers. Flemming refuses, and Sipus ends the interview.
Flemming goes to the chapel where he says he received Jesus three times, holds the camera up and says “Here in this chapel where I first accepted Jesus as my personal savior, I just want to say one thing: I deny the Holy Spirit.” The main video ends on this note.
 At the end of the video, Sipus rightly notes that evolutionists share the same problem. While scientific evidence exists for microevolution, evolutionists make a metaphysical leap when they claim that all life is the result of macroevolution. In other words, microevolution plus a lot of time will produce macroevolutionary changes. As many have pointed out, there is a paucity of scientific evidence in support of macroevolution, which is defended with a vengeance.
 Craig’s description of Aquinas’ bifurcation between truths of reason and truths of faith is helpful. See William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 1994), 20-22.
© 2005 Mike Licona
Used on bethinking.org by the kind permission of Mike Licona.
Other resources by Mike Licona are available from his website risenjesus.com.