What if Jesus never existed? How much do Christians know about the origins of their faith? And are we willing to talk about it? These are some of the questions explored in The God Who Wasn't There, an irreverent Michael Moore-like documentary that premiered in Los Angeles last week and will tour the country at screenings sponsored by humanist groups. (It's also available on DVD here.)
Director Brian Flemming, 38, attended two Christian schools and says he committed his life to Christ several times before he eventually became a self-described "atheist Christian." His works include the controversial stage play Bat Boy: The Musical and Nothing So Strange, a mockumentary about conspiracy theories and the assassination of Bill Gates.
In the next few months, Flemming will shoot The Beast, a feature film about a Christian high school student whose archaeologist father gives her evidence that proves Jesus never existed. Flemming, who plans to release the film on June 6 of next year—that's 6/6/06—produced the documentary The God Who Wasn't There to explain the basis for this belief, and along the way he outlines the reasons for his own loss of faith as well.
Flemming spoke to Christianity Today Movies about the film from his office in L.A.
You refer to yourself as an "atheist Christian." What do you mean by that?
Brian Flemming: Once you're a Christian, I don't think you ever shake being a Christian, and personally I don't want to. When I realized that the first-century science that Christianity proclaims is basically completely wrong, that didn't mean Jesus was evil. It didn't mean Jesus was bad. Jesus is in many ways still a great character. As you see in the movie, when he calls for everybody who doesn't want him to reign over them to be killed, that's not the Jesus I'm talking about. But the Jesus that I hold in my mind as the Jesus who taught me my moral values in many ways, I don't want to lose that. I like Jesus. When I see a picture of Jesus that doesn't make me feel bad, it makes me feel good. I'm an atheist because I only believe those things that can be demonstrated and proved. I don't believe that faith is a good thing at all. But I'm a Christian in that I love Jesus.
Where did you first come across this idea that Jesus didn't exist historically?
Flemming: It was probably one of the older scholars, maybe G.A. Wells, who's written a few scholarly books on the subject. It was probably his work which led me to the more recent authors who have more up-to-date scholarship on the issue, such as Earl Doherty, who wrote the book The Jesus Puzzle, which remains today unrefuted. He has a theory about what early Christianity looked like and why there's all these odd anomalies with regard to the Christian version of the story, and he explains them all, and I think his theory makes the most sense of any theory I've ever heard about early Christianity.
Can you summarize briefly what some of those anomalies are?
Flemming: Yeah, for example—and this is in the movie—why doesn't Paul, in the documents that can be confirmed or somewhat confirmed as being from Paul, why doesn't he ever talk about a Jesus who recently lived? Why are there all these points where he's trying to make an argument and the context he's in cries out for him to say, "Oh and by the way, Jesus said this," and that would have settled the argument instantly? Why doesn't he pull that arrow out of his quiver? There are all sorts of things that don't make sense that are in the record, that you go, "Why didn't this person mention Jesus, because he died just a decade or two before this, supposedly, and he would have been in recent memory?"