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?"
And ultimately, why is the historical Jesus mentioned more and more as you get away from the historical period he was supposed to have lived? That is the reverse of what we would expect. We would expect all sorts of information right away. For example, in Scientology, there is a big effort under way to document the life of L. Ron Hubbard, because he's their messiah, and that will probably drift more and more and more into legend as time goes on. But with Christianity, it's the reverse. The figure is mythical and legendary at the start, and becomes more historical as time passes. And that just doesn't make sense, if he was a real historical person.
Many people would argue that Paul does refer to Jesus. For example, in Galatians 1:19, he talks about meeting James the brother of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 9:5, Paul says something to the effect of, "I don't have a wife but I'm entitled to one just like the brothers of the Lord are." And in 1 Corinthians 7:10, when he's discussing divorce, he essentially passes on Jesus's command that people should not seek divorces—he actually specifies that it is "not I, but the Lord" saying this. So he's making a clear distinction between the teaching he's received through the historical oral tradition—
Flemming: Wait, wait, let me stop you there. Teaching he's received, I agree. I agree that Paul received all sorts of information, and he received it directly from the Lord according to Paul, which of course doesn't quite make sense because he wasn't supposed to have met Jesus even according to a historical view of Jesus. But he definitely received information directly from the Lord, but it was by revelation, and so I believe that all those things that you just mentioned could be Paul getting … his information about Christianity from a heavenly source, and that was through visions. It would actually be more inconsistent if Paul claimed those particular bits of information came directly from the historical Jesus, because what does that mean about all the other stuff that he got, via visions or inspiration or revelation from the Lord?
Well, Paul also talks in Galatians 1:18-19 about spending two weeks with Peter and James and it's been said that he would have spent that time obsessively downloading as much information from them as he could about the Jesus that they knew, precisely because Paul did not know Jesus personally. You're not buying that theory, I guess.
Flemming: No, I'm not buying the theory that James is necessarily the brother of Jesus or that the Peter that Paul refers to is the Peter who was later declared, not by Paul of course, the Rock of the Church. I would say that that's doing some real acrobatics to get around a far simpler explanation. Basically, if the theory that Jesus didn't exist has these four points where, "Wait a second, there's this other passage that could be interpreted—if we wanted to—as meaning that Jesus existed, and we can create complicated explanations for it," well, why isn't Jesus everywhere else where we would expect him to be? I will admit that it is not a matter of absolute certainty that Jesus didn't exist. I just think it's overwhelmingly probable, when examining the evidence, that Jesus didn't exist.
You mentioned that some figures become more legendary as time goes on, but somewhat the opposite trajectory seems to have taken place here, if your theory is correct. Why would the Gospels attach specific historical names to the Jesus story, like Pontius Pilate or Caiaphas—people that we know really existed—if there was not some kernel of historical truth to the story?
Flemming: Well there is a kernel of historical truth to the story. Pontius Pilate did exist, we have confirmation of that. He didn't have the title that Tacitus says he had, but we do know many of the general details that are the same as a historical novelist might use if they were writing a Western today. Somebody writing a historical novel today might mention Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War and all sorts of real people who really existed back then, but that doesn't mean the novel itself is true. Putting a fictional story in a historical setting is not at all unusual. I don't really think the burden is on anyone to explain why would somebody put a fictional story in a historical setting. That's been done for a long, long time.
You mentioned the culture of fear, and watching your film, I was continually reminded of Jack Chick comics—the very sort of graphic, sordid, lurid images of hell and all that. Do you think it's fair to characterize Christianity as a whole like that? How representative of Christianity, or even just evangelicalism, is that sort of mentality?
Flemming: Well I think it's the purest expression. Obviously there exists this thing called moderate Christianity, but it's really just a watered-down version of the same thing. If you press a moderate Christian and ask, if they have faith that the Bible is at least the inspired Word of God, how can they not believe in salvation? And if you believe in salvation, then obviously you're being saved from something and the other thing is bad. So it's all right there. That's basically what I disagree with. I don't think there's any such thing as salvation. I don't think that we're doomed and we need to be saved. If you do think we're doomed and we need to be saved, then everything I present in the film just follows naturally from that. It may be expressed more vividly than you would like, but it is what you believe.
Why "The God Who Wasn't There"? Even if you did prove Jesus didn't exist, there are plenty of people who believe in God without Jesus, and there are plenty of people who believe Jesus existed without believing in God. So why does one necessarily lead to the other?
Flemming: I don't think there's no God because Jesus most likely never walked the earth. That doesn't logically follow. But I do think that once you start investigating—Was Jesus real? What's the evidence that he wasn't?—and with an open mind you actually start exploring these other ways in which Christianity was built, who built it, why they built it, why they decided what they did—the whole idea of faith just starts to look absurd. You realize that this thing you have faith in is something that was created by men who had political agendas, and you discover one thing after another that just utterly challenges the idea of having faith. I think that knowledge is basically the enemy of faith, and so I'm basically encouraging people to seek knowledge.
To learn more about The God Who Wasn't There, or to purchase a copy of the DVD, check out the official website.
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