Written, Directed and Narrated by Brian Fleming
Beyond Belief Media 2005
A friend of mine is fond of quoting the axiom, "Consequences have ideas." That certainly seems to prove true in Brian Fleming’s documentary diatribe against Christianity, "The God Who Wasn’t There."
The 39-year-old Fleming, who describes his parents as "typical, non-Bible-thumping Methodists,"1 attended an evangelical parochial school in California as a child. There, he says, "I was born again at least three times, I think."2 Fleming describes his school days as marked by fear—primarily the fear of going to hell. He lived in terror, thinking that examining his legitimate questions about the existence of the Holy Spirit might cause him to inadvertently commit the unpardonable sin, which he defined as doubting the Holy Spirit’s existence, even in his thoughts. Fleming falsely concluded that, "The greatest crime in fundamentalist Christianity is to think." In what appears to be a backlash against his fear and his resulting self-imposed intellectual dishonesty, Fleming has repudiated his belief in Christianity and has become a bitter atheist with a pseudo-evangelical furor to convert others to his empty belief system.
Fleming had it all wrong. Scholars debate exactly what constitutes "the unpardonable sin," which Jesus mentioned in Luke 12:10 and Mark 3:29, but it seems to be attributing to Satan obvious works of the Holy Spirit that an individual knows to be the work of God. This is not mere doubt, but an enduring, clench-fisted rebellion against God.
As my friend said, consequences have ideas. Fleming’s self-indulgent documentary is the consequence of the skewed doctrine he was taught (or misunderstood) and the resulting bitterness and anger he feels against Christianity. In a sad little segment at the end of the movie, Fleming goes so far as to misrepresent himself in order to film an interview with the current headmaster of the school he attended, perhaps in a quest for closure. Given Fleming’s background, we have no hope of a non-biased treatment of the subject matter of this documentary.
Since we now understand some of Fleming’s underlying motivation for making this movie, let’s look at a few of the arguments he presents in his attempt to prove that "God simply isn’t there."
1. Christianity was wrong about the Sun revolving around the Earth, so it may also be wrong about the physical existence of Jesus Christ. It should go without saying that all errors are not alike. Although the established church in Galileo’s day didn’t know that the Earth revolved around the Sun, according to Philip J. Sampson’s book 6 Modern Myths About Christianity and Western Civilization, neither did they reject the idea outright and persecute Galileo, as modern myth suggests. Galileo got in trouble with the Catholic Church when he tried to re-interpret Scripture to back up his (correct) theory, and for speaking disrespectfully of the Pope. Galileo was not tortured, as some have said, but died peacefully in his own bed.
Nevertheless, even if the Catholic Church in Galileo’s day was imperfect in its knowledge of the natural world (and it surely was) it does not necessarily follow that true believers in our century are likely to be wrong about foundational issues of faith. People who study logic would call this fallacy a non sequitur, or an inference that doesn’t logically follow the premise. From the point of view of a true believer, it’s like saying that because your dentist isn’t an expert on small engine repair, your family doctor probably can’t diagnose chicken pox. Fleming needs to define "Christian" accurately and limit his arguments accordingly.
2. Christianity is responsible for the Spanish Inquisition, Charles Manson, David Koresh and other unbalanced, psychotic people who claimed to be doing God’s will. Fleming says, "The Inquisition was not a perversion of Christian doctrine. The Inquisition was an expression of Christian doctrine." In one sense I would agree. The Inquisition was a consequence of an ideology and an expression of it, but was it Christian? Did Jesus ever tell anyone to proselytize via torture? Absolutely not. In his second error in logic, Fleming forms what logicians call a hasty generalization, making an inference about all Christians on the basis of a poorly selected sample. As a Christian, am I required to accept and defend every perversion of Scripture and every crackpot who claims God spoke to him? Let’s nuance the discussion just a little. I’ll accept criticism about someone who lives according to the teaching set forth by Jesus in the Bible—someone who can honestly call Jesus "Lord"—but not for every religion-related crime in history.
That being said, I do acknowledge that sometimes real Christians say and do things that are regrettable. We sometimes misspeak, become angry and engage in rhetoric that perverts the teaching of Christ and brings us shame. Fleming showed us some video clips of just such behavior. Those actions were wrong, and I don’t pretend to justify them. Instead of condoning hateful behavior among the ranks, over the centuries believers have written libraries full of books to correct the false teaching that springs up in every generation. The Reformers called this idea semper reformanda, or "always reforming." They contended that the church was always in need of change to become more holy, loving and faithful to Jesus. The church of today is no different.
On the other hand, much more often Christians behave in ways that are beneficial to society, and that certainly wasn’t mentioned in the film. Fleming neglected to say that Christians began most of the early schools and colleges in the United States along with thousands of hospitals and orphanages. Christians have been active in human rights issues and in ending slavery worldwide for hundreds of years. Christians are heavily involved in global disaster relief efforts, hospice care, and service to the poor. Do atheistic organizations fund charities with good works that compare to the Salvation Army, the SBC World Hunger fund, the hundreds of Gospel Rescue Missions and thousands of church food pantries across the country?
3. A forty-year gap between the death of Christ and the first Gospel account proves that Jesus was a compilation of "dying and rising god" myths, and never really existed. First, Fleming and his consultants date the four Gospel accounts later than most scholars, who place them between 50-70 A.D. Far from "forgetting Jesus" during the twenty-year gap between the ascension and the first written gospel account (as Fleming suggests happened), the book of Acts (probably written about 62 A.D.) records the astounding growth of the church and spread of the good news of Jesus Christ during this period.
In an unpublished paper, Pastor Andrew McClurg, MDiv., MABL, discusses the idea that Jesus was a compilation of myth. I quote him here extensively:
The first assertion that must be true to demonstrate borrowing by the gospels from myths is that there were coherent stories that were similar to the essential good news — i.e., the death and resurrection of Jesus — available in an integrated form during the time when the Jesus tradition was being developed and written. The terms "coherent" and "integrated" are important. It is not valid simply to patch together a hodgepodge of mythical elements from mythologies of various cultures over centuries of time and assume that such conglomerated "myths" were being told as separate stories in 1st century Palestine (either in writing or orally).
Most biblical historians of all persuasions are now convinced that the Synoptic gospels were written prior to 70 A.D., and perhaps closer to 60 A.D. A close historical examination shows that of all the myths mentioned by Lapide,3 only two contain a "coming back to life" element that predated the second half of the 1st Century: the Dionysus myth of Greece and the Osiris myth of Egypt. For example, for the Tammuz myth mentioned by Lapide, a "resurrection" was later assumed but not present in any preserved text, and Tammuz was in fact sent to the underworld.4 Tammuz later became identified with the Phoenician Adonis, but there is no resurrection in his stories until the 2nd to 4th Centuries A.D. There are similar dating issues for Attis, which didn’t become a resurrected god until after 150 A.D.5 In the case of these later "resurrections," it is clear that any copying was from the New Testament and not to it.6
The second assertion that must be true in order to demonstrate a case for borrowing from myths by the gospels is that there are similarities between the gospels and what was available in the 1st century, i.e., with the only remaining candidates — the myths of Dionysus and Osiris. . . . Dionysus, a son of Zeus, was the god of vegetation and wine, who was said to die each winter and come to life each spring. This in accordance with one of the purposes of myth stated earlier, i.e., the explanation of the cycles of nature. The similarities with a "resurrection" are superficial. In addition, the festivals of Dionysus came to be characterized by debauchery and immorality, to such an extent that by the 2nd Century B.C., the Romans outlawed the celebrations. This is hardly a likely candidate to have inspired Jewish emulation in Palestine . . . .
What about the other candidate, the Egyptian myth of Osiris? Are there similarities between the resurrection elements of the Osiris story and the resurrection accounts of Jesus? As with the Dionysus myth, the similarities prove to be superficial. Osiris was a man-god who was killed and who had various parts of his body reconstituted by his mother, Isis. Thanks to her he is able to lead a replica life in the underworld and reign over the dead there.7 Osiris is always portrayed in mummified form,8 and thus provides little inspiration for a bodily resurrection from the dead with a glorified body.
Significantly . . . these two myths (and the rest of these mythical "resurrection" stories) provide no historical details. They are set somewhere in the distant past and have very fanciful features. Granted, the resurrection of the gospels certainly isn’t normal, but the events are reported there as sober history with minute historical detail, setting these accounts apart from other so-called resurrection stories.
4. Paul never believed that Jesus was a physical human being, but that his crucifixion and resurrection took place in some other dimension. This is proved because Paul never quotes Jesus or talks about Jesus’ early life. The Biblical letters of Paul are written to established churches—people who had already heard and accepted the biographical details of Jesus’ life. Paul’s letters are not meant to introduce Christ to a new audience, and so understandably don’t reiterate the stories of the Gospels. Paul does, however, clearly teach an historic Jesus. Here are just a few of the references Paul makes to the humanity of Jesus:
- Romans 5:15, Paul refers to Jesus as a man like Adam — not a mythical being.
- 2 Corinthians 5:14, 11:2, 1 Timothy 2:5 and Philippians 2:7 also refer to Christ Jesus as a man.
- Galatians 1:19, Paul mentions meeting Jesus’ brother James in Jerusalem—proving Jesus’ humanity because He had an earthly, physical family.
- I Corinthians 15:5-6, Paul reports that after the resurrection, Jesus appeared to Peter (Cephas), the 12 (the 11 apostles and Matthias, whom they chose to replace Judas) and 500 witnesses, many of whom were still alive at the time of his writing.
- I Thessalonians 2:15, the same people who killed Jesus and the prophets persecuted "us," according to Paul. Paul obviously didn’t inhabit a mythical realm.
- Acts 20:35, Paul does quote Jesus as saying "It is more blessed to give than to receive." Interestingly, this statement doesn’t appear in any of the four Gospels.
The idea that Jesus didn’t come to earth with a physical body isn’t new. Here’s what the apostle John said about it in the first century: "Many people who deceive others have gone into the world. They refuse to declare that Jesus Christ came in flesh and blood. This is the mark of a deceiver and an antichrist" (2 John 1:7).
5. Hebrews 8:4 is a "smoking gun" that proves that Paul believed Jesus was never physically present on Earth. Fleming misquotes Hebrews 8:4 ("If Jesus had been on Earth . . .") to prove that Paul believed that Jesus lived and died in some other realm, not on Earth. First, we should note that scholars are divided in their opinion of the authorship of Hebrews—it may not have been written by Paul. Second, I checked 19 different versions of the Bible trying to find the translation Fleming cited, but to no avail. All the versions I found translated the verse the same way, "If Jesus were here on Earth . . . ." Finally, I consulted with a professor of Greek, who found no basis for translating the verse "had been" instead of "were." Here’s the verse in context:
Heb 8:1 What I mean is that we have a high priest who sits at the right side of God’s great throne in heaven. 2 He also serves as the priest in the most holy place inside the real tent there in heaven. This tent of worship was set up by the Lord, not by humans. 3 Since all priests must offer gifts and sacrifices, Christ also needed to have something to offer. 4 If he were here on earth, he would not be a priest at all, because here the Law appoints other priests to offer sacrifices. 5 But the tent where they serve is just a copy and a shadow of the real one in heaven. Before Moses made the tent, he was told, "Be sure to make it exactly like the pattern you were shown on the mountain!" 6 Now Christ has been appointed to serve as a priest in a much better way, and he has given us much assurance of a better agreement.
Clearly, the point of the verse is to say "If Jesus were [presently here] on Earth [instead of in heaven]" and not "If Jesus had [ever] been on Earth" as Fleming leads us to believe.
A few final points
Scattered through the movie are statements that someone should probably take issue with in a more comprehensive review. For example, Fleming’s statement that Christians are commanded to kill homosexuals (true of the Jews under the Old Testament theocracy, but not of Christians under the New Testament), that all the Gospel accounts were derived from Mark (the synoptic Gospels are similar, but John is vastly different and was obviously written independently), and that contemporary Christians are largely ignorant of the origin of their religion, (which really means that most haven’t heard Fleming’s version of the origin of Christianity), are among other misleading assertions. I won’t take time in this review to discuss every bizarre idea he presents.
One of Fleming’s comments with merit, however, is the following observation:
". . . what the ____ 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."
I couldn’t agree more.
Finally, please don’t buy the movie because this article peaked your curiosity. I thought long and hard about not writing this piece so as not to give the movie any free publicity. In the end, we chose to publish so that so that people who had seen the film and wondered about the questions it raised could find a simple defense of the faith and so that our readers might have a synopsis of the teaching of the movie without actually viewing the film. Trust me, you aren’t missing anything good.
1Fleming, quoted in "Controversial filmmaker asks if Jesus really lived," The Kansas City Star, Monday, November 7, page D7
2Of course, I disagree that anyone can be born again more than once, or that once really born again, one can lose salvation. I assume, sadly, that Fleming probably never experienced saving faith at all. You can read more about the distinction between professed and actual faith in the book Wasted Faith by Jim Elliff, available at www.ccwtoday.org .
3 Pichas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective, 40-41, cited in Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson, He Walked Among Us (Nashville: Nelson) 1993, c1988), 175-176.
4 The only element even remotely like a resurrection is one line in a fragmentary text showing Tammuz’ sister taking his place for half the year.
5 The data in this paragraph come from Edwin M. Yamauchi, article in Christianity Today, March 15 and March 29, 1974, accessed on 12/14/01 at: http://www.leaderu.com/everystudent/easter/articles/yama.html
6 Another example is Mithra, a god of the Roman empire, whose "resurrection" evolved after the 1st century. E.g., see Ronald Nash, Christianity and the Hellenistic Word, 176
7 Roland de Vaux, The Bible and the Ancient Near East (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1972, c1967), 236.
8 Yamauchi, Christianity Today, March 15 and 29, 1974.