The God Who Wasn’t There

Was Jesus Christ the son of god? Is there evidence that he even existed at all? Should Christianity be viewed as a dangerous belief? In The God Who Wasn’t There, director Brian Flemming attempts to answer these questions and more. Released to DVD in 2005, the film primarily argues against an historical Jesus with the help of many skeptics like philosopher and historian Richard Carrier, Professor of Biblical Criticism Robert M. Price, and anthropologist and folklorist Alan Dundes. Teaming up with the atheist group known as The Rational Response Squad, Flemming offered free copies of the DVD to the first 1,001 participants in the Blasphemy Challenge. Although it generated plenty of controversy and attention, The God Who Wasn’t There is not so noteworthy for its critique of Christianity.

I. Setting Up the Story

The film begins with a reference to the geocentrist (Earth-centered solar system) view held by many until the time of Copernicus and Galileo. Flemming uses this example to ask, ‘what else has Christianity been wrong about?’ Already this exposes one persistent problem in the documentary, that is the absence of a distinction between different strains of the religion. Following the remark on geocentrism, interview clips with random people on the street are shown, as they are questioned on the identity of Jesus and their beliefs about him. However, as I later discovered, these individuals were not randomly selected, but were all attending a Billy Graham crusade. Billy Graham is an American evangelical preacher, and although his ministry is no small organization, the types of believers attending his seminars are likely those who agree with his views, meaning that this is a fairly specific sampling of laypeople Flemming has chosen to interview. This may seem like a minor issue to be raising, but it will become the backdrop for some big assumptions and mistakes made later in the video.

After interviewing probable fundamentalists attending a fundamentalist crusade, Flemming notes that there are other faces of Christianity which don’t seem so friendly or happy, as he proceeds to cite more reputable fundamentalists like Pat Robertson and the authors of the Left Behind book series. This is misleading for a number of reasons, not least because the homicidal maniac Charles Manson is listed among bible-believing Christians, and the caption for the Left Behind authors suggests that they “look forward” to non-Christians burning eternally in a lake of fire, tying their books into apocalyptic cults that set themselves ablaze. Certainly there have been Christians who have murdered others, and there are some who would rejoice at the coming terror of armageddon, but Flemming’s ‘mixed bag’ of believers is filled only with weak associations and a very narrow selection group.

II. The Evidence That Isn’t There

For the next five or six minutes of the film, we are given a brief synopsis of the traditional Jesus story, from birth to death and resurrection. Jesus is thought to have lived in the first three decades of the first century, it is noted, and yet the gospels were not written until approximately 70 CE, almost forty years after Jesus’ death. In this gap are the writings of Paul, a man who only met Christ in a purported vision, as Flemming explains. From here, the film begins to set up its argument against the historicity of Jesus, stating that Paul is silent on much of the story presented in the gospels, save for the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. While this is true, Flemming takes it to mean that Paul’s Jesus was never a real person, but rather a spiritual being. But why should this imply the non-existence of Jesus, when Paul’s absence of detail could just as easily be due to the fact that, as stated, he never met the man while he (Christ) lived, and so had little, or none, of that knowledge to relate? The film also fails to address Galatians 1:19, where Paul writes that he met “James, the Lord’s brother,” not in a vision, but in the city of Jerusalem. How would one meet the brother of someone who supposedly did not exist?

Until recently, I had considered myself in the same camp as many of these Jesus skeptics, but interestingly, it was learning about James that persuaded me to conclude that there was more than likely an historical Jesus. The biblical scholar Robert Eisenman covers the overwhelming amount of evidence we have for James in his book, James the Brother of Jesus, suffice it to say that if James was probably an historical person, it follows that Jesus probably was too. Yet not only does The God Who Wasn’t There say nothing of these connections, but it also says nothing of extrabiblical sources like Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny, and so on. I still regard such sources to be generally unreliable and unusable as evidence for an historical Jesus (most comment on the beliefs of the early Christians, rather than a historical figure, and there’s little evidence the accounts are independent of each other), but not even addressing them at all in a documentary on the question of Christ’s existence is hardly excusable and makes it seem as if the producers did not do their research. Then to make matters worse, we are presented with a suspicious quote:

If Jesus had been on Earth, he would not even have been a priest. -Hebrews 8:4

First of all, this passage is introduced along with a comment about Paul’s Jesus dying, rising, and ascending “all in a mythical realm.” Although some believers once thought the book of Hebrews was written by Paul, the text contains no mention of its author, which is unlike all of Paul’s other writings, and biblical scholars today widely reject Paul’s authorship of Hebrews.1 So whoever the author may have been, this verse cannot support the idea that Paul believed only in a non-physical Christ. Secondly, this quote varies from the one found in virtually all bible translations. The NIV, NAS, ESV, NLT, and even KJV all read something similar to, “if he were on earth, he would not be a priest,” which gives a very different impression. For the author of Hebrews, Jesus had already ascended into heaven, and thus he was no longer on Earth. As the context reads, Jesus had to ascend to heaven in order to fulfill his duty as high priest, because that is where the true sanctuary is, and because there are already priests here on Earth who sacrifice according to the Hebrew law. The passage does not imply that Jesus never existed.

Wrapping up the arguments for a mythical Jesus, Flemming turns to folklorist Alan Dundes, who puts Christ to the ‘hero aptitude test,’ as I will call it, evaluating him by standard motifs used with literary heroes. Out of a possible 22 points, Jesus scores 19, placing him 3rd on a list of ten, beneath Oedipus and Theseus. However, it deserves to be pointed out that mythologizing elements do not necessarily indicate that a character is completely fictional. At most, they may indicate that certain narratives or events surrounding the character may be fictional. Jesus probably was not born of a virgin, he probably never healed anyone, and he probably did not rise from the dead, but realizing this tells us nothing about whether or not he existed at all. These mythical devices were also applied to messianic contemporaries of Jesus whose existence is not in dispute, such as Apollonius of Tyana.

Lastly, we are provided a list of similarities to Jesus among ‘previous saviors’. No direct sources are given though, only names of characters and the attributes they share. This would be problematic enough, but the first attribute listed is the virgin birth on December 25th. Most Christians do not recognize December 25th as the actual birthdate of Jesus – even Lee Strobel knows the true origin of the holiday is pagan2 – but rather as a celebration of his birth, whenever it may have been. There is also a lot of debate on the virgin birth among various believers and various denominations, and other similarities like casting out demons, healing the sick, and performing miracles were common enough in the ancient world that it may not demonstrate pagan origins anymore than a simple uniformity of imagination in that time period. I would agree that there are pagan elements that have been incorporated into Christianity, but, again, this does not mean total fabrication of the Jesus character.

III. Christianity: A Dangerous Faith?

Halfway through the film, the focus shifts to the dangers posed by Christianity and its followers. Mel Gibson’s blockbuster gorefest, The Passion of the Christ, is one major subject of discussion for Flemming, who notes the intense violence of the movie, combined with its widespread popularity, as evidence that Christians are still obsessed with death, blood, and torture. Once again, the director seems to view all Christians through one microscopic lens, usually peering at Evangelicals and other fundamentalists. I was a believer when The Passion of the Christ was released, and I distinctly remember fellow Christians saying they would not see the movie because of its disturbing nature. Some of these were big fans of zombie horror films, and so the issue for them was not the graphic violence being unbearable to watch, but the theme of the movie revolving more around the death of Christ than the significance of his resurrection. Additionally, the popularity of Gibson’s film does not entirely inform us of the reasons why people chose to see it or how they mentally processed it, though Flemming’s observations here are not likely devoid of truth.

Flemming goes on to observe that god is not a moderate, according to the bible. Although moderate Christians would probably reject portions of the bible used to make the case, claiming that those are the parts written by fallible men, it is fair to raise the question of how a good and perfect god could allow its message to become corrupted in the first place. Just how these moderates determine what is literal and what is metaphor, what is god-inspired and what is man-inspired, is also a question worth raising. Another excellent point is made about the Inquisition being an expression of Christian doctrine, rather than a perversion of it. If the bible is the word of god, and god commands the death of homosexuals (Leviticus 20:13), the death of witches (Exodus 22:18), and the death of anyone who does not worship him (Deuteronomy 13:6-9), then how did the Inquisition distort what god plainly decreed? Only if one rejects the divine inspiration of the bible can those passages be ignored without committing the fallacy of special pleading.

Another aspect of Christianity that Flemming considers dangerous is the belief in an imminent apocalypse. Atheist author Sam Harris claims that 44% of Americans believe that Jesus will either certainly come back within their own lifetime or probably come back in their lifetime. When some of these 44% are politicians aiming for a seat in the House Energy Committee, who believe global warming is not a threat because ‘God promised Noah’ that the earth would not be destroyed,3 or members of the House who warn of the downfall of the United States if we fail to stand with Israel,4 there is certainly some cause for concern. Unfortunately, Flemming doesn’t give us such practical examples, instead he interviews a man who created a website to send letters to unbelievers after the rapture, and he utilizes clips of foaming-at-the-mouth fundamentalist preachers from the 1970s. There are good examples of the dangerous potential of Christianity, especially the brand that happily sees the endtimes right around the corner, but The God Who Wasn’t There seems to feature the weakest, most superficially connected examples.

IV. A Weak Note to End On

In the final twenty minutes of the film, director Brian Flemming revisits his old religious private school, Village Christian. But first, we are given a small glimpse into his former faith. Not surprisingly, Flemming was a fundamentalist, which could partially explain the lack of any distinction between the various sects of Christianity in the film. The God Who Wasn’t There is a critique of what Flemming knows best: his own ex-fundamentalism, where hell is a literal place, Jesus is the son of god, and blaspheming the Holy Spirit is an unforgivable sin. Yet Flemming doesn’t seem to understand what blaspheming the spirit actually takes, as he interprets it to simply mean denying the spirit’s existence, which is not the case. We find the passage in the gospel of Mark:

And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”

So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”

-Mark 3:22-29

Most Christians understand the unpardonable sin as attributing something to Satan that is actually the work of god. This is seen clearly in the context of this passage, where after the teachers of the law accuse Jesus of working on behalf of Satan, Jesus repudiates them and gives the warning against blaspheming the spirit, just as these teachers were doing. As a former fundamentalist myself, it is misunderstandings like these in Flemming’s film that make me wonder about his motives and the research he conducted (or neglected to).

I found Flemming’s interview with the principal of Village Christian School uncomfortable to watch as well. Instead of taking his ideas and questions to a reputable Christian scholar or apologist for a serious debate, he goes after some private school principal who only has a Ph.D in Higher & Adult Education. Like Lee Strobel seems to select only interviewees with a bias toward Christianity, Flemming seems to steer clear of knowledgeable opponents too, preferring those who will help his presentation of all Christians as bloodthirsty and ignorant fundamentalists amassing troops to take over America. After answering several questions, the school’s principal eventually claims to have been misled as to the subject of the interview and abruptly ends it by walking off camera. The God Who Wasn’t There concludes with Flemming denying the Holy Spirit in the chapel he used to attend as a believer, followed by text that reads, “I am not afraid.”

To say the least, the last one-fifth of the film is mostly a waste of misinformation and fairly pointless questions directed at someone who may not even have been prepared for them. The juvenile way in which Flemming ends the documentary (if one can call it that by now) sums up the whole project perfectly. This is not a thorough investigation of Christianity or an informed critique of it, it is one man’s way of rebelling against the environment he was raised in, years later.

V. Final Thoughts

Perhaps the best thing about The God Who Wasn’t There would be the interviews with Richard Carrier, Robert M. Price, Sam Harris, and Alan Dundes. All four contribute thought-provoking responses and questions of their own, and yet one may also feel a bit shortchanged. In contrast to their written works and appearances in other videos, their performances here seem lackluster. Maybe it’s because the film is an amateur production, or maybe it’s just generally difficult to cover some of the heavy subjects of the speakers’ expertise in an hour long movie, but whatever the reason, the interview clips are likely to leave you feeling unsatisfied and wanting more. If Flemming had sought out worthwhile opposing figures and played some back and forth with their interview statements, a far more interesting and stimulating documentary would have resulted.

A few additional complaints could be lodged against the frequent use of DJ mix music and the numerous clips of 1970s fundamentalism (face it, Flemming, the days of massive book burnings and the 700 Club are quite a ways behind us now). It is admittedly interesting to hear some of the stories related by the Snopes founders, but they don’t really serve to bolster the film’s case for the Christ myth, which suffers from several fatal flaws, as already shown. Were it not for the complete absence of discussion on the extrabiblical evidence, The God Who Wasn’t There could at least make a decent case for the flimsiness of the historical Jesus. As it is, though, this film will not be persuasive to any Christians who have done the slightest research into the issues, and it will probably drive away even the uninformed believers with its mocking tone. Skeptics seeking a hard-hitting critique of Christianity will also be disappointed in what they find here.

 

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Sources:
1. Guthrie, D. (1976) New Testament Introduction. p.688. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press.
2. Strobel, L. (2005) The Case for Christmas. p.20. Zondervan: Grand Rapids.
3. Anonymous. (2010) ‘The planet won’t be destroyed by global warming because God promised Noah,’... Mail Online. Retrieved Dec. 8, 2010.
4. Birkey, A. (2010) Bachmann: America ‘cursed’ by God ‘if we reject Israel’. The Minnesota Independent. Retrieved Dec. 8, 2010.