In his film "The God Who Wasn't There," Brian Flemming questions the existence of Jesus Christ, arguing that the biblical Jesus is a myth, a legend based on allegorical stories that were never supposed to be seen as historical accounts. It's a provocative claim but not without precedent. Many scholars have questioned the historicity of the Jesus story, although it remains central to Christian beliefs.
Flemming, who now considers himself an atheist, lays out his case in interviews with academics and in conversations with believers outside a Billy Graham rally. He also returns to the evangelical school he attended in Southern California for a confrontational interview with the headmaster.
The film has been criticized by conservative Christian groups like Focus on the Family, which has taken issue with its scholarship, and praised by religious skeptics as an antidote to blind faith. Following a limited theatrical run, "The God Who Wasn't There" has been screening at venues around the country, including many showings sponsored by atheist groups. The DVD went on sale in stores Jan. 31. I spoke with Flemming by phone from his office in Los Angeles.
Why did you make this movie?
I was looking into the theory that Jesus Christ never existed--actually from the perspective that it probably was not true, that Jesus probably did exist. I was interested in understanding why people would believe that he didn't--because I've always had sort of a fascination with crackpot theories. And the more I looked into it, the more I realized that the true crackpot theory was the idea that the history of Jesus has somehow been passed accurately down to us 2,000 years later.
What's the main evidence, as you see it, that the biblical Jesus did not exist?
It's more a matter of demonstrating a positive than a negative, and the positive is that early Christians appeared not to have believed in a historical Jesus. If the very first Christians appear to believe in a mythical Christ, and only later did "historical" details get added bit by bit, that is not consistent with the real man actually existing.
So you're saying that the story of Jesus is a myth, a figment of our imagination?
I would say that he is a myth in the same way that many other characters people believed actually existed. Like William Tell is most likely a myth, according to many folklorists and many historians. Of course, [Jesus] is a very important myth. I think that he was invented a long time ago, and those stories have been passed on as if they are true.
Where do you believe the story of Jesus actually comes from?
Specific elements of the Jesus story are derived from a variety of sources. Most of them are from the Old Testament, and most of them are probably invented by people who never thought that people would take what they were writing as serious history.
They were doing what's called midrash (biblical interpretation)--they would meditate upon these Old Testament Scriptures and out of the details created this mythical Messiah. This, of course, is the reason that so many Christians say, "Well, Jesus fulfilled prophecy in the Old Testament." Of course he did. He was invented consciously out of the Scriptures in the Old Testament.
To many Christians, what you're claiming is pure blasphemy. Some of them are probably wondering, "Where do you get off?"
There are all sort of things that religious people believe and consider to be sacred, claims that have no relationship whatsoever to the truth. In fact, it's rather obvious that religions have competing claims to the truth. And what one religion considers sacred is contradictory to what another religion considers sacred. Obviously, one of them has to be wrong.
What kind of reactions are you getting from Christians?
A lot of them are angry that the film was made. The subtext of a lot of their criticism, which I find telling, is that even if it's true you shouldn't make this film. Of course, I'm a former Christian and I think for some people viewing the film there's a sense of betrayal about my having made it.
Tell me about your upbringing as a Christian. Were your parents strict with you about religion?
My parents were Methodists, and they were believing Christians, but I didn't have the sort of apocalyptic doctrine pounded into me at home. It was really this school that I went to that was the source of the fundamentalist Christian doctrine that infected my head.