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.
There's a scene in the film where you return to that school and confront the headmaster. Was that a cathartic moment for you?
Sure, but it's not like I hated the school while I was going there. The thing about Christianity is that when you are in the grip of it, you think it's true. You think you really are a horrible person because you have ideas about sex. You think that everything about yourself is confirming that you are this horrible sinner who needs redemption all the time. But you don't really blame the institution. You think they are just telling you the truth.
At what point did you realize you were an atheist?
I kind of realized it gradually. At first it was like, OK, clearly fundamentalist Christianity is wrong, but Christianity is probably right. Then the more I actually thought about it, the more I deduced my way to atheism.
What does being an atheist mean to you?
To me, an atheist is someone who has looked at the argument for God and found it extremely wanting. I consider the chance that God exists to be vanishingly small, to the point where it's not worth thinking about.
Have you ever had any spiritual feelings?
I think "spiritual" is a word with so many definitions that it's almost useless. I don't really know what people mean by it. If they mean, "Do I believe in supernatural forces that are affecting our world?"--then the answer is that I haven't seen any evidence for it yet.
But if they mean, "Do you believe that humanity can create its own set of morals and can lift itself up to a better state than it's in right now?"--the answer is yes! I do believe in that. I believe in humanity, not in some sort of magical book that's going to tell us how to do that.
Where does your sense of morality come from, now that you're no longer religious?
My sense of morality comes from the place it always has: It comes from me. I think that humans have always been the best source of morality. I mean, even laws that we consider biblical didn't come from any God. They came from humans inventing those laws, and over time, we humans have just tried to decide which of those laws are moral and which aren't.
Even if what you are saying is true about the Bible not being the literal truth, it's still a powerful story. On what basis do you reject the ideas and values of Christianity? Or do they still make sense to you?
I'm not saying that everything Jesus said about how to live one's life is suddenly a bad thing. All I'm saying is that he doesn't exist, and it would be a healthy thing for Christians to look at the Bible as a work of fiction from which they can take inspiration rather than, you know, the authoritative word of God.
That's an extremely critical difference. It can mean the difference between nations going to war and nations not going to war. If you can see your literature as fictional, written by men who had some good ideas and some bad ones too, then I think we'll start getting along much better with the rest of the world.
How does your family feel about your coming out as an atheist and your decision to make this film?
My parents are OK with the fact that I'm an atheist. They kind of wish I hadn't made the film, though. I have a great relationship with my parents, and this film hasn't changed that in any way. But we pretty much avoid talking about the ideas contained in the film when we are together.
Do you really think this film will change anyone's minds?
I know for a fact that the ideas in the film shake the confidence of believing Christians who haven't researched their own religion, and that's a big group of people. Many of them of have written to me and said so. Now, whether they will go back to believing what they believed, I don't know. But I do know it's done some damage to their faith, which I see as a positive thing.