Four Reasons Why The World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (4 of 8)

In my previous three posts, I’ve shared the events leading up to and occurring the evening of the historic debate on God’s existence between Dr. Antony Flew and Dr. William Lane Craig. But what happened after the debate is the real story—a story that has not yet been told. The time has come to tell the story.

 

My Conversation with Dr. Craig After The Debate

I drove Dr. Craig back to his hotel after the debate. We had a lively conversation about the events of the evening, sharing our observations and insights. One thing he and I discussed was Flew’s lackluster performance during the debate. We were both surprised—actually shocked—by this. What might have been the cause?

I knew Flew was not tired (contrary to what some atheists later argued). He had arrived in the States a few days earlier, and had plenty of time to get the rest needed to be at his best. I also knew he had access to Craig’s essential writings so that he could prepare well for the debate. When Flew first took the podium, there was a problem with his microphone, but that was corrected quickly and was not the type of thing that would distract a world-class thinker like Flew. What else might explain why, from the debate’s outset, Flew struggled to develop cogent arguments in response to Craig?

Neither Dr. Craig nor I could be sure, but I had a suspicion. I first remember wondering about this when Flew argued in the debate that

If [God, as an omnipotent being] wanted people to behave in a certain way, …why didn’t he make them that way?...[B]ut apparently the god whom Dr. Craig is asking us to believe is the Creator, very much wants people to believe in a certain way,  [but can not cause them to do so and thus avoid Hell]…Omnipotence could avoid all this by simply making them creatures such that they would choose to obey him….This is an argument which I think may give Dr. Craig pause.  (At 37:48ff of the debate as recorded here).

Flew develops this argument more at (1:00:05ff). “The omnipotent God could be able to make people such that they would freely choose [to follow him].” Since he could, but doesn't (resulting in their eternal condemnation), God must not really be omnipotent (he is not able to cause people to believe in him), or God is not really loving (though he could cause people to believe, he doesn't love people enough to do so), or God is not really just (though he loves people and could cause them to believe, he doesn't understand this is the most just thing to do so they avoid Hell). In any of these cases, this type of God is not worth believing in. 

He argued this is the biblical view, supported by Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Romans 9, and Craig. He didn't believe Craig could offer an adequate response that maintained all these attributes of God (his love, justice, and omnipotence). I was shocked Flew offered this line of argument. The view that God can cause people to “freely” choose him is known as soft determinism. It is the view of human freedom employed in the Calvinist view of salvation.

However, this is not Craig’s perspective.  He has written much explaining his view: God created people with absolute freedom (technically known as “libertarian” freedom, as opposed to soft determinism), and therefore even God Himself cannot cause a person to make a free choice to believe. As Craig said in his response during the debate:

Omnipotence does not mean that God can do things that are logically impossible. But it is logically impossible to make someone freely do something. Libertarian freedom entails freedom from causal restraints. And therefore if we are truly free and God has willed to create free creatures, then he cannot guarantee how free creatures will choose…Even an omnipotent being cannot make someone freely do something. (42:14ff)

Why did Flew raise this objection against “the God of Dr. Craig,”, when in his writings Craig clearly states this is not his view of God’s omnipotence or human freedom?

I had a hunch. In the 1990s there were many apologists speaking and debating in the U.S. However, most did not have advanced academic training, and as a result their arguments were not very nuanced. They provided a valuable service to the body of Christ and were quite effective among those not academically trained. Yet these apologists had little credibility among scholars. For instance, I had a conversation with a philosophy professor after one very well known Christian apologist spoke at an Ivy League university. This professor observed, “I would give a student a C+ if he offered an argument like that in my class.”

My hunch was that Flew had heard Craig was an apologist, and so may have assumed Craig’s level of argumentation was the same as other well-known apologists of the time. If this was his assumption, he would not have been inclined to give Craig’s writings a serious read.

But Craig was no typical apologist. He had two earned doctorates (one in theology and one in philosophy). He was committed to the highest level of rigor in his scholarship, being extremely careful to support each premise of his arguments and show how his conclusions followed from these premises. As a result, his writing and debating was done at a much higher level than most other apologists of the late 1990s.

So if Flew failed to study Craig’s publications before the debate, the precision, detail, and logical rigor of Craig’s opening comments would have rattled him. This would explain how unnerved Flew seems to be throughout the remainder of the debate. Of course, this is just conjecture. But it does seem to make sense of the facts. As Dr. Craig and I drove back to his hotel I offered this as a possible explanation of Flew’s performance, and this speculation fueled a lively discussion.

 

Dr. Murray’s Conversation with Dr. Flew After The Debate

As Dr. Murray drove Dr. Flew back to his hotel after the debate, they had an even more interesting conversation. In a show of Flew’s honesty, he said, “I’m not sure I followed Dr. Craig’s reasoning concerning the design argument. Do you think I responded well?” This was a point in the debate that Flew had clearly misunderstood Craig’s argument, and therefore did not see how strongly his conclusion—that God exists—followed. (This is another indication that he had not read Craig’s publications carefully before the debate, where Craig develops this argument in depth.)

This was a shocking admission by Flew. The only way to explain it was Flew’s commitment to treating evidence fairly and honestly. It seemed he realized that Craig may have offered a valuable argument, and he wanted to do it justice. Flew worried he had failed to do so in this case. Such is the mark of “a gentleman and a scholar” who is committed to following the evidence wherever it leads.

Dr. Murray understood well the argument Craig had offered and was able to explain, in some detail, the nuances of the reasoning. Flew listened quietly and intently. After thinking to himself for some time, he said something absolutely astounding. Flew’s next words were, “Well, I think he may be right. That argument may show that God does exist. I may need to rethink my position.”

What? The world’s leading, most decorated, best-published atheist, spokesperson for atheism for a generation, was now conceding that there may be a good reason to believe God exists! Could this be? Yes, it could, and was in fact what Flew began to wonder. The events of this fateful evening were pivotal in Flew’s journey toward belief.

 

The Ripple Effects

It was clear to all in attendance that Craig had won the debate. The University of Wisconsin campus paper’s headline the next morning read “Atheist Stumbles in Debate.” Newspapers from around the country picked up the story, agreed that Craig won the debate, and tried to explain how this could be. The conversations that resulted were fascinating—in the student union, local coffee shops, faculty offices, and in the press. The initial goal of the debate—to make the question of God’s existence a live one—was accomplished at the University of Wisconsin, and beyond!

But an even more significant result occurred over the next two years. Flew continued to re-think his atheism. He had ongoing conversations with some Christian philosophers he had debated and with whom he had become friends, including Dr. Craig, Dr. Gary Habermas, Dr. Terry Miethe, and Dr. Doug Geivett. He also developed a deep friendship with theologian N. T. Wright. Flew continued to discuss the evidence for God’s existence, and the gospel itself, with these men.

Almost two years later I received two personal letters from Flew that took my breath away. In these letters he shared more of what he was coming to believe about God. It is more than he ever said publicly, and provides a clearer picture of his change of mind.

I’ll share what he said in these letters in my next post. Until then, grace and peace.