Four Reasons Why The World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (5 of 8)

“That argument may show that God does exist. I may need to rethink my position.” Dr. Antony Flew had just finished debating Dr. William Lane Craig on the topic Does God Exist? After the debate, as he reflected on Craig’s arguments, Flew began to change his mind. Almost two years later I received two personal letters from Flew in which he shared more of his developing beliefs about God. What I read took my breath away. It was the publication of the debate that led to my receiving these letters.

 

Securing a Publisher

Before the debate, several academic presses had contacted me with interest in publishing the exchange. After the debate, these conversations began in earnest, and after some negotiations, I signed a contract with the Ashgate Publishing Company, an academic publisher in the U.K.

We agreed on doing a book containing the debate, but also continuing the discussion. The book would begin with an introduction that oriented the reader to the issue of God’s existence. The next chapter would be the transcript of the debate. Following this would be eight chapters containing responses to the debate. Four responses would be written by leading atheists and four by prominent theists. Flew and Craig would then write the two final chapters, responding to the atheists’ and theists’ comments.

In this way the book would make the debate a larger, ongoing conversation among a larger group of scholars. I would serve as editor of the book, identifying and securing the additional contributors, and then working with them and the debaters to mold each chapter into final form.

 

Preparing the Manuscript

I immediately went to work once we signed the contract. First was securing scholars to write the various chapters for the book. Dr. Keith Yandell, who had moderated the debate, was the best person to write the introduction. I was thrilled when he readily agreed to do so. I then invited other leading philosophers engaged in scholarship on the topic of God’s existence to contribute chapters. They all eagerly agreed to write a chapter responding to the debate.

I also went to work preparing the transcript of the debate for their responses. Editing the transcript was more difficult than may first appear. I believe the evidence for God’s existence can stand up against the strongest counter-arguments atheists have to offer. I wanted the book to reflect this. Therefore both Craig and Flew’s arguments needed to be presented as forcefully as possible.

Craig’s comments during the debate needed little editing. His arguments were clear and cogent. On the other hand, while Flew offered a number of important counter-arguments, they seemed disjointed and were not made as forcefully as possible. Therefore his comments required substantial editing to finalize the transcript of the debate.

It took about a year of editing to craft the debate into a publishable form that was still true to the spirit of the debate and lines of argument offered by Flew. For each change I wished to make, I was required to obtain written approval from both Flew and Craig, per the contract we signed the morning of the debate. This was a lengthy process, requiring (postal) mailing each section of suggested edits to both Craig and Flew, and awaiting their replies. Throughout this long process, both Flew and Craig were very cordial, agreeing to nearly all of the editorial changes suggested, and a number of times suggesting much better edits.

I have no regrets about this time-consuming editorial process. As a result, Flew sent me many personal letters, which are valuable for at least two reasons. First, they confirm, in his own handwriting, that he agreed to the many changes made to the transcript. If someone ever questions these changes, Flew’s letters will unequivocally confirm he agreed to these edits.

Secondly, in many of Flew’s handwritten letters he shared very personal things with me. As we continued to work together on the book, we became somewhat close, and in his correspondence, he often shared what he was thinking and how he was feeling about many issues. I count it one of the greatest honors and privileges of my life to have been a friend and confidant to Dr. Flew during this season of his life. I’ll say more about the content of a few of these letters shortly.

By the summer of 1999, the edits to the debate transcript were complete and I sent it to the eight respondents. Over the next year, I received their drafts, edited their chapters, and received their agreements to final edits. In the fall of 2000, most of the book was complete (the introduction, the debate transcript, and the eight chapters in response).

All that remained were final chapters by Flew and Craig, responding to the chapters written in response to the debate. I mailed these responses off to Craig and Flew and expectantly awaited their replies. Dr. Craig quickly returned a summary chapter, substantially interacting with the issues raised by the respondents. All that remained was Flew’s final chapter.

 

Flew’s Revelation in His Letters of December 2000

Several months went by and I had still not received a response from Flew. Finally, I received a handwritten letter from him on December 8, 2000. What he wrote left me utterly and completely speechless. I read the letter again to be sure I had understood Flew correctly. He wrote:

I recently began seriously to think about my own final contribution, which would have been substantially different from anything which I said in Madison. In particular I have found reason to think that an argument to Design does have substantial force.

This explained the delay in him writing his final chapter. For over fifty years he had championed atheism, which brought him great academic success and notoriety. During the debate, he had been adamant that the idea of God’s existence was preposterous and the design argument was unsuccessful in showing God exists. However, following his debate with Craig he began to rethink his position (see my previous post). In the two and a half years between the debate and my request for his final chapter, he had “followed the evidence where it leads.” He could no longer write a chapter defending the atheism he had championed for so many decades and during the debate!

A few weeks later I learned just how much his thinking had progressed since the debate. On December 29, 2000, I received another letter from Flew, filling in more of the details. He wrote:

I want you to know that I very much want to have a chance to write at least 3500 words in conclusion. My reason is … that I have been forced by some fresh evidence and arguments to conclude that it is possible and even likely that the Universe may actually be the creation of the infinitely appalling and terrifying God of Islam and traditional Christianity.

The design argument had convinced him that a deity exists who created the universe. Yet it does not show that this deity interacts with creation after it is brought into existence. This is “Aristotle’s god”—the god of Deism. The public record is of Flew’s conversion to belief in this type of god—a conversion to Deism.

Yet in his December 29 letter Flew revealed to me the evidence was leading him to consider belief in much more than the god of Deism. He had come to believe it was “likely” that the personal God of Islam and Christianity exists!* This conclusion was a much more astonishing revelation than anything he said before or after in print.

His use of the adjectives “appalling” and “terrifying” in his letter to me is also important. The reason Flew became an atheist early in life was because he could not reconcile the existence of God with the reality of evil. (See his There is A God, Chapter 1: “The Creation of an Atheist”). One example always on his mind was how an omnipotent God could allow people to experience Hell (he raises this in the debate with Craig several times, first here at 30:15ff—note how animated he gets when talking about this). He did not want this type of God to exist. Such a God was “infinitely appalling and terrifying.” (I believe his understanding of omnipotence and human freedom—which creates this concern for Flew—is flawed. As I mentioned last week, Craig points this out in the debate at 42:14ff.)

Though he did not want this type of God to exist, he was committed to following the evidence wherever it leads, including to such an “appalling and terrifying” personal God. His letter reminded me of the process of conversion C.S. Lewis went through. (Interestingly, Flew had known Lewis, as they were both at Oxford during the same period.) Lewis writes of how he came to his belief in God “kicking and screaming” (see Lewis’ Surprised by Joy for the full account). Lewis, like Flew, didn’t want a personal God, who is involved with His creation, to exist. But they were both committed to believing what was most reasonable, and the evidence points toward the existence of such a personal God.

Upon reading Dr. Flew’s letter, I was again impressed with his honesty, intellectual integrity, and sincere desire to know the truth, no matter what it turns out to be. Admitting the possibility that we could be wrong is difficult for any of us, but imagine how much more difficult for someone who is the world’s leading proponent of a particular view who had given fifty years of his professional life to its defense. Even to be open to being wrong, much less coming to conclude he was wrong, took remarkable courage and character.

I immediately sent Flew a reply, letting him know I was thrilled to hear of his recent change of mind, and saying I was waiting with great anticipation the arrival of his final chapter. Within a few months, Flew’s chapter arrived. After several rounds of editing, it was complete. In the chapter he was not quite ready to share publically about his change of mind, as he had done in his letters to me. However, in these concluding remarks, he hints at his changing thoughts on the existence and nature of God.

 

Flew Goes Public With His Belief in God

Four years later Flew made his newfound belief in God explicit and very public. In December 2004, he officially announced that he believed in God. The startling news was reported in many newspaper and magazine articles. Then in early 2005, his lengthy interview with Dr. Gary Habermas was published in the philosophy journal Philosophia Christi, where he states clearly that he now believed in God (reprinted online here).

His change of mind was more shocking to others than to him. In Flew’s mind,

This statement represented a major change for me, but it was nevertheless consistent with the principle I have embraced since the beginning of my philosophical life—of following the argument no matter where it leads. (There Is A God, p. 75)

He goes on to add

Analysts and psychologists can make of this what they will, but the impetus for me is still what it has always been: the pursuit of valid arguments with true conclusions. (There Is A God, p. 81)

Next week I’ll share the first two of four reasons that led Flew to change his mind and ultimately led him to write There Is A God.  Until next week, grace and peace.

For further reading see Does God Exist: The Craig-Flew Debate.

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*During those years I did not believe it was right for me to make public what he shared with me in his letter of December 29th, 2000. He was on a spiritual journey toward Christianity, and it was my duty to protect his privacy during that period. He did, however, hint at his interest in the Christian faith in several other contexts, finally writing in There is a God

As I have said more than once, no other religion enjoys anything like the combination of a charismatic figure like Jesus and a first-class intellectual like Paul. If you're wanting omnipotence to set up a religion, it seems to me that this is the one to beat! (p. 157)