What can we learn from the process of world-renowned atheist Dr. Antony Flew coming to believe God exists? Last week I offered four things we can learn, but I didn’t have room for three more. This week I will conclude this series with three more takeaways, and my thoughts on whether Flew may have finally embraced Jesus as his Lord.
The Gospel Must Be True News Before It Can Be Good News
Flew’s story again illustrates the importance of ideas in a person coming to believe in God. For him and many others, the heart cannot embrace what the head cannot accept. It was only after Flew saw there are good, rational reasons to believe God exists, supported by much evidence that he came to believe in God.
Many others—perhaps even most—are like him, needing to engage their “heads” before they can engage their “hearts.” This is understandable, since God created us with both hearts and minds. We use our minds in even small decisions. When deciding where to go for a nice dinner on Friday night, we will usually look at an online review or two, consider if the wait will be worth it, and make sure it is within our budget. How much more is our mind engaged in making a decision as monumental as trusting God with our life and eternity?
Unfortunately, many today have not encountered the evidence for God’s existence that convinced Flew. As a result, they are not willing to consider the “good news,” because they believe it can’t possibly be true that God exists, Jesus is God, we have souls in need of salvation, we can live beyond the death of our bodies, and so on.
In the words of Leslie Newbigin, a missionary who thought much about engaging cultures with the gospel, the gospel is not within most individuals’ “plausibility structure”—the set of beliefs that may plausibly be true and therefore worth considering.
If a person believes something isn’t even possibly true (if it is outside their plausibility structure), then they have no interest in discussing it any further. These erroneous assumptions may be why so many of our friends, colleagues, and family members are uninterested in and even hostile toward discussing spiritual things.
Flew’s story reminds us of the importance of correcting people’s wrong assumptions by showing them there is good evidence that God exists. His story also reminds us that, when we do so they will respond with interest, if they are seekers of truth.
The Church Needs Public Intellectuals (Including Scientists and Philosophers)
Flew’s story also reminds us that seekers come in all “shapes and sizes.” Some are intellectuals like Flew. There must be Christians who can answer their questions as fellow intellectuals.
I once asked Dr. Craig what his greatest struggles were in earning his Ph.D. in philosophy. I expected him to talk about how difficult the material was to master, persecution he endured from non-believing classmates or professors as he researched evidence for God’s existence, or the challenges he faced balancing his studies with spending time with his family.
These were not his main struggles. Instead, he said one of the hardest challenges was having so many in his church tell him he shouldn’t earn a Ph.D. in philosophy. Well-meaning Christian friends and pastors regularly said to him that if he really wanted to serve God, he should become a pastor or missionary. Reading and studying “secular” philosophers, earning a “secular” Ph.D., and hoping to teach in a “secular” university were all a colossal waste of his time and talent. Hearing this over and over again, from those he looked up to, was a significant challenge he had to overcome.
Dr. Craig rejected his friends’ well-meaning but ill-informed counsel and pursued God’s calling to be a public intellectual—one who proclaims God’s truth not from a pulpit but in public universities. Of course, now all who know him, even those who told him he was wasting his time, are grateful Dr. Craig persevered and earned his Ph.D. in philosophy! The impact he has had for the cause of Christ is truly global. The influence he had on Flew’s thinking and life is but one example of this influence, providing a “reason for the hope within” (I Peter 3:15) in a way Flew could hear and understand.
May we learn from the example of Dr. Craig and encourage a new generation of Christians to consider following God’s call to higher education. We should encourage students not only to consider going to seminary and becoming pastors or missionaries (as crucial as these roles are), but also consider pursuing Ph.D.s in all other fields to be salt and light in the universities of the world. (To this end I endorse the work of the Emerging Scholars Network of InterVarsity/USA, which encourages students in following God’s call to academe, and Global Scholars, with whom I serve, which equips Christian professors worldwide to have a redemptive influence in their universities.)
God Is Sovereign In All Things
Each aspect of the story I’ve told these past few weeks is a reminder of God’s sovereignty. I’ll illustrate by saying more about one unexpected turn that God used for His purposes.
In post 3 I mentioned in passing that before the debate Flew had retained an attorney. Flew did so to ensure he was protected in the process of my editing the book coming from the debate. The involvement of an attorney resulted in a lengthy legal contract stipulating how I was to proceed in editing the transcript for publication. I was initially troubled by this development, as it meant there was more legal paperwork for me to complete, making the process of editing the debate transcript much more difficult.
However, God “caused all things to work together for the good” (Romans 8:28), illustrating his power and ultimate control over the many details of our lives. The legal stipulations imposed required much more correspondence with Flew both before and after the debate. This resulted in many letters he and I wrote to each other, in which we discussed not only details about the debate and book, but personal matters as well.
It was in this context, and due to the relationship we built through these letters, that he felt comfortable sharing with me his very private thoughts on the possibility not only of God existing but the Christian God existing (see post five in this series). He never shared this elsewhere, and so if we had not been forced to write to each other so often, he might never have shared this with anyone. I also trust that some of my correspondence with him was “seasoned with salt” in ways that helped him in his spiritual journey. All this was due to what initially seemed to me to be an unnecessary and unwanted legal intervention.
This contract is but one of dozens of ways God was at work throughout this entire process and serves as a reminder that, even when we don’t see Him at work in the circumstances of our lives, God is still present and active.
Did Flew Eventually Come To Saving Faith in Christ?
We now come to perhaps what has been the “elephant in the room” for many of you who have followed this series: Did Flew complete his journey from atheism to theism and finally to Christian theism? Did he ever place his faith in Jesus Christ as God Incarnate and his Savior?
Most say he did not. Flew never publicly stated he came to faith in Christ. Therefore most assume he died a theist, but not a Christian theist. I’m not so sure they are right. For a number of reasons I think he may have ended his journey at the foot of the cross.
December 2000: Flew’s Letter to Me—Christianity or Islam
First is his letter to me in December 2000 (discussed in post 5). At this early date in his process of converting to theism, the evidence convinced him not only of brute theism, but the revelatory theism of either Christianity or Islam. This change in his thinking was more than he was willing to share publically but was the direction he saw the evidence leading.
February 2004: Flew’s Interview with Habermas—ChristianitY, NOT Islam
Four years later Flew was willing to be interviewed his long-time friend Dr. Gary Habermas (who he had debated on the resurrection of Jesus nearly 20 years earlier), in order to have his story of conversation to theism finally made public (the interview is published online here). Flew share in more detail what he has shared with me in his letters of December 2000.
However, in Flew’s interview with Habermas, his thinking had developed to the point of determining Christianity was preferable to Islam. Flew summarizes, “This raises the possibility of what [may be called] a knock-down falsification of Islam: something which is most certainly not possible in the case of Christianity.” (p. 4) Flew then concluded, “Jesus is an enormously attractive charismatic figure, which the Prophet of Islam most emphatically is not.” (p. 5)
November 2006: “Most of the way to Christianity”
In November of 2006 Flew met with Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne, who taught at Oxford University. They met so that Flew could confirm he was “of sound mind” in the writing of his forthcoming There Is A God. While together they discussed Flew’s faith journey. He shared with Swinburne that at that point he was “most of the way toward Christianity.” (Swinburne officially confirmed this in a signed statement dated November 30, 2007, online here.)
November 2008: Flew’s Comments in There Is A God
When Flew finally published There Is A God in 2008, he seems even more open to Christianity being true. For instance, when commenting on the strength of C.S. Lewis’ arguments that Jesus is God, he states, “But of course when I later came to think about theological things, it seemed to me that the case for the Christian revelation is a very strong one.” (p. 24)
As I’ve discussed in post four, one of Flew’s main objections to Christian theism was the reality of Hell, along with his assumption that omnipotence means God can do anything. In this case, he reasoned God could cause free people to choose to believe in Him, and thus avoid Hell. But the Christian God allows some to experience Hell. Therefore he rejected the Christian God as Evil.
I believe this objection is based on a faulty view of omnipotence and human freedom and in post four I offered an alternative (the alternative that Craig provided in his debate with Flew). In There Is A God, Flew indicates this alternative has helped him overcome this hurdle to belief:
Quite recently I found out that John Wesley, whom I consider one of my country’s great sons, had led a great controversy against predestination and in favor of the “Arminian” alternative, particularly in his great paper “Predestination Calmly Considered.” I also understand that many exegetes today see St. Paul’s writings on predestination as referencing the role of specific individuals in the workings of the church and not their salvation and damnation. (p. 73-4).
No matter your position on the “free will/predestination” (or “Arminian/Calvinist”) debate, the point is that Flew seemed to overcome his most significant stumbling block to coming to faith in Christ by reconciling omnipotence, human freedom, evil, and Hell in this way.
Finally, in There Is A God, Flew included as Appendix B a paper in which British theologian N. T. Wright outlines the evidence showing Jesus is God. In the book’s Introduction Flew states: “I have to say here that Bishop Wright presents by far the best case for accepting Christian belief that I have ever seen.” (p. 3)
He concludes his book with, “Some claim to have made contact with this Mind. I have not—yet. But who knows what could happen next?” (p. 158)
Together, these excerpts seem to indicate that by 2008 Flew had overcome his objections and was at least on the precipice of believing that Jesus is God, and perhaps placing his faith in Christ as his Savior.
In the three years between Flew publishing There Is A God and passing away, he did not publically proclaim faith in Christ. Therefore, many assume he never came to faith. However, I am inclined to believe he did. If so, the fact that he never said this publically is not surprising. Throughout his journey, his private beliefs about God were always much further along than what he was willing to announce publically (as I’ve illustrated in this series). He made it a habit of understating his beliefs about God, both in conversations with others and in print. Given that in 2006 he shared with Swinburne that he was “most of the way” toward Christianity, and in 2008 he spoke so highly of the evidence in favor of Christianity, it is reasonable to believe his private beliefs were again far ahead of these public statements.
Furthermore, given his wholehearted commitment to following the evidence wherever it led, it is reasonable to believe it led him to faith in Christ. Once he overcame his main hurdle (above) and began considering the evidence for Christ with an open and clear mind, it is hard to believe he would not have come to believe. As the Scriptures say, “And you shall seek me, and find me, when you shall search for me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13) I believe this is what Flew was doing his last decade of life, and it is reasonable to believe he found the One he was seeking so vigorously.
Of course, I am not certain of this. Only God and Flew know. But I will not at all be surprised to meet Dr. Flew again one day. I hope for such a joyous reunion and spending hours, days, and maybe even weeks talking together about these events of the late 1990s and early 2000s. I look forward to praising God together for how he “demonstrated his love for us” both (Romans 5:8), giving us “his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
For further reading see There Is A God: How The World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind and Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society