Christianity Today, April 2005
Why the world’s most famous atheist now believes in God.
by James A. Beverley | posted 04/08/2005 09:00 a.m.
Antony Flew, one of the world’s leading philosophers, has changed his mind about
God. And he has agnostics worried.
Some are mystified and others are angry. Typical of many responses is this one
skeptical blogger: "Sounds to me like an old man, confronted by the end of life,
making one final desperate attempt at salvation." Richard Carrier of The Secula
r Web even accuses him of "willfully sloppy scholarship."
His pedigree in philosophy explains the recent media frenzy and controversy.
Raised in a Christian home and son of a famous Methodist minister, Flew became
an atheist at age 15. A student of Gilbert Ryle’s at Oxford, Flew won the prestigious
John Locke Prize in Mental Philosophy. He has written 26 books, many of them
classics like God and Philosophy and How to Think Straight. A 1949 lecture given to C. S. Lewis’s
Oxford Socratic Club became one of the most widely published essays in philosophy. The Time
s Literary Supplement said Flew fomented a change in both the theological and philosophical
Flew taught at Oxford, Aberdeen, Keele, Reading, and has lectured in North America,
Australia, Africa, South America, and Asia. The Times of Londonreferred to him as
"one of the most renowned atheists of the past half-century, whose papers and
lectures have formed the bedrock of unbelief for many adherents."
Last summer he hinted at his abandonment of naturalism in a letter to Philo
sophy Now. Rumors began circulating on the internet about Flew’s inclinations towards
belief in God, and then Richard Ostling broke the story in early December for
the Associated Press. According to Craig Hazen, associate professor of comparative
religions and apologetics at Biola, the school received more than 35,000 hits
on their site that contains Flew’s interview for Philosophia Christi, the journal
?of the Evangelical Philosophical Society. At his home in Reading, west of
London, Flew told me: "I have been simply amazed by the attention given to my
change of mind."
So what exactly is the reason for and nature of his "change of mind"?
Flew has had to assure former students that he does not now believe in revealed
religion. "Even one of my daughters asked if this meant we were going to say
grace at meals," he said. "The answer is no."
Flew is also quick to point out that he is not a Christian. "I have become a
deist like Thomas Jefferson." He cites his affinity with Einstein who believed
in "an Intelligence that produced the integrative complexity of creation." To
make things perfectly clear, he told me: "I understand why Christians are excited, but
if they think I am going to become a convert to Christ in the near future, they
are very much mistaken."
"Are you Paul on the road to Damascus?" I asked him.
Comedian Jay Leno suggested a motive for the change on The Tonight Show: "Of course
he believes in God now. He’s 81 years old." It’s something many agnostics have
said more seriously. However, Flew is not worried about impending death or post-mortem
salvation. "I don’t want a future life. I have never wanted a future life," he told
me. He assured the reporter for The Times: "I want to be dead when I’m dead and that’s
an end to it." He even ended an interview with the Humanist Network News by statin
g: "Goodbye. We shall never meet again."
Flew’s U-turn on God lies in a far more significant reality. It is about evidence.
"Since the beginning of my philosophical life I have followed the policy of
Plato’s Socrates: We must follow the argument wherever it leads." I asked him
if it was tough to change his mind. "No. It was not hard. I’ve always engaged in inquiry.
If I am shown to have been wrong, well, okay, so I was wrong."
The Impact of Evangelical Scholars
Actually, Flew has been rethinking the arguments for a Designer for several
years. When I saw him in Londonin the spring of 2003, he told me he was still
an atheist but was impressed by Intelligent Design theorists. By early 2004
he had made the move to deism. Surprisingly, he gives first place to Aristotle
in having the most significant impact on him. "I was not a specialist on Aristotle,
so I was reading parts of his philosophy for the first time." He was aided in
this by The Rediscovery of Wisdom, a work on Aristotle by David Conway, one of Fl
ew’s former students.
Flew also cites the influence of Gerald Schroeder, an Israeli physicist, and
Roy Abraham Varghese, author of The Wonder of the World and an Eastern Rite Catholic.
Flew appeared with both scientists at a New Yorksymposium last May where he acknowledged
his changed conviction about the necessity for a Creator. In the broader picture,
both Varghese and Schroeder, author of The Hidden Face of God, argue from the fine-tuning
of the universe that it is impossible to explain the origin of life without
God. This forms the substance of what led Flew to move away from Darwinian naturalism.
I studied with Flew in 1985 in Toronto, and he told me then about the positive
impression he had of emerging evangelical scholarship. That year Varghese had
arranged a Dallasconference on God, and included atheists, like Flew, and theists.
That same year Flew had his first debate with historian Gary Habermas of Li
bertyUniversityon the resurrection of Jesus, recorded in Did Jesus Rise from the
Dead? They have debated twice since on the same topic.
Flew has also debated Terry Miethe, who holds doctorates in both philosophy
and religion, on the existence of God, and he has been involved in philosophical
exchanges with J. P. Moreland, another well-known Christian philosopher. In
1998 he had a major debate in Madison, Wisconsin, with William Lane Craig, research
professor at Talbot, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the famous BBC debate
between Bertrand Russell and F. C. Copleston, the brilliant Catholic philosopher.
In Reading, I asked Flew more explicitly about the impact of these and other
scholars. "Who amazes you the most of the defenders of Christian theism?"
He replied, "I would have to put Alvin Plantinga pretty high," and he also complimented
Miethe, Moreland, and Craig for their philosophical skills. He regards Richard Swin
burne, the Oxfordphilosophy of religion professor, as the leading figure in the
United Kingdom. "There is really no competition to him." He said that Habermas has
?made "the most impressive case for Christian theism on the basis of New Testament
These Christian philosophers have uniform respect for Flew as a person and as
a thinker. Craig spoke of him as "an enduring figure in positivistic philosophy"
and was "rather surprised by his giving up his atheistic views." He, Miethe, and
Habermas have found Flew to be a perfect gentleman both in public debate and
private conversations. Swinburne says Flew has always been a tough thinker,
though less dogmatic as the years went by. Plantinga, the founder of the Society
of Christian Philosophers, said that Flew’s change is "a tribute to his open-mindedness
as well as an indication of the strength of current broadly scientific arguments
What Holds Him Back from Christianity?
Flew’s preference for deism and continued dislike of alleged revelation emerge
from two deep impulses in his philosophy. First, Flew has an almost unshakable
view against the supernatural, a view that he learned chiefly from David Hume,
the 18th-century Scottish philosopher. Flew, a leading authority on Hume, wrote the
classic essay on miracles in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
What is rather surprising in Flew’s dogmatism is that he believes Hume did not
and could not prove that miracles are, strictly speaking, impossible. "If this
is the case, why not be open to God’s possible intervention?" I asked. He replied
by saying that the laws of nature are so well established that testimonies about
miracles are easy for him to ignore. He is not impressed by people who hear
regularly from God. He did concede, reluctantly and after considerable discussion,
that God could, in principle, puncture his bias against the supernatural.
Of more significance, Flew detests any notion that a loving God would send any
of his creatures to eternal flames. He cannot fathom how intelligent Christians
can believe this doctrine. He even said in his debate with Terry Miethe tha
t he has entertained the thought that the Creator should punish, though not
endlessly, only those who defend the notion of eternal torment. On this matter,
Flew is willing to entertain fresh approaches to divine justice. In fact, he
had just obtained Lewis’s book The Great Divorce in order to assess Lewis’s unique interpretation
on the topic of judgment.
When I asked Flew about his broader case for deism, he asked rhetorically: "Why
should God be concerned about what his creatures think about him anymore than
he should be directly concerned with their conduct?" I reminded him of biblical
verses that also ask rhetorically: "He who planted the ear, does he not hear?
He who formed the eye, does he not see?" (Ps. 94:9) It seems incredible to argue
that any human cares more about the world than God does. "Is the Creator really
morally clueless?" I asked. Flew responded to what he called this "interesting
argument" with openness. Moreland, who teaches at Biola, says he hopes that
Flew "will become even more curious about whether or not God has ever made himself
clearly known to humanity."
Unlike many other modern philosophers, Flew has a high regard for the person
of Jesus. Early in the interview, he stated rather abruptly: "There’s absolutely
no good reason for believing in Islam, whereas in Christianity you have the
charismatic figure of Jesus, the defining example of what is meant by charismatic."
By charismatic, he means dynamic and impressive. He dismissed views that Jesus
never existed as "ridiculous."
Later I asked, "Are you basically impressed with Jesus?"
"Oh yes. He is a defining instance of a charismatic figure, perplexing in many
ways, of course." Beyond this, Flew remains agnostic about orthodox views of
Jesus, though he has made some very positive remarks about the case for the
Resurrection. In the journal Philosophia Christi he states: "The evidence for
the Resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion."
No, he still does not believe that Jesus rose from the dead. However, he told
me, the case for an empty tomb is "considerably better than I thought previo
Plantinga, the dean of Christian philosophers, told me that the radical change
in Christian scholarship over Flew’s career has been remarkable. When Flew originally
attacked theism more than 50 years ago, there were few Christians working in
philosophy. Now there are a large and growing number of scholars committed to
intellectual defense of the gospel. It is, of course, no small matter that one of
the world’s leading philosophers has moved somewhat closer to the side of the
James A. Beverley is professor of Christian apologetics at Tyndale Seminary
?in Toronto. For more information on the interview with Flew, see Beverley’s
website at www.religionwatch.ca.
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