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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? Secular 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 Times Literary Supplement said Flew fomented a change
in both? the theological and philosophical worlds.
Flew taught at Oxford, Aberdeen, Keele, Reading, and has lectured in North America,
Australia, Africa, South America, and Asia. The Times of London referred 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 Philosophy
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
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 stating: "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 London? in 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 Flew’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 York? symposium 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 Dallas? conference on God, and included atheists, like Flew, and
theists. That same? year Flew had his first debate with historian Gary Habermas?
of Liberty University on 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
Swinburne, the Oxford philosophy 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
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 dogm
atic 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 that
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 previously."
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 angels.
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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