The story I’ve been retelling is very improbable, but true: The world’s most notorious atheist finally believed in God after fifty years of denying His existence. We can learn many lessons from Dr. Flew’s story. In the final two posts of this series* I will identify six “take-aways” from the journey we have been on with Flew.
Intellectual Honesty is Required to Find Truth
Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” (Plato’s Apology [38a5-6]). This was Flew’s credo. He is a model for us of what it means to be honest, fair, curious, and humble. He illustrates in flesh and blood that no matter how much we cherish our assumptions, we must be willing to change our mind in light of new evidence.
Flew’s story should be a caution to other atheists, as well as those of other religious traditions. Conclusions about God may be wrong, even those they believe are based on solid reasoning, held for many years, and expressed publically. Unless one is willing to continually question assumptions and fairly evaluate evidence, wrong beliefs may never be identified, reconsidered, and changed. On the other hand, if one is willing to question assumptions and “follow the evidence wherever it leads,” one can—and will—find truth.
Flew’s story should also be a caution to those of us who are Christian believers. We, too, are often unwilling to employ the resources of logic and reason to determine our beliefs. We, too, must be willing to question our assumptions and fairly evaluate evidence. Only in this way are we indeed “loving God with our mind” (Matt 22:37). If we forget what this looks like or wonder if we can be honest with the evidence in light of our reality, we must remember Flew’s example and press on in our quest for truth.
Truth Is Not Always Appreciated
However, while “following the evidence wherever it leads” is the right thing to do, it is rarely, if ever, easy. Flew experienced this in dramatic and very public ways after following the evidence where it led. As Varghese summarized in the Preface to There Is A God,
…the response to the AP story [December 9, 2004] from Flew’s fellow atheists verged on hysteria….Inane insults and juvenile caricatures were common in the freethinking blogosphere….The advocates of tolerance were not themselves very tolerant….But raging mobs cannot rewrite history. And Flew’s position in the history of atheism transcends anything that atheists have to offer. (p. viii).
In fact, the criticisms went so far as to question whether Flew had even experienced the conversion he writes of in There Is A God. The accusation was not based on fact, as is well documented in A Defense of the Integrity of Antony Flew’s “There Is A God” From His Own Letters, by Anthony Horvath. Despite credible evidence of Flew’s thoughtful change, the accusations and insults kept coming. Some will always attempt to explain away the truth, no matter how strong the evidence.
This response is common when anyone claims to know truths about God. It is the same rejection Jesus experienced. It happened to Paul and the other disciples. Countless others who shared truth about God throughout the ages experienced it. Therefore, it should be no surprise to us when we, too, encounter similar hostilities when claiming to discover spiritual truth. Concerning truth about God, “it is very popular to search for truth, but very unpopular to find it.” As Jesus said, “Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.” (John 15:20)
We Never Know What God Is Doing In Another’s Life
Third, Flew’s story reminds us that we do not ever know what is going on inside another person’s head or heart. Flew admits in 2007 when he wrote There Is A God, “Over the last two decades, my whole framework of thought has been in a state of migration. This was a consequence of my continuing assessment of the evidence of nature.” (p. 89) So he had been privately considering the evidence for God’s existence for at least ten years before his debate with Craig. No one could have guessed this from observing him when he taught classes, debated Christians like Craig, or wrote articles defending atheism during those years. Internally he was becoming more and more open to the possibility that God exists, but externally he looked like a committed atheist.
Even after sharing with Mike and me his openness to theism and even Christian theism from 1998 to 2000 (see previous posts in this series), publically Flew was hesitant to say so publically. In the final chapter for Does God Exist: The Craig-Flew Debate which I edited, published in 2003, he back-peddled from what he had shared with us and wrote the chapter again as an atheist.
He was in a season of questioning, evaluating evidence, rethinking his position. In public and in his writings he only wanted to say what he could adequately defend. But internally he was coming more and more to change his mind. Soon he would state publically his belief in God. Up to that point, very few had any idea he was even considering rejecting his atheism. (Those of us who did know were careful not to say anything publically, to provide him the privacy he needed to pursue these questions in his own way unhindered.)
Interestingly, many atheists thought they did know what he was thinking. After he made public his belief in God in 2004, many atheists assured others that Flew didn’t really believe this. No, they maintained, words were being put in his mouth or he was being “manipulated” by theists to say things he didn’t believe. They were unaware of his conversation with Mike the night of the Craig debate six years before, when he shared his openness to the evidence pointing to God’s existence. Nor were they aware of Flew’s letters to me four years earlier stating his inclination to believe even more about this God (see my earlier posts). Once again, no one knows what is really going on inside a person, and sometimes the truth is beyond imagination (as it was for both the atheist and faith communities in this case.)
The story of Flew’s wrestling with the evidence should remind us that we must never assume we know someone is not interested in spiritual things, no matter what he or she says or does. Flew’s story reminds us that God is at work in everyone’s life, wooing them to himself, even if there are no external evidence we can observe. This is my story as well: I was interested in learning more about the possibility of God’s existence, and actively seeking to know about God, about a year before I confessed my inner searching to anyone else (I say more about this here). I am confident this is the case of many others, including many we presently think are uninterested in spiritual things.
Our Responsibility Is To Be A Friend
A fourth take-away is that we may be having a life-changing ministry in the lives of our friends and colleagues, yet be completely unaware of our influence. Our encouragement in their search for truth, discussions we have with them about spiritual issues, and simply our ongoing friendship may be used by God in their lives in significant ways, even if it doesn’t seem so to us at the time.
Over the years, some Christian philosophers became friends with Flew (including those who first met him in a debate setting). They stayed in touch with him after their encounters, and became “safe” people with whom he could discuss spiritual matters. They treated him with respect and honor as a fellow seeker-of-truth. Each of them played a role in Flew’s journey, being faithful to the command of I Peter 3:15: “And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it.” (NLT). For Flew this was timely advice, “… like golden apples in a silver basket.” (Proverbs 25:11 NLT)
In the same way, we must always seek to develop “safe” relationships of mutual trust, appreciation, and honest with those God brings into our lives. This is part of being a true friend, and a way God can use us in the lives of others who may be seeking but have no one else with whom they can have honest conversations. Like Drs. Craig, Habermas, Geivett, Miethe, and Wright, we often do not know the influence our kindness, graciousness, honor, or words “aptly spoken” are having in the lives of others, no matter how intimidating, cold, or even antagonistic that person may appear on the “outside.”
*Here is where I planned to conclude this series. However, there were more takeaways than I could fit in this one post! Therefore next week I’ll do a ninth, bonus post with three more takeaways. I will also share some final thoughts on whether Flew’s journey finally led him to believe in Jesus.
Until next week, grace and peace.
For further reading see There Is A God: How The World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind