Defending the Faith: Science helped change views of prominent atheist

Published: Thursday, March 20 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

Most readers could, if pressed, come up with a list of books that have, in some way or another, had a pivotal influence on their lives or their way of thinking. These books need not be especially great (though they certainly can be), but they will have said something that hit home in a particularly strong way, perhaps at a particularly receptive time. Most books that we read, even the very good ones, have little or no fundamental impact on our lives; a very few dramatically redirect our thinking or even our basic lifestyle.

For me, one of those books would definitely be “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate,” by Gary R. Habermas and Antony G.N. Flew (1987). Habermas was, at the time of the 1985 debate that forms the core of the book, a still-young philosophy teacher at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Virginia. The British-born Antony Flew, in his mid-60s, was a veteran teacher of philosophy at the universities of Reading and Oxford. And, since the death of Bertrand Russell in 1970, he was also very arguably the most prominent and vocal atheist philosopher in the English-speaking world.

Expecting little from the book, I picked it up out of curiosity. And I was stunned. Using purely secular historical methods, Habermas constructed a surprisingly powerful case for the truth of the New Testament gospels’ account of Jesus Christ’s physical resurrection. In my judgment and that of others, Flew was never really in the game and plainly lost the debate.

I had, of course, been a believer in Christ’s resurrection before I picked up the book, but that had been a matter of faith. My trust in the New Testament was fortified by my confidence in the second witness of the Book of Mormon and the credible modern witness of Joseph Smith. I hadn’t imagined that so plausible a historical argument could be based on close analysis of the New Testament itself.

Since then, though, through further reading in the writings of Habermas as well as philosophers Stephen Davis and William Lane Craig and the eminent British New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, I’ve come to regard the secular case for Christ’s resurrection as even more convincing than I thought it was when I first read “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?”

However, it’s the subsequent life of Flew that I wish to discuss very briefly here. He died in 2010 at the age of 87, but he went through an astonishing and very public transition before his passing, as recorded in the peer-reviewed journal Philosophia Christi (Vol. 6, No. 2, Winter 2004).

In January of 2004, Flew told Habermas that he had become a theist. He had decided that there was a God, after all. He simply “had to go where the evidence leads,” he remarked in a subsequent telephone conversation.

He never accepted the idea of a “special revelation.” That is, he didn't accept Judaism, Christianity or Islam.

Some atheists, horrified by his “apostasy,” claimed that because he was growing old, he understandably but irrationally sought consolation in the belief that there was life beyond the grave. But, in fact, even after accepting the idea of God and despite what he saw as the serious challenge offered to his view by accounts of near-death experiences, Flew consistently rejected any notion of life after death.

So what was it that brought the lifelong and outspoken atheist Antony Flew to theism (or, more accurately, to a form of deism)?

It was science. Flew concluded that recent developments in physics, astronomy and biology showed the existence of a supremely intelligent and powerful planner behind the cosmos to be probable. He was particularly interested in the cosmology of the Big Bang and in notions of intelligent design and cosmic fine-tuning. Naturalism, he said, had never given a believable account of how complex molecules had arisen from simple entities.

“The findings of DNA research,” he told Habermas, “have provided materials for a new and enormously powerful argument to design.”

That Antony Flew turned away from decades of atheistic argument to become a theist doesn’t prove that there is a God. But it ought, perhaps, to give skeptics some pause and induce them to consider the same arguments that Flew found so persuasive.

The stakes, both for how we live our lives in this world and for the world to come, are enormous.

Daniel C. Peterson, a BYU professor of Islamic studies and Arabic, is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org and chairman of "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture." His views do not necessarily represent those of BYU.

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