A number of years ago I received an email from Justin Bosch who was sponsoring a screening of the film, The God Who Wasn’t There at the historic Oriental Theater in Northwest Denver. Mr. Bosch screens films related to media reform and social ethics, but on this occasion, he was venturing into the religious deep. Since the film is very critical of Christianity—claiming that Jesus never existed and that Christians are dangerous simpletons—he wanted to give some response time to a Christian as well as to an atheist. So, at the last minute it was arranged that Will Providence, a local atheist of the Objectivist stripe (a follower of Ayn Rand’s philosophy), and I would make some brief comments after the film and then answer questions.
Although I seldom participate in highly-charged public forums with little notice, I was interested in doing this because, without me. there would have been no Christian response. Further, I was familiar with the basic arguments of the film and was able to mine quite a bit of material on it and the producer online prior to the event.
The event nearly filled the theater. The first half hour or so was taken up by an audio presentation of a comedian who recounted her loss of Catholic faith and her turn to atheism. It was the most uncharitable presentation of the teaching of the Bible I had ever heard in one sitting. The Old Testament is nothing more than a moral mess. Jesus isn’t as nice as she thought. After all, he was impatient with his disciples, and so on. The Catholic priest who taught her the Bible was a fideist who said she had to have faith and that he would pray she had faith. That was not good enough, and eventually, “God disappeared” for this poor soul.
A 62-Minute Affront to Honesty in Documentaries
The best thing about The God Who Wasn’t There is that it was mercifully short: sixty-two minutes. The film advances the solidly refuted claim that Christianity was started by Paul who invented a Jesus out of whole cloth—the cloth of mystery religions. There are so many inaccuracies that I don’t know where to begin, so I won’t. However, Mike Licona has written a long and thorough piece on the movie. Christians were presented as rapture-bedazzled nincompoops who wanted to take over America and persecute as many infidels as possible.
A Christian and Atheist Respond
After this torment was over, Will and I took the stage before about 125 people. I made an opening statement that focused on the films three basic arguments (if I can so dignify such propaganda):
- The claim that mystery religions influenced our understanding of Jesus
- The claim that Christianity leads to persecution
- The claim that Christianity is intrinsically irrational
Will spoke for just a few minutes on what atheism meant to him. It wasn’t much of an argument for a debate, however. He did not address the film at all. We then took questions from the audience for about 45 minutes. Most of the questions were aimed at me.
The audience was largely made up atheists, it seemed, although a few Christian friends attended. I infer this because when Will or a questioner made a point against Christianity or God, people tended to applaud.
I would sometimes interact directly with Will—a young and presentable Iranian man in law school—but he didn’t have much of substance to say except that he based his philosophy on reason and not faith. He also made positive allusions to Saint Ayn Rand.
The questions—or sometimes just accusations against Christianity—related to issues such as the concept of truth, the supposed sexism of the Bible, hell, and so on. They really started piling on about hell at the end. In some cases, people would yell things from the audience instead of going to the microphone. When I presented an egalitarian account of gender relations (with ample reference to Rebecca Merrill Groothuis’s books), someone yelled, “Read Paul!” I have, amazingly enough, and he was no sexist.
Presenting Christianity with Confidence
This was easily the most hostile group I have ever addressed in thirty-six years of public speaking. I spoke after an hour and half of anti-Christian propaganda and was on stage with an atheist before an audience of many atheists. Nevertheless, I think my opening comments refuted important claims in the film—I needed several hours to respond to all the errors, many of which were absolute howlers—and I attempted to fairly and calmly respond to all the questioners. I was not stumped by any of the questions or comments, but I always wanted to say more; I am a professor, after all. I tried to give Will ample time to respond, but he often wanted to move on to the next questioner. He seemed quite nervous. At several points, I was able to present the essential gospel message, once in response to a question on hell: Jesus came to save us from that fate.
I hope that people who attended this event will post comments. You are better judges of me than I am, and you may be able to add your own observations of the event as a whole.
Nevertheless, I offer a few reflections. I solicited widespread prayer for this, which is my custom (and was the apostle Paul’s custom as well). This makes a tremendous difference. Despite the antagonistic crowd, I did not feel threatened or panicked. Several questioners wanted to back me into a fideist corner, but I never said that Christianity was without reason or evidence. I provided arguments and no subjective testimony or “I just know that I know in my knower.” The caricature was applied because most Christians do not give reasons for their faith, even though they are commanded to do so in the Bible (1 Peter 3:15). A philosopher defending Christianity as rational probably blew some of their materialist circuits.
It was heartening to talk with several people afterward who seemed to be genuinely interested in Christianity. One of the co-owners of the theater was very enthusiastic about having me there and complimented me on my ability to respond reasonably to questions. He had probably never seen such a thing before. I hope to follow up with him. I also received an email from a man who is an agnostic who would like to interact with me.
A Call for Thoughtful Christian Engagement
My final blast is this (although I’ve said it a thousand times): We need more thoughtful and well-informed Christians in the marketplace of ideas, even in the hot spots. As Os Guinness has stated, most of American Christian evangelism is aimed at those who are already very interested in Christianity but don’t know how to become Christians. This leaves out a vast number of souls who are hostile to Christianity or have no interest in it at all. We are called by Jesus Christ to engage these people as well.
Many attending that night had never heard a thoughtful defense of Christianity. This is both sad and wrong. Christians should know what they believe and why they believe it. As they grow in their confidence that Christianity is amply supported by reason and evidence, they should likewise grow in their courage for the Christian witness. The stakes are too high to be ignorant or cowardly.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the Constructive Curmudgeon blog in March of 2006. Permission to reprint with a number of alternations has been provided by the author, Dr. Groothuis.