The God Who Wasn’t There

If you haven’t seen The God Who Wasn’t There yet, you should. The DVD just arrived on my doorstep over Thanksgiving.

As the title implies, it’s a documentary that explores the notion that Jesus Christ never existed, and that religion — particularly extremist Christianity — is doing this country and the world more harm than good.

(Spoilers ahead.)

Overall, I really liked it. Enough to buy the . Although short, it’s well-paced, raises a lot of questions that need to be asked, and opens up a dialog on the role of Christianity in American culture. It’s also clearly a personal movie for director Brian Flemming.

My favorite part was on the origin of the New Testament, the source of the Jesus story. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last nearly long enough. It ignores whole swathes of biblical history, including much about the four gospels, and notes merely that Mark’s was the first gospel, written no earlier than 70 AD, and that the other three copied from here.

Between 33 and 70 AD, there’s Paul, but he seems unaware of any part of Jesus’ life other than the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. And everything, including the virgin birth, the star of Bethlehem, miracles, raising the dead, betrayal for 30 pieces of silver, bread and wine representing flesh and blood, crucifixion, and resurrection, has also been attributed to other mythical figures, such as Dionysus, Osiris, and Oedipus.

This part isn’t controversial, either. The movie quotes Justin Martyr’s First Apology:

When we say that Jesus Christ as produced without sexual union, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended to heaven, we propound nothing new or different from what you believe regarding those whom you call the sons of Jupiter.

It gets to the point where saying that those guys are myths but Jesus is real is like walking into a comic store and saying that Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, etc. are just stories, but Green Lantern really exists. Justin offers this rationalization:

For when they tell that Bacchus, son of Jupiter, was begotten by [Jupiter’s] intercourse with Semele, and that he was the discoverer of the vine; and when they relate, that being torn in pieces, and having died, he rose again, and ascended to heaven; and when they introduce wine into his mysteries, do I not perceive that [the devil] has imitated the prophecy announced by the patriarch Jacob, and recorded by Moses? And when they tell that Hercules was strong, and travelled over all the world, and was begotten by Jove of Alcmene, and ascended to heaven when he died, do I not perceive that the Scripture which speaks of Christ, `strong as a giant to run his race,’ has been in like manner imitated? And when he [the devil] brings forward Aesculapius as the raiser of the dead and healer of all diseases, may I not say that in this matter likewise he has imitated the prophecies about Christ?

That’s like saying that the CIA planted conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing, Roswell, etc. in advance, to discredit the 9/11 conspiracy theories. But note that Justin acknowledges that these mythic attributes already existed before Jesus (otherwise, why invent such a ridiculous explanation?).

The movie also features the film debut of Barbara and David Mikkelson, of Snopes fame, talking about how stories, rumors, and even just plain fiction can spread and be accepted as fact.

The closer you look, the more Jesus seems to evaporate.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of instances of shoddy scholarship. One part quotes Luke 19:27,

But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them–bring them here and kill them in front of me.

The movie attributes this to Jesus, which is technically correct, except that it comes from the parable of the ten minas: Luke is quoting Jesus quoting the king in the story. While the king in the parable does seem to represent Jesus, it seems a stretch to infer that Jesus was calling for the execution of everyone who wouldn’t follow him.

The movie also quotes Hebrews 8:4 as:

If Jesus had been on earth, he would not even have been a priest.

This is presented in support of the claim that Paul (n??? Saul of Tarsus) didn’t believe in an actual human Jesus walking around Jerusalem, but rather thought that the crucifixion took place in some faraway mythical realm.

Unfortunately, every translation I’ve looked at has “If Jesus were on earth” or some variation thereupon, rather than “If Jesus had been on earth.” So why did they choose this translation, which is fundamentally different from every other one out there?

The movie doesn’t address this, but it’s mentioned on one of the commentary tracks. The claim is that the original text can be translated either way, but “had been” would mean that Paul didn’t believe in a literal Jesus, and that clearly can’t be the case, can it? This could be a systematic, though quite understandable, case of translator’s bias. So maybe this guy’s onto something?

But on the same commentary track, Earl Doherty, the guy putting forth this hypothesis admits that he doesn’t have any formal degrees in relevant disciplines, and that he’s outside of the mainstream. To top it off, he compares himself to Alfred Wegener, who came up with the notion of continental drift. Unfortunately for him, comparing oneself to Wegener, Georges Lemaître, or Galileo is one of the signs of kookdom. If he’s right, why hasn’t he been able to convince other scholars? I’m not going to dismiss this hypothesis outright, but color me highly skeptical.

The film also discusses the social consequences of religious belief: what does it mean when Jesus Christ Superstar (the singing Jesus) grossed $13 million, The Last Temptation of Christ (the horny Jesus) grossed $8 million, but The Passion of the Christ (the bloody Jesus) is at $370 million and counting? Is Christianity really a religion of peace, like Islam?

If someone says that they were abducted and anally probed by aliens, or that the CIA is broadcasting mind-control instructions to their fillings, we generally think they’re crazy. But if someone believes that someone was born of a virgin, turned water into wine, caused fig trees to wither, and came back after being dead for three days, we give them a pass. For some reason, “crazy” is bad, but “faith” is okay.

If a medical student started spouting “new theories” about how to treat people, but never offered any empirical evidence, that person would be laughed out of medical school, and with good cause. But if someone who believes, with just as much evidence, that people will rise bodily into the sky and that the dead will rise from their graves wants to teach impressionable young children that it is absolutely vital to believe these things, then that’s okay for some reason.

At times, the movie descends into gratuitous Christian-bashing, as when he condemns moderate Christianity:

If the Bible is right, aren’t the stakes as high as they can be? … What the hell is moderate Christianity? Jesus was only sort of the son of God? He only somewhat rose from the dead? Your eternal soul is at stake, but you shouldn’t make a big deal out of it?

And the interview with the director of Village Christian Schools was clumsy and at times childish.

The DVD also includes two commentary tracks, including a phone interview with Richard Dawkins and one with the Raving Atheist. It also includes “Explore the Myth”, a slide show with web links that serves as an endnote section (this section also denounces Kersey Graves’s The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors).

So yes, there’s a lot that can be criticized. I, for one, would have preferred a longer film, with more and better scholarship. Perhaps invite a few Christian apologists to make a scholarly case for the existence of a historical Jesus, just to keep everyone honest. Tone down some of the anti-Christian rhetoric.

But all in all, pretty good. If nothing else, it can help to open up a dialog about religion and its role in American society.

Oh, and Front 242 / Birmingham 6 / industrial music fans might enjoy the footage of James Robison saying,

I’m sick and tired of hearing about all of the radicals, and the perverts, and the liberals, and the leftists, and the communists coming out of the closet! It’s time for God’s people to come out of the closet, out of the churches, and change America!

6 thoughts on “The God Who Wasn’t There

  1. In response to the bashing of moderate christians, derived from this part of the movie:
    If the Bible is right, aren’t the stakes as high as they can be? â???¦ What the hell is moderate Christianity?

    “Jesus was only sort of the son of God? He only somewhat rose from the dead? Your eternal soul is at stake, but you shouldn’t make a big deal out of it?”

    I agree that wishy-washy halfway christians make even less sense than the true believers. I think he is saying that why would a person halfway believe in scripture, or halfway believe Jesus is the son of god.

    It doesn’t seem to be gratuitous Christian-bashing to me…

  2. Upon reflection, “bashing” may be the wrong word.

    The thing with fundies is that their position is logically consistent: if God wrote the Bible, then everything in it must be the word of God, and should therefore be taken seriously. Moderates, on the other hand, ignore vast tracts of the Bible because they make no sense, or are abhorrent, or other reasons.

    For instance, most Christians ignore the laws given in Leviticus and Deuteronomy: they don’t keep kosher, don’t execute people for working on Saturday, and most would feel uncomfortable asking a woman whether she’s having her period, to find out whether it’s okay to shake hands with her. Most people find that TSP works better against mildew than sacrificing a bird. Lots of people also don’t believe that God would actually send anyone to hell for all eternity, because that would be the act of an evil sadist, and God is supposed to be good.

    Many people also find abhorrent the idea that a good God would punish people who’ve never been exposed to the Bible, such as African and American natives before European colonization. One way around this is to say that God judges people by their actions, not their thoughts, so it all works out okay in the end. So if one concentrates on the verses that say that salvation is by works and ignores the ones that say that salvation comes by faith alone, everything works out.

    It’s also silly to believe in a literal Adam and Eve, global flood, tower of Babel, etc. All of these are contradicted by a wealth of physical evidence. So the sensible path for a moderate Christian is to interpret these passages allegorically. From there, one can go even further and say that the entire story of Jesus’ existence on earth, even the resurrection, is allegorical or mythical: that it’s the underlying message of brotherly love that matters, not the details of whether there really was a Rabbi Yeshua ben Yossuf who was executed by the Romans. Such an interpretation is obviously less susceptible to being disproved as new historical documents and archeological remains come to light.

    So if God doesn’t actually send anyone to hell for eternity, then no, the stakes aren’t as high as they can be. If what matters to God is how you live your life, and not the number of fingers you use to cross yourself, then no, you shouldn’t make a big deal out of it. It’s a balancing act between what the Bible says and sensible ways of living with other people.

    The main problem I see with moderate Christians (or moderate Jews or Muslims, for that matter) isn’t that they ignore parts of the Bible — that’s a good thing — but that so few of them seem willing to admit that they do so. Many of them are still attached to the notion that the Bible — the entire Bible — is the word of God, in one way or another, so it’s hard to come out and say that most of it should be ignored, or means something entirely different from what it plainly says.

    Sam Harris, in The End of Faith criticizes moderates for fostering a climate in which extremists can flourish. As I understand it, the argument is that in our culture one isn’t supposed to question other people’s faith. When someone like Pat Robertson makes some wild claim, you’re not supposed to demand evidence, because if it were acceptable to demand evidence from the extremists, it would be okay to demand evidence from the moderates.

    And so people go through mental contortions to ignore the elephant in the room in attempts to justify why it’s okay to be religious, but Pat Robertson is a whackjob.

  3. One can be a moderate Christian in the sense that one isn’t a liberal Conservative or Fundamentalist Christian. From my p.o.v. a moderate Christian is someone who accepts all the core beliefs of Christianity, accepts some of the conclusions of Biblical criticism and uses modernity to help support their faith. While the liberal makes huge compromises with modernity and the Conservative/fundamentalist attempts to shut themselves off from modernity the moderate attempts to maintain a balance.

  4. I have read most of the books on this mentioned in the film, including the Jesus Seminar, and a great deal of Roman history as well. I have no opinion either way, or at least do not express it for fear of getting into arguments. It has been religion at the root of most wars in history and it is religion that is causing the problems we are having today with the Islamanuts. This problem is here to stay and they will soon have nuclear weapons. These are the people we have to look out for not Christians. They will not be happy until we are all bowing to Mohammed and removing half of what we eat for breakfast off the menu. Make a film that proves Islam is bullshit and I will support it 100%. Unless you live in Ireland, most of the trouble Christianity has caused is history. Today Christianity is more of a social club and can help keep some communities together and keeps some people honest. It is not a bad thing. Even radical Christians are, for the most part, harmless. This would not be a fitting description for someone who is just nuts and uses Christianity as an excuse to cause mayhem. Deal with the problem at hand. There are huge holes in the Islam story. Go after the real threat, if you have the balls to do so. Flyer Lynch

  5. Flyer Lynch:

    Unless you live in Ireland, most of the trouble Christianity has caused is history.

    Tell that to the Dobrich family, who got thrown out of town in Delaware for not being Christians. Or the Smalkowskis in Oklahoma.

    You’re also forgetting people dying of AIDS in Africa and elsewhere because the Pope tells them not to use a condom. Or having children they can’t afford to raise, again because the Pope is against birth control.

    And what about child abuse by church leaders? (This is by no means limited to Catholic priests, by the way. It’s just that they’ve gotten the lion’s share of attention.)

    What about abortion clinic bombings carried out in the name of Christianity?

    What about gays being marginalized, ostracized, and sometimes beaten up or killed because the Bible says they’re “detestable”?

    Then there’s the perpetuation of ignorance by the opponents of evolution. Some of them home-school their kids to prevent them from learning anything that contradicts their religious beliefs. Others lobby and bully teachers and school boards to avoid the topic of evolution, so that not only their kids, but everyone’s kids won’t learn about the basis of biology.

    What about the people bilked out of their savings by the likes of Pat Robertson, Peter Popoff, and Benny Hinn?

    Go after the real threat, if you have the balls to do so.

    Are you talking to me, or to Brian Flemming, the filmmaker?

    As far as I’m concerned, the root of the problem is irrationality. And yes, we do need more people like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers.

  6. Wow, flyer lynch is fucking stupid. I agree with arensb. I loved this movie by the way, i’m interested to learn more about all the information in it.

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