article title
by Graham A.  Fisher
Editor’s Note: Graham Fisher of Buckinghamshire, England, published the following article in the Christian Worker (July 2010), which he edits. He gave us permission to share this insightful story of the man who was known as “the world’s leading atheist.”
On Thursday, 8th April 2010 a man died whom I knew. Well, I didn’t really know him, in any meaningful sense of the word “know”, and he definitely didn’t know me at all, nevertheless I knew him in a very weak sense of the word “knew”. He was one of the professors at the university I attended and he achieved international fame in his field. Since at Keele, my university, had what they called a “Foundation Year” before you began your degree studies proper, all departments and all professors lectured in the basic course entitled “A History of Western Civilisation.” This began with astronomy, then on to geology, biology, and so on. It was their attempt to broaden your education and we were forced to study subjects we never had before and in areas not our field. Students of the arts had to take sciences and vice versa and I think it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me educationally. It was a superb course. And this professor gave me, and over 250 others, several lectures over the process of the series of lessons and that’s how I knew him — and why he didn’t know me. I was only one amongst 250. I also attended quite a few debates he held with other professors on campus, and since we all lived on campus, staff and students alike, you would see him buzzing around just like everybody else. Even those who were not his students felt he was one of their professors, joined mystically to them in a camaraderie which transcended the academic and the narrower confines of subjects or departments.

Anyway, he died in April aged 87, and I felt very sad and not a little blue about it. In some daft way a small piece of “me” had gone and I wish it hadn’t. I wish he’d lived a little longer. He was a very decent man, a kindly man, a man who valued truth and was prepared to follow it fearlessly, as he saw it. His name was Antony Flew and he taught Philosophy. But Antony was an atheist. And not just an atheist, he was the leading academic atheist in this country, and one of the leading atheists in the world in his heyday. He was an international figure in the world of philosophy and his atheism stemmed solely from philosophical argument. He was an evangelical atheist, though not “in your face” like Richard Dawkins. Dawkins’s atheism comes not from any attachment to philosophy but rather from his field of biological science, so they come at it from completely different angles. Flew was a believer in evolution, of course, because the only alternative to that theory extant at the moment is creation by God — which atheistic evolutionists cannot admit and still be atheists.

His background is interesting. Both his father and grandfather were Methodist ministers so he had a positively religious upbringing, which he came to reject in his late teens. I don’t know the story behind that but it was a good deal more than simple teenage rebellion. He was very bright indeed and he felt that religious claims, especially to the existence of God, simply didn’t stack up. Mind you, I would hazard a guess that his father, at least, was a believer in evolution — that being the so-called intellectual position in opposition to a belief in a young Earth created in six days by divine fiat, some 6,000 years ago, not millions of years ago. A belief in a biblical world which was created perfectly and then went wrong after Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden seemed somewhat naïve, and still seems somewhat naïve, to the intellectual classes. Therein stems the origin of his arguments against the notion as to the existence of God. He did not believe in a fall followed by a cursed world when God’s original perfection was ruined by sin. Obviously your starting point, call that your “world view,” will determine your conclusion no matter how fair and balanced you try to be as you weigh up the evidence.

One of his favorite arguments went like this: Imagine a garden which was overgrown, full of weeds, thistles and the like, and therefore a complete mess. Now somebody comes along and claims that this garden is tended by a gardener who loves and cares for it. So you look at the mess and you ask, “Where is the evidence for the existence of this gardener? Have you ever seen him?” It has to be admitted that this gardener never appears, so he’s never been seen by anybody — but he exists, believers in the gardener maintain. So you say that if he does exist he’s an absent gardener and doesn’t care about the garden, or he’s the worst gardener ever. God, of course, is the gardener in this story. I doubt that Flew made up the joke based on his analogy, but whoever did must have known about it. You know the one? It goes like this: “A vicar was walking down a road and passing a house with a beautifully kept garden, wonderful flower beds, grass mown to perfection, you get the picture, and he saw the gardener working in it. He knew the man and that he wasn’t a believer or churchgoer, so the vicar stopped, waved an expansive hand in the direction of the garden, and accosted him. ‘Bill, isn’t it wonderful what man and God working together can achieve?’ Bill thought for a moment and scratched his chin before replying, ‘I suppose you’d know about things like that vicar, but you should have seen it when God had it all to Himself.’ ” A believer in Adam would have known why there really is a gardener and why the garden now is in a mess.

However, professor Tony Flew didn’t just base his atheism on his gardener analogy. He maintained that the onus of proof in a belief belongs to the believer not the opponent. To sustain such a belief in say, fairies, elves, ghosts, deities, etc., it’s the believer who must prove his case not the disbeliever who must disprove it. Then he would argue that the proposition that “There is a God” is not a proper proposition for investigation because there is nothing which a believer would ever accept which would count against his belief being true. In other words could we, as Christians, accept a situation where we would test the notion of there being a God and agree with the unbeliever that if such-and-such happens there is a God but if something else happens then there isn’t?

Let me illustrate this by an all-too-common situation: somebody we love being involved in a very bad accident. When we pray to God for them we don’t, can’t, and won’t specify what answer would count for there being a God or against there being a God. That’s not on our agenda because we are not praying so we can test the notion that there is a God. If they recover, we praise God for His healing mercies; if they do not recover, we praise God for His wisdom and kindness in saving them from a situation where they would have no quality of life. In His wisdom, obviously it was the best for them — and while we wait anxiously for the answer we don’t blame God for the wait. If they get better, we praise God for answered prayers in line with our wishes; if they don’t, we bless God for His mercy.

The question that there might not even be a God, let alone one who cares what happens to our loved ones is not on the table — because we believe that there is a God though we’ve never seen Him. We talk to thin air when we pray and believe that there is One who hears us and answers us, though He doesn’t ever speak directly to us or show Himself, yet despite this we believe in Him. To a believer there’s no way that God can lose in this situation no matter what the outcome, so how can we maintain that there is a God and that this is not simply self-delusion? This was Flew’s point. No matter what the outcome, we will see God’s hand in it and won’t ever consider the proposition that there isn’t a God at all. That’s why Flew maintained that God’s existence is not a proper proposition to investigate because it cannot be falsified. It’s just a faith system which is philosophically invalid. Those inside the system, as we are, believe our approach is perfectly valid. However, if we were trying to convince an unbeliever of the existence, love, and care of God, and if he had any grey matter between his ears, he wouldn’t remotely consider an approach through prayer and claims of healing for our loved ones, as a valid test of the existence or otherwise of there being a God. His question would naturally be, if there is a God and He loves us so much as we maintain, why didn’t He prevent the accident in the first place?

Of course, if it were just as Flew suggests, we would have to agree with him but this is not at all how we assess it. God is not a philosophical proposition, though His existence, or not, is what most philosophy students cut their philosophical teeth on. There is plenty of evidence for the existence of God and therefore why we should be on the inside and praying as we do. However, there is an end with a twist in it to this story, which is why I’m sharing it with you, and why I was saddened and a little blue when I heard of Flew’s death.

Tony Flew was a man genuinely on a quest for truth. I was saddened because had he started from a different premise, he could well have found the answer in Jesus, but sadly he didn’t. Those of us who knew him, and are believers, were hoping against hope that he would. We were hoping he would live long enough finally to confess Jesus as Lord — but he didn’t. What gave us this hope?

One of the principles he lived by, or operated under, came from Socrates, who said: “We must follow the argument wherever it leads.” In 2004, Professor Antony Flew, arch-atheist and scourge of Christian believers, published a book in which he renounced his atheism and declared that there has to be a God. Many former students were horrified. After all, they were atheists because he had taught them to be. They had spent a lifetime following his arguments and believed them to be true. I can’t overstate the position. If the Pope became a Protestant, or Osama bin Laden confessed “Jesus is Lord”, or Richard Dawkins became a Young-Earth, Six-Day Creationist, the shock-waves could not have been bigger — really! In the end they handled it simply by ignoring it, condescendingly putting it down to the fact that he was now an old man in his 80s and obviously going senile. It saved them from having to face up to the truth by following where the argument leads.

What convinced him? It was simple really. The discoveries of scientists during his lifetime, particularly in unravelling DNA, have revealed an amazingly complex world and universe. Even so-called simple life shows astonishingly complex systems at work. There is nothing simple about a simple organism. So complex and so intricate are the workings and design of nature that the possibility that these things came about by chance is simply nonsense, by whatever criteria you use to evaluate it. Flew followed the argument where it led and it led to a designer who designed the world — we call Him God. That’s where the facts lead, if you follow them. It’s precisely the argument used by Paul in Romans 1, where he writes: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:16 – 20, ESV, emphasis added). We can see God in the things that have been made, and that’s precisely what Flew saw and, bless his heart, he was big enough to come out and renounce a lifetime’s belief when faced with this undeniable truth. It’s God’s own argument to show evidence of His existence; it’s the biblical approach to the question and it’s the main approach made today by creationist organizations in their literature. This is one reason why I make such an effort to teach from this perspective.

If you know anything about this area of study, you will recognize it as the Intelligent Design (ID) argument. Unfortunately ID on its own does not lead to Jesus as Saviour or even to the God of the Bible. It just leads to a belief that there is a god who designed the universe, and no more. This “god” is just a mechanic, an engineer, who made things, made them work, and essentially now sits back and watches things unfold from there. He may have made the “garden” but he doesn’t tend it — Flew could still cling on to his gardener analogy. This god is a Deist god, not the loving, caring God we love, serve, and adore. You have to move on from the designer and ask why would He just opt out? Wouldn’t it be logical for Him to reveal Himself somehow to the creatures He made? How would we judge this and find out? And here is where the Bible comes in with the story of how He not only revealed Himself, He came down and joined in, in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, was killed and rose from the dead three days later, thereby proving not only that there is a God but that He does care and interact and that He hates the mess the world has gotten into and wants to do something marvelous about it.

But you see, if you don’t believe in Adam, the perfect world God designed and created, and the fall, followed by the curse, you logically can’t be led to Jesus by the force of the argument, or rather by following where the argument leads. Because that’s where it leads, and that’s why when we pray we definitely can allow God’s hand to be seen in the answers we receive, be it “Yes” or “No.” Thus we, as believers learn to pray as Jesus did “Nevertheless Thy will not mine be done,” and then rejoice and praise God in the outcome no matter which way it turns out.

Poor old Tony Flew. He died before he was able to follow the argument wherever it led. He ran out of time, or maybe he stopped looking because he thought he’d arrived at where it led. He stopped looking because he hadn’t started from the Bible and the biblical starting point with Adam, Eve, and the fall. Consequently he was unable to finish the job. I had hoped he might and that the angels would now be rejoicing over a sinner who repented and, like the lost sheep, came back into the fold. Tony died adamantly stating that he believed in a Deist god, nothing at all like the God of the Bible, and that he didn’t want to live for ever, indeed he didn’t want anything “for ever.” Well, I’m sorry but now he’s actually got something for ever and it’s not at all what he would have wanted, hoped for, or expected at death. It is something he could never handle philosophically for philosophers don’t accept that the notion of Hell is a valid subject for discussion. It is unfalsifiable because there is nothing which believers would allow to count against it.

It has been said, “There will be no atheists in Hell.” One second after death every atheist becomes a believer in God, and that Jesus is Lord. Our God is not just an intellectual exercise or a philosophical argument, as Professor Antony Flew sadly now knows, but can do nothing more at all about it.

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