Simultaneously available in limited release in theaters and on DVD, The God Who Wasn’t There is Brian Flemming’s attempt to prove that Christianity is predicated on a man/god who never existed. It is a thought-provoking and highly visual exercise. Ultimately, though, it falls short of its goal.
Flemming is a former fundamentalist Christian who, for reasons the film does not explain, came to the conclusion that the story of Jesus is not a historical one. To the contrary, he believes it doubtful Jesus ever existed. In fact, he believes Christians, particularly fundamentalists, are as wrong in their belief in Jesus as the church’s former insistence that the Sun revolved around the Earth.
Flemming asks attendees outside a Billy Graham event who Jesus is and how Christianity spread. He then tells the familiar story of the life of Jesus using excerpts from a 1905 French silent film and a 1952 US film miniseries. He then gets to the heart of his project: he takes a look at the historical record and compares major elements of Jesus doctrine with prior mythological gods and characters. This examination is interspersed with interviews with historians, folklorists and Sam Harris, the author of the best-selling The End of Faith. Flemming raises some interesting and provocative points. The problem is he breezes through some of the comparisons to mythology and abandons this exploration to take another tack.
Rather than further examining the historical record, the film devolves into a look at Christianity’s focus on “blood sacrifice” (relying on excerpts from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ that are used without permission) and the single-mindedness of fundamentalists. The latter comes via some of the views of those who believe in the rapture and an interview with the superintendent of the fundamentalist school Flemming attended. That interview, however, comes off more as an effort of a former student to challenge a past authority figure than one which addresses the question of a historical Jesus and is a somewhat inapt way of concluding the film.
With the film clocking it at just over a hour in length, the DVD has the advantage of also providing additional footage of the interviews with those who appear in the film. There are commentary tracks by noted atheists and an author who believes Jesus was a myth and a slide show which, if played on a computer, provides links to web sites relevant to the topics.
Flemming’s film touches on issues that, while controversial and unpopular, are worthy of exploration and discussion. Unfortunately, those issues become lost and lose force in what eventually seems to come off as a surface exploration of a grudge against Flemming’s fundamentalist schooling. The premise of the film title would have been brought into clearer focus had Flemming spent more time exploring the historical record and comparative mythology. Yet despite these failings, The God Who Wasn’t There is still a thought-provoking film.