Beggar to Beggar

Saved by Increments

A leading intellectual elaborates on why he abandoned atheism. But, surprisingly, he says his reasons were not entirely intellectual.

British philosophy professor Dr. Antony Flew has been the subject of several Weblog discussions recently. Born the son of a Methodist minister, he embraced atheism at age 15 and spent most of his life promoting unbelief. Recently, he announced that evidence is forcing him to admit that a creator-God probably does exist.

To the extent that the media have reported Flew’s change of mind, they have emphasized his cerebral cogitations, the “argument to design” logic. He reasons that DNA and other intricacies — as distant as the galaxies and as close as our own bodily structures — overwhelmingly suggest a wise creator-God. Several news dispatches mention that the Intelligent Design concept that several of my friends and I have championed has played a part in stimulating him to recognize God’s “characteristics of power and also intelligence.”

But another major factor in Prof. Flew’s change of heart showed up in his interview with Liberty University philosopher and historian Dr. Gary Habermas, published in the journal Philosophia Christi. Flew admires John and Charles Wesley, whose influence continues to uplift society more than two centuries after their deaths. Flew told Habermas, “Methodism made it impossible to build a really substantial Communist Party in Britain and provided the country with a generous supply of men and women of sterling moral character. . . [Methodism’s] decline is a substantial part of the [cause for the] explosions both of unwanted motherhood and of crime in recent decades.” For Flew, God’s reality demonstrates itself in the lives of people who follow biblical principles.

I have found that the work that we do in Prison Fellowship to be our most powerful apologetic and witness. People can see the Gospel lived out, as Flew has done.

Flew also had long-term personal contact with C. S. Lewis. He recalls that while they were both on the Oxford faculty, they attended the weekly meetings of the Socratic Club, chaired by Lewis. Although Flew disagreed with Lewis on many issues, he remembers Lewis as “an eminently reasonable man.” Instead of raising his voice or pounding the table, Lewis spoke softly and showed respect for Flew, earning Lewis the right to be heard.

What lessons can we learn from Prof. Flew’s spiritual pilgrimage, about how to witness to atheists and skeptics? First, we need to avoid an arrogant triumphalism — a put-down attitude that comes across as “I told you so! What took you so long to recognize what has been obvious to me for years?” Second, we need to demonstrate the Gospel every opportunity we have, showing our secular friends how Christian efforts create a better society.

And finally, remember the principle of evangelism by increments. Many people do not accept Christ the first time they hear the Gospel. C. S. Lewis moved first from atheism to intellectual assent, and then later to saving faith in Christ.

Seldom does somebody move all the way from atheism to salvation, as a result of one person’s presentation on one occasion. When God gives us the privilege to carry the ball a few yards, that’s fine: He often gets someone else to carry it the rest of the way across the goal line.


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