According to Rausch, the best evidence that Jesus lived comes from the ancient Jewish writer and historian Josephus, particularly a passage in his "The Jewish Antiquities," dating from about AD 95. Some material in Josephus was probably added to the original text by Christians to bolster the young religion.
But, Rausch said, most scholars accept as authentic Josephus' description of a wise teacher called Jesus who did "startling deeds" and "gained a following among many Jews and many of Greek origin," according to one translation, and was condemned to the cross.
Historian Richard Carrier, the atheist author of "Sense and Goodness Without God," said he had been "agnostic" about the existence of Jesus until Flemming interviewed him for the film. Now, he said, "I think that more likely than not, Jesus did not exist."
Carrier has come to doubt that Josephus wrote a word of the key passage about Jesus, known among scholars as the Testimonium Flavianum. Carrier was swayed by a mass of circumstantial evidence, including early Christian theologian Origen's citing Josephus but not that passage.
Whether or not the film changes anyone's mind, some skeptics see the movie as a welcome call for reason and against blind faith. Ford Vox heads the Universist Movement, whose 8,000 members describe themselves as "faithless."
"We emphasize free inquiry rather than the nonexistence of God," said Vox, a medical student who founded the group in Birmingham, Ala., in 2003.
The Universists sponsored the film's Southern premiere in Birmingham and its New York City opening. Vox said he believes the movie communicates a healthy skepticism about Christianity.
He said religion is dangerous in that it often encourages "absolutist, black-and-white thinking" that allows people to dehumanize and demonize those who don't share their beliefs.
Flemming, aware of the irony that the fundamentalist faith he rejected fuels much of his work, said he gets "a lot of e-mail that ranges from utterly hateful to 'I want to save your soul.' "
The filmmaker said he has "no lingering resentment" about his parents sending him to a fundamentalist school. And making "The God Who Wasn't There," especially the sequence in the school chapel, was "very cathartic," he said. "I'm finally done with that whole period of my life, and I can move on."