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Why Colbert Missed a Moment with Ricky Gervais

Why Colbert Missed a Moment with Ricky Gervais

I like Stephen Colbert.

I particularly like it when he engages religion.

And I’m over the moon when he takes on skeptics… because most of the time, he’s good. Really good.

Case in point? His classic takedown of Bart Ehrman, which you can view here.

But recently he egged Ricky Gervais into a mini-debate on Gervais‘ atheism. Colbert started off, perhaps a bit too aggressively for my tastes, but with a good and pointed classical question: Why is there something rather than nothing?

Gervais good-naturedly dismissed it by raising a different and, to him, more pointed question: How is there something rather than nothing? Which, if accepted, would throw everything into what science has to reveal. 

Fair enough.

(Colbert’s initial question remains, however.)

Gervais then scored a rhetorical point by saying that there are around 3,000 different deities floating around the religious landscape. Colbert believes in One and so, Gervais suggested, therefore disbelieves in 2,999. So he was being a type of “atheist” too. Ricky was simply adding “one more” to the list.

That would make for what seems like an effectively snarky tweet, but it’s quite specious upon reflection. It’s not about an arbitrary belief in one out of thousands; it’s about the larger question of whether there is a God at all. If there is, it doesn’t matter how many false gods might be engineered. If there is a God, there is only One.

It’s not about selective atheism, but the pursuit of truth and reality.

But where Colbert missed his moment, and even (unfortunately) ceded a point, was when Gervais opined that you could take all of the religious texts of the world and burn them, and in a thousand years, they would never be recreated.

Translation: they were nothing but air; the fiction of a particular charismatic leader or movement. Nothing real, nothing substantive, nothing transcendent. 

But if you took books on science and burned them, in a thousand years they would all be re-written and come back into existence. Why? Because science is there to be observed, studied and learned from. The laws and principles are universally available to be studied and extrapolated.

To this, Colbert said, “That’s a good point.”

And it was. 

But in favor of the existence of God.

The birth of modern science was predicated on a single idea: the universe was not random or chaotic, but created by an intelligent Being. Therefore there could be principles and postulates, theorems and replicable experiments. We could think God’s thoughts after Him, or at least discover a few.

This was Paul’s great argument in his manifesto to the church at Rome: 

… since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (Romans 1:19-20, NIV)

In other words, not only would the science books be re-written, so would the testimony to the existence of God.

But it wouldn’t stop at natural revelation.

The pursuing God of the universe would see to it that His gospel would once again be made known.

He’s that kind of God.

And more atheists need to know it.

James Emery White



“Watch Ricky Gervais and Stephen Colbert Debate the Existence of God,” Relevant Magazine, February 2, 2017, watch online.

“Stephen Discusses Bart Erhman’s Theory that the Bible Contradicts Itself,” The Colbert Report, April 9, 2009, watch online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.