Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What's the Deal with Billy Graham?

SKEPTIC: In a 2006 Newsweek interview, Billy Graham angered some Christians when he seemed to make a couple of major changes in his theological point of view. First, although he'd always been a literalist when it came to the Bible, he now says that he is "not a literalist in the sense that every single jot and tittle is from the Lord." Also, even though he had always preached that you must be a born-again Christian to go to Heaven, he now seems to be open to the possibility that those of other faiths may also be granted entrance, saying that God "loves everybody regardless of what label they have" and "it would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won't."

What is your take on these statements?

PREACHER: I have a profound respect for Billy Graham who has done an excellent job of keeping his humility and integrity. One thing he has tried very hard to do is to contend for the Gospel without being contentious, and that is a very thin line to walk. I hope and pray that I can do as well as he has. If in his younger years he had a tendency to err to one side, he has probably erred to the other in his later years. However, I think you are reading too much into his statements that you quote. I also keep in mind that they are quotes in an article that a Newsweek reporter wrote, who probably has views more similar to yours than mine, and whose bias is quite evident in the article. To say that "not every jot and tittle is from the Lord" may be just acknowledging that there are minor variances in the many manuscripts (copyist errors). To say that God "loves everybody regardless of what label they have" is in complete compliance with a literal understanding of Scripture. To say that "it would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won't" is a humble acknowledgement that as a man he can't really know what is in the heart of men nor understand everything that God is doing. Some Christians have been labeling Billy Graham as a liberal for decades, but he certainly isn't becoming a post-modernist.

SKEPTIC: I'm not sure why you say the article is biased. I thought it was a very fair and largely favorable retrospective on Graham's life and the changes he's experienced. Can you point out examples from the article that you think are biased in some way?

Your attempt to minimize his change in thinking regarding the literalism of the Bible as a reference to "copyist errors" seems like wishful thinking on your part. The article gave no indication that such was the case. Indeed, it states clearly that Graham has acknowledged that this represents a change in his thinking and he now believes that some parts of the Bible should be taken figuratively, not literally.

And you must admit, his "hands-off" position on the question of who gets into Heaven is a big change from what he preached most of his life, i.e. that only Bible-believing, born-again Christians will get the "golden ticket" to Heaven. If his current position were so benign, you wouldn't have so many Christians screaming for his head on a platter (if I may invoke a John the Baptist reference). The same thing happened more recently, you may recall, when Joel Osteen took pretty much the same position and was roundly pilloried by true believers.

PREACHER: Doesn't everyone approaching any subject come with their particular bias? I would agree that the article was quite fair, but as demonstrated in the quote below, the author asks questions that are emotionally loaded revealing his bias.

When asked whether he believes heaven will be closed to good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people, though, Graham says: "Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won't ... I don't want to speculate about all that. I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have." Such an ecumenical spirit may upset some Christian hard-liners, but in Graham's view, only God knows who is going to be saved.

If Graham had said no those "good people" wouldn't get into heaven, he knows that the author and much of the media would have labeled him a narrow-minded bigot. So, he gave his answer in a more ambiguous way. That of course offended some Christians, but Graham has always made it a priority to reach out to those who are outside the Christian faith. If the author had asked him if he thought that salvation through Jesus Christ was the only hope for eternal life, I believe he would have said yes. His point would be that God loves everyone, and all are saved by faith in the grace of God through Jesus Christ no matter what label they may have had in this life. And, only God is the true and final judge.

Ok, so he did move away from Biblical literalism some. To a point that is a good thing as there are parts of the Bible that were not intended to be taken literally (i.e. certain phrases in "The Song of Solomon") Then there are parts of the Bible that he takes figuratively that I have recently chosen to take literally. Such examples would be the creation account in Genesis 1 and some of the prophesies concerning the future of Israel and the Millennial Kingdom. In reference to Genesis 1, I think he isn't up on the scientific and Biblical research that is recently being done. The prophesies? Time will tell. I don't agree with him completely (neither does his son nor his grandson who is also an evangelist).

So, I see that he has become more flexible in his beliefs and interpretation of the Bible in his later years, but any suggestion that he has radically changed his theological views is wishful thinking on your part.

SKEPTIC: I wouldn't characterize the question about Heaven being closed to certain people as "biased." To me, it's more of a bottom-line kind of question. My favorite kind. In any event, even though I don't agree with Graham's belief system, I do respect his willingness to re-evaluate his beliefs when something no longer makes sense to him (something most Christians seem unwilling or unable to do).


  1. I think Billy's shift in thinking is a Big Deal. It isn't a small matter to move away from biblical literalism. I was raised in a Calvinist church where differences on such "details of theology" could break apart a congregation. Isn't that why there are so very many denominations?

    Its a big deal for a Christian to suddenly accept or deny creationism, predestination etc.

    And that is also why I think these comments warrant evaluation. If one of the most influencial Christian Leaders can start to rethink things at the twilight of his life, I think we should all stop and ponder the fallibility of the Bible.

    Either is is inerrant, or it is not. And if it is not, than by what standards shall we determine what is? Ask 100 preachers, you're gonna get 100 different answers.

    Christianity is a constantly changing, evolving concept that ebbs and flows with the times and attitudes of the people. It is as "morally relavistic" as anything else.

    Billy Graham is evidence of that.

  2. I have read the article in Newsweek several times and I still don't see how you guys can say that Billy Graham has made a major shift in his beliefs. A minor shift - God's grace may be available to those of other faith labels in ways we don't know versus universalism.

  3. Christianity makes sense to me. People are falling away from the faith all the time. And, you might be interested to know that that is a fulfillment of end-time Biblical prophesy.


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