LONDON, June 11, 2013 – Some years ago Billy Graham made a statement that set off a firestorm in the Christian world.
In a televised interview with Robert Schuller, Graham suggested that some non-Christians may make it to heaven.
Graham words drew anger and condemnation from parts of the Christian community. Some went even so far as to suggest that Billy Graham is not actually a Christian but an impostor.
Such outcry may seem surprising against the man who has preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to more people than any other person in history.
But the anger becomes intelligible once we understand that his words ran counter to a doctrine which is held very deeply in many Christian quarters. That doctrine asserts that only Christians can have a true knowledge of God.
On this view, it is only Christians who can enjoy genuine fellowship with God, whether on this earth or in heaven. Thus, every non-Christian who presumes to have knowledge of or communion with the divine is either lying or mistaken. Damnation is their inevitable fate, for in the end they will be condemned to eternal torment for their error and presumption. Graham’s pronouncement ran contrary to this deeply-held doctrine, which is why it drew such an emotional response.
But in their zeal to correct and condemn, Graham’s critics failed to ask the important question: Why did the great evangelist make his statement? Why would a man who so has faithfully preached the gospel of Jesus Christ around the globe say something like this?
One may be tempted to think that perhaps Billy Graham wanted to please his audience. But Graham made his assertion on a Christian program where he was speaking to another Christian minister. The possibility that he wanted to gratify his hearers can thus be discounted. Quite to the contrary, he must have been aware that making such a statement in a Christian venue could mean trouble. There is every indication that Graham said what he did, because he truly believes it.
It is not difficult to see how Graham had arrived at his position. Having travelled the globe for decades as a Christian ambassador, he had numerous opportunities to meet people from different spiritual traditions. Having interacted extensively with individuals of different faiths, Graham recognized that there are many godly persons among them and that they exhibit what seem to be a genuine love and knowledge of the divine. It is very likely that it was this recognition that lead him conclude that they, too, can enjoy communion with God.
It is only understandable that such a pronouncement would unsettle those who think that only Christians have the truth. All the indignation notwithstanding, this belief is difficult to sustain when we examine the lives and statements of saints from other traditions. When we do this with even a small measure of open-mindedness, we cannot but conclude that love and knowledge of the divine are not the sole province of Christians. In fact, the love and devotion to God that are often found in other places easily put the worldly professor of Christ to shame. And yet, so many of us average Christians are absolutely certain that we are going to heaven while all the others are slouching toward damnation.
Billy Graham, a man who devoted his life to the spreading of the Gospel, does not apparently think that every non-Christian will necessarily end up in hell. Graham can, of course, be mistaken, since he neither a god nor a prophet. He is, however, a man of considerable spiritual insight and experience, and we would do well to ponder his words rather then summarily reject them out of hand.
There is, however, some tension in Graham’s statement. Billy Graham does, indeed, believe that Christ is the doorway to heaven, but having perceived that non-Christians can also know God, he needs to reconcile his doctrinal stance with what he sees. His solution is that heaven-bound people from other traditions are really Christians even though they do not know it. But this is something of a stretch. It is the same as if a Hindu who recognized the godliness in Billy Graham told him that he really was a Hindu at heart. Dr. Graham would surely object to such characterization of himself.
Nevertheless, Graham’s statement reveals much about the man. For one thing, he has the generosity of spirit that allows him to see that there may be godliness in other places. Secondly, his heart is not so hardened by doctrine that it would prevent him from seeing the fact that God has also worked in the hearts of people from faiths other than his own.
Unfortunately, such thinking is not very common. We often summarily dismiss what others say or feel, because we operate on the assumption that only we can right and everyone else is wrong. This attitude not only does not correspond to what we see when we really look, but it is also rife with danger. Those who hold it in the sphere of religion tend to transfer their feeling of infallibility to other areas of life such as politics, for example. The temptation, then, is to use government and force in order to confront that which we deem error. This is, in my view, one of the reasons why we evangelicals have been so zealous to use military violence in international affairs. Needless to say, our behavior on that count constitutes an astounding distortion of what Jesus Christ taught and stood for (click here to read more).
We, Christians, should give an honest consideration to what Billy Graham said and ponder why he said it. This kind of meditation may prove remedial in more ways than one.
For Part I click here
For Part II click here
Born and raised under communism, Vasko Kohlmayer is a naturalized American citizen. He has lived in several countries under various forms of government, but he still marvels at the goodness of God and the wonder of life.
Vasko has written for a number of newspapers, magazines and internet journals. He currently lives on an island called Great Britain. His column “Higher Things” deals with matters pertaining to God. You can read more by clicking on this link.
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