When Billy Graham (almost) gave up on the Bible

One of the most heart-wrenching experiences a Christian can go through is to see a friend or family member turn their back on Christ.  Now, this raises important theological questions regarding the doctrine known as ‘the perseverance of the saints’, that is the question regarding whether a Christian can fall away.  It is an important question but I am going to park it to look at the issue from the other side:  what do we do when we experience doubts that might cause us to give up on Christ, or even to radically alter our views about the Christian faith? 

Although both are real temptations that nigh on every Christian will face, it is the latter that it is worth thinking about because it is so subtle.  We can easily fool ourselves by mentally lessening the seriousness of what we are doing. After all we aren’t giving up on Christ altogether – we are just reconsidering what we believe on, for example, the uniqueness of Christ, or what the Bible teaches on human sexuality or the authority of the Scriptures themselves.  

And it is this pressure that Christians in the west face most acutely.  For our brothers and sisters in the majority world the pressure is much more binary – renounce Christ or die/suffer terrible deprivation.   For us, it is change your views on these aspects of the Christian faith or be excluded from public discourse and considered a fool. 

Having recently read his autobiography, I found it very interesting to learn how Billy Graham faced a crisis of this kind.   He recounts how he had been challenged by his good friend Chuck Templeton who counselled him:

‘Billy, you’re fifty years out of date. People no longer accept the Bible as being inspired the way you do. Your faith is too simple. Your language is out of date. You’re going to have to learn the new jargon if you’re going to be successful in your ministry’.

Challenges like these and others from science and philosophy rocked Graham. Though ‘he had no doubts concerning the deity of Jesus Christ or the validity of the Gospel’ the question of the complete truthfulness of the Bible nagged at him.  Given his doubts, he faced up to the fact that he may have to give up pulpit evangelism.   

What did Graham do?  Well, firstly, he faced up to his doubts.  There has been a bit of a rehabilitation of doubt amongst Christians to the extent that doubt is seen as a virtue. Not for Billy Graham who understood the significance of what was happening to him.  

Interestingly the final resolution concerning his doubts came in an experience he had alone in the woods:

Dropping to my knees there in the woods, I opened the Bible at random on a tree stump in front of me. I could not read it in the shadowy moonlight, so I had no idea what text lay before me. […] I could only stutter into prayer. The exact wording of my prayer is beyond recall, but it must have echoed my thoughts: “O God! There are many things in this book I do not understand. There are many problems with it for which I have no solution. There are many seeming contradictions. There are some areas in it that do not seem to correlate with modern science. I can’t answer some of the philosophical and psychological questions Chuck and others are raising.” I was trying to be on the level with God, but something remained unspoken. At last the Holy Spirit freed me to say it. “ Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word— by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts , and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word.” When I got up from my knees at Forest Home that August night, my eyes stung with tears. I sensed the presence and power of God as I had not sensed it in months. Not all my questions were answered, but a major bridge had been crossed. In my heart and mind, I knew a spiritual battle in my soul had been fought and won.

Isn’t this a counsel of despair?  When you have a doubt about a Bible doctrine, the uniqueness of Christ say, just lock yourself in a room until you can convince yourself it is true?  Isn’t this the classic misconception of what faith is – working yourself up to believe something even though you know it isn’t true?   Well, it would be if we took this account in isolation, for it is not the only thing that Graham did.  

For him 

The particular intellectual problem I was wrestling with, for the first time since my conversion as a teenager, was the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures. Seeming contradictions and problems with interpretation defied intellectual solutions, or so I thought. Could the Bible be trusted completely?

Could the Bible be trusted completely?  If it couldn’t, Billy Graham felt he could not go on as a pulpit evangelist or seminary president (as he then was).   But before Billy got to his experiential conviction in the woods, he did something else: He read the Bible. He recounts how

[a]lone in my room one evening, I read every verse of Scripture I could think of that had to do with “thus saith the Lord.” I recalled hearing someone say that the prophets had used the phrase “the Word of the Lord said” (or similar wording) more than two thousand times. I had no doubts concerning the deity of Jesus Christ or the validity of the Gospel, but was the Bible completely true? If I was not exactly doubtful, I was certainly disturbed. I pondered the attitude of Christ toward the Scriptures. He loved those sacred writings and quoted from them constantly. Never once did He intimate that they could be wrong. In fact, He verified some of the stories in the Old Testament that were the hardest to believe, such as those concerning Noah and Jonah. With the Psalmist, He delighted in the law of the Lord, the Scriptures.

In the face of his doubts about the Bible, Billy Graham read the Bible.  He read (it seems) verse after verse.  He thought about Jesus’ attitude to the Scriptures and how he held them in the highest authority.  That night was only a start: The conviction that Graham eventually came to arrived a few days later. But crucially the foundation for his experiential conviction rested on his sustained meditation on the word. 

I think this is very instructive.  Too often when we have doubts about the Bible we look elsewhere – we seek to buttress the Bible from other sources.  But Billy Graham shows us that fundamentally doubts about the Bible are resolved by reading the Bible!   

This is the teaching of the Bible itself.  Psalm 119 is the testimony of a believer who is soaked in the Scriptures but who also cries out for understanding.   His struggles to understand the Scriptures don’t drive him away from the Word but cause him to sink even more deeply into it in prayerful dependence on God.  The Psalmist prays for understanding of the Scriptures that he lacks (119:34, 73, 125, 144) but also testifies that it is only in these same Scriptures that understanding is found (119:99, 104, 130, 144). It is the Scriptures, Paul reminds us, that make us ‘wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ (2 Tim 3:15) and it as these very same Scriptures continue to point us to Christ that we will be kept in that same salvation. 

The antidote to doubts about the Scriptures then is found in prayerfully dependent reading of those very same Scriptures.  

Feature photo: Franklin and Billy Graham in Cleveland Stadium - Paul M Walsh