Let’s consider this: if your entire life story is being written in a book, how would you like the last chapter to read?
It would seem Billy Graham has been giving serious consideration to this question within the recent decade. The last proof of this preoccupation occurred about two weeks ago when he rescinded the label of “cult” from Mormonism on his website and endorsed Mitt Romney for the presidency of the United States. Is it true that Billy Graham, amongst many other Christian Fundamentalists, have found themselves in a hot seat of doctrinal apostasy?
This is the question that will wrestle on the minds of many in Christendom today and for years to come. There’s a wind of change sweeping society that may go unnoticed for what it is; where carefully crafted comments from prominent preachers fall on docile ears as new revelations from their preferred prophets.
But when one considers the doctrinal premise of their words the true sentiment of their message is undeniable. Ministers, pastors and evangelists are stepping away from the beaten path of fundamentalism to embrace an all-inclusive gospel that is without question falls deeper into the ballpark of Christian Universalism than the orthodoxy of the centuries.
The Graham/Schuler Interview
Within this present decade, another glaring case in point is a television interview the Reverend Billy Graham had with Robert Schuler (May 31, 1997). Graham scored a point, not for orthodoxy, but for Christian universalism when Schuler ask the question: “Tell me, what do you think is the future of Christianity?”
Graham’s answer jolted Schuler when he said: “I think everybody that loves Christ, or knows Christ, whether they’re conscious of it or not, they’re members of the Body of Christ… God’s purpose for this age is to call out a people for His name. And that’s what God is doing today, He’s calling people out of the world for His name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world, or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ, because they’ve been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus, but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have, and they turn to the only light that they have, and I think they are saved, and that they’re going to be with us in heaven.”
Schuler, with a gem of astonishment on his face wondered if he was really hearing what heard. He asked another question to be certain. “What, what I hear you saying, that it’s possible for Jesus Christ to come into human hearts and soul and life, even if they’ve been born in darkness and have never had exposure to the Bible. Is that a correct interpretation of what you’re saying?”
Graham’s unflinching response was: “Yes, it is, because I believe that.” Schuler was intellectually dislocated because that comment was not what he expected to hear from the legendary preacher. Perhaps someone like Universalist Ken R. Vincent; but certainly not Billy Graham.
Dr. Vincent, who is an author and board member of the Universalist Herald, would eagerly enjoin the above sentiments with a similar thought as is stated in his book, The Golden Thread: “Many Universalists today maintain that other faiths also know the Way to God. It is widely accepted that all modern religions teach the importance of good works and have some version of ‘The Golden Rule.”
In this book he also echoes the universalist views of John Paul II, when the Pope, in 1979 wrote: “Every man has been redeemed by Christ… Christ is in a way united even when man is unaware of it” (pg.68-69). Schuler, now being more pedantic, surrendered to the overwhelming of the moment and concluded that, “There’s a wideness to God’s mercy.”
Voices of Reason
As in everything that pertains to religion and the Bible, interpretation plays an important part. What has been true for centuries is that one man’s heresy can be another man’s truth. And what is one denomination’s apostasy is another denomination’s orthodoxy. Even so, it has always been the role of scholars and theologians to make sense of the difference.
With the unique skills they have of entering into individual doctrinal boxes of belief, often comes the truth that sets the soul free. Perhaps the greatest question that arises from Graham’s changing theological worldview is, “Are you willing to step outside of your religious box to find God where He is?”
While this writer cannot speak for everything Dr. Graham does and says, I do find that the repudiation of his statement by Dr. Robert Kofahl not only just a little one-sided but also very much short-sighted. When he labels Graham a heretic based on these statements it demonstrates one of the major failures of religious fundamentalism: arguing from the box.
Dr. Kofahl hastened to quote Romans 10:13-15 as if that alone is conclusive enough to debunk Graham’s statements. It is clear from other Scriptures that this text Paul wrote to the Romans has to be weighed in with several other texts in order for anyone to understand how the process works.
He also quotes Jesus’ words when He say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (Jhn 14:6). But Jesus also says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jhn 6:44). Is this contradictory? No! By allowing other Scriptures to explain those, the right conclusions can be drawn.
When Graham said, “I think everybody that loves Christ, or knows Christ, whether they’re conscious of it or not, they’re members of the body of Christ.., apparently, he was mindful of Romans 2:14-16; which says:
Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature
things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even
though they do not have the law, since they show that the
requirements of the law are written in their hearts, their
consciences also bearing witness, their thoughts now accusing,
now even defending them. (NIV)
This may well be a sterling explanation of the process by which the Sovereign Lord reaches some people when He’s ready to draw them to Christ. It is through the Divine Spirit’s prodding on their conscience that they’re led. No human has the right to say because they’re Muslim they cannot come, they’re Buddhist they cannot come, they’re pagans they cannot come. And when Graham said, God’s purpose for this age is to call out a people for His name… he could’ve been thinking of Acts 15:14-16; which says,
Peter has told you about the time God first visited the Gentiles
to take from them a people to bring honor to His name. And
this fact of Gentile conversion agrees with what the prophets
predicted. For instance, listen to this passage from the prophet,
Amos: ‘Afterwards [says the Lord], I will turn and renew the
broken contract with David, so that Gentiles, too, will find the
Lord-all those marked with my name’ (LB).
Or John 10:16 which says:
I have other sheep, too, in another fold. I must bring them also,
and they will heed my voice; and there will be one flock with
It seems the Sovereign God’s plan of the ages to reconcile people to Himself is ignored or misunderstood by some of the staunchest fundamentalists. Because when Graham also says, “They may not even know the name Jesus… ” he apparently was musing on the first-century incident that took place in Athens recorded in Acts 17:22-23:
“Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim Him to you.”
The name Jesus was the unknown “something.” By Paul’s very words, it shows that even though the Athenians did not know or spoke the name Jesus, they were worshipping Him. And so Paul led them to the next step by opening their minds to a better understanding of God and Christ. Isn’t that what all Christians are trying to do everyday -know more about God?
When God draws people to Himself, apparently it is done according to a process, according to the order of whom He chooses to be amongst His first-fruits -the Bride of Christ. Perhaps, what some Fundamentalists need to clear from their heads is the fact that when it comes to salvation, no man can make the first move! It is God that draws them from wherever they are and from whatever conditions of life they are predisposed to! Even faith is a gift from God.
Truth to Set the Soul Free
Billy Graham, who has spent many years of his life teaching the Bible, knows how to speak from his head some times, and from his heart at other times, or both, within the doctrinal box that bound him. But now in the twilight years of his career, apparently he has chosen to speak from his heart and his head and outside of the limitation of a doctrinal box. Apparently, he feels an obligation to the truth; to speak what he thinks the world should know. It seems that that truth is more akin to Christian Universalism than Christian orthodoxy; and this perhaps for at least four reasons:
First, Christian Universalism differs widely from the Calvinist influence; hence a far cry from the bad news gospel of Fundamentalism that portrays a God of eternal torture in hell as motivation for doing good. According to Eric Stetson, Executive Director of the Christian Universalist Association, and in his book, Christian Universalism, “The Christian religion has lost its way, exchanging the hopeful message of Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, and their earliest disciples for a different doctrine invented by church theologians, imposed by Roman emperors, and established as the central teachings of ‘orthodox Christianity’ centuries ago.”
Stetson believes, as do millions of other Universalists, that Christianity has inherited a false gospel crafted from the Augustinian doctrine of eternal torture. It is believed that this gospel is based on an incorrect interpretation of the two Greek words, aion and aionios to mean eternal, when the correct interpretation is age-long or age-enduring.
It stands to reason that a God who admonishes humans to love their enemies, would not do any less to His, and sentence for any reason multiple billions of people to a torture chamber for eternity for wrongs done in a brief lifetime on earth.
Second, Christian Universalism takes a honest approach to the authority of the Bible. According to David and Zoe Sulem, in the book, God’s Plan for All, “All contradictions found in any version of the Bible are due to man’s translation or interpretation errors. The Holy Spirit is our teacher and our guide, and He leads us into all truth. We are fully dependent upon Him to transcend all human translation and interpretation errors.”
This is a declaration of the formidability of God’s word; that the Holy Scripture has never, nor can ever be lost to those who are yielded, and who remain connected to the Holy Spirit. This thought goes hand-in-hand with what Jesus said: “He is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who leads you into all truth” (Jhn 14:17).
Third, Christian Universalism is believed to be the original gospel taught by Christ and the apostles. Christian Universalists describe a time when Church Fathers agree, and what later caused them to disagree. They also identify which ones remained true to the teachings of Christ and the apostles as opposed to those who crafted a counterfeit gospel. Prominent Universalist authors are adept in making a distinction between three Christian schools of thought:
“All Bible believing Christians fall into one of the three categories of Christian beliefs, known as Calvinism, Arminianism, and Universalism… With regards to salvation, every professing Christian inevitably falls into one of them, whether he understands or is aware of these terms or not” (Sulem, 233).
While Calvinism and Arminianism are highly influenced by Augustine’s radical Catholic theology of eternal torment in hell, Universalists believe that the church fathers of truth that remained with the original gospel of Christ and the apostles were Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Gregory of Nyssa.
These Church Fathers trumpeted the truth that says, because God is loving and is the quintessential Father, every chastisement is corrective and reconciling and no one will be lost forever. It appears that fundamentalists are so selfishly preoccupied with being the “special” ones who are “Raptured” into heaven, they fail to study the Scripture further about God’s reconciling plan for those who are left behind.
Fourth, Christian Universalism is predicated on the fact that belief and adherence to Christian Universalism transcend denominational ties. “Universalism is a way of understanding God’s love as revealed through the prophets and Jesus. It reflects a change of heart and doesn’t require a change of denomination” (Vincent, 72).
Eric Stetson adds a similar thought when he says, “Many ministers, writers, and theologians from diverse denominational and geographical backgrounds advocated various types of Biblical Universalism instead of the traditional belief in eternal conscious torment” (120).
Even so, in a similar way that the Christian church was comparatively marginal in the first century, so is Christian Universalism in the twenty-first century. Is history repeating itself? If it is, then the words of Gamaliel (Acts 5:38-39) when he addressed the Jewish council in Jerusalem about Apostle Paul and the new movement, is timelessly applicable when he said, “If what they teach and do is merely on their own, it will soon be overthrown. But if it is of God, you will not be able to stop them, lest you find yourselves fighting against God.”
Ken McCarty Bird is an author and speaker, award-winning poet, consultant on neuromuscular health issues. The most recent title of his four books is Caribbean Spell. He can be reached at (727) 388-3424 or [email protected]