Billy Graham and Charles Templeton: The Sad Tale of Two Evangelists

As many of you know, Billy Graham and Charles Templeton were evangelists who rose to fame in the 40s (Graham, of course, is still an evangelist). Early in their careers they were friends – close friends. Many have said Templeton was the one that everyone thought was going to overturn the world with the Gospel. However, Templeton ended up leaving the Christian faith, eventually becoming an atheist.  In 1982, though still an atheist, he said of Billy Graham, “There is no feigning in him: he believes what he believes with an invincible innocence. He is the only mass evangelist I would trust” (Anecdotal Memoir). Templeton died in 2001 at the age of 86, shortly after he wrote what I consider to be one of the most heart-breaking books ever published: Farewell to God.


Billy Graham and Charles Templeton In Dialogue

Here is an excerpt from that book, about a pivotal conversation he had with Billy Graham as he was leaving the faith. The context is his desire to go to Princeton to study the Christian faith more critically. He wanted Graham to come with him. Please keep in mind, this is his account of the conversation:

“All our differences came to a head in a discussion which, better than anything I know, explains Billy Graham and his phenomenal success as an evangelist.

In the course of our conversation I said, ‘But, Billy, it’s simply not possible any longer to believe, for instance, the biblical account of creation. The world was not created over a period of days a few thousand years ago; it has evolved over millions of years. It’s not a matter of speculation; it’s a demonstrable fact.’

‘I don’t accept that’ Billy said. ‘And there are reputable scholars who don’t.’

‘Who are these scholars?’ I said. ‘Men in conservative Christian colleges[?]’

‘Most of them, yes,’ he said. ‘But that is not the point. I believe the Genesis account of creation because it’s in the Bible. I’ve discovered something in my ministry: When I take the Bible literally, when I proclaim it as the word of God, my preaching has power. When I stand on the platform and say, ‘God says,’ or ‘The Bible says,’ the Holy Spirit uses me. There are results. Wiser men than you or I have been arguing questions like this for centuries. I don’t have the time or the intellect to examine all sides of the theological dispute, so I’ve decided once for all to stop questioning and accept the Bible as God’s word.’

‘But Billy,’ I protested, ‘You cannot do that. You don’t dare stop thinking about the most important question in life. Do it and you begin to die. It’s intellectual suicide.'”

‘I don’t know about anybody else,’ he said, ‘but I’ve decided that that’s the path for me.'”

(Farewell to God, 7-8)

For me, this represents one of the saddest encounters two people have ever had. It recounts a decisive breach in the friendship between two men as one left Christ, never to come back, and the other went on to, in my opinion, change the world.

Belief and Understanding Are Not Contrasting Qualities

As I said, I don’t know if Graham’s words are the words he actually said, but I have no reason to doubt that they are. You see, there does come a time in our life when we “decide” to believe. It is not as if our intellect is no longer in the game, it is simply that there is a sufficient amount of evidence to make a commitment. Graham had enough. He is right, there is no way faith can wait until every stone is overturned. None of us will ever get to a place where our intellect has no objections whatsoever. This is the modernistic ideal of indubitability, which is impossible in any area of life. At some point in our journey, we decide that God is real, the Bible is trustworthy, and Christ is who he said he was.

Templeton, as his own story makes plain (p. 3), never truly reached a point where he was intellectually convicted of the truthfulness of Christianity (what the reformers called assensus). Assensus represents the conviction we have in our minds. Assent of the mind is vital to our faith. Graham, according to this testimony, had enough assensus to make a decision. He was not going to be an eternal “tire-kicker” with regard to Christianity. Sure, he could have waited, like Templeton, until every possible objection to the faith was answered, but this would amount to a failure of modernistic irrationality. We can never have all our questions answered. At some point there must be a sufficiency in probability.

There is a time when we, like Billy Graham, must stop the type of questioning that comes prior to faith, and make a decision. This does not mean we stop using our minds, as Templeton unfortunately assumed. In Christianity, we call this fides quaenes intellectum, “faith seeking understanding.” We believe in order to understand. We have faith and seek understanding.

May God give us all the ability to be like Billy Graham and make a decision to trust God and the Bible. May he help us to believe what we believe with an invincible innocence. Though doubts may still exist, they do not mean that our faith is not real.


9 Responses to “Billy Graham and Charles Templeton: The Sad Tale of Two Evangelists”

  1. Jesus told his disciples “stop doubting and believe!” We doubt because we can’t understand everything. As human creations, we cannot fathom the mind of God; His ways, His economy. Transitioning to “belief” from doubt, eliminates our need for complete understanding. ” Blessed are those who believe, and yet have not seen.” How can we possibly understand creation from “nothing”? How can we understand love countering hatred? How do we identify “eternity”? We may have many questions, which will be answered in heaven, but probably not necessary now. Billy Graham chose belief and trust in the great God and Creator. Sadly, Charles Templeton needed every answer before taking the next step. An eye-opening Scripture is “those who persevere to the end WILL be saved.”Only God knows. We persevere and bear fruit because of God, not of ourselves.

    • Thanks for the comments Randall!

    • I’m troubled deeply by your sense that doubt is antagonistic to faith. It seems to me that doubt is motivated by honest inquiry and challenges to systems of thought that are not sound. You end your comment with the sense that perseverance for its own sake will be rewarded, a notion I find deeply troubling as it is assumed that Templeton did not in fact persevere in his pursuit of faith.
      . But in response to Grahm’s words (wherein I find the deepest suspicion), I must say that his justification for continuance of his mission scares me to death. He judges the message he preaches to be true because it gives him power and he sees results? He ignores reason for this?! Note how he says in quite relativistic fashion “its the right path for me.” I know the weight of this blog is on the side of “pro Billy,” but I want to suggest that the real hero here is Templeton, who wants so dearly to believe, but resists the irrational impulse to believe because it gives him confidence and power. I’m not suggesting there aren’t rational reasons to believe in God, but this particular case pains me when I consider how the Grahm model has so cheapened the project of robust, reason supported faith.

  2. Leonard Carroll 2015-09-25 at 2:41 am

    I am fortunate to have come to a position where I don’t believe, I know. The true Christian doesn’t have a religion, he has a relationship, and that relationship brings about experiences that leave one in total awe of His Magnificence.

    • Hi Leonard,

      Thanks for the feedback. I’m sorry but I don’t understand your comment. Could you elaborate on what you don’t believe anymore?

      • I think Leonard is saying he doesn’t doubt at all anymore because now he KNOWS it’s true. He doesn’t just believe it. He KNOWS it. And the experiences he has had with God has confirmed it.

  3. Someone has said that all I have known teaches me to trust God for all I do not know.
    Isaac Newton the great scientist saw God behind the great order in creation
    You don’t even need to dig the ground to discover God, He is all around you.
    What is decisive is the heart behind our questions, if we are reverent and seek light, God will show us. If we are arrogant in our hearts, we cannot hear God.
    Only the sick man, the man who knows he is in need of help, will receive God’s help.

  4. “You see, there does come a time in our life when we “decide” to believe.”

    There may indeed be such a moment, but it is certainly not when most of the empirical evidence is pointing in the opposite direction.

    That may be a moment for trust, driven by the belief that future evidence will eventually affirm my assessment of the situation, but that trust must be imbued with some degree of skepticism; the scientific notion that I may be completely or even partially wrong.

    “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

    Without that humility, religious bigotry can deliver so much tragedy. Just because you believe in God, it does not follow that He agrees with your every thought.

    Arguably Billy Graham has used his political power to endorse so much that is wrong with America, such as its gun laws, the wastefulness of its military machine and its tolerance for a social inequality which may eventually destroy it as a nation state.

    Beware the congregation that thinks it has God on its side.

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