By best-selling author Lee Strobel (1952- )
Billy Graham (1918- )
The year was 1949. Thirty-year-old Billy Graham was unaware that he was on the brink of being catapulted into worldwide fame and influence. Ironically, as he readied himself for his breakthrough crusade in Los Angeles, he found himself grappling with uncertainty — not over the existence of God or the divinity of Jesus but over the fundamental issue of whether he could totally trust what his Bible was telling him.
In his autobiography, Graham said he felt as if he were being stretched on a rack. Pulling him toward God was Henrietta Mears, the bright and compassionate Christian educator who had a thorough understanding of modern scholarship and an abounding confidence in the reliability of the Scriptures. Yanking him the other way was Graham’s close companion and preaching colleague, thirty-three-year-old Charles Templeton.
The skeptical Templeton, a counterpoint to the faith-filled Mears, was tugging his friend Billy Graham away from her repeated assurances that the Scriptures are trustworthy. “Billy, you’re fifty years out of date,” he argued. “People no longer accept the Bible as being inspired the way you do. Your faith is too simple.”
Templeton seemed to be winning the tug-of-war. “If I was not exactly doubtful,” Graham would recall, “I was certainly disturbed.” He knew that if he could not trust the Bible, he could not go on. The Los Angeles crusade — the event that would open the door to Graham’s worldwide ministry — was hanging in the balance.
Graham searched the Scriptures for answers, he prayed, he pondered. Finally, in a heavy-hearted walk in the moonlit San Bernardino Mountains, everything came to a climax. Gripping a Bible, Graham dropped to his knees and confessed he couldn’t answer some of the philosophical and psychological questions that Templeton and others were raising.
“I was trying to be on the level with God, but something remained unspoken,” he wrote. “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.’”
Rising from his knees, tears in his eyes, Graham said he sensed the power of God as he hadn’t felt it for months. “Not all my questions were answered, but a major bridge had been crossed,” he said. “In my heart and mind, I knew a spiritual battle in my soul had been fought and won.”
For Graham, it was a pivotal moment. For Templeton, though, it was a bitterly disappointing turn of events. “He committed intellectual suicide by closing his mind,” Templeton declared. The emotion he felt most toward his friend was pity. Now on different paths, their lives began to diverge.
History knows what would happen to Graham in the succeeding years. He would become the most persuasive and effective evangelist of modern times and one of the most admired men in the world. But what would happen to Templeton? Decimated by doubts, he resigned from the ministry and moved back to Canada, where he became a commentator and novelist.
Templeton’s reasoning had chased away his faith. But are faith and intellect really incompatible? Is it possible to be a thinker and a Bible-believing Christian at the same time? Some don’t believe so.
“Reason and faith are opposites, two mutually exclusive terms: there is no reconciliation or common ground,” asserts atheist George H. Smith. “Faith is belief without, or in spite of, reason.”
Christian educator W. Bingham Hunter takes the opposite view. “Faith,” he said, “is a rational response to the evidence of God’s self-revelation in nature, human history, the Scriptures and his resurrected Son.”
For me, having lived much of my life as an atheist, the last thing I want is a naive faith built on a paper-thin foundation of wishful thinking or make-believe. I need a faith that’s consistent with reason, not contradictory to it; I want beliefs that are grounded in reality, not detached from it.
Today, having now retraced my original investigation, my confidence in that 1981 decision to abandon atheism and cling to Christ has only been reinforced. Asking uncomfortable questions hasn’t diminished my faith; it has strengthened it. Probing the “soft spots” of Christianity has reaffirmed for me once more the fundamental soundness and logical integrity of the faith. Refined by the rigors of intellectual scrutiny, my faith has emerged deeper, richer, more resilient, and more certain than ever.
II Timothy 3:14-17 — Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
II Peter 3:15-18a — Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Blessed Lord, you speak to us through the Holy Scriptures. Grant that we may hear, read, respect, learn, and make them our own in such a way that the enduring benefit and comfort of the Word will help us grasp and hold the blessed hope of everlasting life, given us through our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
—Book of Common Prayer, adapted for Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978.