Answer the Question, Billy

Thanks to a Google news alert, I recently became aware that the evangelist Billy Graham has a syndicated newspaper column, entitled “My Answer”. Graham addresses both theological queries and requests for advice, both of which he typically answers by quoting Bible verses and ending with a standard invitation for the reader to convert to Christianity. (Despite Billy Graham’s fame, few Christians today know that when he began preaching, he was one-half of a team. His partner, Charles Templeton, took a break from evangelism to attend seminary and study the origins of Christianity, and ended up deconverting to agnosticism and writing a book titled Farewell to God.)

However, one recent question caught my eye:

I know heaven is supposed to be a place of supreme happiness, but how can we be happy there if our friends aren’t with us? My two closest friends don’t want anything to do with God and claim to be atheists, and it hurts me to think I’ll never see them again after we die.

This is a very good question to ask Christians, because it lays bare the immorality at the heart of that religion. For all the assertions that Christianity provides a superior and incomparable moral system, the fact is that the Bible teaches, and generations of Christians have believed, that failing to believe correctly is a crime worthy of eternal suffering, regardless of what kind of life a person has led or what good they have done. This, as Charles Darwin put it, is a damnable doctrine. It is a plainly and inescapably evil idea, and to anyone with a functioning conscience, it should make the idea of Heaven seem not a glory, but a horror. As I wrote in “Those Old Pearly Gates“:

How can anyone enjoy Heaven, knowing that while you have eternal bliss there are people experiencing eternal suffering? Unless you belong to an insular religious community or a cult, it’s almost certain that you know someone – a friend, a relative, a loved one, an idol who inspires you – whose religion of choice is different than yours, or who has no religion at all. How will you be able to enjoy Heaven in the certain knowledge that that person is, at the same moment, suffering the torments of the damned? What if it’s a spouse, a parent, a best friend, a child? (Some theists claim that watching the damned suffer is one of the rewards allotted to those who reach Heaven. About this no more will be said.) How can Heaven be any sort of reward at all if it means eternal separation from the people you care about, all the more so if those people must suffer without release while you are powerless to help them? And will you, a saved soul in Paradise, be content to kneel and worship the same god who, elsewhere at that same moment, is pouring out the flames of his wrath upon your lost loved ones?

So, as I said, this is a very good question. And that makes Graham’s response to it noteworthy:

Perhaps the most important thing I can tell you is to urge you not to give up on your friends. Someday they may realize their own spiritual emptiness and hopelessness, and give their lives to Christ…. Are you praying for them, and are you asking God to help you be a witness to them both by the way you live and by your words?

As anyone who follows the link to read Graham’s answer for themselves can see, he completely dodges the question. He does not even attempt to justify how Heaven can be a place of happiness if it exists alongside Hell, or explain how the saved can be happy despite the damnation of their non-Christian friends and loved ones. Instead, he merely provides a trite answer encouraging Christians to evangelize, ignoring the thrust of the questioner’s point.

I strongly doubt that this evasion was unintentional. On the contrary, when confronted with the evil at the heart of their belief system, Christians tend to tiptoe around it rather than face it squarely, covering up the problem with pat assurances that God will, somehow, make everything all right in the end. And no wonder: the more one thinks about this, the more immoral it seems. One of the few apologists who admitted the incompatibility and tried to reconcile it was C.S. Lewis, but his book The Great Divorce ironically only illustrates the depth of the problem by painting a Kafkaesque afterlife where the saved souls are stripped of all trace of human compassion and look down impassively, like bright machines, on the misery of their damned friends and loved ones.

The Bible clearly teaches that all non-Christians are damned (Mark 16:16, for one). Given this fact, a Christian has two alternatives: either proclaim that those in Hell deserve to be there and the saved will glory in their damnation, which is a truly evil belief, or do as Graham does and abandon reason and conscience altogether and trust blindly in faith, hiding behind Bible verses and steadfastly avoiding the implications of their own creed.

But for people who recognize this dilemma for what it is and decline to participate, there is another course of action: to turn from Christianity altogether. Deconverts such as Kenneth Nahigian have, and deserve to be applauded for their moral courage and their honesty. It is probably much too late to hope that Graham will come to a similar realization, but with luck, his anonymous questioner will realize the obvious insufficiency of Graham’s answer, and trust in conscience to a better way.

New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    It sometimes depresses me to see just how many different people are now so adept at not answering the question. It used to be that, unless the shyster was extremely intelligent and cunning, attempts to do this were treated with immediate scorn and suspicion. Now, it’s hard to find one person in a group of three who, when confronted with an uncomfortable question fo any part of their life, will admit they don’t know. They don’t have to admit they are wrong, just that they don’t know, but even that is rare. Duplicity seems to be the order of the century now, and I think that we, as atheists, need to confront this two-faced persona in religion and elsewhere, after seeing the effects it can have by studying believers.

    And to add insult to injury, I’m sure everyone here has been in a situation where they, or a friend, confronted a dodgy person and continued to interrogate them until they gave a straight answer, and instead of admitting their error, they get angry and frustrated that someone would dare actually ask for the truth and not their patented lies of omission! The hypocrisy is most upsetting, but I find that I can hardly talk to anyone in a forward manner anymore, as it’s considered rude and unfriendly not to accept lies at face values. Sad indeed.

  • Azkyroth

    And to add insult to injury, I’m sure everyone here has been in a situation where they, or a friend, confronted a dodgy person and continued to interrogate them until they gave a straight answer, and instead of admitting their error, they get angry and frustrated that someone would dare actually ask for the truth and not their patented lies of omission! The hypocrisy is most upsetting, but I find that I can hardly talk to anyone in a forward manner anymore, as it’s considered rude and unfriendly not to accept lies at face values. Sad indeed.

    Don’t get me started…

    Another possible reconciliation, though with virtually no Biblical grounding: One of my online correspondents is a conservative but allegedly non-literalist Christian. The idea of Hell came up in discussion and after a significant amount of prying, she suggested that Hell could best be conceptualized as eternal separation from God. I don’t remember her exact words, but it made me think more of Limbo than the traditional conception of Hell, and she did, I think, mention that for someone who didn’t want to be with God this wouldn’t be suffering.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    I’ve heard that as well. But if I recall, the biblical grounding for hell itself is pretty weak. Well, the book of revelations has alot, but outside of that, it seems that the worst of hell is gnashing of teeth. I once ran into a guy on a forum who insisted that hell isn’t even in the bible; that the words Jesus uses that are translated into “hell”, of which there are like three, each actually have a different meaning that requires no new dimension to be added. One was like the greek world of the afterlife, the other just meant like “trash heap”, or something. It’s been a while, maybe Adam or someone else knows more about this.

    But yeah, if hell is just seperation from God, then what’s the point? Some people have said that to me and meant, when asked, that “God” means “mercy, love, kindness, happiness, fulfillment” etc, or in other words, hell isn’t made bad, it’s just a world where all the good things are eliminated. Of course, this doesn’t make sense since it would violate free will, but that’s the argument I get. If it is just earth without religion…I want to go!

  • andrea

    Graham’s reply was pretty standard for a Christian. it’s your fault that soemthing didn’t happen because you didn’t pray “correctly”. For many Christians prayers may as well be magic spells, because of all the correct language and timing required. There’s another newspaper column, can’t remember its title, but it’s written by a rabbi and a priest. They’re also adept at ignoring inconvenient questions.

    Ugh, the new excuse that hell is simply “separation from God”. What a nice little lie these particular Christians tell themselves to salve their conscience. The grounding for hell weak, Magus? Like you said, it’s all over Revelations and well, by golly, that’s God’s word too. I think it’s just more christians at the salad bar. Hell is inconvenient as a recruiting tool so they’ll just ignore it. Gehenna is the word for trash heap I believe and Hades is mentioned in the Bible, which seems to be just a place of wandering spirits. BTW, IMO, there is no free will in Christianity. Any miracle is an abrogation of free will. God evidently doesn’t *do* miracles now, but he sure wasn’t shy about it 2000 years ago. What a weird argument, that hell is where all “good” things eliminated. That, to me, by definiton is hell, as is classically described by Dante et al. I suppose there could be “neutral” things, but what would they be?

  • Chad

    It’s funny because as I read this post I began to think of Lewis’ “Great Divorce”… and then, of course, you mention that same book. The big difference is our interpretation. I totally disagree that Lewis “admitted the incompatibility”. He did acknowledge the dilemma to which you are referring, but he showed how patently untrue it is.

    He made the argument that those who don’t believe cannot hold those in Heaven hostage through pity. And I thought that was a great point. It’s kind of like a husband who manipulates his wife into feeling horrible because of his own problems – continually stripping her of her own happiness because of the pity that he continually induces for his own plight.

    I don’t believe that anyone will go to Hell without having had sufficient opportunity to believe.

  • Ebonmuse

    Hello Chad,

    I think there’s a distinction to be drawn (and a distinction that Lewis overlooks) between two different kinds of pity. There is the pity that wants to give a person anything they want, which seems to be what Lewis means when he writes about Hell “vetoing” Heaven – and then there is the pity that wants what is truly best for the person. There is a major difference, and rightfully rejecting the former does not exclude the latter.

    If a close friend of mine became a drug addict and pleaded with me for more money to support his habit, I would indeed pity his sad and suffering state, but that does not mean I would give him more money to buy drugs; it means I would do my best to get him cleaned up and free him from that addiction. Lewis’ logic seems to suggest that because it would be wrong to let a drug addict blackmail us into supporting his habit through pity, we therefore ought not feel any pity for him at all. That is unequivocally wrong. Even if we take Lewis’ analogy on its own terms, just because the Spirits do not allow the Ghosts to “make a midden of the world’s garden for the sake of someone who cannot abide the smell of roses”, it does not follow that they should feel no pity for the inhabitants of Hell at all, nor that the chosen few should be content to live in heavenly bliss while the majority of humanity is suffering and lost. As I have said elsewhere, no one who belongs in Heaven would remain untroubled by the suffering of those in Hell.

    In Buddhism, there are beings called bodhisattvas, enlightened ones who have escaped the endless cycle of reincarnation but nevertheless choose to remain in the world of suffering to help those who have not yet reached nirvana. This is reported to be their vow:

    “Never will I seek nor receive private individual salvation – never enter into final peace alone; but forever and everywhere will I live and strive for the universal redemption of every creature throughout all worlds. Until all are delivered, never will I leave the world of sin, sorrow and struggle, but will remain where I am.”

    That vow commends itself to my moral sense as far superior to the vision of a paradise whose inhabitants look on the damned with eerie, machine-like passivity.

    I don’t believe that anyone will go to Hell without having had sufficient opportunity to believe.

    The idea that a person can or should be condemned to Hell based purely on what they believe, rather than how they live their life, is morally abhorrent. It makes about as much sense as God decreeing that only, say, Red Sox fans will be saved while fans of all other baseball teams will be damned. (And would that be any more fair if we stipulated that God gave everyone “sufficient opportunity” to repent of their error and turn to the Red Sox? No!) If you seriously believe that a person, admittedly imperfect, can nevertheless do their best to live a life of compassion and love, and can still be damned to an eternity of suffering because they called God the wrong name, or did not believe in God at all – if you really believe that, I suggest you take a long, hard look at your own conscience and ask yourself if it has not been warped by your religious beliefs.

    As Kenneth Nahigian wrote in his deconversion story:

    Once, discussing it with friends, I asked about Anne Frank, the famous Jewish girl who wrote the diaries and died at Auschwitz. Certainly Anne Frank knew of Christianity, but she never responded to the Gospel, never accepted Jesus as her savior (if we can trust those diaries). Rather she expressed her belief in mankind. One writer called her “a humanist to the bone.” Our inescapable conclusion: that the next thing she will know, after the acrid scent of cyanide in the Nazi death camp, will be the proceedings of Judgment Day – and the stern face of a God Who will cast her into eternal fire.

  • andrea

    chad, you are also forgetting that limbo doesn’t exist in the bible and what of those people who died long before Jesus or the Bible or heck, even the Israelites? When does this “opportunity” come? In the ooga-booga “end times”? When Jesus/God finally says hey, here I am, sorry, didn’t get around to you sooner? For an omnipotent being, God is certainly lax in getting the word out. And “sufficient opportunity”, that has a omninous ring to it. Like Adam says, are you willing to damn good people to an eternity of agony just because they didn’t say the “right” things? and as an adjunct to this, what if one good Samaritan was able to spare jesus the agony of the cross by helping him? would a good act, helping a suffering man, damn all of humanity?

  • Chad


    The thing you and countless other atheists hate about Christianity is the very thing I love about it: It’s not based on what we deserve. Now, that can seem a horrible thing given our inclination to thing in terms of what is fair or just. I get that, but I don’t think you get the full picture that way. I’d ask you to look at it another way. Think of two scenarios. The first represents all world religions (and humanism) except for Christianity. The second is the grace of Christianity.

    Scenario 1: A child grows up in a family environment where she is loved based on (and to the degree of her) behavior. When she’s successful (i.e., wins the game, gets a good grade, etc), she is rewarded and shown love by her parents. On the contrary, when she fails in any way, she is disapproved of and that love is not there.

    Scenario 2: That same child grows up in a family where she is loved unconditionally. It is not behaviorally based. It does not matter what the outcome of her efforts produce. She knows she will be loved the same.

    The second scenario is the essence of Christianity. There is a great degree of humility required to accept it. In other words, a lot of people are going to say “I don’t need grace, I’m a good enough person on my own…” But I can think of plenty of times where I fell short and I treasure grace shown to me in those situations even though I was undeserving.

    There are a lot more thoughts running through my head right now and I realize I did not directly address a lot of your points, but I hope to do so later when I have a bit more time.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    andrea; well, I don’t know the specifics, but I do know that phrases of hell are sparse. Even Revelations, I *think*, could be seen as fire on THIS plane of existence. I’m not trying to defend anyone, I’m just seeing noticing that perhaps the “absence of God” is about as close to the technical hell of the bible as the vomit-inducing hatred one can find by some fire-and-brimstone preachers.

    Hey Chad, I won’t tie you up too much since Adam is doing most of that, but I’ll just ask you one question; since Christians are supposed to try and help others to “see the light”, why does that end at death? Do you honestly believe that a mortal, foolish human trying to deal with finances and kids and a job have the time to make an educated decision on infinity? Shouldn’t christians in the after-life be trying to help those in hell? Isn’t that true compassion? Isn’t the story of the prodigal son supposed to tell us to welcome back wayward sheep and give them home and show them that a true father loves all his children? Until that parable is rewritten to where the father ties up and whips his son, then makes him a slave till he dies, I don’t think hell fits into Christianity.

  • Chad


    I see where you’re going with this, but I don’t view it the same way. Rather than a father deliberately whipping the boy, consider instead the father warning his son of consequences of his actions. If he walks out on a highway in front of a bus, he will be run over. Now, if the boy proceeds to do that, he will likely be killed. I may not LIKE it (especially when that person is someone I love), but it’s a natural order of things. Free will is a great thing, but it also means there are often negative consequences to our actions. So I don’t see God as deliberately wanting to punish anyone at all, but rather offering a way to be salvaged from the otherwise inevitable wreck. We have the right to reject him, but there is a cost to that…

  • Ebonmuse

    Now, if the boy proceeds to do that, he will likely be killed. I may not LIKE it… but it’s a natural order of things.

    It seems to me that there’s an obvious point you’re overlooking, Chad: according to Christianity, unlike the father in your analogy, God created the natural order of things. He himself decided what the consequences would be for acting in a certain way. Hell is not a danger beyond his control, but a hazard he deliberately created and set in our way.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    Well Chad, I don’t see how that fits at all. The Prodigal Son analogy was meant to represent God and his love, correct? The analogy says that going wayward and making mistakes is okay, you have the option to return. The doctrine of hell says that going wayward is NOT okay, that you have an infintesimal speck of time to come back, and if you fail to come back, that’s it, your done, your father not only doesn’t want you back but he DESPISES you, FOREVER! Even if you live 70 full years, what is that compared to eternity? Can you honestly hold a fallible human accountable for that? Even if the way things are are the way things have to be, God could be much more forgiving. It’s like…you know how a child, and we are children of God, sometimes doesn’t understand just what he’s done until he’s been punished? After he’s been yelled at and grounded, you know, he finally realizes his error? Well, God doesn’t do that; he let’s us roam free, doing whatever we want. Then, when time is up, boom, that’s it. How are we to realize what we have done wrong, truly, without some punishment so we can see? A child needs it, and we are supposedly children, so we need that too. We aren’t ALL just going to stumble across the absolute truth with out limited knowledge and ability, so why doesn’t God give a chance for us to repent AFTER we understand what we’ve done? It seems like only those who happen to understand the truth intuitively ever get anywhere.

    Of course, Adam’s point is also there; hell didn’t exist until 2000 years ago. God decided to make a hell for us all; he didn’t have to. He’s GOD, he does whatever HE wants to. He could have done something equally effective but still been forgiving and loving.

    But maybe this essay is better than me rambling.

  • Quath

    I am noticing that there are some Christians pushing for different beliefs in hell. One is that hell is separation from God as previously noted. One is that there is salvation from hell. One is that hell is only temporary (to some about 1,000 years after Jesus returns). These are ways to trying to modernize Christianity to get out of this horrible concept.

    What scares me is the followup logic of heaven. For example, do miscarried or aborted babies go to heaven or hell? If a Christian says heaven, then they have to admit that Jesus was wrong when he said the only way to the Father was through him. If they say hell, then it is clear that God is a monster.

    But say there is some way to rationalize that babies go to heaven. Where do Muslims go? Well, they go to hell. So the kindest thing you could ever do is to help someone get to heaven. See where I am going? Why not bomb a Muslim country? The babies go to heaven. Such cruelity could easily be justified with such beliefs.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    Heh…what do you mean “could”? Don’t you mean “is”?

  • Philip Thomas

    Hmm. Christian universalism may just be a fudge…. The idea, as far as I can make it out, is that God can’t prevent suffering (oh dear, his omnipotence is playing up again!), including the suffering that comes from rejecting God (this process is assumed to involve suffering in this context, though obviously atheists can say otherwise): all he can do is encourage the suffering to repent and believe. This process continues in the afterlife. Heaven and Hell are more ‘states of mind’ than places, and no doubt the saved souls try to persuade the damned to repent, not that repentance is necessarily an easy or straightforward process. Some of the damned repent after 1 year, some after 10 years, some after 100 years, some after 1000 and so on. Now it is technically possible for the refusal to repent to last ‘forever’, hence the traditional concept of Hell (which would seem here to apply to many many fewer people).

    As for those who have not fully developed reasoning faculties on death, presumably they acquire them in the afterlife and can then choose for themselves.

    If it sounds pretty vague and unbased in any religous text that is because it is.

    On the killing people to get them to heaven point- all major religions teach that it is flat out wrong to kill people (except for a few special cases), regardless of the consequences in the afterlife. Its a deontological mindset, but it also reflects the obvious worry “what if we’re wrong?”…

  • ISaid

    Of course to really throw a wrench in this conversation, someone (may as well be me) needs to bring up the “Jewish Card.”

    But instaed of stirring the pot, I’d rather ask a question and make a statement or two…

    Jesus was Jewish. Christianity as an organized religion didn’t take form until long after his death. He spoke hebrew. He celebrated the Sabbath on Friday nights. And since he couldn’t have possibly been taught from the new testament, (and I don’t recall the word “hell” in the old…), am I to assume that we’ll be hitting the desert for a few more years???


  • Jim Coufal

    Below is a copy of a letter I wrote to Graham in response to his comments as quoted in your opening to this thread.

    Dear Rev. Graham:

    Re: “Billy Graham – My Answer”, April 24, 2006

    I write in regard to your response to “J.D.” and his concern that “My two friends don’t want anything to do with God and claim to be atheists, and it hurts me to think I’ll never see them again after we die.”
    With all due respect, I suggest that it is Christian arrogance that leads you to say “Someday they may realize their own spiritual emptiness and hopelessness and give their lives to Christ.” There is a presumption in your words that all atheists must be spiritually empty and hopeless, a presumption that is groundless and demeaning. Further, in the particular instance under concern, you are speaking of two individuals who you likely do not even know. Your words do not express a Christ-like attitude, as I understand it. Even if you think you have some justification, I suggest you consider the reaction of atheists and agnostics to your “holier-than-thou attitude.”
    You add insult when you suggest J.D. pray for his friends. If his friends are atheists they don’t believe in prayer or the power of prayer. Imagine your reaction if they offered to perform some arcane ritual for your friend?! Maybe draw a pentagram or offer up a chicken.
    Of course, J.D.’s concern, as expressed in his letter, is based on the assumption that his friends aren’t worthy of heaven because the Christian religion is exclusivist to begin with. I humbly suggest that your words are not drawing atheists or agnostics closer to Christ.

    J.E. Coufal

    I received a response from a Graham acolyte, which danced around any direct answers but did include 3 bible tracts (they were a cut above chick tracts!). I wrote back that i would read their tracts if they read some material of my choice, but never heard from them again.

    Finally, if suffering is necessary so we can distinguish good from evil and so we can appreciate joy, how will we ever be joyous in the eternal bliss of heaven?