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.