Billy Graham and inclusivism

Billy Graham and inclusivism March 26, 2011

In a previous post I mentioned that Billy Graham is an inclusivist.  Someone responded with a statement he said he found at some web site affiliated with Graham retracting what Graham said in an interview with Robert Shuller.  The interview is all over youtube. 

Supposedly someone associated with Graham’s organization claimed he was ill or suffering after affects of some medical condition or treatment and that caused him to say the things he said to Shuller on the TV interview.  (There Graham said quite clearly and unequivocally that there is hope for the salvation of people who never hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.)  I’ve seen that interview several times and I don’t see or hear any evidence that Graham is anything other than in full possession of his faculties.

In light of the fact that this was not the first or only time Graham said these things, I have to wonder if someone took it upon themselves to write that retraction without Billy Graham’s knowledge?  After all, Graham said exactly the same thing many years ago in an interview with McCall’s magazine (January, 1978).

That quote, from the interview in McCall’s, is all over the internet.  Just google for it.  The statement of inclusivism was clear then and almost word for word what Graham said to Shuller later. 

In light of that, something seems not quite right about the explanation allegedly provided at the web site and quoted here.

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  • As far as I have seen, Franklin Graham has remained biblical and has continued to preach that only those who place their faith in the Lord Jesus are saved (Romans 10:14-17). For that, I am thankful.

    • Do you have an answer for my conundrum for restrictivists? Look back at my posts here and find that one and tell me how you resolve that.

  • This is a bit oxymoronic, but I grew up in moderately-fundamentalist Pentecostal churches, i.e. more conservative than a Moody but less conservative than a BJU. While my parents had a great deal of admiration for Billy Graham, many around us did not. Over time I picked up the antagonism, becoming a full-blow fundamentalist who opposed Graham. Thankfully, my faith was transformed over the next several years as I interacted with authors like Mark Noll and Philip Yancey. In the process I re-embraced the evangelical label despite its baggage, and began to give Graham a second look. This was in no small part because of Noll’s praise. What I found out shocked me.

    Beyond merely preaching the gospel to more people than anyone else in history, Graham was president of Northwest college, helped start publications like Christianity Today, encouraged intellectual rigor at seminaries like Fuller, Wheaton, and Gordon-Conwell, was a major player in the ecumenical dialogue between evangelicals and Catholics, supported the controversial Jesus People counter-cultural movement, decried apartheid in South Africa, and was the first evangelist let behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. Moreover, he also avoided affiliation with either major political party and remained intentionally apolitical with one notable exception: the Civil Right Movement. There he put his full support behind the movement by refusing to preach to segregated audiences, personally bailing Martin Luther King, Jr. out of jail, inviting King to share his pulpit, and supporting civil rights legislation. He was basically the opposite of the boy who cried wolf. Graham so rarely weighed in on political matters that people took careful notice when he did. In all these ways he embodied the evangelicalism of the WWII generation. No one told me that stuff! Needless to say, I became a fan of his. What has intrigued me most about him, however, is the slow development of his theology, perhaps most obviously seen in his final interview with Larry King.

    Though he remained firmly evangelical, it seems like he increasingly wrestled with his beliefs as he got older. For some time I’ve been trying to put myself in his shoes; trying to understand what caused this subtle shift. Clearly I don’t know the content of his heart or mind so I must proceed tentatively, but my theory is that his success had the reverse effect that most people assume. We know that Graham affirms such basic doctrines as creation and the fall, Jesus’ atoning death on the cross for the forgiveness of sin, the necessity of faith to enter the Kingdom, and the existence of both heaven and hell (trying to use his own language as much as possible). He’s also stated on numerous occasions that the orientation of his heart was always to be an optimist–to focus on God’s love, mercy, and redemption. Many of his fundamentalist critics said he didn’t emphasize judgment enough, but he just believed that his calling was to preach hope. Where things seem to get interesting is the issue of inclusivity/exclusivity.

    My assumption had long been that his vigor for evangelism stemmed from a strongly exclusivist perspective, and indeed it seems like that was the driving force early on. Something changed, though. He got less rigid over time. He professed to believe the same basic content, but it seems like he added something to it: Hope. Hope that somehow our loving, merciful God would reach and forgive those who’d never had an opportunity to hear the Gospel. He never offered an explanation for how they might be, presumably because he didn’t see anything in Scripture. Yet he hoped. This is where my theory comes in.

    I wonder if his international crusades impacted him more than we know. So many were saved through his ministry, yet there were always hundreds of millions more who never had and never would hear the basic Gospel he preached. I wonder if his mind was plagued by the simple question, ‘What about them?’ That is, the more successful he was the larger his perspective of the world became, and also the more he realized his own limitations. Sort of the whole “the more you know the more you realize you don’t know” thing. Nothing I’ve ever causes me to think he’s ever become a true inclusivist, but it does seem like he became a hopeful exclusivist.

    Just my thoughts.

    • Graham is one of my heroes partly because he defied a normal trend. As he got older he became more cautious and generous without compromising the gospel message.

      • Greeno

        I guess I need to read Bell’s book – was simply looking up sites regarding a review. From scripture, recognize the reality of hell but see nothing wrong with desiring that no one goes there. Believe Peter states in his 2nd book that Christ isn’t slow to return – is waiting in not wanting to see anyone perish.

        But it is obvious from the story Jesus tells in Luke 16 (rich man & Lazarus), that people end up in hell. Someone commented that this story is probably not a parable in that an actual name is noted in the story. I guess I would question – is the story Jesus is telling current or in the future say after rapture.

      • Amen.

    • Yes, I think he mentioned in a Time Magazine interview that his travels abroad caused him to think that “yes, muslims may well be in heaven…” something like that. I think it’s hard when you’ve traveled and met people from all around, gotten to know them, you realize that you would be them if you were born there. Thus, would God really send you to hell for eternity…you naturally have questions. And, then, you can find much in the bible to support the idea that God will save all or virtually all mankind. Lot’s of scripture supports that actually. And, yes, plenty doesn’t as well… anyway, that article is another example of billy graham saying these things..

  • I agree with you that Billy meant that and if anything the retraction is likely from pressure within the BGEA. However, is what Billy holds truly inclusivism? Is optimism for some other measure than conscious belief in Jesus and the cross for those who have never believed, really considered an inclusivist position?

    • Yes. Inclusivism is a very broad category. Perhaps too broad to be very descriptive.

  • Ben

    Roger, do you know if people who support inclusivism are using specific Scriptures? For instance, I really wrestle over what Paul is saying in Romans 2 about people becoming a law unto themselves showing God’s law written on their hearts.

    Also, I don’t know if I fit into the fundamentalist camp or not. I believe that the Bible has to be our final authority for our faith or else we end up worshiping ourselves through our own reasoning. So, does that make me a fundamentalist? I think there’s obviously room for different interpretations of texts but you have to at least be trying to line up your convictions with Scripture.

    • Clark Pinnock brought out inclusivist passages in A Wideness in God’s Mercy. I recommend that book to people who are interested in knowing what evangelical inclusivism is and how it can be grounded in Scripture.

      • Ben

        Roger, what are your feelings on the issue? Would you tend to agree with Clark Pinnock’s Scripture use?

        • You would have to ask me something more specific that than. Your question is too general.

          • Ben

            Do you think there’s good enough grounds in Scripture for being able to confidently say to other people that there’s no question many people who haven’t heard of Jesus or the Gospel will be in heaven? Or, would you say, we can only confidently say from Scripture that those who have heard of Jesus and the Gospel message will be in heaven and all others we can have no certain answer for?

          • Well, I think we can confidently say that many people will be in heaven who never during their lifetimes heard of Jesus or the Gospel–all those devout Jews and God-fearing Gentiles who lived before and during Jesus’ life on earth! What I wonder about is when God closed the door on them and their descendents and people like them never reached by a gospel messenger with the explicit good news of Jesus Christ by name.

  • David Rogers

    Once again, I’m prompted to think of a song.

    Billy Graham

    from the album “Outdoor Elvis”
    Words and Music by Camarillo Eddy (Terry Scott Taylor)
    ©1989 Broken Songs

    i don’t know about those other guys
    there’s somethin’ in the back of their eyes
    but billy, you’re the man
    who don’t use slight of hand
    ain’t wearin’ no disguise
    i love you, billy

    i love the simple things you say
    and you never seem to get in the way
    no one is quite like you
    compassionate and true
    “just as i am”, i say
    i love you, billy

  • Yes, Pinnock’s book is a good read.