The Problem with Billy Graham

Several of my Facebook friends have shared a video put out by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association which aired on television in early November.  The video is entitled, “The Cross—Billy Graham’s Message to America,” and can be viewed on YouTube here.

The video is appropriately titled, “The Cross,” for the message of the cross comes through strongly and clearly.  And that message is not simply and nominally, “The Cross, The Cross, The Cross.”  Rather, the video gives “The Cross” an explicit content, which is sometimes referred to by theologians as “penal substitutionary atonement.”  That is, the way in which the cross provides salvation and redemption is that Christ, when he was crucified, was taking on himself the penalty for sin, the penalty which should have been paid by the sinner.  This teaching holds that God laid on Jesus the sins of all those who put their faith in Christ.  Christ’s death was penal—it had to do with paying the penalty for sin.  And Christ’s death was substitutionary—it was death “in our place”—the death we should have died.

This video demonstrates exactly what the problem with Billy Graham is.  One would have thought that after some seventy years of preaching, and all the contact that Graham has had over the years with world-class theologians, reputable biblical scholars, and renowned philosophers, and having achieved now the ripe old age of ninety-five, an age at which a man should have surely attained great wisdom—that by now Graham would have put behind him this barbarous, odious, and dangerous teaching of penal substitutionary atonement.

The problem with Billy Graham is that he is no wiser now, at the age of ninety-five, than he was when he was twenty-five.  By now, Graham should have realized that:

 . . . the biblical teaching about the death of Christ is sheer foolishness.  It makes no sense.  And rational, thinking people cannot be expected to resonate with it.

 . . . a god who requires the death of his own son in order to forgive people is a god who cannot be worshipped, much less loved or respected.

 . . . the biblical idea that God would offer up his own Son on the cross is dangerous teaching.  It is simply a kind of divine child-abuse, and it stands behind much of the child-abuse which is so prevalent in our own society today.

 . . . this teaching is also to be blamed for all that is wrong with our European and North American penal systems.  In fact, we would have neither prisons, nor capital punishment, if it weren’t for the perpetuation of this horrible, so-called, “Christian” doctrine.

 . . . it portrays God as procuring our redemption by performing an act of violence against his own Son; but as we all know, an act of violence could not possibly result in salvation.

 . . . it gives us a false portrayal of God as a bloodthirsty deity who just won’t be “satisfied” till he gets his “pound of flesh.”  (By the way, I might mention here that this is also the problem with that Getty-Townend song, “In Christ Alone,” where it talks about how in the cross, “the wrath of God was satisfied.”)

 . . . the gory imagery of this teaching conflicts with our aesthetic sensitivities.  How can we worship in beautiful churches and cathedrals with images of a bloody Jesus floating through our heads?

 . . . a god who would exact the penalty for sin from someone who is innocent, rather than punishing the guilty party, is not a god of justice—he would be an unjust god.

 . . . this teaching is terribly divisive.  It creates a group of people who believe that, because Christ died for them, and because they have put their faith in this Christ, they now possess something that others do not possess, i.e., salvation. This makes people to be smug and makes them think they are better than others.  This is intolerable in a pluralist society.  It is terribly judgmental.

 . . . this teaching fails to realize that some teachings, no matter how biblical they are, must be left behind, in order to keep up with the evolutionary progress of culture and society.  We don’t understand all this stuff about blood sacrifice, atonement, and primitive rituals.  Maybe it was okay at one point; but it is no longer relevant in twenty-first century civilized society.

 I could list more things; but I guess I’ll stop with these ten.  These, however, should be sufficient to abundantly demonstrate what the problem is with Billy Graham.

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So, there you have it.  That’s the problem with Billy Graham.  Oh, but what a wonderful problem to have! Thank God he has this problem!  In a day in which even self-proclaimed evangelicals are advocating that we jettison this doctrine, may God be praised that he raised up such a faithful preacher of such an offensive doctrine.  There are lot of things for which Graham could be criticized, and justifiably so.  He’s been in ministry a long time, and I suppose the real wonder is that there aren’t more things to criticize than there actually are.  But, whatever problems there may be, his faithful preaching of the cross of Christ, and his penal, substitutionary, vicarious, sacrificial, atoning death is not one of them.  At some point in the future, I plan to do a series of posts on a biblical theology of the atonement.  But for now, I just want to give God great glory and praise for the gift of Billy Graham and his faithful preaching of the cross of Christ, however “problematic” it may be.

Jerry Shepherd
November 16, 2013