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.

* * * * * * *

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

21 thoughts on “The Problem with Billy Graham

  1. Great post, Jerry. Thanks again. Tomorrow at Renfrew I wrap-up my 10-week sermon series on the cross. 10 measly weeks. If Billy Graham has been preaching the cross for 70 years, he only has 3,630 weeks on me. Ha ha.

    • Thanks, Brent. Sad to say, I haven’t yet had the chance to listen to your messages — but I still plan to. Thanks for your faithfulness to the Gospel — and may you have another 70 years!

  2. Haha! I was a little concerned at first…. Actually, I had half written my response in my brain before I got to the conclusion of your post…. Then I had to change it a little.

    It makes me very sad to say this,

    But, the problem that I have seen with Graham, is that he has made some public professions that sound as if Christ’s propitiation and atonement of sin could benefit some “good” unwitting unbelievers unto salvation. That some who never hears Christ’s name, can be saved, somehow, through Him anyway… That is inclusivism, and very sad.

    I don’t understand how Graham can preach the Gospel like he has for so long while believing that hearing it is not even necessary for salvation. The problem may be that he believes and preaches the substitutionary atonement covers the sins of some extra people due to their own merit.

    I also thank God for Graham’s ministry because it has surly brought the Good News to many. But, I am not willing to condone his heresy because of the good that God has done through him.

    What do you make of his inclusivist and Roman Catholic, or Mormon, ecumenical stances? How can we Reformed Christians cope with the seeming double talk. Is the Gospel the power of God onto salvation or not? If not, what is? If so, can we find the Gospel in the pagan or apostate religions that Billy Graham has suggested we can?


    • Hi Sheldon,

      You may be more informed than me on this one; I am not aware of any inclusivist-leaning statements myself; and I have never heard him suggest that some people might be saved without a profession of faith. It may the case; but I have not come across these myself. So I can’t really comment on what you refer to as “his heresy.”

      As far as the Roman Catholic and Mormon stances; I can’t really address the Mormon ones because I am unaware of his exact statements. For the Roman Catholic ones, there are plenty of things about which I disagree with Roman Catholics; but I also believe, along with J. I. Packer and other Reformed Evangelicals, that there is still a doctrinal core with which Protestants can agree, and that Evangelicals and Catholics can work together. I have much appreciated some very fine Catholic scholarship which, in my opinion, is faithful to the biblical testimony. To be sure, there are certain things which must be believed for salvation; but having all of one’s theological ducks in a row is not a requirement.

      We can talk some more about this later whenever you’d like.



      • I can’t wait to have that chat with you, but until then here is my heart,

        I was raised Roman Catholic and I know the bondage that I was set free of when I finely heard the gospel. How long did my heart suffer without Christ’s regeneration? From death to life! Post Tenebras Lux! True reformation through one thing: the gospel. And Rome does not teach it.

        Moreover, I’m not claiming to be the best and brightest theological mind of the century. But I do know what saved me, and wish the same, for all who are held captive in that dark place.

        To be clear, I don’t believe belonging to Evangelicals and Catholics together proves a person to be Apostate, although I cringe at the thought. I agree that working along side one and other should not be seen as wrong at all. How can Catholics be saved without hearing the gospel? We need to work beside and live truth in front of them while preaching the gospel to them so they can be saved. But, we need to be clear on what we believe. One example: Is Christ the only mediator between God and man, or is Mary, the Pope, our Priest, and some special sacerdotal system the mediators between God and man?
        Moreover, I don’t believe how they undercut the arguments by saying Christ made all these things for Him to work through. The Bible says nothing about any other mediator.
        My conclusion is that they have usurped Christ’s position and therefore cannot benefit from it. They follow a false Christology lifting up a false Christ. They not only usurp Christ’s role but also the true roles of the Father and the Holy Spirit in other ways…

        I can agree with Catholic that the sky is blue but never on a doctrinal issue. Even if there conclusions are to exactly what I believe in some situations. They have built a house upon the sand.

        As for Billy Graham, I really enjoy him. I fear however that he has caught the wind of the times, like so many others, and been led astray. His inclusivistic statements are clear and on you tube. If you can stomach the doom music and dark rhetoric, some of the discernment videos are ok. He made a claim on The Hour of Power that people can be save unknowingly. That some good person who never hear the gospel could be saved by Christ without ever knowing his name. Robert Schuller and Billy Graham have a chat about it on tv right hear uncut.

        By the way, I cry when I see this. For all who might want to hang the Hersey Hunter… If the fall out from this movement is one soul in hell, that is too many. And don’t try and say God is sovereign and cover up our lack of action in the cause of Christ. His sovereignty never diminishes our responsibility to carry our own cross. The great commission is ours boys.

        I’m making the claim that a person can have no theological ducks at all until the simple Gospel has functioned in their heart. He might have head knowledge but no heart knowledge. No regeneration and no salvation without the simple gospel. And the simple gospel is exclusive to those who hear it and don’t negate it with usurping doctrines

        Anyway. Thanks for getting my brain moving. It has been hard on me being away from school. Anyway wife’s in labor. Pray for me!

        Blessings indeed,


        • Hi Sheldon,

          Thanks for the reply. I’ll try to answer a bit later; but for right now, I’ll just say that I hope and pray for a safe and healthy delivery. You guys have been through a lot.



          • Let’s further the conversation over some breakfast. I try not to do this online. It’s hard to get the right spirit across.

            Thank you for your prayers.

  3. Jerry, I’m glad I kept reading. There for a minute I was about to “cancel my subscription.” While others criticize Dr. Graham for various reasons, the angels rejoice over thousands who have come to genuine faith under his ministry. So, some will not “get it” or “get it wrong” but that also happened to our Lord… and seems to happen to every one else who preaches the gospel. Thanks!

    • Thanks, Elsie. I may have played my part too well! I’ve already had two or three comments from people (who don’t know me) that they were beginning to get upset till they finally caught the satire. You are right about preachers who preach seemingly offensive messages being in fellowship with their Lord. Thanks for the comments.

  4. During our doctoral program at WTS I was also pastoring a church in NJ and helped at a Billy Graham crusade in the Meadowlands in NJ (late 80s or early 90s). The simple, powerful message of the cross hasn’t changed. May we be faithful in proclaiming the truth!

  5. I’m not an expert on Billy Graham and all that he might have done better, or shouldn’t have done but…. in my fledgling career as a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ it is those sermons that that come back to the doctrine of the cross, of Jesus Christ who died for our sins, that are most powerful.

    1 Cor 15:1-4 Now brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received an on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise you have believed in vain. For what I received I also passed on to you as of first importance; that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,

    In my first year here in Middle Lake I was asked to do a funeral for a man I knew little of, but was quickly made aware by the community that was or had been in some form a JW. Hmmm. I phoned another great faithful preacher of the gospel, Jake Leverrette. His word to me were something to the effect, you can’t do anything for the man who is gone, but you can do something for the people who are gathered to say goodbye. With that advice I knew the text that I would speak from.

    Thank God that we can say for what I received I pass on to you of first importance……



    The problem of Billy Graham is a problem in my preaching too – the beauty of the cross of Christ is that by means of Christ’s cross God removed the penalty of eternal separation from God! Praise God for the foolishness of the cross!

    Ken Walker

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