Thursday, June 09, 2005

Sometimes Even Billy Graham Misses the Boat

I have a complicated relationship with evangelist Billy Graham. I've never met him personally, although I have stood within a couple of feet of him on at least one occasion. I even had the privilege of serving his wife with a cup of water during a chapel service while I was in college, where their daughter Anne was the featured speaker. If it makes all this a bit clearer, I went to college in Montreat, NC, which has been the Graham family home for many years.

As an evangelist who preached the gospel, either directly or indirectly through his radio and television broadcasts, to more people than anyone else in recorded history, Rev. Graham deserves nothing but the deepest respect. But that's not to say that I agree with him on all things.

I got into the habit of reading Graham's daily newspaper column, "My Answer," while I lived in Montreat, and I am glad to be able to maintain this daily ritual through the wonders of the internet. Some days, I wholeheartedly agree with his advice. Other days, I may have reservations or wish he would say more, but acknowledge the limitations of space in a daily newspaper column.

Other days, I feel that he missed the mark entirely. Take today's column, for example. A reader is concerned by the fact that he/she continues to have doubts about the existence of God. Graham responds by directing the reader to the story of Thomas in the gospel of John, and quotes Thomas' exclamation "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28) So far so good. We acknowledge that even one of Jesus' disciples doubted, despite having seen the entirety of Jesus' ministry, and having every reason to have faith in who Jesus was.

But then Graham says something that leaves me asking "Wha...?"
Notice what changed Thomas: It wasn't his feelings, but the fact that Christ was alive and cared about him. And the same can be true for you.
The fact that Christ was alive, yes. Absolutely. And it's all but certain that Christ cared for Thomas. But the "caring" doesn't seem to me to be why Thomas' doubts were cleared away. Thomas stopped doubting because he saw Jesus standing there in front of him! Jesus even makes a point of this in what he tells Thomas next: "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." (John 20:29) (A quote Graham conveniently fails to mention!)

But, of course, Graham couldn't give the reader that kind of assurance. Thomas was given a rare gift. One that is generally considered unavailable to most Christians living today. Thomas got to see Jesus, in the flesh, alive, after the resurrection. I'd even go so far as to say that Jesus' words to Thomas that those who haven't seen, yet still believe, are uttered specifically because Jesus didn't plan on physically appearing to Christians as a matter of course throughout the rest of time. So Graham goes on to talk about trusting facts rather than emotions (as he does in many similar situations):
You see, often our faith is based only on our emotions; sometimes we feel God is near us or we feel we believe in Christ—but other times we don't feel that way. But feelings are not a reliable guide to the truth! Our feelings come and go—but the facts remain the same.

What am I saying? Simply this: Put your faith in Christ, and keep your focus on Him as He is revealed in the pages of the Bible. In other words, don't trust your feelings, but trust the facts—the fact that Christ was God in human flesh; the fact that He died on the cross for you; the fact that He rose again; the fact that He promises to save all who turn in faith to Him.

But surely this advice is virtually useless to the reader! What "facts" can the reader turn to? Certainly we have the words of the Bible. But from the standpoint of the doubter, the Bible is an unverifiable resource. It must be accepted by faith, if at all. While Christian apologists enjoy pointing out that the existence of Christ can be verified by more independent historical resources than any other ancient historical figure, an argument I agree with and have no wish to argue against, the same cannot be said of the "fact" (quotations from the standpoint of the doubter) of Christ's resurrection. The resurrection is an event of faith, which few sources outside of the Bible attest to (and the few that do exist can largely be attributed to the lives of believing Christians, rather than witnessing the risen Christ himself). Every "fact" (again, strictly speaking from the point of view of the doubter) that Graham attests to in the above paragraph is a statement of faith, not something one can verify as a "fact" from independent sources.

None of this even gets to the question of whether emotions are such a wholly unreliable way to know about God. Certainly I'll agree with Graham for the sake of argument that emotions are not to be taken on their own, but surely they are not totally without value. But that's an argument for another time. I'd certainly love to hear a charismatic view on the matter. (Not being one myself, I'm ill-prepared to speak for charismatics, but feel sure they'd have something say about it....)

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