Does Billy Graham have anything to say on the topic of universalism? He does as we will find out but I think before anyone judges him unfairly let me remind you of the landscape through which he has journeyed for 93 years and as the most well known evangelist of our time.
We must understand that Billy Graham has been a part of the Evangelical culture which has primarily included two views of God that are so diametrically opposed that each side regularly accuses one another of “heresy” claiming the other maligns the character of God. These two camps are called Calvinism (or Reformed, Predestination) and Arminianism (or the “free-will of man”).
Our objective here on ChristianUniversalism.com has been to show how the underlying Storyline emerging from both Arminian and Calvinistic camps has been pointing and supporting that of the Ultimate Restoration of all creation.
For the Calvinists this has been observed through their insistence that the Scriptures declare God to be the Sovereign Lord over His creation including our salvation noting that no plan of His can be “thwarted.” As the Arminians point out it should not be difficult for the Calvinists to make the leap to universalism since they believe that all God desires and decrees will be fulfilled and that all whom Christ died for must be saved.
On the other side, the Arminians cling tightly to the belief that God “desires all to come to repentance” and has provided all that is necessary to make that happen, except to actually make it happen because He is often trumped by man’s “free-will.” The Calvinists rightly chide them for their ineffectual view of the cross since it offers only a possibility for redemption. They also accuse the Arminians of being practically universalists since they say that Christ died for every single person who ever lived. It is inconceivable for a Calvinist to believe that Christ would die for someone He wanted to be saved and not possess the ability to make it happen.
We have come to see that they are both right; but partly right and partly wrong. We submit to you, since there is no possible way to reconcile these two different views of God, that the God who desires that all people be saved is the SAME GOD that will is able to make it happen! But if you do not believe this, as an Evangelical you must live in this tension created by your brothers and sisters in Christ who believe very opposite things. This is the climate Graham has lived in for his 80 years as a young adult and adult evangelist. He has been witness to a litany of infightings and divisions created by the denominations of men. No wonder he yearned for a “third way.” And how remarkable he remained a loving and hopeful man in spite of it all!
So in light of all this you must have grace for our dear brother Billy Graham who has seen more of life and the world and spirituality than any of us will come close to experiencing. He has earned our respect and our ear as he approaches the end of his life.
But some would object that since Billy Graham was in essence an Arminian he was not a deep and profound theologian. At least not the kind that would satisfy the appetite of our modern Calvinists. But that doesn’t mean his was not a deep and profound faith. He spent countless hours in the word while living it “out on the field” among people from every walk of life, offering counsel to those plagued by every conceivable problem. As an Arminian who saw that God’s heart loved and desired to save all Billy Graham began wisely to see that perhaps God really does get what He wants and what He died for, indeed what He paid for. Stymied by this perceptible truth up against the doctrine of eternal conscious torment I believe Graham had to choose one: either God wants all to be saved but can’t or He must somehow have some way in which He accomplishes the desire of His heart–the salvation of all through His son Jesus Christ. In the following interview you will hear the part of his heart trying to hold on to the universal proclamation of God’s love over the world while at the same time trying to logically work out the implications of that truth.
This is from an interview with Billy Graham by Jon Meacham of Newsweek Magazine, August 14, 2006:
In Graham’s view, the core message of the Gospel, and the love of God “for all people” should take priority….But more recent years have given him something he had little of in his decades of global evangelism: time to think both more deeply and more broadly….He…refuses to be judgmental…thinks God’s ways and means are veiled from human eyes and wrapped in mystery. “There are many things that I don’t understand,” he says. He does not believe that Christians need to take every verse of the Bible literally; “sincere Christians,” he says, “can disagree about the details of Scripture and theology—absolutely”….he is arguing that the Bible is open to interpretation, and fair-minded Christians may disagree or come to different conclusions about specific points. Like Saint Paul , he believes human beings on this side of paradise can grasp only so much. “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror,” Paul wrote, “then we shall see face to face.”….“As time went on, I began to realize the love of God for everybody, all over the world,” he says. “And in his death on the cross, some mysterious thing happened between God and the Son that we don’t understand. But there he was, alone, taking on the sins of the world.…I spend more time on the love of God than I used to.”…. When asked whether he believes heaven will be closed to good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people, though, Graham says: “Those are decisions only the Lord will make…I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have.”
**Meacham, Jon. Newsweek Magazine. 14 August 2006. Excerpt from interview with Billy Graham. Billy Graham’s New Thinking on Politics, the Bible – Newsweek National News – MSNBC.com.
This interview does not substantiate Billy Graham to be a Christian universalist but it shows his struggle to reconcile the God who says He loves the world with the traditional teaching that God is going to consign billions of His image-bearers to a place of torture and agony forever with no redemptive purpose. It shows that Graham has actually wrestled with what He knows about the Father heart of God, the sinfulness of the world and the traditions of man. He has allowed it to make him wiser and gentler, even if he still “sees but a poor reflection.” He will soon see face to face.
Grace and peace to you Billy Graham. Thank you for being a man of integrity, honesty, humility and now one who displays the kind of wisdom and compassion that only comes from a lifetime of service to God and others.
“This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance. For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we truth in the Living God, who is the Savior of all mankind, especially those who believe. These things command and teach.” 1 Timothy 4:9-11
Update: Billy Graham released a new book Oct 15, 2013 The Reason for My Hope: Salvation where he expresses a very different view of the unsaved than the one he exhibits in the above interview and also in this interview with Robert Schuller. See our post Billy Graham’s New Book Offers Hope (In Yourself)