At nearly 97 years old, Billy Graham has a new book out.
The cover of “Where I Am: Heaven, Eternity and Our Life Beyond” features the face of Graham in his grandfatherly years, when the Charlotte-born evangelist appeared to mellow, emphasize God’s love and even offer what some interpreted as an inclusive vision of the afterlife.
But on many of the 259 pages of Graham’s 33rd book, the words about heaven and especially hell echo his hard-line sermons from the 1950s, when he stressed God’s judgment, man’s sin and the lies of the devil.
One Billy Graham scholar said the book reads like it was written not by Graham but by his son, Franklin, an evangelist who has a combative style.
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But Franklin Graham, in an interview with the Observer, said his father is the author: “It’s all him. Nothing in the book was written that’s not in his words.”
In “Where I Am,” heaven is reserved for Christians who commit their lives to Jesus and hell is real and delivers fiery punishment or worse.
“Hell is a place of sorrow and unrest, a place of wailing and a furnace of fire,” the book says. “And it is where many will spend eternity. If you accept any part of the Bible, you are forced to accept the reality of hell, the place for punishment for those who reject Christ.”
‘It was on his heart’
Franklin Graham acknowledged that his father “stressed certain things more than others” during different times in his life. But he said Billy Graham “never backed away from” the message in the Gospel of John that belief in Jesus’ divinity is necessary to get to heaven.
Graham added that his father originally wanted his latest book to focus entirely on hell.
“Maybe this was a burden, that he felt he didn’t preach (about hell) strong enough in his latter years. I don’t know,” the younger Graham said.
Franklin Graham, who is outspoken these days in his condemnation of Islam and same-sex marriage, wrote the foreword to “Where I Am.” And his former longtime secretary, Donna Lee Toney, helped write the book with Billy Graham.
Graham’s son said he didn’t write any of the book – “I don’t have time for it” – and that his role in the project “was to encourage Daddy to do it ’cause it was on his heart.”
But some Billy Graham scholars say the book echoes the stands and style of Franklin Graham rather than his famous father.
“It (is) clearly, indisputably Franklin,” said Grant Wacker, a professor emeritus at Duke Divinity School who authored “America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation,” a well-reviewed study/biography released last year. “Over the course of (Billy) Graham’s career, he talked less and less about hell until the end (of his career), when he barely mentioned it.”
The reason? “He wanted to bring people to Christ, not scare them away,” said Wacker, who added that Graham had stopped talking about a literal hell of fire and referred to it as a state of being separated from God.
Change in tone
Though there is plenty in “Where I Am” about God’s love and forgiveness, its tone is harsher overall than the one Graham projected in the latter years of his public ministry.
In 2005, as Graham was preparing for his final crusade, in New York, CNN’s Larry King asked him whether Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians would go to heaven.
“That’s in God’s hands. I can’t be the judge,” Graham said.
King followed up by asking Graham how he felt when he saw Christian leaders on TV saying “you are condemned. You will live in hell if you do not accept Jesus Christ”?
In his response, Graham said such leaders had a right to speak and what they said was “true to a certain extent.” But he told King that he drew a distinction between himself and such fire-and-brimstone preachers.
“That’s not my calling,” Graham said. “My call is to preach the love of God and the forgiveness of God and the fact that he does forgive us. That’s what the cross is all about, what the Resurrection is about. That’s the Gospel. And you can get off in all kinds of different side trails. In my earlier ministry, I did the same. But as I got older, I guess I became more mellow and more forgiving and more loving.”
Years before that, in 1997, Graham went even further during an appearance on TV evangelist Robert Schuller’s show, “The Hour of Power.” Graham said some non-Christians around the world are saved even though they may not even know the name of Jesus.
“Whether they come from the Muslim world or the Buddhist world or the Christian world or the nonbelieving world, they are members of the body of Christ because they’ve been called by God,” he said. “They may not even know the name of Jesus, but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have and they turn to the only light that they have. And I think they are saved and they are going to be with us in heaven.”
Contrast those Graham comments with this from the introduction of Graham’s new book: “You may be thinking, Billy, surely you do not believe all of this Hellfire and brimstone. My dear friends, it is not what I say that counts. It is what the word of God says. Jesus spoke more about hell than heaven. Why? Because of his great compassion for souls. He gave his life to spare you the agony, torment, and gruesome reality that hell is reserved for those who reject Christ.”
Fate of non-Christians
Asked about his father’s comments on TV, Franklin Graham said that Schuller’s questions – about the future of Christianity – “led him a little bit” and “my father did not fully understand some of the questions.” As for Buddhists and Muslims and others getting to heaven, the younger Graham said they’d make it there “if they confess their sins and acknowledge Jesus Christ as their savior and trust him as their Lord.”
Wacker said it is true that Billy Graham always said that the only way to heaven was through Christ.
But Wacker, who taught Christian history at Duke, said Graham also held what Wacker called a “principled agnosticism” about what happened to non-Christians after death.
“He resolutely refused to judge what happened to people who failed to affirm faith in Christ,” Wacker said. “He insisted that this was God’s call, not his. ... His sole task was to preach the Gospel and leave the rest to God.”
The Observer also asked Franklin Graham about the process of writing “Where I Am,” given its author’s advanced age and physical limitations. Billy Graham, who will turn 97 on Nov. 7, still has a sharp mind, his son said, but “he doesn’t hear well. You have to repeat things sometimes two or three times. And he doesn’t see well. ... If something is printed in real big print, he’ll work at it.”
The younger Graham said his father started working on the book before his 95th birthday. He did 80 percent of what he needed to do – including an outline and summations of the chapters, each of which is based on a book in the Bible.
“Then he got ill,” Franklin Graham said. “We put the book on the shelf. We didn’t think he would finish it.”
But he did as his health got better, Graham said, working with Toney, the writer assisting him.
“The way it works with Daddy – he can’t read, so you have to read it to him and he comments,” his son said. “This isn’t a cut-and-paste of his old sermons or anything like that. It’s a new book. Where we needed to fill in some gaps, we went back and checked his sermons to make sure it was accurate. ... It’s all him. Nothing in the book was written that’s not in his words.”
Toney, the writer who has also worked with Billy Graham on his last several books, authored an article about the making of “Where I Am” in the current issue of “Decision,” a magazine published by the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. She writes that Graham was eager to work on the book – partly because he didn’t think today’s pastors preached enough about heaven and hell and partly because he didn’t think enough people understood their choice in “where they will spend eternity after death.”
Wacker, though, said that what appears in “Where I Am” is “dramatically different from (Billy) Graham’s emphasis – especially in his spoken words – through the time when he was in his mid-80s.”
In a recent story by Religion News Service, some Billy Graham scholars echoed Wacker in noting that the words in “Where I Am” – including its focus on biblical descriptions of hell – are a big shift from the language he used after the 1950s.
Franklin Graham’s response: “These people are supposed to be experts on Billy Graham. A lot of them haven’t talked to my father in 20-some years.”
Wacker had his own response: He said the BGEA has kept outside reporters and others away from Billy Graham for at least six years. “If these are Graham’s words,” Wacker said, “they are being expressed only through the family and inside the (Graham) organization.”
From Billy Graham’s new book
▪ “Many will say, ‘I do not believe that God would send good people to Hell.’ Herein lies the problem – we see ourselves as good and refuse to see that we, too, harbor wickedness within.”
▪ “The key to finding heaven is finding Christ.”
▪ “There is no recourse after death. It is doomsday for unbelievers and reunion day for those in the presence of Christ. There are no appeals.”
▪ “The alternative to hell is the glorious joy that awaits those who will follow Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World, to his heavenly home.”