For nearly three decades, Hank Hanegraaff has been the “Bible Answer Man” to millions of evangelical Christians who tune in to his Charlotte-based radio program with questions – big and small – about Scripture.
“What does the Bible teach about debt?” they ask him. “When is divorce permissible?” And – the question that gets asked the most – “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?”
Two months ago, Hanegraaff, whose faith had long been focused on exploring the truth of a book, went through a different kind of religious experience. It was, he says, “one of the premiere moments in my life.”
On Palm Sunday, he and wife Kathy and two of their 12 children were “chrismated,” or confirmed, at St. Nektarios Greek Orthodox Church in southeast Charlotte. During the sacramental rite, a priest anointed them with oil and invoked the Holy Spirit.
And then ...
A photo of the April ceremony started popping up on evangelical news sites. Within a week, the “Bible Answer Man” had lost many of his listeners.
His sin in their eyes: Converting to Eastern Orthodoxy, the world’s second largest Christian denomination and one steeped in rituals, icons and mysticism – aspects of faith that seem foreign to many evangelical Protestants. Instead of tradition, they look to the Bible as the only infallible guide and the final authority on matters of Christian faith and practice.
As the news about Hanegraaff spread on social media and the Internet, between 100 and 150 radio stations dropped his nationally syndicated show from their daily lineups.
“That picture of Hank kneeling before a Greek Orthodox priest – that was hard for many evangelicals to see,” said Mike Carbone, chief operating officer at The Truth Network, which booted the “Bible Answer Man” show from six of its stations, including those in Charlotte and Raleigh. “Hank is as likable a guy as you’ll find, but we were not able to go where he was going.”
On the air from his studio in south Charlotte – he can still be heard on more than 60 stations and on Sirius XM satellite radio – Hanegraaff answered questions about his decision to embrace Orthodoxy, an ancient faith that traces its beginnings to Jesus’ apostles. And he tried to shoot down the online suggestions that he had turned his back on the Bible – the subject of most of the 25 books he’s authored.
“People are posting this notion that somehow or other, I’ve walked away from the faith and am no longer a Christian,” he said during one broadcast. “Look, my views have been codified in (more than) 20 books, and my views have not changed.”
Though they have different histories, worship practices and views of the Eucharist, or Communion, Orthodox Christians and evangelical Christians read the same four Gospels. They also agree, along with Roman Catholics, on the most basic doctrines of Christianity, including a belief in Jesus’ divinity and his resurrection from the dead.
And at St. Nektarios, Hanegraaff pointed out, the Holy Week services on the days leading up to Easter were awash in readings from the Bible.
But some evangelical hard-liners weren’t buying it. They seized on, for example, the Orthodox Christian traditions of asking saints to intercede with God and using icons, or holy images, of Christ, Mary and the saints for meditation and learning.
Pulpit and Pen, a combative web site that considers Catholicism and Orthodoxy “false expressions of Christianity,” charged that Hanegraaff “has left the biblical Christian faith for (a) Greek Orthodox tradition ... highly driven by graven images” – a reference to the icons, which adorn most Orthodox churches.
And one longtime listener wrote this on the “Bible Answer Man” Facebook page: “I am saddened and confused as to how someone whose teaching I have trusted for many years can now place himself in the camp of those who espouse praying to ... dead people.”
Hanegraaff felt the cost of his conversion most acutely when his show was dropped by the Bott Radio Network, which operates more than 100 broadcast signals reaching 51 million people in 15 states.
The network’s president, Richard P. Bott II, who attends a Baptist church in Kansas, did not return a call from the Observer. But he told the Baptist Press he severed ties with Hanegraaff – after airing his show for more than 25 years – because “we want to make sure our listeners know that the programming that we have on Bott Radio Network is thoroughly biblical.”
Reading that quote, said Hanegraaff, was like getting “a punch to the solar plexus.” Partly, he said, because it revealed “an ignorance about Orthodoxy.”
‘In the eye of the tornado’
As if the highs and lows associated with his recent conversion weren’t dizzying enough, Hanegraaff also got a jolt from his doctors: On May 5, he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called mantle cell lymphoma.
Since then, he has started an aggressive regimen that includes chemotherapy sessions, a bone marrow transplant and blood transfusions.
Hanegraaff admitted to some scary moments, like on the day he got his (PET) scan results over the phone while riding in a cab in New York City:
“The doctor said ‘you have tumors in your neck, you have tumors in your chest, you have tumors in the lungs, arms, stomach, pelvis.’ ”
In his book, “The Complete Bible Answer Book,” Hanegraaff says that God allows bad things to happen to good people because he created humans with freedom of choice. And sometimes the effects of those choices can cause bad things to happen.
But Hanegraaff said his cancer came “out of the blue” after “hardly being sick a day in my life.”
Instead of trying to explain his illness and the backlash against his conversion, the “Bible Answer Man,” fortified by his family and his Orthodox Christian faith, said he’s now content to let God handle it all.
“I feel like I’m in the eye of the tornado, where there’s peace and calm,” he said. “My life is in the Lord’s hands, whether he takes me or gives me another 20 years of beautiful ministry.”
Hendrik “Hank” Hanegraaff was born in Holland in 1950.
When he was three, his family moved to Canada. They moved again, when he was 14, to Grand Rapids, Mich.
His father, an engineer at atomic power stations, decided to attend the seminary at Calvin College and become a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church.
Hanegraaff also enrolled at Calvin, a liberal arts Christian school in Grand Rapids. But he left without a diploma after three-plus years.
“However, I could never shake what the Scholastics called the ‘libido sciendi’ – the lust for knowledge,” Hanegraaff said. “I’ve thus been a lifelong learner and have written many books as a result.”
He also developed a capacity to memorize, which led to an association in the mid-1980s with Walter Martin. Radio’s original “Bible Answer Man,” Martin was also the founder of the Christian Research Institute, a conservative Protestant “countercult” ministry based in southern California.
When Martin died in 1989, Hanegraaff became president of the institute and took over hosting duties on the radio show. In 2004, after looking for a less expensive base than California, he moved the “Bible Answer Man” studios to the Blakeney area in south Charlotte.
Over the years, Hanegraaff said, he studied Scripture three ways. He meditated on the word of God; he memorized whole passages and chapters; and he mined its pages to try to discover “what the Holy Spirit has placed there.”
As host of the show, Hanegraaff has answered listeners’ on-air questions about what the Bible says on a multitude of subjects.
A sampling: When you pass on, do you go straight to heaven? If someone blasphemes the Holy Spirit, can they still be saved? What does ‘take up your cross’ mean? And: Can God speak to us through license plates?
In answering “Should Christians celebrate Christmas?” Hanegraaff acknowledged that when Christmas was originally instituted, December 25 was a pagan festival honoring the birthday of a false god. But Christmas, he said, was started as a rival celebration of Jesus’ birth and has flourished.
And Santa Claus? “Far from being a dangerous fairy tale, Santa Claus is, in reality, an Anglicized form of the Dutch name ‘Sinter Klaas,’ which in turn is a reference to the real-life Saint Nicholas ... (who) lavished gifts on needy children (and) also valiantly supported the doctrine of the Trinity.”
Over the years, Hanegraaff also made a name for himself as a leader of the “countercult” movement by identifying what he considered heresies and cults. He has dismissed as non-Christian, for example, the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons.
And as a Christian apologist, or defender of the faith, who spoke around the country at churches and conferences, Hanegraaff also made the case against some non-Christian religions. In his upcoming book, “MUSLIM: What You Need to Know About the World’s Fastest Growing Religion,” Hanegraaff acknowledges that millions of Muslims are peace-loving people, but claims the history of Islam proves it has not been a religion of peace or tolerance.
This year, in an ironic twist, some of Hanegraaff’s evangelical critics have cast Orthodoxy as false or at least insufficiently biblical.
Asked whether his comments about other religions are any different from his critics’ put-downs of Orthodox Christianity, Hanegraaff said his conclusions came only after deep study.
“(They’re) not in any sense meant to be demeaning to anyone,” he said. “My goal is to reach, not repel.”
‘Sights, sounds and smells’
Like his listeners, Hanegraaff had long identified himself as an evangelical Christian.
But a few years ago, he found himself growing disillusioned with evangelicalism, with its megachurches, its star pastors and its devotion to branding.
“We live in an age of ‘pastor-preneur,’ where the pastor is the entrepreneur,” Hanegraaff said. “And the church has become consumerist. Instead of Christ being the end, Christ becomes the means to an end. Instead of people coming to the master’s table because of the love of the master, they come to the master’s table because of what is on the master’s table.”
So Hannegraaff became a seeker. His exploring and Googling led him to St. Nektarios.
“I opened the door of that big cathedral. And the moment I did, the sights, sounds and smells engaged me,” said Hanegraaff, who found a church with icons, chants and incense. “I thought, ‘I’m here to worship God. This is not about what I’m going to get.’ ”
Most of the growth at Orthodox churches in the United States comes from immigrants and from people marrying into the faith. But the Rev. Steve Dalber, who shepherds a flock of about 700 families at St. Nektarios, has also welcomed Christians, like Hanegraaff, who came to Orthodoxy for deeply spiritual reasons.
“What they’re looking for is something solid, something that’s not changing all the time, something not based on the charisma and personality of the pastor,” said Dalber, who presided over Hanegraaff’s chrismation. “But I also think anybody who comes to our door is brought there by the Holy Spirit. So there’s a mystical part as well.”
Eventually, Hanegraaff’s family joined him at the church. “We took up a full pew,” he said.
Then in April, Hanegraaff, his wife and two of their sons decided to get chrismated – a necessary step before they could receive the Eucharist.
“The big thing that attracted me to Eastern Orthodoxy was the Eucharist,” Hanegraaff said. “For most of church history, even through Luther, people believed that when you partook of the elements, you were partaking of the real presence of Christ.”
During the “Divine Liturgy,” or worship service, Orthodox communicants receive the elements, or the bread and wine, from the priest, who dips a spoon into a common cup.
Like Roman Catholics, but unlike evangelical Protestants, Orthodox Christians believe Christ is physically present in the Eucharist, though they don’t seek to explain it.
“We just believe it’s a mystery,” Dalber said. “We believe it’s the body and blood of Christ.”
Hanegraaff lost a big part of his audience when he found Orthodoxy. But he said the experience of worship at St. Nektarios has transformed his faith, made it richer and more Christ-centered.
The truth of the Bible still matters, he said, but so does a life of receiving Christ in the Eucharist and then trying to better listen to and love others.
“There’s knowing something and then there’s experiencing something,” he said. “The Bible is the menu that points you to the meal. And the meal is intimacy with Christ.”
Family: Wife Kathy and 12 children, ages 13 to 31.
Title: President of the Christian Research Institute and host of radio’s “Bible Answer Man” – both based in Charlotte.
Finances: The Christian Research Institute (CRI) is a non-profit organization that reported revenues of $4.1 million in 2014, according to the latest tax filings available. In 2015, Hanegraaff said, revenues totaled $4.8 million. The institute pays him $79,087 in salary and $164,720 in other compensation, for a total of $243,807 – numbers that Hanegraaff said have not changed in a decade. Kathy Hanegraaff, his wife, is director of planning at CRI. In 2014, she was paid a salary of $167,084 as well as $22,000 in other compensation, for a total of $189,084. Hanegraaff said he waives all royalties from his books sold by CRI and gets no pay for other materials – books, booklets, and flip charts – he writes and produces for exclusive promotion and distribution by CRI. “Income to CRI from both types of publications have translated to multiple millions of dollars over the years,” he said.
Radio: Though more than 100 Christian radio stations dropped his show after Hanegraaff converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, his web site lists more than 60 radio stations across the country that still carry it, including some in the Charlotte area (WHVN 1240 AM, 104.3 FM, and 106.1 FM; WCRU 960 AM and 105.7 FM; WCGC 1270 AM; WBZK 980 AM; and WAVO 1150 AM) and two in Raleigh-Durham (WDRU 1030 AM and WPJL 1240 AM). “Bible Answer Man” is also on Sirius radio XM/Family Talk 131 and at www.equip.org and Oneplace.com,
Books: Hanegraaff has written 25 books. His latest, on Islam, will be published by HarperCollins this year. His other books include: “The Complete Bible Answer Book,” “Has God Spoken? Proof of the Bible’s Divine Inspiration,” and “Afterlife: What You Need to Know About Heaven, The Hereafter & Near-Death Experiences.”
6 facts about Eastern Orthodoxy
Here are six more things to know about Eastern Orthodoxy:
1. In 1054 AD, the Great Schism split Christianity into what is now the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.
2. Worldwide, there are now about 250 million Eastern Orthodox Christians. They dominate the religious landscape in countries such as Russia, Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria.
3. Though their numbers are growing in the United States, the country’s 1 million-plus Orthodox Christians still make up a tiny part of the population – 0.5 percent, according to the Pew Research Center for Religion & Public Life.
4. The Eastern Orthodox Church is a communion of autonomous churches, each typically governed by a Holy Synod. There’s no central governing structure similar to the papacy in the Roman Catholic Church. All bishops are considered equal, but Bartholomew I, the Archbishop of Constantinople in Turkey, is regarded as the first among equals and as the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians worldwide.
5. Orthodox Christians practice what they understand to be the original Christian faith and maintain sacred traditions passed down from Jesus’ apostles.
6. In the United States, the Orthodox church has been attracting some high-profile converts in recent years. Before Hank Hanegraaff, radio’s “Bible Answer Man,” there was Rod Dreher, whose best-seller – “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation” – is the year's most-talked about religious book. A senior editor and blogger at The American Conservative, Dreher left Roman Catholicism to become an Eastern Orthodox Christian. Unlike many in the evangelical community, he congratulated Hanegraaff on his conversion and urged others to join him. “What astounding news!” Dreher wrote. “Many evangelicals seek the early church; well, here it is, in Orthodoxy.”