Review & Analysis: “Evangelism and the Intellectual,” from Billy Graham

Billy Graham addressed Harvard University Law Students in 1962. Justin Taylor describes how the audio is a treat to the present day listener: “For those of us whose only image of Dr. Graham is of an older man speaking slowly in a stadium while giving the simple gospel message, it’s quite interesting to listen to the 43-year-old evangelist quoting contemporary psychologists and playrights and philosophers as he seeks to explain sin, atonement, conversion, and meaning to an audience of skeptics.”

This is my analysis, observations, and takeaways from the surprisingly relevant lecture.

In an address to intellectuals about how Christian evangelism interacts with “the intellectual,” Billy Graham is very transparent and direct. As his speech will reveal, he is quite aware that there are likely many in the room who do not think much of the authority or relevance of Scripture. To make a case for the relevance of the gospel, Graham demonstrates that society—and humanity—has a problem.

Symptoms of Humanity’s Problem

Graham describes problems that his contemporaries would no doubt find troubling. World War II is not too far in the rearview mirror for this audience and the Cold War was escalating. Graham says that their time is an “age of international conflict.” He also says that it is an age of revolt. At first, Graham mentions the type of revolt that grabs people’s attention: the kind that you see in the headlines like the revolt in sub-Saharan Africa. Then he describes what is happening in Western culture: “rebelling for the sake of rebelling.” It is here that Graham gives a preview of his diagnosis: “I think that down underneath it is a spiritual quest, a spiritual thirst, and a spiritual hunger.” Before moving to a full description of the underlying problem, he continues to lay out the symptoms. Graham describes that at the time 80% of students suffer from fear psychosis—they don’t know what they are afraid of. He says that another symptom is confused morals: “America is beginning to accept a new code of ethics…we are confused about sex…morals are relative instead of absolute…narcotic addiction is growing by leaps and bounds in the country…people [are] escaping from reality…now escapism is alright…we need escape…but to run from reality and our problems is another thing.” Graham goes on to quote Ernest Hemingway and Carl Jung to demonstrate that the age is one of spiritual emptiness. He then quotes Sartre who says “there is no exit from the human dilemma.” Graham challenges that assumption with a question: “is there an exit from the human dilemma?” Before he can answer that, Graham first answers another question: “what is the cause of the human dilemma?”

What is the Cause of the Human Dilemma?

To start the answer, Graham asks a series of questions: What is man? Where did he come from? What is the purpose of the human race? He then indicates that no matter how you answer those questions, the fact that humanity has problems is unavoidable: “psychologists and psychiatrists are basically saying that there is something wrong with human nature. [It’s] not hereditary, not environment, not constitutional weakness.” He then moves to answer questions about the identity of man and the cause of his problem: “Let’s look at what the Bible says—this old book that some of us have dismissed.” It is interesting that Graham’s obstacle in dealing with intellectual skeptics is the same problem we have today: to introduce the Bible into the discussion, he acknowledges that it is considered archaic and impotent to speak on modern matters and problems. Graham continues, “this Bible calls this trouble inside of man an ugly word…the Bible calls it sin.” He then quotes Jeremiah 17:9 and Romans 3:23 to show the truth about humanity from the Bible. He also quotes Kierkegaard: “man is born and lives in sin, he cannot do anything for himself but can only do harm to himself.” He continues to explain Biblical truth, especially describing that we have a spiritual existence (likely under the assumption that he is dealing with no small number of materialists or naturalists in the room): “we have a body and a mind, but inside of us lives a spirit, when we die, the spirit goes on…that spirit is the part of us that is created in God’s image…this spirit has a disease called sin.” Graham then takes care to point out that sin is a universal experience for all of humanity. He even goes on to explain that from the Third World to deep in the heart of Manhattan, sin is rampant. Speaking of sin, Graham continues: “Jesus Christ once said that our problem comes from within.” Graham concludes his diagnosis of the human dilemma by showing that the Bible describes our fallen condition as a slavery for which we were not made (we were made for God): “Jesus said that ‘everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin’…We become slaves to lust, slaves to a dollar so that we’ll cheat and lie and even kill. It affects our mind, our conscience, our will…Christ said we are to love God first and self last…sin makes me the center of the world…sin, the Bible says, eventually causes judgment…’the soul that sinneth shall die.’ The Bible teaches that you and I were made for God, and without God there is this emptiness, restlessness, we’re always questing and searching and never quite finding fulfillment in life.”

Is there an Exit from the Human Dilemma?

Graham says that this question is the heart of evangelism. He explains right away that the exit from the human dilemma is already established: God has taken the initiative to save us from our slavery to sin and reconcile humanity to Himself. Before detailing how God has taken the initiative and what He has done to reconcile us to Himself, Graham immediately jumps to admit what is likely of concern to an intellectual skeptic: “I can’t provide empirical proof that there is a God, but there are evidences.” However Graham doesn’t spend much time at all summarizing evidences of God; he quickly moves to the content of the gospel. Billy Graham is saying to the intellectual that one will be disappointed if they demand to get their hands on some material or a formula that takes trusting Christ entirely out of the realm of faith and entirely into the realm of reason. He is also saying that we all carry the angst and restlessness that comes with our fallen nature and that the only relief—the relief evident in others who have trusted Christ—is in the gospel. To present the content of the gospel, Graham says, “this Bible indicates that God has revealed himself…in a person, and that person is Jesus Christ.” And to emphasize the importance of penal substitutionary atonement he references 1 Peter 2 and 2 Corinthians 5 while he says, “on that cross in some mysterious way, Christ died for us. God took our sins, the breaking of law that deserve death and judgment, and laid them on Christ.”

The First Serious Intellectual Appeal: Consider Christ

For a speech to intellectuals that focuses on the interaction of evangelism and the intellectual, I find it very striking that there has been very little intellectual appeal in the speech—Graham has mostly stated facts from the perspective of an orthodox Christian. The first invitation for the audience to engage in any serious intellectual work comes after presenting the content of the gospel. Graham says that Jesus “made the astounding claim, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’ Either Jesus is who he claims to be, or he is the biggest fraud and charlatan in history…Here is a man who comes on the scene and says, ‘I am the embodiment of all truth.’ If I accept that, I have to come by faith; I cannot come intellectually alone. And if you wait until you have all the answers…you will never come.” Then, only as an aside, does Graham indicate that Christianity doesn’t require you to check your brain at the door (Graham zeroes in on “reason”). He focuses all potential intellectual effort on the part of the audience toward the person of Christ and his claims. After inviting the audience to think seriously about Christ and his claims, he makes the case that the Bible says we should come to Christ as little children and that we must be born again. Graham says that we should “come as a simple human being to the cross and your life can be changed.”

Anticipating Intellectual Questions

After the conclusion of the speech, Graham and the rest of the panel field questions from the audience. Still, before he closes the speech, Graham anticipates two major questions: (1) Does conversion (being born again) really work? and (2) Does it take with everyone? He uses those as an opportunity to describe the testimonies of Jim Voss, Charles Potter, and other conversions showing that the impact of a being a new creature in Christ is something that is evident. He also makes the point that faith in Christ is the only point of exclusivity in Christianity. Conversion “takes” for everyone who will believe.

Observations and Takeaways

I was surprised at how evident it is to Graham that this audience is likely skeptical about his message and of the Bible. I assume that this message is given before the Harvard Law School in 1962—I wouldn’t have expected so much acknowledgement of skepticism at that time [footnote] I readily admit that this is probably a foolish assumption. I expected there was more of a cultural assumption of Christendom at the time.[/footnote]. It is also surprising and refreshing to me that he acknowledged the likelihood of skepticism in the audience. It is also helpful to see that, in a sense, there truly is nothing new under the sun.

What Graham does not attempt to defend to skeptics is instructive: he does not defend the definition or construction of the canon of Scripture, the historical Jesus, the resurrection, inerrancy and divine authorship of Scripture. In part, I am sure this strategy is borne out of the fact that it is a speech to an audience. If Graham were in a one-on-one conversation with an intellectual skeptic, I suspect that he wouldn’t just ignore questions about why we should trust the Bible. However, there is wisdom in not focusing on those supportive truths first. Plainly state the gospel and deal with those questions as they come up.

It is instructive that Graham does not shy away from admitting that the church lacks appropriate zeal and vigor in communicating the gospel message. The world can see that the church is imperfect (a Gandhi quote popularizes this idea); we need to make it clear that the failure of Christ’s followers is not proportional to the dysfunction of the gospel.

It strikes me that Graham didn’t attempt to expound on ways that one can transgress against the law of conscience or the Decalogue. He does make the blanket statement that everyone has sinned and he summarizes sin as humanity’s chief problem. I assume that he does not expound on ways that one can transgress against the law of conscience because he is confident that those in the room are already aware that they have done so (even if they might argue that they have not).

It is instructive that Graham uses the brokenness of humanity and the angst that is amplified by pluralism and post-modernism to point to the reality of sin and judgment. Creation is marred by the fall; everyone experiences that. The evangelist should use that reality to point to Christ since all Creation is groaning for the restoration that Christ will bring.

It strikes me that Graham emphasized what is observable: the changed life of those who have trusted Christ. The skeptic may not be able to grasp anything about following Christ since it does require a measure of faith—but he points their attention to what they can measure: changed lives. One can argue about the validity of Scripture, but you can’t argue someone’s experience out of existence. Graham says that the life change and the solution to the problem of humanity are found in Jesus and available to all—and he points out that there are countless lives that bear the fruit of being born again.

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