A sad choice for last words

"Where I Am: Heaven, Eternity, and Our Life Beyond," by Billy Graham. Photo courtesy of Thomas Nelson

“Where I Am: Heaven, Eternity, and Our Life Beyond,” by Billy Graham. Photo courtesy of Thomas Nelson

I haven’t read Billy Graham’s latest book — advertised as the last one we can expect from the aged evangelist. By all reports, such as this one from the Religion News Service, it puts a lot of emphasis on hell as a literal, fiery place of everlasting torture for those who don’t put their trust in Christ.

That sounds a lot like Graham in his early years, when I used to watch his televised crusades with my great-grandmother, but he mellowed as he matured, and was more likely to leave eternal matters to God.

Has Graham changed gears in his final years, or does the book bear heavy influence from his famously conservative son Franklin, as some have alleged? I don’t know, but I can’t help but think it’s a shame that the long-respected evangelist’s swan song should include heavy ruminations on an eternal lake of fire.

This is one of the downsides of biblical literalism: a belief that you have to defend everything that’s mentioned in the Bible as literal truth, with little or no allowance for metaphor.

But you can believe the core truths of the Bible without holding to a belief that the same Christ who loved us enough to die in our behalf is also determined to roast all who reject him over an eternal flame.

The Old Testament has no concept of a burning hell: the land of the dead, known as Sheol, was thought of as a place in the underworld where everyone went, both kings and servants, good and bad. The concept of hell as a place of punishment emerged in developing Judaism of the post exilic period, and the scribes and Pharisees liked to use it as a threat against those who were less righteous than they. The common word for hell in the New Testament, Gehenna, is from the Hebrew expression “Valley of Hinnom” — a deep ravine outside of Jerusalem where garbage was dumped and burned, a smelly place where both worms and flames were common.

It’s a metaphor. So are all the varied biblical descriptions of heaven. No one can claim to know exactly what eternity will be like.

Jesus talked about hell, but usually in conversation with the Pharisees, talking back to them in their own language. Everlasting fire is not the only metaphor for hell in the Bible. It’s also spoken of as a place of darkness and separation from God.

It seems reasonable to believe that those who reject the hope of eternal life should experience death instead, but it’s hard to imagine that a God known for mercy and steadfast love would be so vengeful as to subject non-followers to an eternity of unspeakable torture.

The gospel is far more attractive, I think, when we focus on the positive aspects of following Christ, rather than imaginary tortures of rejecting him. May our legacy be one of grace, not vengeance.

12 Comments

  1. Billy Graham’s message has ben hijacked by his son Franklin.

  2. Or, Neita, it might be that Jesus’ message has been hijacked by people who prefer to choose the parts they like and take a pass on the parts they don’t.

    I have no clue if this new book is what Billy Graham had in mind, or if someone took advantage of his advanced age, severe hearing loss, and failing eyesight to get an OK on something he never intended. But the record we look to for the things Jesus said that Tony likes is the same record that shows the things Jesus said that Tony doesn’t especially like. So if Franklin Graham hijacked the message (and it might be that he did), how is that different from Tony’s pick-and-choose-and-explain-away with the words of Jesus?

  3. Choosing to deny the reality of hell as described by Jesus himself….is stepping into utter heresy according to Scripture and the testimony of the Church throughout history.

    There can be no Mercy without the existence of Justice.

    The law of God…and the consequences for violating that law…must supersede any understanding of reconciliation through the life and death of Jesus. How can Jesus save us if there is nothing to be saved from?

    How can denying hell make the Gospel more attractive? Why call people to change their life and choices if we are all just going to end up in the same place? So basically Hitler and Mother Theresa could be neighbors in the suburbs of heaven?…yea! That is an attractive belief! (please note the sarcasm)

    I understand the push-back against a picture of a vengeful God actively torturing those who deny Him….for that is not entirely Biblical. The Bible does say that God has prepared a place of eternal destruction for the forces of evil and those who reject the Gospel….God will not be there for all of eternity “turning the roasting spit.” Hell is a place of utter separation…and that in and of itself will be punishment enough.

    I haven’t read the book in question…but it sure does sound to me like something that needs to have been written and said…especially by such an esteemed follower of Christ who has witnessed first hand, and on multiple levels, the descent of this nation into moral depravity.

    …The cry of one in the wilderness saying “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”

    Repentance is pointless without the shadow of hell

  4. Thank God you are not longer at the helm of the Biblical Recorder

  5. If an eternity of fiery torture is the metaphor, what do you think the reality is? Surely not annihilationism – that would make no sense.

  6. Why would you be commenting on a book you have not read.

  7. Tony: I can truthfully say that I am a little disappointed in what you have written. I was completely taken back and shocked.

  8. There is a movie called Hell and Mr Fudge that is about a Church of Christ pastor and his conclusion on hell. I have met Mr Fudge and regret that I did not know about the movie at that time. I wish Billy Graham could have seen it. I respect Billy Graham very much and am very disappointed that he chose this subject for his last book.

  9. It sounds like you and Rob Bell need to get together. I am saddened by your article. The subject of Hell needs to be preached and people need to be warned that there is one. Christ talked more about Hell than He did Heaven. Thank God for Billy Graham and his ability to preach and write about the good news that Hell can be avoided. You might want to go back and read Jonathan Edwards sermon on Hell.
    If this is his last book then I am thankful that he wrote again about Hell and the awfulness of it. Thirteen percent of the 1,850 verses in the New Testament that records the the words of Jesus deal with eternal judgment and hell. I am so glad that Billy Graham did not water down the gospel.

  10. “It’s a metaphor. So are all the varied biblical descriptions of heaven. No one can claim to know exactly what eternity will be like……imaginary tortures of rejecting him.”

    ROFL! You fake Baptists are the biggest lying hypocrites one could imagine. Hell couldn’t be too hot for sewer rats like you.

  11. By the way, Jesus Christ stated that Abraham told the rich man in hell that Moses and the Prophets were enough to warn his brothers about hell. So your assertion that hell is not found in the Old Testament, on top of being criminally stupid, is blasphemy against Jesus Christ Himself.

  12. Marshall Frady’s work on billy Graham in 79 continues to be the definitive look at him. For ratification of that notion see Steven Smith on Frady on Graham in the upcoming Worlds of Billy Graham by Harvard Press.

    Hal Crowther has written in Oxford American Billy Graham is intellectually challenged. And Randall Balmer has written about how he played the devil’s hand in at least two Presidential elections and Al Mohler credits him with key role in the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention.

    All that said he was positive influence on my grandfather’s pilgrimage and I still find my self sining Bev Shea’s hymns with conviction.

    For more see the legacy of Billy Graham in the History section of baptistlife.com/forums

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