Question: Pastor, is there anyone you can go to with a serious doubt about the Christian faith?
Let’s say you are struck by “contradictions” you’ve located in the Bible. But if you preached these from the pulpit, you would have caused great harm. Psalm 73:15 comes to mind. If I had said, “I will speak thus,” behold, I would have been untrue to the children of your generation.
But you need answers. Where do you turn?
Or, let’s say you are burdened by the suffering in the world. You wonder, How could a powerful and loving God allow such? Perhaps you say, as some have, If God is almighty and allows this suffering, he is not all-loving. If he is loving and does nothing to stop it, it must be because he is not able. But, you reason, since suffering exists, we cannot have it both ways.
Who can you talk to about your questions?
If you have no friend to whom you can turn, there is a serious gap in your life. You are in need of another friend or two or three.
I don’t mean just any kind of friend. We may have hundreds of “friends” on Facebook. At best, most of those are only acquaintances. Few if any are “friends” in the deepest sense.
A real friend would confront you and force you to come to terms with what you have done. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy” (Prov. 27:6).
This is a story about two friends: a young Billy Graham and a young Charles Templeton. The story of that friendship and the doubt that drove them into separate life paths is told in Billy, a book by William Paul McKay and Ken Abraham.
Billy Graham you know. What you may not know is that when he began his ministry of citywide crusades, Charles Templeton was “the” name evangelist drawing all the big crowds, seeing the greatest results, getting all the press. Templeton was tall, movie-star handsome, articulate, dynamic and popular. He was a star, if we may use that word, when Billy Graham was just stepping onto the stage.
Instead of becoming rivals or competitors as we might have expected, these young men developed a great friendship. Each appreciated what he saw in the other. Both helped to organize Youth For Christ, the post-World War II evangelistic ministry which brought the gospel to a new generation. Billy Graham was its first full-time evangelist.
As young and dynamic evangelists, both Graham and Templeton went through a valley of doubts and questions regarding the Bible, God and the Christian faith. Graham emerged stronger than ever; Templeton’s faith did not survive the test.
Billy Graham had friends to help him through his crisis; Charles Templeton did not. That, I believe to be the primary reason for what happened to each evangelist.
Templeton fed his mind a constant diet of books such as Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, Voltaire’s The Bible Explained At Last, Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, as well as the speeches of Robert Ingersoll, well-known atheist of the late 19th century.
Each book amounted to an attack on the historic Christian faith.
Templeton was floored by what he read. Even though he was highly articulate and successful, he had never completed high school and had no theological training at all. Consequently, he had no intellectual resources with which to combat the fiery darts being flung in his path by the Enemy. And in the absence of any friend of spiritual maturity and seasoned godliness with whom he could consult, he bore these burdens and their agony silently.
Gradually and steadily, the doubts ate away at his faith—like termites working on the foundation of a house—until they brought down his ministry. He began cancelling meetings. Meanwhile, the turmoil inside him grew stronger.
The authors tell of the time Templeton admitted to his friend Billy Graham the doubts he carried about the God they had been preaching.
“What loving God would allow a thing like that?” Templeton asked. While preaching crusades across the European continent, the men watched a movie newsreel about the untold millions put to death in Nazi concentration camps.
Billy saw the same thing Templeton did and answered, “Of course there is a loving God. That’s why the war is over. That’s why those people have been liberated.”
Templeton wasn’t buying it. “Billy, you saw hundreds being saved (i.e., rescued from the camps). I saw bones, bodies, thousands of people dead! What loving God would allow that?”
More and more as he observed suffering in the world, Templeton asked, “How can there be a God in this evil world?” He admitted, “It was not that I disbelieved. It was that my mind was at war with my spirit.”
Billy had the same doubts and questions. The difference is that he had solid, mature, godly friends who had worked their way through their own spiritual struggles to whom he could turn.
The authors name some of them: Stephen Olford. J. Edwin Orr. Henrietta Mears.
Billy’s mother—Morrow Graham—was a giant in the faith who prayed for her son and encouraged him. (Note: In the late ’80s when I pastored in Charlotte, North Carolina, people still spoke of his mother who taught the Bible even in the nursing home in her final years.)
Billy Graham admitted he had questions about the gospel. The authors write:
“When it came to believing that the Bible was completely true, that it was the divinely inspired Word of God, Charles’ questions were softballs compared to the curves Billy threw at himself. Could he accept all of the Bible as the Word of God and preach it with honesty, authority and conviction if there were portions of the Scriptures that presented him with intellectual difficulties, dichotomies that he did not have the knowledge or wisdom to resolve?”
Finally, Billy came to a conclusion, one far different from the one Charles had arrived at. As far as Billy was concerned, if Jesus believed the Bible, quoted it and attested to its veracity, why couldn’t he?
Ultimately, it was a matter of faith, Billy decided. And he chose to believe.
Templeton just couldn’t do that. In time, he became bitter and hostile.
It may come as a surprise to some that preachers of the gospel have our occasional (and persistent) doubts and questions about God, the Bible and our faith.
I’d like to make three points:
- There is nothing wrong and everything right with raising questions about God, the Bible, and salvation, or even struggling with doubts so long as we see them through to the finish. God can use this. But if we jump ship the first time we begin to question the faith, if we do not stay around long enough for the answer, it was all for nothing.
In my own life, struggling with a nagging question seems something like digging a foundation for the structure of faith which the Lord will eventually erect there when the answer came.
The unexamined life, they say, is not worth living. Likewise, we would add, the unexamined message is not worth preaching.
- The strongest, most effective Christian workers you will ever meet have had their struggles along these same lines. The Enemy will try to keep that news from you.
Doubt can be so egotistical. You feel no one has ever questioned this before, that you have uncovered the Achilles’ heel of the gospel. Hardly, friend. There is nothing new under the skeptical sun, friend.
In fact, the best counselors you could possibly find will turn out to have struggled the way you are. They just kept searching until they found answers and peace.
- One of the best things you can do for yourself is to consult those more mature friends and lay your questions on the table.
Hold nothing back. Do not be surprised if they fail to get excited and worry about you. You might even noticing them smiling. “Been there, done that,” one will say to you. And that’s when you begin to feel normal again.
You can get through this. And when you do, you’ll be stronger than ever.
That’s what happened to Billy.
As with most ministers who have stayed with the work for decades, I had my spiritual struggles. As a collegian and active in church, some of the books I was reading and professors under whom I sat had little regard for the Christian faith.
At this considerable distance, I cannot tell you how long I floundered. In fact, my friends from those years would have been surprised to learn I was struggling at all, since nothing was visible on the surface.
My friends saved me. Or rather, God used them to pull me back from the brink.
Two things convinced me that the way of Jesus is the right way.
- I looked at a few friends who were so strong, so faithful, and so godly. These were my heroes, my role models. As I reflected on their lives, I realized they were not fools. Far from it. They had not bought into a scam. They were not following Jesus because it was easy, were not believing the Bible because they had no brain, they were not theists because they had never had questions.
Billy Graham had said Jesus believed the Bible, so that was good enough for him. In my case, I saw that certain friends believed it with all their hearts, and that was enough for me.
- I looked at the fruits of the two ways of life. Down the path of unbelief and skepticism lay misery, despair and hopelessness. But the way of Jesus Christ offered a future beyond any dream of mine.
I chose hope.
And that has made all the difference.
Now, the best thing I could ask from the Lord is to be one of those godly mature believers who serve as “proof” that God is aliv