Billy Graham died Wednesday at the age of 99. The famous evangelist preached to more than 210 million in person, and may have reached over a billion with the Christian message.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of stories extolling Graham have been published in the few days since his death, including dozens in Christianity Today, the magazine he co-founded in 1956 (and where I am a contributing editor).
Scores of people have written in recent days about how Graham—a former Templeton Prize Laureate—changed their lives. But at least one voice of mild dissension came in a New York Times op-ed on Thursday titled, “Billy Graham’s Missed Opportunities.”
Among other observations, David A. Hollinger, an emeritus professor of history at Cal-Berkeley, writes that Graham “often stood aloof from or actively discouraged efforts to revise traditional Protestantism to make it more respectful . . . of the findings of modern science and scholarship.” Hollinger adds that Graham “acquiesced in the provincial suspicions of modern intellectual life—suspicions that keep millions of the faithful away from an honest engagement with the Darwinian revolution in natural history . . .”
Hollinger quotes Reinhold Niebuhr in saying that Graham promoted “obscurantist ideas.”
I’m no Graham scholar—and I had to look up “obscurantist” to make sure I understood its meaning—but I read Hollinger’s words with skepticism. Graham may have grown up on a farm, spoken with a folksy Southern drawl, and had a simple message that to some listeners might have seemed unsophisticated or even naïve. But he also grew with the times and was savvy about modern culture, including advances in science and technology.
Graham’s own words—written and spoken—indicate that he held science in high regard, and that faith and science could not only co-exist, but support one another.
“I don’t think that there’s any conflict at all between science today and the Scriptures,” Graham told David Frost in one of several interviews over the course of 33 years.
In that same interview, Graham said he had no qualms with evolution:
“The Bible is not a book of science,” he said. “I accept the Creation story. I believe that God did create the universe. I believe God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man. [W]hichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is.”
Graham often addressed matters of science in “My Answer,” a syndicated column that ran in many American newspapers. It was sort of a “Dear Abby” for readers’ questions about faith.
When a high school student asked about the compatibility of science and religion, Graham replied, “Science and religion are not hostile or opposed to each other, not if they are properly understood. I’ve been privileged to know a number of highly respected scientists and researchers who were also deeply committed to Jesus Christ. They knew that while science can help us understand the physical world, it will never be able to answer life’s deepest questions: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? How should we live? Only God can answer these.”
“It had to have a Designer”
Another reader, believing that “religion is outdated,” wrote that “science is able to explain most of the mysteries that religion used to deal with.” Again referring to “distinguished scientists,” Graham wrote, “Instead of seeing faith in God as something out of date and irrelevant, they saw it instead as something vital and important.”
Elsewhere, Graham said some scientists came to faith through their research: “They realized that the world they were studying was so complex and so well designed that it couldn’t possibly have happened by chance. It had to have had a Designer.”
Graham also wrote that such scientists believed “the whole creation is a witness to God’s power and wisdom. Even the human body, they pointed out, is a witness to God’s love and concern. To believe that everything happened by chance, they said, takes far more faith than believing in God!” Graham wrote that he was “grateful for every discovery scientists have made; many reading this column probably wouldn’t be alive, nor would I, if it weren’t for the remarkable advances made by medical science over the last few centuries.”
He even referenced basic scientific method: “The existence of God cannot be proven in a laboratory or through the complicated mechanisms of logic. Neither can love, beauty, or happiness, but that does not mean they are not real. In the same way, just because you cannot ‘prove’ that God exists as you can prove a chemical formula, it does not mean that He is not real. It only means you are using the wrong tools.”
In a devotional message, Graham wrote that “science and faith complement each other, and there is no conflict between true science and true religion.” He referred to Christianity as “supra-scientific. There are highways beyond science that lead to truth.” In another, Graham wrote that he believes the Genesis story is “scientifically accurate.”
In his book The Secret of Happiness, Graham wrote about the “close relationship between our physical health and our spiritual, mental, and emotional outlook. Science is discovering more and more the truth of what the Bible said centuries ago: ‘A merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance: but by sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken’ (Prov. 15:13). The Bible also states, ‘A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones’ (Prov. 17:22).” Indeed, much contemporary science, particularly in the field of positive psychology, shows that positive attitudes and traits (like gratitude and optimism) are physically good for us.
In a 1959 article in Christianity Today, Graham addressed the topic of tolerance. He wrote that many of people of faith had become too “broad-minded,” and argued that science supports the opposite way of thinking:
“The sciences . . . call for narrow-mindedness,” Graham wrote. “There is no room for broad-mindedness in the laboratory. Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level. It is never 100 degrees nor 189 degrees—but always 212. Water freezes at 32 degrees—not at 23 or 31.
“Objects heavier than air are always attracted to the center of the earth. They always go down—never up. I know this is very narrow, but the law of gravity decrees it so, and science is narrow.
“Take mathematics. The sum of two plus two is four—not three-and-a-half. That seems very narrow, but arithmetic is not broad. Neither is geometry. It says that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. That seems very dogmatic and narrow, but geometry is intolerant.
“A compass will always point to the magnetic north. It seems that is a very narrow view, but a compass is not very ‘broad-minded.’ If it were, all the ships at sea, and all the planes in the air, would be in danger.”
Graham used these points to dispute the notion that “all roads lead to heaven,” appealing to Jesus’s words about “the narrow way” in Matthew 7.
The preacher meets Einstein
Finally, in a 1998 TED Talk, Graham—then 80, slightly unsteady, and beginning to battle Parkinson’s disease—addressed a Silicon Valley audience with a speech titled, “On technology and faith.”
He mentions his conversations with hi-tech leaders: “I was so stimulated. It was an eye-opening experience to hear them talk about the world that is yet to come through technology and science.” He says he wishes he could live in the future to “see what it is going to be.”
He delves into history, citing the “first technological revolution,” an “iron age” that King David introduced to Israel, as evidenced by archaeological digs in modern-day Palestine. He says that iron in those days—used for “plows, sickles, hoes, military weapons”—had a massive impact on the world, “a little like the microchip has had on our generation.”
Graham reminisces about a talk he gave at Princeton—and meeting Albert Einstein. He says Einstein told him “he didn’t have a doctor’s degree because nobody was qualified to give him one.” The audience laughs, and then Graham adds that Einstein said, “It’s easier to denature plutonium than to denature the evil spirit of man.”
Graham quotes three more great scientists in his speech. He cites Thomas Edison: “When you see everything that happens in the world of science, and in the working of the universe, you cannot deny that there’s a captain on the bridge.” He quotes Wernher von Braun, the father of rocket technology: “Science and religion are not antagonists. On the contrary, they’re sisters.”
And finally, he references Pascal, “a brilliant scientist at the frontiers of mathematics . . . He is viewed by many as the founder of the probability theory, and a creator of the first model of a computer. Pascal explored in depth our human dilemmas of evil, suffering, and death. He was astounded at the phenomenon we’ve been considering: that people can achieve extraordinary heights in science, the arts and human enterprise, yet they also are full of anger, hypocrisy . . . He saw us as a remarkable mixture of genius and self-delusion.”
Graham says Pascal had “a profound religious experience” and “experienced [God] in a way that went beyond scientific observation and reason.”
Graham says his own conversion was similar: He had to decide whether God was real or not. “I couldn’t prove it. I couldn’t take it to a laboratory and experiment with it. But by faith I said, I believe him.”
Watch Graham’s 26-minute TED Talk here: