Do you recognize the name Charles Templeton? You might or might not have heard of Charles Templeton, but I’m sure you recognize the name Billy Graham. These two men were dear friends and somewhat contemporary evangelists in the early 40’s preaching to multiple thousands of people in sports arenas all over the world. One died an agnostic and the other a hero of faith. Both of these young evangelists worked for Youth for Christ and were gifted orators with a bright future but whose lives had very different endings.
The story of Charles Templeton’s spiritual demise and abandonment of the Christian faith is chronicled in one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. The book, Farewell to God, My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith, spells out his case for why he said goodbye not just to Christianity but to God himself. Templeton’s story is well-documented on numerous websites, so I won’t waste space spewing the sewage he postulated before he died a broken man. But I will share a defining moment in Templeton’s life that became the nail in his theological coffin.
Lee Strobel relates the following story regarding an interview with Templeton just before he died. Strobel asked a direct, penetrating question which led to the following exchange.
“Was there one thing in particular that caused you to lose your faith in God?” Templeton thought for a moment. “It was a photograph in Life magazine,” he said finally. “Really?” I said. “A photograph? How so?” He narrowed his eyes a bit and looked off to the side, as if he were viewing the photo afresh and reliving the moment. “It was a picture of a black woman in Northern Africa,” he explained. “They were experiencing a devastating drought. And she was holding her dead baby in her arms and looking up to heaven with the most forlorn expression. I looked at it and I thought, ‘Is it possible to believe that there is a loving or caring Creator when all this woman needed was rain?’ ” As he emphasized the word rain, his bushy gray eyebrows shot up and his arms gestured toward heaven as if beckoning for a response. “How could a loving God do this to that woman?” he implored as he got more animated, moving to the edge of his chair. “Who runs the rain? I don’t; you don’t. He does — or that’s what I thought. But when I saw that photograph, I immediately knew it is not possible for this to happen and for there to be a loving God. There was no way. Who else but a fiend could destroy a baby and virtually kill its mother with agony — when all that was needed was rain?” He paused, letting the question hang heavily in the air. Then he settled back into his chair. “That was the climactic moment,” he said.
Like Templeton and each of us, Billy Graham faced defining moments that became the crossroad points for his life. Graham’s grandson Will relates the following story when his grandfather wrestled with the same questions that stumped Templeton. Will’s story titled, “The Tree Stump Prayer: When Billy Graham Overcame Doubt,” shares how his grandfather, like Templeton, wrestled with the mysteries of life but arrived at a very different conclusion.
“At the mid-point of the 20th century, he (Billy Graham) had already been an evangelist with Youth For Christ and had preached across Europe in the aftermath of World War II. He had held his first “Billy Graham Crusades” in places like Charlotte, N.C, and Grand Rapids, Mich. Not everything had gone as planned, however. His crusade in Altoona, Pa., had been – in his own words – “a flop.” It was spiritually difficult and he felt things had gone poorly, and it left him questioning whether or not evangelism should be his focus.
At the same time, a very good friend and contemporary of my grandfather’s, a man named Charles Templeton, had begun challenging my granddaddy’s way of thinking. Mr. Templeton, who had preached with Youth For Christ as well, had gone on to study at Princeton, where he began to believe that the Bible was flawed and that academia – not Jesus – was the answer to life’s problems. He tried to convince my grandfather that his way of thinking was outdated and the Bible couldn’t be trusted. My grandfather had more questions than answers. It was during those times of questioning Billy Graham was invited by Dr. Henrietta Mears to speak at Forest Home, a Presbyterian Christian Retreat Center, where Billy went for a walk in the woods and the following occurred.
One night at Forest Home, he walked out into the woods and set his Bible on a stump – more an altar than a pulpit – and he cried out: “O God! There are many things in this book I do not understand. There are many problems with it for which I have no solution. There are many seeming contradictions. There are some areas in it that do not seem to correlate with modern science. I can’t answer some of the philosophical and psychological questions Chuck and others are raising.” And then, my grandfather fell to his knees and the Holy Spirit moved in him as he said, “Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word—by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word!”
This was August 1949, and mere weeks later Billy Graham would go on to hold the historic 1949 Los Angeles Crusade Streets which catapulted my grandfather’s ministry into national prominence.”
Two men faced two stumps with the same questions. One knelt at the stump and prayed and changed nations. The other didn’t kneel but rather stood defiantly and was stumped, which led him into a world of nonsense and bitterness.
All of us wrestle with mysteries where we choose to either kneel at the stump or be stumped. My defining moment was in 1972 in Springfield, Missouri, and I chose to kneel, but that story is for another blog.