Charles Templeton: Missing Jesus

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Chuck Templeton, Torrey Johnson and Billy Graham in a publicity photo for the European trip taken in the YFC offices in Chicago. Ca. March 1946. (Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton College)

Charles Templeton (1915-2001) first professed faith in 1936 and became an evangelist that same year. In 1945 he met Billy Graham and the two became friends, rooming and ministering together during a 1946 YFC evangelistic tour in Europe.

But by 1948 Templeton’s life and worldview were beginning to go in a different direction than Graham’s. Doubts about the Christian faith were solidifying as he planned to enter Princeton Theological Seminary. Less than a decade later (1957), he would publicly declare that he had become an agnostic.

In his 1996 memoir, Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith, Templeton recounted a conversation with Graham in Montreat prior to entering seminary:

All our differences came to a head in a discussion which, better than anything I know, “explains” Billy Graham and his phenomenal success as an evangelist.

In the course of our conversation I said, “But, Billy, it’s simply not possible any longer to believe, for instance, the biblical account of creation. The world was not created over a period of days a few thousand years ago; it has evolved over millions of years. It’s not a matter of speculation; it’s a demonstrable fact.”

“I don’t accept that,” Billy said. “And there are reputable scholars who don’t.”

“Who are these scholars?’ I said. “Men in conservative Christian colleges?”

“Most of them, yes,” he said. “But that is not the point. I believe the Genesis account of creation because it’s in the Bible. I’ve discovered something in my ministry: When I take the Bible literally, when I proclaim it as the word of God, my preaching has power. When I stand on the platform and say, ‘God says,’ or ‘The Bible says,’ the Holy Spirit uses me. There are results. Wiser men than you or I have been arguing questions like this for centuries. I don’t have the time or the intellect to examine all sides of the theological dispute, so I’ve decided once for all to stop questioning and accept the Bible as God’s word.”

“But Billy,” I protested, “You cannot do that. You don’t dare stop thinking about the most important question in life. Do it and you begin to die. It’s intellectual suicide.”

“I don’t know about anybody else,” he said, “but I’ve decided that that’s the path for me.”

Their trajectories had been chosen.

An image from Brad Templeton's Photo Site.

Fifty years later, Lee Strobel had an opportunity to interview Templeton, who had just a couple of more years to live. He was in his 80s and suffering from Alzheimer’s, but still a clear conversation parter. In A Case for Faith, Strobel recounts the ending of their wide-ranging conversation.

“And how do you assess this Jesus?” It seemed like the next logical question—but I wasn’t ready for the response it would evoke.

Templeton’s body language softened. It was as if he suddenly felt relaxed and comfortable in talking about an old and dear friend. His voice, which at times had displayed such a sharp and insistent edge, now took on a melancholy and reflective tone. His guard seemingly down, he spoke in an unhurried pace, almost nostalgically, carefully choosing his words as he talked about Jesus.

“He was,” Templeton began, “the greatest human being who has ever lived. He was a moral genius. His ethical sense was unique. He was the intrinsically wisest person that I’ve ever encountered in my life or in my readings. His commitment was total and led to his own death, much to the detriment of the world. What could one say about him except that this was a form of greatness?”

I was taken aback. “You sound like you really care about him,” I said.

“Well, yes, he is the most important thing in my life,” came his reply. “I . . . I . . . I . . . ,” he stuttered, searching for the right word, ‘I know it may sound strange, but I have to say . . . I adore him!” . . .

” . . . Everything good I know, everything decent I know, everything pure I know, I learned from Jesus. Yes . . . yes. And tough! Just look at Jesus. He castigated people. He was angry. People don’t think of him that way, but they don’t read the Bible. He had a righteous anger. He cared for the oppressed and exploited. There’s no question that he had the highest moral standard, the least duplicity, the greatest compassion, of any human being in history. There have been many other wonderful people, but Jesus is Jesus….’

“Uh . . . but . . . no,’ he said slowly, ‘he’s the most . . .” He stopped, then started again. “In my view,” he declared, “he is the most important human being who has ever existed.”

That’s when Templeton uttered the words I never expected to hear from him. “And if I may put it this way,” he said as his voice began to crack, ‘I . . . miss . . . him!”

With that tears flooded his eyes. He turned his head and looked downward, raising his left hand to shield his face from me. His shoulders bobbed as he wept. . . .

Templeton fought to compose himself. I could tell it wasn’t like him to lose control in front of a stranger. He sighed deeply and wiped away a tear. After a few more awkward moments, he waved his hand dismissively. Finally, quietly but adamantly, he insisted: “Enough of that.”

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