Arts & Culture & At Work

How Billy Graham’s Legacy Shines in People Like Louis Zamperini

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It’s not often the life of one person impacts the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the globe.

No doubt the news of Rev. Billy Graham passing’s was broadcast worldwide in many languages and to many cultures. Just imagine people on nearly every continent getting word of his death and having a personal memory of hearing him speak. Over his lifetime, he made more than 400 trips and reached more than 214 million people with the gospel. Author Eric Metaxas described Graham’s global impact for Christ well when he said:

Apart from the apostle Paul, I cannot think of a single figure in the 20 centuries of Christian history whose name is synonymous with the good news of Jesus Christ in the way that Billy Graham’s is. No one in modern times can approach his influence of several-plus decades internationally representing what we Christians call the gospel.

If you’re like me, you have a story of when you first encountered Billy Graham, whether watching one of his “crusades” on TV or reading one of his 33 books. His impact was enormous. But if Rev. Graham could advise us now, he might say, “Don’t talk about me, talk about the One who changed my life—and who wants to change your life too.”

What made Billy Graham’s delivery of the gospel so powerful and compelling was his emphasis on the grace of God: it doesn’t matter what you did in your past or what state your life is in today, the forgiveness of Jesus Christ is an invitation to all. Just as Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

In honor of Graham’s life and death, I’d like to retell a story of a life that was radically changed because one person heard the good news about Jesus Christ at a Billy Graham crusade.

The Redemption Story of Louis Zamperini

Several years ago, my wife and I were preparing to drive to New York City. I asked her if there was a book she wanted to listen to during the trip. She replied, “Yes: Unbroken!”

Neither of us knew anything about the book other than it being a best-seller written by Laura Hillenbrand, the author of Seabiscuit. We were both quickly drawn into this spellbinding story that begins with Louis Zamperini as a young juvenile delinquent in Torrance, California. Zamperini seems destined for a life of crime.

His older brother intervenes, introducing Zamperini to running. A gifted athlete, Zamperini gets an opportunity to run at the 1936 Olympics. He has a shot at winning a gold medal in the 1940 Olympics, but then World War II breaks out and ends his chances.

Zamperini joins the United States Army Air Corps in 1941, serving in the Pacific theater as a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator.

While on a mission in 1943, Zamperini’s bomber develops mechanical problems and crashes into the Pacific. After enduring forty-seven days drifting on a life raft, Zamperini is rescued by the Japanese and spends the next two years in a prison camp.

At this point in the book, a pattern emerges: when things seem like they can’t get any worse for Zamperini…they do.

Even after the war ends and Zamperini returns to the United States as a war hero and marries the girl of his dreams, the “happy ever after” life still eludes him.

He is haunted nightly by nightmares of his captors. Alcoholism, severe post-traumatic stress, a string of unsuccessful business ventures, and a failing marriage leave Zamperini obsessively dreaming of taking revenge on the Japanese.

In 1949 Zamperini’s wife implores him to go with her to Billy Graham’s tent revival in downtown Los Angeles. The second night Zamperini gives his life to Christ and publicly professes his new-found faith.

His life is radically changed. His captors never again torture him in his dreams. He tosses out booze and cigarettes and embraces a lifetime of selfless Christian service, including a trip to Japan to forgive his tormentors.

Hillenbrand writes,

In a single, silent moment, his rage, his fear, his humiliation and helplessness, had fallen away. That morning, he believed, he was a new creation. Softly, he wept… At that moment, something shifted sweetly inside him. It was forgiveness, beautiful and effortless and complete. For Louie Zamperini, the war was over.

Unfortunately, the movie based on the book ends shortly after Zamperini returns to the U.S. Zamperini’s redemption narrative is largely reduced to a few title cards flashed before the closing credits, and moviegoers leave without knowing the rest of the story.

The Broken Are Redeemed and Called for a Purpose

Zamperini went on to find his true calling when he opened Victory Boys Camp to help troubled boys, many of whom were renewed and reformed there, enabling them to live productive lives.

Zamperini’s story is a powerful illustration of just one life that was transformed because Billy Graham shared the gospel. Think of the millions more like him who came to Christ through Graham’s evangelistic outreach.

But there’s another lesson for all of us in Zamperini’s story. God has called each of us to do good works, at our jobs, in our families, our churches, and in our communities (Eph. 2:10). As Billy Graham once said, “God has given us two hands—one to receive with and the other to give with.” Everything in our lives, good and bad, has prepared us for what he has called us to do today (Rom. 8:28).

God had his hand on Zamperini’s life even in his darkest hours, preparing him for a life of service. The same can be said for each of us. How is God weaving together the threads of your life journey for good today?


Editor’s note: Read more about how God plans to use your life and work for his good purposes in How Then Should We Work?

Help empower Christians to use their vocation to transform the world for Christ! Support IFWE today. 

Photo credit: Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

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