By John Sanidopoulos
Yesterday, 9 April 2017, Palm Sunday, I found out through a friend of mine in Charlotte, North Carolina that Hank Hanegraaff (a.k.a. "the Bible Answer Man") was received into the Orthodox Church through chrismation along with his wife Kathy and two of his twelve children, at Saint Nektarios Greek Orthodox Church, in Charlotte. I had heard Hank had been a catechumen for some time, which surprised me, but when his chrismation was confirmed for me yesterday, I was even more astounded. It was something I had always hoped for him, but never really expected. Hank had played a major role in my early Christian education, as he did for countless others, even though I was an Orthodox Christian. I will share just a few ways how this is true.
Though I was somewhat nominally born and raised an Orthodox Christian, I had my own "conversion" experience to Christianity when I was ten years old after a powerful encounter with the love of Christ, and when I was presented with the knowledge of the resurrection of Christ for the first time, I knew then that I either had to accept it as a reality and devote my life to Christ or deny it and live life as if it never happened. Soon after this I began to intensely study the Christian faith, and thirty years later I have not ceased in my zeal to study it. But I was always unguided, so whenever I encountered something related to the Christian faith, I devoured it, whether it was right or wrong I didn't care - and much of it was indeed wrong. My thirst for knowledge led me to listen to a lot of Christian talk radio through middle and high school, and one program that I rarely ever missed was the Bible Answer Man, hosted by Hank Hanegraaff.
When I finally entered an Orthodox seminary (Hellenic College) after I graduated high school, my knowledge of the Bible was already very advanced for my age, though my fellow students shockingly had a profoundly poor knowledge of Scripture. To give an example, my freshman year I took an Introduction to the Bible course, that everyone found quite difficult, and the professor himself even told us it would be very difficult. Our mid-term test consisted of a hundred questions, worth one point each, and two extra credit essay questions worth ten points each to help boost the grade of the students, though we were also told that due to the difficulty of the test a grading curve would probably be necessary. As expected, everyone of the forty or so students scored C's, D's and F's, with two students however receiving a higher than average score - me and my future brother-in-law (he received a B-). Unfortunately for everyone, I found the test to be easy and got all 120 points for an A++. Because I was able to answer all the questions correctly, it prevented the professor from grading on a curve. And when I was asked how I knew the Bible so well as an Orthodox Christian, I jokingly said that I listened to a lot of the Bible Answer Man on the radio growing up. Though I was joking, there was a lot of truth to my jest.
Hank Hanegraaff indeed played a major role in my early Christian education, and one thing that I especially enjoyed was his emphasis on the centrality of the resurrection of Christ, upon which the Christian faith either stands or falls, as St. Paul says. It was my encounter with the reality of the resurrection at ten years old that "forced" me to embrace Christianity, so profound was the experience I had that it didn't even feel like I had a choice. When I was a senior in high school, I remember one week Dr. Norman Geisler was a guest co-host on his show. Every year Dr. Geisler, as he later told me, would be invited to co-host the show for a week during which time he would be able to promote his books. This one particular week was exclusively devoted to the apologetics around the resurrection of Christ, and it had a profound effect on me at a very difficult time in my life. After I graduated Hellenic College, I immediately got married, and instead of moving on to graduate school at Holy Cross School of Theology, my wife and I decided to take some time off together and we moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. Not wanting to put a stop to my education, I found out Dr. Norman Geisler had opened his own seminary in Charlotte, so I decided to enroll. For the next three years, I spent all my time surrounded by Evangelicals at this new-born seminary with top-notch professors from the Evangelical and Apologetics world. It was quite surreal as an Orthodox Christian straight out of an Orthodox seminary to be immersed in the Evangelical world for three years, but I went to learn what they had to say, kept my Orthodoxy to myself, and in the end had a very positive experience, one reason being that it helped me exorcise all my Protestant and Catholic influences which I had accrued in my early years of education when I was without guidance (it's a long story I will leave for another time). Meanwhile some Sunday's I even attended Saint Nektarios Greek Orthodox Church (which met in a high school auditorium at the time while the church was being built).
While I lived in Charlotte, Hank had just moved there from California. One afternoon when I was eating lunch at a restaurant with Dr. Geisler, he informed me that Hank Hanegraaff was moving to Charlotte, and Dr. Geisler decided to honor him with an honorary doctorate, since Hank had never received a formal Christian education, but his very successful ministry earned him the honor. I was very happy to hear that he would receive it before I left Charlotte to return to Boston to complete my Orthodox seminary education. That is also when I told Dr. Geisler that the reason I entered his school was because I listened to him on Hank's program years before, and how strongly he impacted my life, despite our many theological disagreements. Therefore I attended the graduation ceremony before I left for Boston (I was not allowed a degree myself, though I completed all the requirements for a Masters in the Philosophy of Religion, because I had to sign a Statement of Faith that contrasted with my beliefs, which of course I did not), and during the ceremony Hank was awarded his honorary doctorate. Afterwards I was able to very briefly meet and talk to Hank and have a photo taken with him. My impression of him was that he was a deeply humble man who sincerely loved Christ. That was my only encounter with Hank.
With these few things in mind, my shock at the chrismation of Hank and his family has a little bit of context. I received this knowledge after I had seen the movie the Case for Christ in the theater, and that had brought a lot of old memories back from my days in Charlotte, as it featured two of my old professors - Dr. Gary Habermas (who would often try to debate me about Orthodoxy and my integrity for attending an Evangelical seminary) and Dr. William Craig (many of whose debates I also attended in various campuses in the South). Then to be told of Hank's conversion was just icing on the cake.
I don't know what exactly brought Hank to embrace Orthodoxy. From what I gathered, Hank has been hinting a lot on his radio program lately (which I haven't listened to in many years) that he was moving towards Orthodoxy, though still identifying himself as an Evangelical. For example, he has spoken positively about the topic of theosis, the Theotokos, and how the Orthodox Church has maintained the authentic faith of the Church intact throughout its history (more details here). I also saw that he interviewed Fr. Themi Adamopoulos on his radio program, who is a Greek Orthodox priest and missionary in Africa that I was the first to write about in 2009 and introduced to the cyber world after reading about him in Greek; soon after he became quite well known. One thing is for sure, Hank's conversion could possibly have a big impact in the Evangelical world, where he has a huge following, though I hope not in any negative way (plus he has been a bit controversial in the last decade or so among Evangelicals, especially with his eschatology). I hope to hear more about his conversion story soon. May God make him and his family firm in his Orthodox convictions and may they bear much positive spiritual fruit.
Update 4/10/17: On his radio broadcast the day after his chrismation, Hank responded to a caller regarding his conversion. Basically he said that he has been attending an Orthodox church for over two years, based on an experience many years ago while in China, where he saw simple people living the Christian life in an enviable way. This led him to study Watchman Nee and what he wrote on the subject of theosis, which since then has deepened his love for Christ. And to prove he is still a Christian, he recited the entire Nicene Creed. Regarding his ministry he also said that he will continue to promote mere Christianity, based on this Creed, which is a principle of C.S. Lewis, just as he always has.