Published November 25, 2021
On a Sunday in late February 2007, Philip Yancey was driving on a remote highway near Alamosa, Colorado. As he came around an icy curve, his Ford Explorer began to fishtail; the tire slipped off the asphalt and the Explorer tumbled down a hillside. The windows were blown out; skis, boots, luggage, and a laptop computer were strewn over the snow.
Yancey suffered minor cuts and bruises on his face and limbs and a persistent nosebleed, but he also felt an intense pain in his neck. When an ambulance arrived, he was strapped onto a spinal board, his head was immobilized, and he was put in a neck brace. He was taken to a small-town hospital for a CAT scan. No radiologist was on duty, so the images had to be sent via internet to Australia; when the results came back, Yancey was told he had splintered his C3 vertebrae, although the break had not severed the spinal cord.
The doctor told Yancey they’d perform another scan, this time with iodine dye, to see if a bone fragment had nicked the carotid artery. A jet was standing by to airlift him to Denver if needed.
“But truthfully,” Yancey recalls the physician saying, “if your carotid artery has been pierced, you won’t make it to Denver. So you should call the people you love and tell them goodbye, just in case.”
When I spoke a few weeks ago with Yancey, one of the most popular and widely read Christian authors in America—his 25 books have sold more than 17 million copies and been translated into 50 languages—I asked him about the hour he spent strapped to a spinal board, staring at fluorescent lights, wondering if he was going to die.
“I was conscious, I was in my right mind, not in that much pain, and I had a lot of time to think,” Yancey, whom I count as a friend, told me. Yancey grew up in a hyper-fundamentalist, racist church in Atlanta. His father, Marshall Yancey, was a 23-year-old Baptist minister when he was stricken with polio. He removed himself from an iron lung against medical advice, in the belief that God would heal him; he died less than two weeks later. Yancey’s mother, a central figure in his life, was emotionally unstable and abusive. The God he was raised to believe in was harsh, judgmental, angry, and unforgiving.
“Having heard so many of these southern condemnatory sermons about hell in my childhood—even though I had grown out of that way of looking at the world, that way of looking at God—I had always expected that the fears would come surging back: Am I going to make it? Was I wrong?” he said. “And I didn’t feel that at all. I felt, ‘If this is it, man, I’ve had a good life.’”
In that moment, Yancey felt free. “I truly believe that God is a good God. A merciful God,” he explained. “And I truly believe—you know the word evangelical, which has been so stained and brings up so many kinds of false stereotypes today—it means at its core ‘good news,’ and I believe that the Gospel is good news.”
So a man who had grown up under what he describes as an “umbrella of fear” was completely at peace. The coiled anger of his youth had given way to gratitude. And as his life hung in the balance 14 years ago, Yancey made a firm commitment: If he survived, he would write his memoir, and he would hold nothing back.
Where the Light Fell, Yancey’s newly released memoir, is raw, honest, beautifully written, and at times searing. Most of it is focused on his childhood and college years. After high school, he attended a Bible college in South Carolina, which imposed 66 pages of rules on students, including forbidding bowling, billiards, dancing, playing cards, watching movies, and skating at public rinks, and then transferred to Wheaton College in Illinois, a leading Christian institution.
We learn about Yancey’s mother, impoverished and psychologically broken, having never come to terms with the death of her husband, inflicting wounds on her children even as she was an active member of her church who taught Sunday-school classes. And we’re introduced to Yancey’s older brother Marshall, a musical prodigy who never escaped the long shadow of his youth.
At one point Yancey’s mother, enraged at Marshall’s plan to transfer to Wheaton, which she considered an apostate institution, tells him she will “pray every day for the rest of your life that God breaks you. Maybe you’ll be in a terrible accident and die. That’ll teach you. Or, better yet, maybe you’ll be paralyzed. Then you’ll have to lie on your back and stare at the ceiling and realize what a rebellious thing you’ve done, going against God’s will and everything you’ve been brought up to believe.”
Years after Yancey left home, his mother saw him in a newspaper profile contrasting his view of faith with hers. “Maybe I should have had that abortion after all,” she told him. Some authors might have found revisiting such scenes traumatizing, but for Yancey, writing the memoir proved cathartic.
“It was very therapeutic,” he told me. “I came to understand that because even when I was writing, re-creating scenes from childhood that were damaging and traumatic, it was a way of reclaiming them in health, stitching together the pieces of my life that were fragmented. I was able to bring them all together and see how the good, the bad, and the ugly all came together and are part of who I am now. And a memoir applies meaning to them and explores meaning from them.”
He continued, “I had written two dozen books, but they were all idea-driven books; they’re things that helped me come to terms with what I believe about Jesus, about grace, about prayer, about the Old Testament. And I wanted to write a book that explains why I believe those things. I call it a prequel. And it’s not a prequel that I could have written until all these other books were written, because I had to work through the ideas, figure out what I did believe, where I did land on some of these issues before I could go back and understand that backstory that relates all the way to childhood.”
By some estimates, there are between 90 and 100 million evangelicals in America; around 25 million Americans who were raised as evangelicals no longer identify that way. They are sometimes referred to as “exvangelicals.”
Yancey has spent much of his life listening to their stories, and trying to bring them back into the fold. “It’s not like they’re anti-God in most cases, anti-Jesus,” he told me. “They’ve been turned off by something in the church. Many of those people have wistful memories of going to summer camp or young-life meetings, and that’s what I’d like to tap into.” And he uses his own story to reach them. “When I talk to them, they tell me their church stories and I say, ‘Let me tell you my story.’ And they’re a little surprised if they know me because they say, ‘I thought you were a Christian author.’ I say, ‘Yeah, I am.’ I’ve spent my whole career trying to separate out what was handed to me by, in my case, a pretty toxic church from the kernel that’s worth pursuing.”
Yancey’s faith started to break apart late in high school, when he realized the church had lied to him about race. (His church rationalized its bigotry by relying on the “Curse of Ham,” which distorted a Bible story to justify first slavery and then segregation.)
“It had misrepresented the truth, and that started a crisis of faith that continued for maybe four years,” he told me. “I kind of still lived in the orbit, in the subculture. I was living on church property in a mobile home, a house trailer, so I could never get away from it. But I was torn inside because I was finding one by one that some of the essential things were deceptions.
“As I look back, the greatest deception was just the representation of God that I had. Of this angry bully in the sky who’s just trying to smash people who seem to be having a good time. And it’s a caricature, but I’m not the only one [who held it]. A lot of kids raised in that fear and shame environment come away with that image of God. So my faith was suspended, and then the title of the book, Where the Light Fell, comes from a quote from St. Augustine, who said, ‘I couldn’t look at the sun directly, but I could look at where the light fell.’”
For Yancey, the light fell in three areas: nature, classical music, and romantic love, in the person of his wife, Janet.
“I had gone through this period of creating a shell to keep the church from getting to me, to keep my mother from getting to me, and it started to crack apart because it softened, as shells do, when I experienced those three things,” Yancey told me.
“I realized that my image of God could not be true if these things were products of that God. That God is a creator who invented love and beauty and those things. But then came a completely unexpected and unsought conversion experience that I tell in detail [in the book]. I’ve waited all these years to tell that because as soon as you tell a conversion story, readers are tempted to say, ‘Well, I never had one of those.’ And it’s true. I’m not setting out a formula, ‘This is the way God acts’; I’m just saying this is the most important scene in my life. I can’t deny it. It happened. And it was transformative. A long journey followed that.”
Yancey had some guides on that journey. “I decided, coming from my background, I needed to be around some healthy people,” he said. “So I started seeking out people I wanted to learn from, people I wanted to be like, and I wrote about many of them in Soul Survivor.” The book explains how 13 figures—Frederick Buechner, Martin Luther King Jr., Paul Brand, Annie Dillard, John Donne, G. K. Chesterton, Shusaku Endo, Robert Coles, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, among others—helped his faith survive the church of his youth.
“I leaned on the health of others; they widened my world when I realized my world was small and narrow. They helped me break out of that. I looked for healthy people to show me the kind of person I wanted to be.”
Grace is the theological concept most identified with Yancey; his 1997 book What’s So Amazing About Grace? helped me (and later my daughter) understand grace in ways that I hadn’t before. The last sentence of his memoir returns to the theme: “Grace is a gift, one I cannot stop writing about until my story ends.”
Grace is so important to Yancey, he told me, because he was late to discover it. “I didn’t really feel it or taste it growing up,” he told me. “Not in the church, not in the family. And I went to a Bible college for a few years. Not there, as well.”
When you look at Jesus’s stories about grace, according to Yancey, they’re astonishing, because almost every story turns an unexpected person into its hero. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the person who helps a wounded traveler on the road to Jericho is not an influential priest but a hated foreigner. Jesus taught the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector as a corrective to those who, in the words of Luke, “were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” The Pharisees showed discipline, took God seriously, and were willing to risk their lives for their faith. The tax collector, meanwhile, was unwilling even to look up to heaven. But his beating his breast, declaring, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and receiving it, is grace in a nutshell, Yancey said. So, too, is the story of the prodigal son, in which the father unreservedly welcomes back the younger son, who has squandered the wealth of the father in wild living.
“As Henri Nouwen used to say, grace is a free gift,” he said. “It’s who God is. It’s extended to all of us all the time. Some people have open hands to receive it, and some people don’t. And often the religious people are the ones who close their hands tight in a fist because they’re not looking at God, they’re looking at the people around them: ‘I’m better than they are. I’m not perfect, but I rank higher than they do.’ And as soon as you do that, you miss grace.”
Shortly after the mass killing at Virginia Tech in 2007, in which an undergraduate student murdered more than 30 people, a campus pastor called Yancey. “You wrote a book titled Where Is God When It Hurts?” the pastor said to Yancey, who was 27 when he wrote it. “We’re planning a special service next Sunday, open to the entire community, and we wonder if you could speak on that topic.” Yancey, who hadn’t yet fully recovered from the injuries to his neck, accepted the invitation.
“The most important thing I’ve learned is that God is on the side of the suffering person,” Yancey told me. “By instinct, we almost think the opposite. Insurance companies label tornadoes and things like that as ‘acts of God.’ When something bad happens, you shake your fist at the skies.
“I believe we have a very clear picture of how God views pain and suffering through the person of Jesus,” he continued. “You can follow Jesus around, and he always responds with compassion and comfort and healing. He had a supernatural ability. He never lectures. He always contradicts people who are blaming the victim. The disciples and the Pharisees both would say, ‘Who sinned? What did this guy do wrong?’ Jesus would ignore that and perform healing. So that’s just a bright clue to the way God is.”
Yancey acknowledges that Jesus did not bring an end to pain. “He affected a few thousand people in one tiny little part of the Roman empire. He didn’t do anything for the Americas, Asia, Africa. So he didn’t come with the mission of solving the problem of suffering,” Yancey said. “But he did give us a very clear picture of how God views people who are going through hard times, and also what we should do.”
Yancey tells people God is on their side, that God is for them. But, then, why doesn’t God do more to stop suffering? “Nobody really knows the full answer to that,” he said without hesitation—and without defensiveness.
Yancey spent much of 2012 in grief-stricken places. In March, he visited Japan, a year after a cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami killed around 20,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more. In October, he went to Sarajevo, a city shelled for 1,425 days during the 1990s, the longest siege in modern history. “The worst thing is, you get used to the evil,” one survivor told Yancey. “If we knew in advance how long it would last, we would probably have killed ourselves. Over time, you stop caring. You just try to keep living.”
And then, in late December, Yancey traveled to Newtown, Connecticut, the scene of a mass killing earlier that month at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Twenty schoolchildren and six teachers and staff were gunned down. He read profiles of the children—their pets, their hobbies, their sports heroes. And he tried to offer some words of comfort to what he called a “sorrow-drenched community.”
During his visit, a grieving mother told Yancey, “By instinct I reach out across the dinner table to hold my daughter’s hand and feel empty air. I kissed her goodbye and put her on the school bus, never knowing I would not see her again.”
Yancey told the parents in the audience that, biblically, God grieves as much as they do; that God loves their children as much as they do; and that God is deeply pained by the state of this broken world. To his surprise, he found his faith affirmed rather than shattered. He witnessed in person something the theologian Miroslav Volf wrote on the day after the Newtown shootings: “Those who observe suffering are tempted to reject God; those who experience it often cannot give up on God, their solace and their agony.”
On both Friday and Saturday evenings, Yancey read the words of the 19th-century German poet Friedrich Rückert, who was overwhelmed with grief after the death of two of his children from scarlet fever.
In this weather, in this storm,
I would never have let the children out,
I was anxious they might die the next day:
now anxiety is pointless.
In this weather, in this windy storm,
I would never have sent the children out.
They have been carried off,
I wasn’t able to warn them!
In this weather, in this gale, in this windy storm,
they rest as if in their mother’s house:
frightened by no storm,
sheltered by the Hand of God.
“A healthy body,” the orthopedic specialist and leprosy surgeon Paul Brand once told Yancey, “is a body that feels the pain of the weakest part.”
Those of us of the Christian faith believe that God has entered into human suffering through the incarnation and the crucifixion; he has entered into, rather than stood apart from, human pain and human agony. In Christian theology, anguish and agony are not alien concepts to God.
But why an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God hasn’t stopped suffering isn’t something Christians can adequately answer. The best we can do is to say, as C. S. Lewis said of the characters in his children’s novel The Last Battle, “All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
I asked Yancey, now 72, what he had learned in the years since his accident, what he would tell the Philip Yancey from 15 years ago.
“I don’t go back and read my books that I wrote, say, when I was 47,” Yancey said. “But I probably would add this phrase a lot: ‘But I may be wrong. But I may be wrong.’ Because it’s not like I no longer believe some of those things that I wrote, but I’m more open and less dogmatic.” His understanding of scripture has grown more nuanced over time. “I see the Bible as a collection over a couple thousand years, really reflecting a lot of different writers’ personalities,” he said. “And it includes mystery, it includes a lot of unanswered questions.”
We live in a world that is always clouded by ungrace, by strife and anger and division, according to Yancey, and Christians should be on the other side. “We should be toward bridge building, reconciliation, mutual respect, and those things,” he said, “and often we act just like everybody else, only more so.”
And that’s the message he hopes readers will take from the book. “It’s not radical to say that God loves good people. Every religion does that. That’s what religion’s all about. Be good so God will love you,” he said. “What’s radical is that God loves bad people and wants to change them and is holding out the remedy for the evil that is in them. And that is good news. That caught hold—and when it does catch hold, it changes not just people but all of society.”
When I was with my college-age daughter Christine earlier this fall, we tried to think of people we know whose lives have genuinely been transformed by their faith—not at the edges but at the core. We landed on Philip Yancey.
Yancey has described his earlier self as “resentful, wound tight with anger, a single, hardened link in a long chain of ungrace learned from family and church.” The pain of his early life gives his words and his witness an authority and authenticity that he would otherwise not have. He has become, over time, a person to whom the wounded and the brokenhearted are drawn, compelled by his message of grace.
“If I, in some way, nudge the church back toward grace, that’s what I would feel best about,” he told me. “I think that’s why we’re here.”
Yancey said of the poet John Donne that he began with prayers that his pain be removed; he ended with prayers that his pain be redeemed. Like Donne, Philip Yancey’s prayers have been answered. His pain has been redeemed.
Peter Wehner is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.
Peter Wehner is a former senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.