Randy Alcorn Talks About Heaven, Small Books, Christian Fiction
An Exclusive AgapePress Interview by Randall Murphree November, 24, 2003
(AgapePress) — Author Randy Alcorn was recently interviewed by AFA Journal editor Randall Murphree at The Cove, training center for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Asheville, North Carolina. Alcorn, an award-winning novelist and non-fiction writer, was speaking to a weekend seminar on the subject of heaven.
Tyndale House will release his new book on heaven by Summer 2004.
You referred to your interest in heaven as a passion and a hobby. When did that begin?
I would say my mother’s death in 1981. When my mom, who was also one of my closest friends, was dying, each day I would read to her the last two chapters of Revelation. I was thinking, “This is where she’s going. So what’s it like there?”
That motivated me more and more to find out what the Scriptures say in this area. Let’s say you have a friend who moves to Argentina or somewhere like that, well suddenly you’re interested in Argentina. So now you might be more prone to read an article about Argentina. When you really love somebody and they’re there, you want to know what it’s like.
You’ve collected 150 books on heaven, and you’ve read 140 of them. The book you’re writing now—was that an idea you pitched to the publisher, or did they come to you?
Tyndale House approached me about it. I had done Safely Home with Tyndale House, and also recently the revised Money, Possessions and Eternity. They said, “What would you think of doing a definitive work on the subject of heaven?”
I said, “Well, I don’t know whether it would be definitive or not, but I would certainly like to do a big book on heaven. My book In Light of Eternity is a small book, a devotional book on heaven. And I would like to do something that gets into more detail.”
In fact, I recently decided it really needs to be two books, because this new heaven and new earth thing, the eternal state, really needs to be emphasized in and of itself. Also, we need to deal with all the questions people have, like “Are our loved ones in heaven right now? What are they doing? Are they watching us? Are they praying for us? Do they know the bad things that are happening on earth? Will we know them when we get there? Will they remember us?”
All those things are intermediate-state-type questions. But, if we see the ultimate state and what God intends for us in the resurrection, then I think we can look backward and it gives us perspective on certain things about the intermediate state. The way it is now, people have very fuzzy concepts of the intermediate state and virtually no concept of the eternal state.
How do we learn about heaven?
The Bible tells us a lot about heaven. Let’s draw a parallel. Let’s say you know nothing about The Cove. Maybe you’ve heard of Billy Graham, but that’s about all you know. Having heard of Billy Graham does not give you a picture of The Cove.
All right, now we’re here. (And that’s the parallel of us going to heaven). So once we get here, we’re obviously able to explore. But even once we get here, we don’t know everything. For example, I was driving around yesterday exploring the place, so even once we arrive somewhere we don’t know everything. Certainly if I were at a distance—at home in Oregon—and somebody sent me a brochure telling what The Cove will be like, then I’d start to accumulate information.
That’s the way it is with heaven. We’re going there, so what does the Bible tell us about it?
Talk about the small books so popular today. Is their advantage enough to justify their brevity on weighty subjects. What challenges do Christian writers face in trying to reach people?
Good question. My feeling is that you can’t say either small books are better, or small books are worse. Some people say small books are better because people read them who wouldn’t read bigger books. Other people argue small books are bad because they over-simplify.
There is a Christian columnist for the Oregonian who interviewed me on the success of small books. He was primarily talking about The Prayer of Jabez. He said, skeptically,
“How long are these books?”
I said, “Sixteen to 17 thousand words, which for a book is very, very small.”
He said, “You can’t portray truth accurately in something that small.”
I said, “Well, that’s interesting. If you took the Sermon on the Mount, does that convey truth?”
“Well, of course.”
“How many words are in the Sermon on the Mount? I don’t know, but it’s fewer than 16 thousand!” And then I added, “Well, you make your living writing a column that is 800 words, three times a week. And you’re telling me you can’t tell the truth in 16 or 17 thousand words? If not, you’re in real trouble!”
He thought for a second and said, “Good point.”
It has nothing to do with length. It’s just a matter of “Is this book a good book? A Christ-centered book?”
This book on heaven will be close to 160,000 words, about 10 times bigger than these little books. No book should be longer than it needs to be to accomplish its purpose. But the purposes of some books make it so they need to be substantial. I don’t like the idea of a dumbed-down or less-literate society that demands that everything be compressed and small.
What does Christian fiction have to offer the body of Christ?
Good question. Christian fiction has come a long way. I’m very grateful for that. But the history of Christian fiction is very big, very prominent. Take Pilgrim’s Progress (1670s), a work of fiction. For a long time, people said it was the second-best selling book of all time. Besides the Bible itself, it is arguably one of the most influential books of all time, and it’s a work of fiction, an allegory.
Then, there’s Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps (1898) from which we get the question “What would Jesus do?” Very powerful. He was preaching this Sunday evening series, and he started with that question. Every week he would write what got published as an article. Eventually this was all put together in In His Steps. Nobody’s going out and buying Charles Sheldon’s non-fiction writings, though they’re probably good. But that novel captured people’s imaginations.
And there’s Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). There’s a work of fiction based on reality, but with made-up characters true to life. That book would have to be in the top two or three most influential books in terms of changing the course of American history. There are tons of non-fiction anti-slavery books, and nobody knows their titles. Everybody knows Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was the story that captured people’s imagination.
Jesus taught in parables; He told stories to capture imaginations and move hearts. The way I look at Christian fiction and the reason I started writing it in the early ‘90s, is that it has a Trojan Horse effect. People open the door of their minds to a story. The Trojan Horse comes in and then, all of a sudden, the soldiers come out and they take over the city. It’s not manipulation, but it’s an ability to communicate.
How about an example of this kind of impact with your own fiction?
My novel Deadline has a sub-plot that involves an abortion story. Somebody had an abortion in their past and is kind of plagued by the guilt and they end up in a group of men who are talking about abortion.
Deadline was given to a school teacher whom we knew because our daughters played volleyball together. She happened to be a very outspoken pro-abortion person. Very outspoken. And when I found out this other woman had given her Deadline, I went, “Ohhh, not that book! Give her one of my other novels, but not Deadline!”
As much as I know about the power of fiction, I still just assumed that was a bad choice. Three weeks later, I’m sitting at a volleyball game. I haven’t seen this teacher in between. And I see her coming, walking rapidly toward me. I thought, “Here it comes.”
She says, “Somebody gave me that novel of yours.” She’s pointing her finger at me. And she goes, “I loved it!”
I was so shocked. She just went on about how she loved it. She said, “You know what my favorite part of that novel was?”
“I don’t have a clue. Tell me.”
She said—this a non-Christian woman—she said, “When you showed the conception of a child from heaven’s viewpoint.”
That was her favorite part of the book. I don’t know if she totally reversed her position on abortion, but I know that it definitely changed and perhaps altered forever in a way that simply would not have happened just by reading my non-fiction book on the subject. The truth is, she probably wouldn’t have read it in the first place. That’s the power of Christian fiction.
How about the quality of Christian fiction?
I feel good that it’s improving. I feel like my own fiction writing is improving. It’s like anything else, the more you do it, the better it gets. I’m part of a group of Christian novelists. There are over a hundred of us. People say, “I can’t believe there are even a hundred Christian novelists.” But in this one group alone, we have over a hundred of us. We’re an on-line group. It’s called Chi Libris. You have to have published at least two novels and you have to be a Christian. They could have been published in the secular realm, but most of them are published in the Christian realm.
We have retreats every year. For the last four years, right before Christian Booksellers Association convention, we have had a big retreat.
What was your first non-fiction book?
Christians in the Wake of a Sexual Revolution. It came out in 1985. I’ve kind of come full circle. I later wrote a book called Sexual Temptation which was an InterVarsity booklet that came out of a Leadership Magazine article I had written about pastors and how to avoid sexual sin. It came out in 1989.
The Purity Principle (2003) was the first time I’d come back to that issue after all these years. It was really good to do it. I felt like I had developed more life experience and more insight, having raised kids, seeing culture deteriorate and talking with many men struggling with Internet pornography and other things.
Randall Murphree, a frequent contributor to AgapePress, is editor of AFA Journal, a monthly publication of the American Family Association.