According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Rob Bell's Search For A More Forgiving Faith


I should state from the outset that Rob Bell was my pastor for all the years that he was at Mars Hill Church. And that I, amongst others, witnessed week-by-week, the growth of his message and honest turmoil of his heart, as it yo-yo'd between the goalposts of doubt and faith. To this came an Emergent Christian message imperfectly formed because of its newness as both a movement and as a contemporary re-expression of Christianity's more ancient, orthodox message. And as everyone knows, in the heat of creation, percolating actions and words are but synthesizing barometers for a more complete statement of faith decades latter when many other voices have helped lend definition and thematic development - even as it is occurring today 15 years later (if we use 1998 as Emergent Christianity's starting point).

For his trouble, Rob found himself to be one of the early public aspirants trying to sort out just what Emergent Christianity was, what it promised, and where it would attend. He had few others to rely on except his own heart and council. Especially when said movement was a once-in-a-500-year type of Renaissance occurrence experienced by no one living within the halls of the church. Shortly, Emergent Christianity distinguished itself from other, older sectarian movements and themes, to what it really was - a radical overhaul of Christian perception, worship, practice, ministry, method, and mission. It's driving impetus was that of a Christian faith become fractured under the its own weight of secularism that was driving away many a God-fearer before its religious hypocrisies, hardness of heart, unmerciful message, and dogmatic idealisms.

One of those troubling themes was the myth of biblical inerrancy, a late-1980s addition to the banners of Evangelicalism wishing to maintain its own forums of evangelical statement and beliefs primarily led at the forefront by Calvinism and Reformed Theology (each reticent since the time of the Reformation 500 years earlier when they were developed under Luther and Calvin). However, this type of systematic statement was never resident in the older forms of Christian orthodoxy under first Century Christianity. Nor to the early church under the patriarchal fathers as they recognized the newer canon of the New Testament alongside the older canon of the Jewish Scriptures, ascribing to each the divine revelation of God that was infallible and authoritative where it concerned God's message of salvation and redemption.

Moreover, with the appendage of inerrancy to the definition of the bible Reformed/Evangelical theology could than ascribe to itself a more literal bible, than to a literary bible bearing comparative literatures, genres, and histories. Through literalism has come a more wooden understanding of God and human history that is more mythic-like than real. But through the contested literary bible comes the lively interaction between text, culture, and disciple, that lends itself to the mystery and movement of God. Which allows for wonder and appreciation for a revealed revelation unlike its polytheistic neighbours and stands alone despite even today's mortal declarations of man and mouse.

Ironically, this type of theology is only deemed liberal to an inerrantist believing his own misstatements and artificial boundaries while decrying all others as libelous. But to the orthodox Christian, a non-inerrant theology is not a liberal theology, but an orthodox theology. It still maintains very strong ties to historical orthodoxy and still remains centered around Jesus, His person, message and mission. Hence, The New Yorker's use of liberal is an inadvertent judgment placed upon the larger world of Christianity. Perhaps the better term is the one we just used, that of historic orthodoxy, where the newer concept of inerrancy actually is the lone trespasser here. For many Christians, the actual usage of the term liberal refers to a theology which reads the bible as just another human document culled from many years of ancient origins and manuscripts; and when reading it, disbelieving its revealed theology of God, of God's message of love and redemption, of Jesus as God Incarnate come to atone for sin and enact new life.

Lastly, Emergent Christianity pushes back from Evangelicalism's stricter, more conservative, display of Christian brawn held forth through its empowered religious institutions, pulpits, and media. It is rebellious to the idea that God can be so simply described and understood by caustic statements of threats and judgment. Emergent Christianity would rather describe an incomprehensible God who gives Life-and-Light to our sinful heart. That emphasizes an open, indescribable future filled with the love of God, and the hope that this divine love brings to humanity. That sees the intrusion of God's kingdom rule into the rules and statuary laws of mankind when lived out in obedience to His Word. That leads out with sacrifice and service, and not by pulpiteering words of fiery, condemning rhetoric so misguided to God's plans and purposes. Whose faith is found in the compassionate deeds and works of faith (orthopraxy), and not in words and logistical statement alone (orthodoxy, strictly defined).

And yes - to a conservative Evangelic these would be liberal endeavors. But to those leaving the Evangelical church for a more progressive, if not more postmodern, Christian faith, it is a return to historical Christian orthodoxy that is in looong need of being updated, and redefined in light of contemporary movement and human history. Not by the older definitions of past humans eras found under the Age of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, nor Secular Modernism. But by today's more relevant standards using all the conceptual tools which we have at our disposal through the evolutionary sciences and human studies. To a re-application of what a postmodern, authentic, participatory faith may look like apart from man's religious decrees, dogmas and rules, surrendered to Jesus fully and completely in obedience to God's will and mission.

This is the promise of Emergent Christianity that Rob Bell found himself struggling to envisage when he discovered all his religious past was being nuked by his disbelieving heart troubled by speaking God's word more truly than he had been speaking it. It led him unto a path of disbelief for awhile that eventually reconstructed itself into something larger, more beautiful than he could believe possible in his many doubts and spiritual depression. And for the truly Emergent Christian, we each have gone through similar periods of doubt and unbelief until the Spirit of God renews our impassioned hearts by God's love and grace. Redemption points of salvation found in the cross and resurrection of Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. It's relational above anything else that defines faith.

Thus, in the midst of brokenness and destruction new terms and expressions have been sought to re-express an ancient faith foundered upon the jagged rocks of religion. Jesus also spoke of this when confronting Jewish tradition with God's life-giving words. Providing long drinks of divine, life-giving, well-water to the parched hearts and minds seeking divine assurance of peace and hope. And like Jesus, Rob, as well as other emerging Christians, have been rejected for teaching against the foundations of religious customs become lost within their own boundary sets of reimaged words and conscripted speech. But true emerging orthodoxy holds on to Jesus - and to God's Word - no matter the accusations from its more conservative establishment of traditionalists and self-imposed reformists. Refusing that God's divine revelation be altered, or impregnated, with the moiling words of man too short on faith and insight, and too zealous in defense of religious beliefs and its own traditionalist mindset.

At the last, love can be the only denominator to healing the wounds of man - not only in society but in the world of the church as well. Irenic debate will occur, and well it should, because the Christian faith is a precious commodity that should ever be mined, and never lost within the dark confines of time and ecclesiastical distance. So, whether Rob speaks perfectly, or imperfectly of theology, is not the message here. The message is his journey of belief fractured by his former faith in man's religion until it was rebirthed in Jesus - birthing within him a renewed message filled with mission and wonder. Giving to him the Spirit's words of God's love lost in a wilderness of our own making until redeemed by the hand of God.

To Rob's vision will come additional theologians alongside Rob, who also will speak to the biblical themes of divine love and rescue, filled with godly exposition and spiritually-bourne labour. Of which Relevancy22 is but one small example of many to come in a worldwide explosion of divine grace in its global message of hope to doubters, disbelievers, cynics, and the broken. For without our doubts and brokenness can never come God's power of salvation, without first losing ourselves within the abilities of our strength and will. The church is no less different. Until it breaks and finds its faith by losing its faith, it cannot go forward. Humility must lead all. Especially epistemological humility. Then will faith come, because it is within the breast of every man that God's image is birthed.

R.E. Slater
February 14, 2013

*ps - occasionally I will add emendations to the column below (highlighted in orange) pointing to past articles we had at one time reviewed under various topics and issues. Overall, I am a supporter of Rob Bell, but not necessarily his theology at all times. Nor has this website tolerated false comments about his beliefs or faith.

The Hell-Raiser
November 26, 2012
A megachurch pastor’s search for a more forgiving faith.
On a Sunday evening last year, Rob Bell pulled up outside a stone building in Philadelphia, peered at the stained-glass window above the entrance, and frowned—the place looked like a church. Bell is the founder of Mars Hill Bible Church, a megachurch in West Michigan, and one of the most influential Christian leaders in the country. But when he goes on tour, to talk about his evolving faith, he tries to avoid churches, because he doesn’t want to cause trouble for any staffers brave enough to book him. “I don’t know where I’m anathema and where I’m considered to be on the good team,” he says. “The landscape is so confusing, in churchyworld, that I just gave up trying to navigate it.” The previous night, he had appeared at Lupo’s, a venerable rock club in Providence, where there was a stern warning posted backstage: “No spitting or throwing drinks on the stage or equipment.”
Bell is a provocateur, but a mild-mannered one, with a pinched, nasal voice that somehow projects calm. He is forty-two, tall and lean, and, in both his fastidiousness and his fondness for black clothes, he evokes Steve Jobs; indeed, Bell sees no reason that a sermon shouldn’t have the same cool, frictionless appeal as an Apple product launch, or a TED Talk.  For much of his career, Bell was affiliated with the evangelical movement, which has been the most robust Christian tradition in America for half a century. To many casual observers, the aughts seemed like a triumphant era for evangelicals. In the elections of 2000 and 2004, evangelical voters provided crucial support to President Bush, and Rick Warren became the symbol of a sophisticated new kind of megachurch. In fact, the popularity of evangelical Christianity probably peaked sometime in the early nineteen-nineties, and may now be in decline. Some Christian leaders have predicted an evangelical collapse, as aging congregations fail to attract young adults. Bell is now loosely aligned with a cohort of pastors worldwide who are searching for ways to move beyond old-fashioned worship. (This movement is sometimes called the emerging or emergent church, but many pastors, including Bell, disavow the term.) Bell talks often about the demand for a different kind of church, one that can keep pace with the rising “waterline of culture.”
For his Philadelphia engagement, Bell had been booked into the Baptist Temple—which, he discovered, with some relief, had been deconsecrated and turned into a performing-arts center. He went inside for sound check and a quick nap; soon, a technician cued up his pre-show mix (Blur, Midnight Oil, Starsailor), and the hall started to fill up. Bell attracts an earnest crowd of young people, full of questions about the church they once loved unquestioningly. For many of them, Bell is a reassuring figure: proof that it’s possible to challenge certain articles of faith without leaving behind faith itself. (In Philadelphia, one college-age fan greeted him by saying, “If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t still be a Christian.”) Onstage, Bell told self-deprecating stories about botched sermons and humbling discoveries, and he cited the Dalai Lama as a paragon of Christian grace. In Bell’s monologues, Jesus comes across as a rebellious mystic, opposed to any form of small-mindedness. “He seemed to have no problem confronting the hypocritical religious establishment,” Bell said. “And he told these extremely mysterious, enigmatic stories that ended in such a way that sometimes they wanted to kill him and sometimes they wanted to crown him.”
Out front, on the sidewalk, a preacher had come to speak out against what he called “the lies of Rob Bell.” Without an amplifier, or any evident need of one, he issued precisely the sort of fierce warning that Bell takes pains to avoid: “It is a broad way that leads to eternal damnation, and many will enter into it.” This line, a standard weapon in every street preacher’s arsenal, arises from Matthew 7:13, part of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus sets down a series of precepts and aphorisms. But “eternal damnation” might be a misleading translation: the original contains no reference to eternity, and, instead of “damnation,” the more common rendering is “destruction.” The Greek word is apoleia, which can also mean “waste,” or “loss.” (It recurs later in the Book of Matthew, to describe the Disciples’ indignant reaction when Jesus is anointed with precious oils: they ask, “Why this waste?”)
To anyone looking for loopholes in the doctrine of damnation, the Bible offers plenty, and last year Bell compiled many of them, in a book called “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” Bell says that the book, his fifth, was inspired by a congregant who insisted that Mahatma Gandhi, because he wasn’t a Christian, must be suffering in Hell. In the opening pages, Bell recalls his incredulous response:
Gandhi’s in hell?
He is?
We have confirmation of this?

A different kind of pastor might have replied, modestly, that Christian eschatology—the study of the afterlife—offers few certainties. Instead, Bell set out to answer the question. He considered the possibility that Hell might not exist, or that it might be empty, or that it might exist on earth, or that it might be temporary. Maybe, he thought, Hell is an unpleasant place where posthumous repentance is possible and, in the fullness of time, inevitable. He never answers his own question about Gandhi, but he strongly suggests that the answer couldn’t possibly be yes. He quotes I Timothy 2: “God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of truth.” And then he poses the impertinent question around which the rest of the book revolves: “Does God get what God wants?”
Even before it was published, “Love Wins” caused a sensation. The word went out that a prominent megachurch leader had rejected Hell, thereby embracing heresy. The outcry helped make the book a best-seller, even though a number of Christian bookstores refused to stock it. The central message of “Love Wins” is that the church needs to stop scaring people away, and, in publishing the book, Bell hoped to spark a movement toward a more congenial, less punitive form of Christianity. He knew that some Christian leaders would object, but he didn’t foresee how much. His detractors stated their case on blogs, from pulpits, and, eventually, in books. “Love Wins” appeared in March, 2011, and by summer there were half a dozen rebuttals in print, including “God Wins,” by an editor at Christianity Today, and “Erasing Hell,” by Francis Chan, a fellow-pastor. John Piper, a prominent theologian and minister who expounds the value of “objective Biblical truth,” posted a terse message on Twitter: “Farewell Rob Bell.”
In the end, “Love Wins” did turn out to be a kind of farewell. The members of Mars Hill found themselves having to answer for their membership in a church that was suddenly notorious. Eventually, Bell decided that it would be best for everyone if he left the church he had founded; in September, half a year after the publication of “Love Wins,” he told the congregation that he would be stepping down. By the time Bell greeted his fans in Philadelphia, a few months had passed, but he was still considering his own uncertain future. He ended his talk by delivering a lesson on openness to change. “You have been gripping tightly to how it was,” he said. “You calm yourself, and you breathe deeply, and you open your palms, and you say, ‘O.K., God. Apparently, this is ending.’ ”
“Everything I do, it probably all flows out of something that’s been there for as long as I can remember,” Bell says. “Like, a deep-seated, sort of old-school Jesus belief.” He grew up in a Christian household in Okemos, Michigan, outside Lansing. Sometime around his tenth birthday, he kneeled next to his bed, flanked by his parents, and said the first prayer he truly meant. He invited Jesus into his heart, he remembers, and he thought, "Now I am a Christian, and God loves me, and when I die I’ll be with God forever." His new identity made him feel slightly removed from the world around him: he was an avid soccer player, but he learned to keep quiet when the other boys sang anatomically precise songs on the team bus. Bell had a vague sense that Jesus was a radical, and he liked the idea that Christian goodness, in a not always good world, might take the form of resistance, or defiance.
Bell’s parents both attended Wheaton, a Christian college outside Chicago, and Bell never considered going anywhere else. When he arrived, he says, “there were all these smart, funny kids who were Christians—I was absolutely blown away.” He formed an alternative-rock band, which he hoped to turn into a career. In the summer, he worked as a waterskiing instructor at a Christian camp, where, one week, he was pressed into service as a replacement preacher. For a few days, he worried about what he would say, but, when he stood before the campers, his thoughts were interrupted by a reassuring message: “Teach this book, and I will take care of everything else.”
After Wheaton, Bell enrolled at Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, which offered classes in systematic theology and ancient Akkadian, none of which excited him. Compared with the people around him, he was a theological conservative, more interested in spreading the message of the Bible than in contesting its interpretation. “I just wanted to preach,” Bell says. “I was totally single-minded.” He was hired as a youth pastor at a local church, where he was guided by his belief that faith is best expressed in deeds, not words. One day, he took his charges to a working-class neighborhood, where they knocked on doors and asked startled strangers if they could help them with anything. A beleaguered mother gratefully dispatched them to buy some milk.
Bell loved California, and he imagined that he would probably settle there. But then, during a trip home, he agreed to accompany his parents to Calvary Church, in Grand Rapids. Calvary was a big, nondenominational congregation, led by a great orator named Ed Dobson. Bell remembers being astonished: Dobson was a small man—“like, a hundred pounds, soaking wet”—with big hands and a deep voice, willing to hurdle the flower display in front of the pulpit, if it would help make a Biblical teaching stick. Bell befriended Dobson, and wrote him letters from California. When Dobson finally saw Bell preach, he was impressed. Bell’s style is conversational but theatrical, full of meaningful pauses that make listeners lean forward, and Dobson persuaded the leadership at Calvary to give him a chance. “Not all of the elders felt like I did—some of them were concerned that he was inexperienced,” Dobson says. “But I told them, ‘Look, he can communicate. He really doesn’t know the Bible, but, if we can add the Bible to his communication skills, we’ll have a winner.’ ”
At Calvary, Bell was put in charge of the Saturday-night young-adult service, which sometimes included rock bands and informal discussions. In 1998, he left to start his own church, Mars Hill, taking with him hundreds of Calvary congregants and the proceeds of a special offering, which came to about thirty thousand dollars. By 2000, attendance had grown to a few thousand, and the church soon found a home: a sprawling former mall, right off Interstate-196 in Grandville, a southwestern suburb of Grand Rapids.
At Mars Hill, Bell decided, there would be no dress code, no choir, no pulpit. He preached from a low, unadorned stage in the center of the room. And he cultivated a reputation as an unusually hip pastor: a young guy in slim trousers who loved Radiohead and artisanal bicycles. Bell didn’t think too hard about the theology of Mars Hill; he just knew that he had a knack for getting people excited about the Bible. In his early sermons, he combined emotional appeals with straightforward interpretations of Scripture. He did a series of “blood and guts” sermons, which explained sacrificial laws of Leviticus in gruesome detail. On the topic of sex, he warned dating couples against doing “things that only are proper within marriage.” And, in his eagerness to win new souls, he didn’t always avoid threats. “Jesus is your only hope, and God cannot accept casual, passive worship of him,” Bell told the congregation. “You either are headed to Heaven or you’re headed to Hell. It’s just that simple.”
Bell’s goal was to make worshippers, and himself, feel gently provoked. “A lot of preachers preach on their favorite subjects,” he said. “I would prefer to preach on everything that makes me squirm, because it makes me raise the bar—and then God really has to show up.” Bell talked to his listeners as if he were inaugurating them into a select club of the smart and the righteous, and congregants loved feeling as if they were part of a burgeoning movement. By the early aughts, Mars Hill’s membership was heading toward ten thousand.
The first few years of Mars Hill should have been thrilling. Bell was barely thirty, and suddenly he was one of the country’s most acclaimed young preachers. He was married—his wife, Kristen, had been one of his best friends at Wheaton—and his first son had just been born. But, as the church was thriving, Bell was digging into Biblical history, learning about the Jewish traditions that shaped Jesus’ life, and about the competing agendas that shaped his message after his death. “It started to make sense and become real,” he recalls. “Oh, wait—Herod actually lived! And a lot of what Jesus was saying was about first-century politics.” It became harder for him to view the Bible as a “hermeneutically sealed box,” as he had been taught. He started to doubt the inerrancy of the Scriptures, which made him doubt the faith that had sustained him; he was leading a church, but he wasn’t even sure he was still a Christian. He was exhausted, and, one Sunday, after the nine o’clock service, he hid in a storage closet, dreaming about running away so that he wouldn’t have to preach at eleven. He says, “I remember having moments of, O.K., I’m only going to say things that I know are true. ‘It’s better to be generous than stingy’—O.K., I can do that.”
In many churches, Bell’s newfound skepticism wouldn’t have been at all out of place. In a sense, he had belatedly discovered liberal theology, which treats the Bible as a collection of divinely inspired—but human-authored—texts, subject to multiple interpretations. Fifty years ago, it seemed obvious to many theologians that the future of the faith belonged to skeptics and doubters. In 1963, an Anglican scholar named John A. T. Robinson published a best-selling book called “Honest to God,” in which he argued that crude claims of Biblical inerrancy had long ago been debunked:
In the last century, a painful but decisive step forward was taken in the recognition that the Bible does contain “myth,” and that this is an important form of religious truth. It was gradually acknowledged, by all except extreme fundamentalists, that the Genesis stories of the Creation and the Fall were representations of the deepest truths about man and the universe in the form of myth rather than history, and were none the less valid for that.
A number of theologians went even further, arguing that Christians should view not just the Fall but also the Resurrection as an allegory [(Jesus denied - res)]. In an age when religion seemed to be in decline, some were eager to provide a less religious version of Christianity. In retrospect, Robinson and his contemporaries were too quick to dismiss “extreme fundamentalists.”
The early part of the twentieth century saw a revival of grassroots Christianity. Some of these Christians embraced the term “fundamentalist,” as they inveighed against the dangers of modern culture. Others, who sought to engage with culture, called themselves evangelicals. This was a new movement, and its innovation was to realize that a stern doctrine could thrive in a casual, contemporary context. Nowadays, the “evangelical” label has been adopted by a loose alliance of Protestants, who share a faith that emphasizes both clarity and intimacy: a perfect Bible [(inerrant) - res] and a personal Jesus. Despite the recent downturn, this movement has been astonishingly successful. Thirty per cent of white Americans are evangelicals—more than all the mainline Protestant denominations combined.
Bell was born in 1970, and he grew up in the world that the evangelicals made. When he invited Jesus into his heart, as a ten-year-old, he was speaking the expressive language of evangelicalism, even though he didn’t know that this tradition had a name. His college, Wheaton, has long been one of the most influential evangelical institutions in the country, and his seminary, Fuller, was founded to provide an evangelical alternative to the élite mainline seminaries. Bell’s mentor, Dobson, was also a product of the evangelical movement: starting in the nineteen-seventies, he was one of Jerry Falwell’s closest associates, and a board member of the Moral Majority, Falwell’s political organization.
At Calvary, Bell says, he came to regard the word “evangelical” as a kind of secret handshake. When worshippers asked if the church was evangelical, he understood them to be asking, “Is it safe, good, and O.K.? Is it kosher?” By affirming his evangelical identity, he could put people at ease. At Mars Hill, he cultivated a careful ambiguity, allowing worshippers to think that he was however evangelical they wanted him to be. He wanted to make a wide range of worshippers feel comfortable—until, after his crisis, he decided that he didn’t.
Bell eventually strengthened his faith; he knew that the Bible was redemptive because he saw its message transforming the estranged couples and struggling addicts he counselled. But his crisis taught him to distrust anyone who claimed that Biblical interpretation was a simple matter of following rules. It also spurred him to consider the limits of evangelicalism, which makes room for all sorts of sincere expressions of faith but not, often, for sincere expressions of doubt. As the God in his sermons became more abstract, he retained the habit of preaching about the sacred importance of seemingly secular topics like generosity. Outside the church, he created a popular series of stylish and moody DVDs, called “Nooma,” after the Greek word pneuma, which means “breath,” or “spirit.” The videos were achingly sincere, with Bell tramping through washed-out forests and airports and alleys, gazing meaningfully into the camera; many of them look like rejected treatments for Coldplay videos. But they resonated among young believers, who were relieved to discover that Christian messages could be hopeful without always being cheerful.
Successful pastors often build empires, leveraging the power of their personal brands. A booming church might open satellite campuses, where worshippers can watch the weekly sermon on a big screen, beamed in from the mother church. But Bell rebuffed the supporters who urged him to open a Christian school, or a Christian resort, or a Christian humanitarian network. Instead, he set about reinventing his church. Originally, Mars Hill had been led by an all-male team, just like Calvary. (In I Timothy 2:12, Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”) In 2003, Bell came to believe that excluding women from leadership didn’t fit with the Bible’s inclusive message. (In Galatians 3:28, Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”) At a series of rancorous meetings, Bell faced opposition from so-called complementarians, who believe that men and women have distinct roles in the church, and in society. They felt that Bell had already made up his mind, and they were right; in the aftermath, attendance decreased by about two thousand. In 2006, Bell preached a series of sermons titled “The New Exodus,” which was dedicated to the proposition that churches are called to fight poverty, oppression, and environmental degradation. Some heard Bell’s message as an announcement of political liberalism, and attendance dropped by another thousand.
In some ways, Bell was relieved to no longer be running a ten-thousand-person church—in fact, he didn’t much care for running any kind of church. Officially, anyway, he was merely the teaching pastor; the church was run by its board of elders and its executive director. In 2008, he reduced his sermon load to twenty per year, and in 2010 the church hired Shane Hipps, a young pastor with a style reminiscent of Bell’s, to handle the rest. By 2011, when Bell published “Love Wins,” he was as much a touring speaker as a pastor, and he should have been used to controversy. Unlike many provocateurs, though, he doesn’t seem to like thinking of himself as a polarizing person. In writing “Love Wins,” he was dreaming of a world without Hell, but he was also dreaming of a world without arguments—as if the right book, written the right way, would persuade Christians to stop firing Bible verses at each other and start working to build Heaven on earth. But the evangelical tradition was already engaged in a strenuous and long-running argument with other branches of the church. And, without quite meaning to, Bell found himself arguing, too.
All Christians believe that Jesus will come again, to judge the living and the dead. But they disagree about the nature of this judgment. There is plenty in the Bible to suggest that Hell is big and cruel—a place of eternal conscious torment, sparing fewer souls than it claims. In Matthew 18, Jesus tells his disciples, “If your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” (The word translated as “hell” is gehenna, which refers to the Valley of Hinnom, a fiery garbage dump outside Jerusalem ...

[(unfortunately this is an urban myth - there never was a dump outside of Jerusalem in the first century, only later after Jesus' time. Historically, it was an idolatrous high place called Topheth, a notorious place of death and idolatry, fire and judgment, and a place of child sacrifice in its earlier Canaanite days. Thus it is a divine metaphor for divine judgment. For further discussions on Hell please refer to the sidebar under the same name, as well as other topics such as that of Universalism. - res)].)

... But few of these Bible verses, read closely, seem definitive; visions and allegories outnumber rules and regulations. And, in the early years of Christianity, some scholars suggested other interpretations. Clement of Alexandria, a second-century theologian, regarded posthumous salvation as a logical possibility: “God being good, and the Lord powerful, they save with a righteousness and equality which extend to all that turn to Him, whether here or elsewhere.” This is a solid verdict, except for its ethereal final word, “elsewhere,” which suggests more possibilities for salvation, in the afterlife. Clement’s most famous student, Origen, imagined life and the afterlife as a divine refinery, in which souls undergo progressive purification until they are fit for reconciliation with God.
As the church matured, these speculations were pushed to the margins; Hell became a permanent feature of Christian eschatology, although its depiction was never standardized. Dante’s striated inferno reflected the Catholic taxonomy of sin: his Hell was a divine penitentiary, where souls suffered in proportion to the evil they had done. (Hoarders and squanderers pummel one another in the fourth circle; in the populous eighth circle, hucksters and swindlers occupy ten separate trenches.) Hieronymus Bosch painted Hell as a riot of mutations—a sick parody of the natural order. The doctrine of Calvinism, by contrast, emphasized the inherently sinful nature of humanity. Calvinist Hell wasn’t weird; it was the status quo. In 1741, Jonathan Edwards nearly caused a riot in a small Connecticut church by delivering a sermon called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which depicted Hell as the only fitting punishment for the crime of being born:
The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider . . . looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear to have you in his Sight; you are ten thousand Times more abominable in his Eyes than the most hateful venomous Serpent is in ours.
The most striking feature of Edwards’s sermon is its lack of proportion: the petty offenses of a short life, on one side, and the endless horror of Hell, on the other. Hell was a vivid symbol of an awesome, unreasonable God, which is precisely why many nineteenth-century pastors, in search of a more lucid doctrine, began to deëmphasize it. Some, like the abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher [a relative of mine - res)], embraced the “social gospel,” urging Christians to worry, instead, about eradicating the various hells on earth. For others, the move away from preaching Hell was more a matter of emphasis. Dwight Moody, perhaps the most successful evangelist of the nineteenth century, talked constantly of Heaven, which for him was the primary afterlife. The alternative was real, but secondary: an unheavenly place—a non-place, even—defined mainly by what it wasn’t. “In that lost world, you won’t hear that beautiful hymn, ‘Jesus of Nazareth Passeth By,’ ” Moody said. “He will have passed by. There will be no Jesus passing that way.”
A consensus seemed to be emerging: even if Christian leaders disagreed on the fine points of eschatology, they agreed that God didn’t actively torture unrepentant sinners, spiderlike, forever. In 1962, John Hick, a liberal theologian, called the doctrine of eternal torment “an idea which most contemporary theologians treat as a matter of merely historical interest.” One alternative was annihilationism [(see also here - res)], which held that lost souls would merely cease to exist. Another, more radical alternative was universalism [(Rob Bell is not; he is simply guilty of being obtusely ambiguous to the irritation of Evangelicals - res)], which held that all lost souls would eventually be found. (In one universalist interpretation, the famous lake of fire, in Revelation, exists not to torment the unsaved but to purify them.) Many churches came to embrace a more malleable doctrine, known as separationism, which cast Hell not as a punishment but as a voluntary form of loneliness—in the words of John Paul II, “the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.”
And yet, despite the efforts of liberal theologians, old-fashioned Hell has been hard to eradicate. Surveys show that a majority of Americans still believe in Hell—though a bigger majority believe in Heaven. The Bible is full of severe-sounding judgments, impelled by a sense of urgency that is hard to explain if, in the end, there will be no lasting consequences. And so, while mainline churches adopted more abstract, allegorical doctrines, evangelical congregations held fast to the idea of eternal conscious torment. Piper, the theologian who bid Bell farewell on Twitter, speaks for many in the evangelical mainstream: “Hell is unspeakably real, conscious, horrible, and eternal.” Plenty of pastors have found, like Jonathan Edwards in Connecticut, that the doctrine of Hell doesn’t necessarily hamper recruitment efforts, despite the fears of liberals. From a certain perspective, the idea of a punitive Hell can seem oddly comforting—an affirmation that suffering is real, and that God is good enough to save you from it.
In 2005, in a book called “Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith,” Bell observed that “the life beyond this one is a continuation of the kinds of choices we make here and now.” And though “Love Wins” is bolder, it sits firmly within the mainstream of academic theology; it even arrived bearing an endorsement from Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller. Bell never denies the existence of Hell, and he never promises that all people will reach Heaven. But he points out that the references to Hell in the New Testament are infrequent, inconsistent, and often ambiguous; it’s never quite clear who’s going, or for how long, or what happens there. The Greek word aiónios, for example, is often translated as “eternal,” as when Jesus warns of “eternal fire,” even though a more literal translation would be “age-long.” [(not necessarily true, see McKnights comments under his "Love Wins" reviews - res)] There are, Bell allows, verses about judgment, banishment, and doom, but there are even more about restoration and renewal, and on one page he lists ten of his favorites. Often, he presents his insights as verse, which makes sense, because he specializes in invocation, not contention:
No more anger,
no more punishment,
or refining -
at some point
and reconciling
and return.
Bell’s abiding hope is that everyone will be united with God, fulfilling Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 2: “Every knee should bow . . . and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” The ellipsis is Bell’s, and it is strategic: the missing words are “in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” A reader looking for Hell might reasonably find it there, in the phrase “under the earth”—a translation of the Greek word katachthonios, which occurs nowhere else in the Bible. Bell’s book is full of carefully chosen and sometimes carefully truncated quotations. At one point, he quotes a letter in which Martin Luther, the father of Protestant Christianity, considers the idea that God might offer salvation to dead people who failed to choose it while they were alive: “Who would doubt God’s ability to do that?” But Bell doesn’t mention Luther’s deflating answer to his own question: “No one, however, can prove that He does do this.”
Bell knows that he is often accused of selective quotation, and, while he denies misleading his readers, he doesn’t deny leading them. “ ‘You’re just picking the verses you like’? I think everybody is,” he says. The Bible is full of contradictions, and there is no way to resolve them without considering the broader context. (Jesus in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.” Jesus in Matthew 10:34: “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”) In Bell’s view, the so-called literalists are no less selective in their interpretations than he is, and a good deal less honest about their own biases. If “Love Wins” leads some readers to conclude, in exasperation, that nobody really knows what will happen in the afterlife, Bell would probably consider that a victory.
Bell’s most persuasive critics have defended the necessity of Hell by using the language of freedom. The grant of free will [(again, please refer to the sidebar under Sovereignty and Free Will - res)] means that human beings must have real choices, including the choice to refuse salvation forever, not just for a few years or decades or centuries. Bell concedes this possibility, although he’s not sure that any human could refuse God forever. Timothy Keller, a New York pastor, argues that a loving God also needs the capacity for wrath: “God must, and does, actively judge and reject those who have rejected him.” This judgment is God’s way of taking human agency seriously: to sweep everyone, eventually, into Heaven would mean ignoring the foolish choices of the unrepentant. As Luther observed, there’s no reason that God can’t extend grace and mercy into the afterlife—but there’s also no clear evidence, in the Bible, that this is the case. Earlier this year, at a Christian men’s retreat in Washington, Keller accused Bell of “backing away” from the Bible, in the hope of making its message more palatable.
Bell is not wrong, though, to perceive a tension built into the evangelical view of God as both an intimate companion and a wrathful judge. “Love Wins” is an elaboration of a basic tenet of the church: the certainty, which Bell has felt since boyhood, that God really is good, in a way we can recognize. In one sense, Bell followed the logic of evangelicalism to its conclusion: forced to choose between his personal Jesus and his perfect Bible, he chose Jesus, and set out to reëxamine the story he thought he knew. It is dangerous to be guided solely by your moral intuition, but surely it’s no less dangerous to ignore it. And even Keller concedes that the evangelical idea of Hell is unsatisfyingly incomplete. In his view, some questions about the afterlife will have to wait until we get there. At the retreat, Keller said, “When we find out what the answer is—about how God could be merciful and just, and still have it set up that way—we won’t have anything bad to say about it. We’ll be completely satisfied.” This is a wise and gentle demurral, but it’s also a profoundly unsettling view of God, who will seem “merciful and just” once we’re dead—but not, apparently, until then.
With the success of “Love Wins,” Bell emerged as a kind of celebrity pastor. He made the cover of Time, and his book tour was a cross between a travelling revival and a debate society. He spoke in bookstores and at colleges, and he submitted to an unusually thorough and erudite interrogation, on MSNBC, by the journalist Martin Bashir—who, as it turned out, attends Keller’s church. In West Michigan, though, the book put pressure on the people around Bell, who found themselves having to defend statements they might never have heard, let alone approved. Congregants reported that friends and family members were asking why they were allowing themselves to be led by a false teacher. Church leaders printed up a sheet of talking points to help staff members deflect the charge that Bell was a universalist, because many Christians consider universalism heretical:
“Love Wins” does not promote universalism as it is commonly understood (all will be saved, regardless of their faith), so we ask that you would please avoid using that term. It’s a loaded word and may only serve to confuse and detract from the heart of the book. - Mars Hill
Kristen Bell was moved by the support of the Mars Hill congregation, but she also found it exhausting to hear the latest stories about former members criticizing her husband; some weeks, she just stayed home. “There was a cost,” she says. “And part of the cost was, we couldn’t keep doing what we were doing at Mars Hill.” Attendance dropped by another thousand, reducing the congregation to about thirty-five hundred. Then, just as the controversy was subsiding, and the church was stabilizing, Bell announced that he, too, would be leaving. Although he had grown to love West Michigan—he and Kristen were bringing up three children there—he had decided that he couldn’t stay.
Mars Hill announced the news in an e-mail to members and in a statement on its Web site, which crashed beneath the deluge of visitors. During Bell’s Sunday sermon that week, he talked about his departure. In a quavering voice, he said, “A new vision, a new venture, and a new calling have been birthed in my bones.” And although he declined to add details—“It’s better to wait,” he said—he revealed that he was moving to California, and he said that he would deliver his final Mars Hill sermon in December.
A few days later, a report from Deadline Hollywood, an entertainment news site, filled in some of the blanks: Bell was working with Carlton Cuse, a television producer whose credits include “Lost.” Bell had met him at a Time dinner celebrating influential people, and, according to the site, ABC had already bought the rights to a new show from them, “a drama project with spiritual overtones.” What began as an idle conversation, about a mainstream TV show that was both faith-oriented and hip, had evolved into a finished script called “Stronger,” about a music teacher who is also a spiritual mentor.
A week before Christmas, Bell arrived at Mars Hill to preach his final sermon. Because he vividly remembers the early days, he still sometimes talks about Mars Hill as a gritty, scrappy place: a church with no sign, no steeple, no cross, and hardly any decoration. This is all true, but Mars Hill is also a comfortable, well-run facility, with plenty of parking and age-specific child care. It was just after eight o’clock on a seasonably cold morning, and worshippers were trickling in and stamping the snow off their boots. Buffet tables in the hallways offered bagels and fair-trade coffee, and each one had a “joy box,” where worshippers could deposit whatever sum they deemed appropriate. In the main sanctuary, which was once a jewelry-and-electronics emporium called Witmark, an Irish indie-rock band was onstage, playing songs of devotion.
Not long after nine, Bell walked through the crowd and up onto the stage, where he was met with a standing ovation. “Dear Mars Hill,” he began, and then he read an eleven-page letter of farewell. He talked about “the mystery at the heart of creation,” and told the worshippers, “You were once an idea—this church, this place, this community, was once simply a hunch, a dream, a vision.” When he was preaching at Calvary, Bell used to emphasize the importance of being born again in Christ; church members would often ask one another about the day they surrendered. But Bell has come to think of rebirth as an open-ended process. “I feel like I’m just getting started,” he said, and he sounded a little bit as if he had been born again, again.
Bell says he is certain that Mars Hill will thrive without him, and perhaps it will. The current president of the council of elders is Betsy DeVos, a prominent Michigander. (Her husband, Dick, was the 2006 Republican gubernatorial candidate.) DeVos says, “We knew it was only a matter of time before Rob would be compelled to use his gifts in other ways.” Earlier this year, after a period of indecision the church announced that it had found a replacement: Kent Dobson, a broad-minded pastor who also happens to be the son of Bell’s mentor, Ed [(and a sometimes preacher at Mars over the years when needed; along with Mars original worship leader in the early days. - res)].
Bell speaks fondly of Mars Hill, but he has also developed a certain skepticism about the idea of a church as a big, sustainable institution. “A conservative Bible megachurch, if it’s really true to the Jesus that’s in its Bible, it has the seeds of its own destruction within itself,” he says. “If it really is serving everybody, it ends up subverting its own thing.” A truly Christian church, in his view, should be an experiment, wary of firm doctrines and predictable sermons. But a healthy megachurch needs structure and consistency; it needs to keep lots of people happy at once. And so, beyond a certain point, it must be cautious—a very un-Biblical commandment. For ; he asked his congregants to think of themselves as a community of “disciples of Jesus” insteaa time, Bell sought to solve this problem by dechurchifying his church [(a "gathering" - res)]. And although he eventually reconciled himself to the term “church,” he insists that churches can, and should, foster spiritual exploration. He says, “How do we make space, when we gather, for people to have experiences with that thing that can’t be named?”
Bell often talks about the current moment as a “historic” opportunity for the creation of a new kind of church, one geared toward young people who aren’t inspired by the old evangelicalism. Nowadays, he often describes “Love Wins” as a strategic project, designed to make Christianity more inviting to people who might reject it out of repugnance for the doctrine of Hell. When Bell talks this way, he can sound an awful lot like the theological liberals of the twentieth century: scholarly reformers, idealistic but slightly smug, who were shown up by the preachers they derided as “extreme fundamentalists.” Given the recent history of mainline Protestants, it’s unclear that a more liberal theology would be healthy for the evangelical movement. Many of the most vibrant churches in America today are Pentecostal or charismatic; they emphasize ecstatic, sensual experiences like speaking in tongues and faith healing. Throughout American history, the most successful church movements have been not the ones that kept up with contemporary culture but the ones that were confident enough to tug hard against it.
From a certain evangelical perspective, Bell’s life can look like a cautionary tale: his desire to question the doctrine of Hell led to his departure from the church he built. And maybe, like many other theological liberals in recent decades, he will drift out of the Christian church altogether and become merely one more mildly spiritual Californian, content to find moments of grace and joy in his everyday life; certainly, that’s what many of his detractors expect. But it’s also possible that his new life will end up strengthening many of his old convictions. Before, he was a dissenter in evangelical West Michigan. Now he is a lifelong believer in secular Southern California. And, in that world, his faith may seem more distinctive—and more important—than his doubts.
It turned out that Bell was wise not to tell the congregation too much about his plans in California. Great is the mystery of the television industry, and in the months after Bell arrived in California he and Cuse tried, and failed, to get approval to shoot a pilot for “Stronger.” In the meantime, they worked on a plan for a different project: a faith-inflected talk show, starring Bell. (Bell and Cuse organized a few tapings in Los Angeles, and are putting together a reel to show network executives.) Bell’s family settled in Orange County, near the ocean, and he worked on a new book. He went surfing nearly every day, and took to wearing non-black clothes. Soon, he looked so much happier and healthier that one old friend asked if he had got a hair transplant.
After a few months, though, Bell started to think that he might be ready to be a pastor again, if only for a few days. He announced to his e-mail list that he was organizing a retreat in Laguna Beach, and he accepted the first fifty people who responded. The schedule they received told them to expect two twelve-hour sessions, “with just the right breaks for food and surfing.”
The group convened in a small motel conference room, with windows that opened onto the Pacific Ocean. More than half the attendees were pastors; for them this was a professional-development conference. And although they were excited to spend two days with Bell, not all of them were excited to tell people where they were. One young pastor, from a small church in the Pacific Northwest, said he didn’t want to be dragged into a “Love Wins” controversy. “I wanted to take a picture, put it on Facebook, but then I thought, Nah,” he said, sighing. “It’s just too much negative energy.”
Bell spent much of the morning sharing his current enthusiasms, which range from Martin Buber to Coldplay, and explicating some Bible verses he had been thinking about. He lingered over Matthew 13:13 (“This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand’ ”), which he took to be a meta-sermon: a reminder to preachers that they can’t control how their words are heard, or aren’t. That afternoon, he led an intensive discussion of Spiral Dynamics, an ostensibly secular theory of human development, which he has recently been studying. (It holds that all people progress through stages of increasingly sophisticated consciousness; Bell believes that people at different stages might need different kinds of churches.) Bell surprised the group by bringing in Cuse, who talked about his effort to inject “spirituality” into “Lost.” Cuse calls himself a questioning Catholic, a believer in search of a doctrine. Bell is comfortable with this kind of amorphous faith; it strikes him as more authentic than some other forms of Christianity. At one point, a man got up and identified himself as an atheist who had come to doubt atheism itself. Bell gave him a tentative spiritual diagnosis, and no prescription at all. “Something within you has a longing,” he said. “You have a bucket—I call that the God bucket. And I wouldn’t go much further than that.”
By the second day, Bell’s fifty disciples were starting to seem more like a group of old friends, enjoying a long-awaited reunion. Over lunch, Bell organized a surfing expedition: there were rented wetsuits and boards, and just about everyone got a chance to ride one of the mild Laguna Beach waves to shore. Bell’s twelve-year-old son, Preston, arrived, on a skateboard. After the Bells moved to California, Preston joined a youth group at a small evangelical church, and he had asked his parents earlier that day if he could address the conference. In the meeting room, he spoke about his faith, and someone asked if he had any advice for parents who wanted their children to know Jesus. “Don’t force it, because it’ll happen,” he said. “God’s going to be real, sooner or later.”
Preston’s testimony changed the tone of the gathering: it was as if everyone had been reminded what was at stake. Afterward, the group went to a restaurant next door for a goodbye dinner, and one of the attendees paid everybody’s check. When people wandered back into the meeting room for the final gathering, they found Bell sitting beside a small table, with a big glass of red wine and half a loaf of bread. “I’d like to serve you each Communion,” he said, and he talked about how every blessing requires a blesser. “Christ’s body is broken and his blood is poured out—there isn’t any other way for it to work.”
One by one, members of the group made their way to Bell. He held each person’s left shoulder with his right hand, made eye contact, and said, “The body of Christ, broken for you.” A piece of bread. “The blood of Christ, shed for you.” A sip of wine.
The communicants returned to their seats, grasping the people they passed; if you listened closely, you could hear sniffling. When it was done, Bell took Communion, too, and he was preparing to send people back to their motel rooms when a man raised his hand. He said, “Rob, I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but can we just take a moment to pray for you?”
Five months after leaving Mars Hill, in a motel by the ocean, Bell had created a temporary, miniature version of the thing he had just left behind: a church. “It is the most frustrating institution in the world,” he said the next day. “And yet, when it’s firing on all cylinders, there’s absolutely nothing like it.”
Photo Illustration: AJ Frackattack, Portrait by Michael Schmelling, Stained Glass by Bridgeman/Getty.


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