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The man who set off the alarms

03 August 2011

Rob Bell leads a mega-church, and is called the next Billy Graham, but some of his fellow Evangelicals think he is a heretic. Ed Thornton asked him why

andrew firth

Rob Bell

Rob Bell

ON AN otherwise quiet Saturday last February, the Revd Rob Bell became the target of a witch-hunt on Twitter. The “Twitchunt”, as he jokingly de­scribes it, ensued after a short video was posted on his website promoting his latest book, Love Wins.

In the video, Mr Bell questioned the assertion, made by a member of the congregation in his church, Mars Hill, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that Gandhi is “in hell”. Mr Bell said: “He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt? And will billions and billions of people burn for ever in hell?” Such theology, Mr Bell suggested, was the reason “why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith. They see it as an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies.”

The video provoked a furious re­sponse, mainly from the so-called “neo-Calvinists” of the “Restless and Reformed” movement in the United States. The Calvinist writer and pastor John Piper, who is a godfather of the movement, posted a short, ominous Twitter message: “Farewell, Rob Bell.”

Mr Piper’s tweet included a link to a critic who had seen the video but not read the (as yet unreleased) book, and who accused Mr Bell of “moving farther and farther away from any­thing resembling biblical Christian­ity”. Thousands “retweeted” Mr Piper’s words of dismissal, and posted their own messages condemning the new heretic in their midst.

The reason why Mr Bell’s com­ments became the subject of such public scrutiny is because his in­fluence as a Christian communicator is huge. About 10,000 people attend his church; sales of his Nooma DVDs of modern parables exceed 2.3 million; and he was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine this year. He is one of the headline speakers at the Greenbelt Festival later this month.

The controversy was not confined to the Christian subculture: it became a talking point in mainstream news­papers, television programmes, and blogs. “Rob Bell” became one of the “trending topics” on Twitter; Time magazine published a cover feature, “What if there’s no hell?”; and Love Wins became a New York Times and Sunday Times bestseller.


SPEAKING at the London offices of his publisher, HarperCollins, shortly before Easter, Mr Bell did not appear to have taken the accusations of heresy personally. To him, the fire­storm on Twitter represented an in­triguing sociological phenomenon.

“A friend of mine named Shane Hipps writes on technology, and he talks about how every new tech­nology retrieves something from the past,” Mr Bell said. The “medieval image of villagers with forks, racing through the village shouting, ‘Stone them! Burn them!’ had found a new expression on the internet”, he said. Rather than stoning a false teacher, heresy-hunters could simply tweet their condemnation.

“I had this image of people racing through the village, thumbing, text­ing. It has the same sort of frenzied [atmosphere]. . . all I know is, ‘I’m on this side and not that side,’ and the sort of tremendous compulsion to have to weigh in and identify, ‘I’m with you, I’m with you.’”

The fact that the condemnation of Mr Bell could gather such pace was symptomatic of the way in which on­line social media, and the mobile tech­nologies through which they are mediated, are now so prevalent. “My wife will often point out that ten years ago this couldn’t have happened. You wouldn’t know what this many people think about something. . . And rumours, slander, gossip, half-baked opinions based on conjecture wouldn’t get this much air time. . . This is a strange feature of our times.”

A charge levelled at Mr Bell by his critics is that Love Wins propagates “universalism”. For example, the book takes aim at churches with doctrinal statements that claim “the unsaved will be separated for ever from God in hell.” Mr Bell implies that such assertions sit uneasily with the message that God is “loving” and “sover­eign”.


MR BELL has said, in subsequent interviews, that he is not a uni­versalist: he firmly believes in human freedom to reject God. “Yes, we get what we want, God is that loving,” he writes in Love Wins.

But he does not take the accusation of universalism as an insult. Rather, he turns it on its head. Would his critics argue, he asked, “for God’s love or grace being smaller?” St Paul’s statement that “God wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” presents “a very straight­forward agreeing point, that we all long for this [universalism]”. Any­body who does not long for “all people to be saved” is “straight­forward resisting the heart of God”.

Contrary to the claims of some of his detractors, Mr Bell does believe in a final judgement. He “totally agrees” with the verse in Hebrews which states that “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judge­ment.” But, he said, liberties are taken by interpreters “to say the judgement will be this, or this, and, essentially, God will create a situation in which there is no hope — when it seems like the entire scriptural narrative is that God creates situations where there is hope.”

The book tackles the doctrine of hell head-on. A whole chapter is de­voted to the topic, and Mr Bell offers to show the reader “every single verse in the Bible in which we find the actual word ‘hell’”.

He writes: “Jesus did not use hell to try and compel ‘heathens’ and ‘pagans’ to believe in God; so they wouldn’t burn when they die. He talked about hell to very religious people to warn them about the consequences of straying from their God-given calling and identity to show the world God’s love.”


HE ALSO suggests, somewhat pro­vocat­ively, that those who are most concerned with where people go when they die are often “less con­cerned with the hells on earth right now”, such as violence, war, and drug addiction.

The book, Mr Bell said, “holds on to and longs for justice . . . which in­volves separation . . . [and saying] you can’t do that here”, but holds it in “tension” with other texts that speak of “possibility”. He does not see “justice and possibility” as mutually exclusive.

He refuses to be dogmatic about final outcomes. “Will everyone be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices?” he writes. “Those are ques­tions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact.”

Leaving tensions fully intact is something with which not all Chris­tians are comfortable, however. Con­sequently, some are now unsure what to make of Mr Bell. Should he be em­braced for his unquestioned ability to communicate dynamically, par­ticularly to younger people? Or should he be avoided because of his theological adventurism?

Mr Bell, who turned 40 last year, was brought up in Michigan, the son of a US federal judge, Robert Holmes Bell. He attended Wheaton College (sometimes labelled the Harvard of Evangelical Christianity) and Fuller Theological Seminary.


IT WAS while working as an intern at a church, shortly after graduating from seminary, that Mr Bell ex­perienced a seismic theological shift. After preaching one Sunday, he was approached by a man from a Jewish background who “proceeded to pull apart what I had just said”. He showed Mr Bell how verses in the Gospels made sense in their first-century, Jewish context.

“It was really illuminating. . . it put flesh and blood on my faith. I think, for a lot of Christians, Jesus exists about six inches off the ground: he just floats. This made him a very real, first-century Jewish rabbi with opinions. . . It breathed this energy and electricity into him.”


MR BELL recalled picking up a book by Professor Tom Wright, the former Bishop of Durham, several years ago. “Here was an Anglican bishop saying what it meant for a first-century Jewish rabbi to say this; it was af­firmation and confirmation of the whole world that I’d been living in.”

But Professor Wright, who has outlined his own views on judgement in his 2008 book Surprised by Hope, is not completely persuaded by Love Wins. Mr Bell is “regurgita­ting some of the arguments John Hick and John Robinson produced in the 1960s, but he doesn’t take it all the way to a fully blown universalism”, he said. “But it’s as though from his tradition he’s running into those questions for the first time, and I’m thinking, ‘Hang on, some of us have been dealing with that stuff for 40 years, and there are other ways round that.’”

When Mr Bell founded Mars Hill in 1999, at the age of 28, it seemed natural to spend the first 18 months preaching from Leviticus, drawing out how images of Old Testament sacrifice related to the Gospels. During one sermon, a real goat was brought in to the shopping mall in which the church met, and was re­leased, to illustrate how Jesus was the final sin-offering. “The goat has left the building,” Mr Bell declared.


MEETING in a disused shopping mall and preaching verse by verse through Leviticus hardly sounds like a recipe for church growth. But the church expanded rapidly. Today, it could be accurately described as a mega-church, although it bears little resemblance to the rich, suburban operations that broadcast on religious television.

“Everybody who visits says ‘I knew it would be simple, but I didn’t know it would be this simple,’” Mr Bell said, laughing. Something has clearly worked, however. What does he make of attempts, such as the Fresh Ex­pressions movement, to make church culturally relevant? To market church to particular types of people — such as skaters or Goths — can be “extra­ordinarily powerful”, Mr Bell said.

But this is not his own approach. “There’s also what happens when you’re in a room with all these differ­ent people that are from all these different backgrounds, and they have all these different political and social perspectives and educational levels, and some are rich or some are poor, and the only thing you have in com­mon is you’re all seeking the resur­rected Christ. And that’s a whole other world there. Now you’re talking church.”

It is how faith affects the daily lives of those in his church community — “how the word takes on flesh and blood” — that seems to excite Mr Bell more than the abstract theological arguments.

He believes that “orthodoxy” should not be separated from “ortho­praxy”, which he interprets as “the in­timate interweaving of how you believe and how you live”. The Chris­tian faith should not be isolated as “what you assent to and how the furniture in your head is arranged”, without paying as much attention to how it is lived. “It’s interesting: in my ordination [training], nobody asked me if I was a good husband. My neigh­bours weren’t interviewed.”

Mr Bell said that he is not dis­counting the importance of beliefs and creeds, but notes that many Chris­tians will intensely scrutinise “who will go where, some day in the future”, but do not have “heated Twitter discussions” about whether a Christian leader “is somebody who forgives their enemies”.


GIVEN Mr Bell’s experience of an Evangelical subculture, parts of which appear to be turning on him, he finds the Greenbelt Festival a refreshing place to be. Mr Bell said that, when he first attended the festival in 2009, “it blew me away. . . . It’s free — the creativity, the ex­change of ideas.” Mr Bell said that a talk he attended by Bishop Gene Robinson at Greenbelt 2009 was “a stunning articulation of God’s love”.

For a mega-church pastor who has been fêted as the next Billy Graham, Mr Bell’s travel itinerary is sur­prisingly light. “I probably travelled two times in the course of the year, until this book came out. I didn’t do anything. I just stayed home.”

Mr Bell does not aspire to be a jet-setting conference speaker, spending more of the year in hotels than at home. “Hotels are lovely for a day, and then they’re awful. I want to be home. I get one shot with my family.

“Ministry is incredibly seductive because it’s awesome to feel needed and wanted. . . The greatest gift a leader can give their church is to be fresh and rested and whole and healthy. . . God is not a slave-driver.”


Love Wins: At the heart of life’s big questions (Collins, £14.99 (CT Bookshop £13.50); 978-0-00-742073-5).The Greenbelt Festival takes place at Cheltenham Racecourse, 26-29 August.



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