Pastor Rob Bell: What if Hell Doesn't Exist?

Rogue pastor Rob Bell's argument about salvation and judgment has Evangelicals in a fury — and a young generation rethinking Jesus

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Brent Humphreys for TIME

Rob Bell

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Bell's Journey
The easy narrative about Bell would be one of rebellion — that he is reacting to the strictures of a suffocating childhood by questioning long-standing dogma. The opposite is true. Bell's creed of conviction and doubt — and his comfort with ambiguity and paradox — comes from an upbringing in which he was immersed in faith but encouraged to ask questions. His father, a central figure in his life, is a federal judge appointed by President Reagan in 1987. (Rob still remembers the drive to Washington in the family Oldsmobile for the confirmation hearings.) "I remember him giving me C.S. Lewis in high school," Bell says. "My parents were both very intellectually honest, straightforward, and for them, faith meant that you were fully engaged." As they were raising their family, the Bells, in addition to regular churchgoing, created a rigorous ethos of devotion and debate at home. Dinner-table conversations were pointed; Lewis' novels and nonfiction were required reading.

The roots of Love Wins can be partly traced to the deathbed of a man Rob Bell never met: his grandfather, a civil engineer in Michigan who died when Rob's father was 8. The Bells' was a very conservative Evangelical household. When the senior Bell died, there was to be no grief. "We weren't allowed to mourn, because the funeral of a Christian is supposed to be a celebration of the believer in heaven with Jesus right now," says Robert Bell Sr. "But if you're 8 years old and your dad — the breadwinner — just died, it feels different. Sad."

The story of how his dad, still a child, was to deal with death has stayed with Rob. "To weep, to shed any tears — that would be doubting the sovereignty of God," Rob says now, looking back. "That was the thing — 'They're all in heaven, so we're happy about that.' It doesn't matter how you are actually humanly responding to this moment ..." Bell pauses and chuckles ironically, a bit incredulous. "We're all just supposed to be thrilled."

Robby — his mother still calls him that — was emotionally precocious. "When he was around 10 years old, I detected that he had a great interest and concern for people," his father says. "There he'd be, riding along with me, with his little blond hair, going to see sick folks or friends who were having problems, and he would get back in the truck after a visit and begin to analyze them and their situations very acutely. He had a feel for people and how they felt from very early on."

Rob was a twice-a-week churchgoer at the Baptist and nondenominational churches the family attended at different times — services on Sunday, youth group on Wednesday. He recalls a kind of quiet frustration even then. "I remember thinking, 'You know, if Jesus is who this guy standing up there says he is, this should be way more compelling.' This should have a bit more electricity. The knob should be way more to the right, you know?"

Music, not the church, was his first consuming passion. (His wife Kristen claims he said he wanted to be a pastor when they first met early on at Wheaton College in Illinois. Bell is skeptical: "I swear to this day that that was a line.") He and some friends started a band when he was a sophomore. "I had always had creative energy but no outlet," he says. "I really discovered music, writing and playing, working with words and images and metaphors. You might say the music unleashed a monster."

The band became central to him. Then two things happened: the guitar player decided to go to seminary, and Bell came down with viral meningitis. "It took the wind out of our sails," he says. "I had no Plan B. I was a wreck. I was devastated, because our band was going to make it. We were going to live in a terrible little house and do terrible jobs at first, because that's what great bands do — they start out living in terrible little houses and doing terrible little jobs." His illness — "a freak brain infection" — changed his life, Bell says.

At 21, Rob was teaching barefoot waterskiing at HoneyRock Camp, near Three Lakes, Wis., when he preached his first sermon. "I didn't know anything," he says. "I took off my Birkenstocks beforehand. I had this awareness that my life would never be the same again." The removal of the shoes is an interesting detail for Bell to remember. ("Do not come any closer," God says to Moses in the Book of Exodus. "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.") Bell says it was just intuitive, but the intuition suggests he had a sense of himself as a player in the unfolding drama of God in history. "Create things and share them," Bell says. "It all made sense. That moment is etched. I remember thinking distinctly, 'I could be terrible at this.' But I knew this would get me up in the morning. I went to Fuller that fall."

Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, Calif., is an eclectic place, attracting 4,000 students from 70 countries and more than 100 denominations. "It's pretty hard to sit with Pentecostals and Holiness people and mainline Presbyterians and Anglicans and come away with a closed mind-set that draws firm boundaries about theology," says Fuller president Richard Mouw.

After seminary, Bell's work moved in two directions. He was recovering the context of the New Testament while creating a series of popular videos on Christianity called Nooma, Greek for wind or spirit. He began to attract a following, and Mars Hill — named for the site in Athens where Paul preached the Christian gospel of resurrection to the pagan world — was founded in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 1999. "Whenever people wonder why a church is growing, they say, 'He's preaching the Bible.' Well, lots of people are preaching the Bible, and they don't have parking problems," says Bell.

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