Who’s Really Demeaning the Bible, Anyway? A Q&A with Rob Bell

The estranged evangelical pastor on his critics, the Bible, and giving Jesus a fresh hearing.

I often wonder how Rob Bell is doing. Is he still a Christian? Has he abandoned the Bible? What’s it like to be ruthlessly scrutinized by your theological peers?

Bell, as many Christians will know, is the founder and former pastor of Mars Hill, a megachurch in Michigan. He’s also the author of numerous best-selling books (Velvet Elvis, Sex God, Love Wins). I grew up reading his work and watching his short NOOMA films, which dramatically and artistically tackled big spiritual questions. As a church-going teenager, I was invigorated by Bell’s flare for storytelling and his ability to make the Bible exciting again.

Over the last few years, however, I’ve watched closely as Bell has become a divisive figure in the evangelical world. It mostly stems from his 2011 book, Love Wins. The controversial book centered on these question: Will God save all of creation? Will non-Christians really burn in hell for eternity?

Bell’s conclusion: maybe not. The church’s? You’re dead to us. Love Wins spawned an array of criticism: 12 books refuting its claims, public condemnation from leading American theologians and an abundance of YouTube videos picking it apart.

I’ve had several debates with family members and friends about Bell’s theology. Many have posited that by pushing aside foundational ideas of Christianity, like a literal, infallible, Bible and necessary eternal punishment for non-believers, he’s simply lost the plot. And he shouldn’t be taken seriously.

So, I decided to connect with Bell myself and explore his unorthodox views of the Bible and how he handles the barrage of criticism he receives from fellow Christians. As it turns out, he’s doing an incredible job ignoring the noise. And, as a result, he’s as passionate, productive, and happy as ever. 

What do you think people talk about when they talk about Rob Bell?

I couldn’t care less. I started out giving sermons in my early twenties. I was always compelled by Jesus, and I always had this sense that there’s more going on here. Are we really just dust and bone? Or is there something larger going on here? Which is the question that all seekers, all mystics, all great traditions have asked.

I’m writing books and I’m doing tours, making podcasts. I’m having a blast. I don’t Google my name. I don’t search the Internet. I don’t think about it. Your question is not a part of my life.

Love Wins in particular was heavily scrutinized. Almost every line was picked apart. Do you encourage intellectual criticism of your work?

I live in the center of L.A. There’s homeless people on the sidewalk a couple blocks that way, so that’s the world I live in. First off, there’s nothing in Love Wins that isn’t firmly in the historical Christian tradition. So if you have a problem with that book, you have a problem with the Christian tradition. You have a problem with the church fathers. You have a problem with the New Testament. You have a problem with the Old Testament. You have a problem with C.S. Lewis.

Somebody claiming that I’m somehow dangerous, or I’ve wandered off the path, is just absurd. That’s why, at some point, when you get through the pain of being misunderstood your wounds begin to heal. And then you become dangerous. Because our worst fear that somebody wouldn’t like us, that we would be misinterpreted — all that has happened. At some point, whatever people could say about you, they’ve already said it, and you’re still here.

Why do you think people don’t want to believe that maybe — just maybe — everyone will go to heaven? Some people must suffer. Why do you think many people, especially Christians, believe that?

Whatever it is, if you’re talking about what happens when you die, you’re speculating. No one knows. We are simply speculating. So anytime you build a giant bulwark, or fortress, of convictions about what happens when we die, no one knows. So it seems like holding that loosely would be at the center of your faith. So the certainty, it doesn’t help.

Think about it. If you actually believe that billions and billions of humans are going to burn forever and be tortured by an actual divine being, and your job is to go around the world and proclaim that that divine being is love, what human psyche can bear that tension? It can’t be borne. Because you’re saying it’s good news, but what you’re preaching is a horror story.

Did you ever have a fear of hell? An idea that you could one day you, or other people, could burn forever?

I didn’t really buy it. I remember being like, What? But I did notice from an early age that some people seemed to be miserable, and they seemed to choose being miserable. For me, hell was always like, I don’t have to look to the afterlife to find hell. When somebody wrongs you and you don’t forgive them and you get all tied up in bitterness, we create our own hells just fine. Or you think about how there’s enough food in the world, it’s just distribution systems that are problems with famines.

If at a young age you’d been taught, Ryan, you can have joy. And when you don’t forgive, when you’re greedy, when you manipulate people, you’re creating your own isolation and hell. And the thing is you don’t have to live like that. Now if they would have created that kind of urgency, now that would have been actually quite helpful. I don’t want to miss out on everything that’s right here, right now.

Everyone wants to label you, but how do you label yourself? Do you still identify as a Christian? 

I don’t see Christian as a box. I see it as very freeing. I follow Jesus. I believe. But Jesus opens me up to the world. The Jesus path is about seeing the divine in every moment, in every interaction, of seeing the whole and sacred in every person.

The path for me is liberating, it’s expansive, it opens things up. And it frees me to affirm all that should be affirmed in every background, every religion, every perspective. So I’ve never seen it as a box. I think there’s power in a path, and in my experience a path that’s guiding you into greater courage, compassion, less worry, less anxiety, more fearlessness.

A lot of conservative Christians think you no longer anchor yourself in the Bible. You did say recently, speaking about homosexuality, that the church will no longer be relevant if it continues to quote verses from a 2,000 year old book. When you say things like that it pisses a lot of people off, doesn’t it?

That line has a paragraph before it and a paragraph after that. So, there’s a little context there. That’s funny, because I’m talking about the Bible more than ever. So when they’re talking about the Bible, they’re talking about the countless passages that tell people to care for the environment? They’re talking about all passages that say to know God is to care for the poor? They’re talking about all the passages that warn you of making lists of who’s in and who’s out? Is that the Bible they’re talking about?

It’s just funny, because anyone who listens to the podcast or reads my books or follows me knows I never stop talking about the Bible. So it’s just completely absurd. 

In your view, what is the Bible?

Well, it’s really important to remember it was written by people. And other people decided to call it the Bible. So if you affirm the Bible, you have to affirm the people who wrote it and you have to affirm that the people who wrote those things decided all those writings ought to be brought together.

So it is first and foremost human. And whatever divine statement it wants to make will come through the human. You can’t escape the human. The people who wrote this book were writing in real places, at real times, and they were real people. And they had an agenda, and they had biases, and they had perspective, and they felt things, and they had histories, and they had longings, and they were influenced by politics, and they were influenced by their tribes.

You can say it’s about people in exile coming home. It’s all the ways you and I wander from home and the invitation to come back home. Spiritually, geographically, whatever. So that’s the power of this library of books. It hands you endless images and metaphors. That’s the power of it. It guides you, it gives you answers, it gives you truth, it also gives you poems for your pain, it gives you prayers for your confusion. It hands you the totality of life. And that’s the power. 

To draw the line a little bit, you do believe it’s not literal and it’s not perfect? It’s not divinely inspired?

If you asked me if my marriage was winning, I’d be like, What? My marriage winning? Is your apartment nebulous? Those aren’t the right categories.

The book is a library of extraordinary inspired books. If you read it well and take it seriously, it shows you what it looks like for human beings to grow in consciousness and awareness and understanding. If you skip the human element and you just say it fell out of the sky, or God wrote it, in my experience the people who talk the most and insist the most that it’s perfect, those aren’t the categories that it presents itself. And that’s the problem: the people who are the loudest about the Bible actually demean it in lots of ways.

So why does the church see it as perfect? You would acknowledge that a lot of Christians see the Bible as perfect, right?

Yeah, sure. It’s weird. Whenever people insist that it literally happened that way, that’s just modern, post-enlightenment. That’s a particular kind of thinking that insists the only things that are true are things that literally, factually happened exactly like the person said. It’s an incredibly narrow view of truth that has only taken massive predominance in the past three or four hundred years.

So when someone reads the Bible that way, they’re actually totally enslaved to a particular modern epistemology, a way of understanding how we know what we know. The early Church fathers, if a passage didn’t make sense literally, they just assumed that it was a metaphor. At other points in history, people read the scriptures and assumed the writer is using those numbers, and using those details, to tell us something at a much deeper level. So the question is, what does it mean?

The story of Adam and Eve, it’s a poem first off. Adam’s name is “the human.” The poet is saying this is about all of humanity. The poet is not trying to tell you about a literal dude, because some truths literal language isn’t big enough for them.

This is the reason many Christians won’t take what you say seriously. Does it upset you to think that that thought alone is enough for people to say Rob Bell lost it?

Well it’s sad that they would denigrate the Bible. 

They think you’re denigrating the Bible.

Why would you disrespect it by placing categories on it that it doesn’t place on itself? What it talks about is life. It talks about life; it talks about divine life. It talks about the kingdom of God; it talks about the joy and the peace that is yours right here, right now. It talks about the divine call on each of us to help make a better world.

Why not give it serious attention because it teaches you something about what it means to be human and what it means to live in the world and what it means to suffer, what it means to win, what it means to overcome adversity?

When it becomes, Do you think its this or this? When people have those categories, the problem with some questions is the question isn’t a good question and there’s no way to get a good answer out of a bad question.

Do you think Christianity or Jesus needs better PR? Is there a dearth of intelligent people challenging false narratives?

That’s one of the things I’m very passionate about — telling the Jesus story in ways people haven’t heard it. At the base of my work, I want to earn Jesus a fresh hearing. I also know in the world I live in, people are smart. They’re not thinking that person is somehow God’s representative.

Do we even need formal, institutionalized, Christianity? Is it dated?

When I was growing up, I heard the Jesus stories and I found Jesus absolutely compelling. I thought he was awesome. I loved that whenever there was an in-group and they had pushed people to the edges, he always went to the edges. If there was somebody who had been kicked to the curb, he went to them. If there was somebody that no one would listen to, he would listen to them. I loved that whenever somebody had a very strict set of rules of who was in and out, he always challenged those categories of in- and out-ness. So I believed.

For me, it is the insistence that I’m loved. That there is a death and rebirth mystery hidden in the very fabric of creation. So you don’t hear me use the word Christianity, because I didn’t come in through some “Which religion are you going to pick?” door. I came in through a deep, heartfelt experience that resonated with what I knew about the world. And this path orients me, it grounds me, it fills me with more joy, it makes me more likely to do the right thing.

You’ve just probably never heard me do something on Christianity because I just don’t know what that means. Like rules? Like a list of doctrines? What? I’m into what Jesus talked about was your very real fullness of experience of this world right here, right now.

I read an article about Oprah’s series Believe. It mentioned your participation and said “former evangelical pastor Rob Bell.” This idea of being evangelical and spreading the faith — Do you still think in those terms of convincing others to be Christians?

I try to witness to what’s true and what’s real, and I only speak about that which I’ve experienced. And what I’ve learned over time is my work is to put language to my experience and the experience of those around me, and what I’ve seen and what I believe is happening, what’s going on, what’s unfolding right here right now. If people find that compelling, awesome.

Spirit has all sorts of mysterious, interesting, ways of speaking to each person where they’re at. I tell the story as I see it with everything I’ve got. And this person suddenly had this experience of love and this sense that Jesus is where the love is found and they’re OK and their past is forgiven. I affirm the movement wherever I see it.

Click here to read the author’s full-length interview with Rob Bell.

Image courtesy of Paul Williams.

Ryan Kohls
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