He’s the most talked about pastor this year, and he’s finally having his say about Love Wins, the book which has seen him branded a hero in some quarters and a heretic in others
The Mars Hill podcast. Velvet Elvis. The ubiquitous Noomas. Not only has Rob Bell’s creative output had an extraordinary impact on church culture of the last decade, but he’s become famous enough for the secular press to take note when he appears to say something controversial.
When the first promotional video for his book Love Wins was released in March, which suggested he might be a universalist, it created enough of a storm to attract the attention of CNN and Time magazine, as well as the rank and file of Christian media.
Despite him subsequently flatly denying the claims of universalism, the suspicion around Bell doesn’t seem to have died down. Certainly, the book has earned him a degree of notoriety, and some have suggested that he will be exiled from his position of evangelical poster boy and be pigeon-holed as ‘a liberal’.
Controversial or otherwise, he’s still enduringly popular. In the UK as part of a promotional book tour, he speaks to a packed crowd in Westminster Central Hall, who greet him with whoops and cheers, and queue up patiently afterwards, clutching copies of his book, waiting to meet him and get his autograph.
He clearly loves meeting people and engaging with the issues the book presents. He jokes with the crowd, and is honest and self-effacing when he can’t answer a question. ‘Last night was a joyful theological discussion,’ he says during our interview the following morning. ‘All of these quirky, funky, interesting people with all of their shapes and sizes and colours and perspectives and they all get in a big room. That is what it should be like. It should be that great.’
But he has less enjoyed the battering from journalists, columnists, bloggers and church leaders. To begin with, when he’s questioned about the fuss he has created, he bats it away and pretends to be totally oblivious to what is going on. When pushed, there’s a definite wariness, defensiveness even.
Once he warms up a bit, there’s plenty of trademark humour, eye contact, rapid talking and the occasional explosive laugh. He jokes about his UK diet, which seems to consist of steak pies, fry ups and curries. ‘I’m eating my way across your fine country.’
Finally, at the end of nearly an hour’s interview, he cracks a little, and opens up about how difficult he’s actually found being at the centre of a storm. ‘It’s a bit like getting kicked in the stomach… And when you’re just flat out slandered, that hurts more.’
The question I was left with, more than what does Rob Bell think about hell, was what sort of culture have we created that this is the effect writing a book can have? And how much responsibility should we take for that?
You said you don’t Google yourself but you’d have to be on another planet to not be aware of the controversy surrounding this book. Did you in any way anticipate the effect that it’s had?
No. Not like this. Well, I think it’s an important distinction to make between people who’ve read the book and people who haven’t, so that has a way of changing what we’re even talking about. People talking about a book they haven’t read – how do you even deal with that? I think my wife anticipated this, but she tends to be much more tuned in.
And the guy in the back of the book who called it a wrecking ball–
Oh my friend? He just muttered that under his breath a couple of times yes.
It kicked off when you released the first publicity video which implied that you might be universalist which everyone jumped on, but that was before anyone had a chance to read the book. Was that orchestrated?
Well it’s almost word for word the opening chapter of the book so that’s kind of just me speaking how the book begins. And the publisher said we should make a little promo video. Then my friends and I went out and shot it downtown. Yeah so as far as a grand scheme, all it was, was: ‘This is what I’m going to be talking about, I think these are some compelling questions, lots of people have these questions.’
The cynics would say that it was a really well crafted publicity stunt to get everyone talking and then you turn around and say ‘that’s not actually what I’m saying’. That you did it to generate book sales.
Yes but if you truly believe that then you wouldn’t blog about it and you wouldn’t be in an uproar because you would be feeding the very thing you wanted people to ignore.
Whether or not you intended it, the effect of this is that people are now saying ‘boycott Rob Bell’s books,’ and you’ll I suspect get dis-invited from speaking engagements because people now think you’re theologically dodgy – do you feel that at all?
Well, that isn’t really on my radar. There’s been extraordinary support and people stopping me saying extraordinary kind and grateful things. If our pursuit of the truth and our discipleship of Jesus was based on who would approve or not, then we’d be in trouble.
I’m interested in a vision of God that is the vision of God Jesus meant. I’m a pastor, I deal with real people in a real place with real questions and I’m seeing all of these people believe in the resurrected Christ so that’s sort of the sphere in which I move, so if somebody somewhere has a horrible time with my book that’s fine, that’s ok – but it wasn’t for you, that’s ok.
The reaction in some quarters has been disturbing. It’s almost as if there’s certain questions we can’t ask…
Then the Church needs to change. The Church needs to repent and be a place where people can ask. In the book I [say] ‘Here’s how some [people] have answered these questions over the years, some have said this, some have said that, some have said that all will be reconciled.’
I don’t know [what happens when we die], and neither do you. So the position is that we are speculating. Some will speculate this way and some will speculate this way. We don’t know.
But lots of people would have a problem with that. Lots of people would say ‘This is the absolute truth’ and anything else is a bit dodgy.
Yeah, I know. And where does that compulsion come from? And why is it necessary? And are you not running a terrible risk that God is able to give more than you could ask or imagine?
This extraordinary confidence to speak about how God will do things – where does that come from and why is it so extremely held onto with white knuckles?
What does judgement look like?
Well, I suppose that biblically first and foremost it involves seeing and seeing clearly and seeing clearly Christ, and seeing clearly yourself, so I begin with the assumption that judgement will in some way involve a clarity that the grace of Christ will be stunning and extraordinary and cause you to fall down flat on your face.
It also has a sort of terrifying element, seeing clearly. What was and what is and what could have been and what isn’t, so I believe when Paul says ‘You who see darkly will see clearly.’
Secondly, one of the biblical images is of fire. Fire for people often immediately conjures up destruction, but refinement is a biblical view of judgement.
And thirdly separation is a biblical view. So certain things can’t go on in God’s new world. ‘You can’t do that here,’ God says to a number of things, and so those who would continue to insist on perpetrating such things can’t do that here. So I think a decisive separation is something you see clearly in the scripture.
Now what happens after that? I don’t know. It seems odd to me that God would create a world in which, or a situation in which there would be no hope. Or that God would act in such a way that repentance would no longer be possible, because it seems like God’s glory is most on display when we turn and acknowledge God for who God is.
So if love wins – where’s the place for God’s wrath?
Why do people bring this up so much?
I suppose because people have been taught to hold God’s love and judgement in tension with each other, that they sit side by side, rather than the love overwhelming the judgement.
Well, the central thrust of the gospel is God has acted decisively for you in Christ. And Christ died for all, and God has come in flesh and blood and God has come this way as a saviour who dines with sinners and touches lepers and heals. You know what I mean? So if we’re Christian then the answer to the question which we all learned at Sunday school is Jesus.
I love the poetry of the Hebrews passage because, what kind of mountain have we come to – I mean that’s, to me, the answer and this is what the writer of Hebrews keeps saying: Can you trust that we’ve come to this kind of mountain?
You’ve talked about the urgency in sharing the message, and about how you think this retelling of God’s story, with the emphasis on love, might make it more attractive to people.
I think it’s important to retell the story, we have great joy in telling the story and I actually think when you crack open the door to the possibilities of God’s love there are a number of people who are now able to listen – that’s just how it is.
So like this book, I did this because I want people to become Christians. I think something beautiful happens when someone becomes a Christian and gives their life to Christ and steps into a whole new realm and trusts that God has retold their story.
What should it look like, encouraging people to live the life of faith?
You have to start with your own story and your own experience of your own story. My experience has been lots of Christians actually deep down are deeply suspicious of God. They don’t share their story because they don’t truly believe it’s that great of a story. How you conceive the divine shapes whether you even find this a very compelling story. So if you’re still like ‘Yeah but God’s really [pulls face to indicate ‘mean’]’ then no wonder you’re hesitant to share your faith.
So what should we do? How do you re-conceive the divine if you’ve got a slightly messed up picture of it?
Then Christians need to be saved. I mean the gospel. I mean it’s offensive. It’s offensive to the religious person. It’s like, no it can’t be that good – mmhmm, it is. It is. It offends your sense of fairness. All the workers get paid the same amount in the vineyard? The grace is offensive. So maybe we think about how it offends, maybe it offends in more ways than we even realise.
You’ve been very open about burn out, written about and talked about your own experiences. It happens a lot in churches…
For many pastors the fundamental orientation is ‘I’m here to serve, and people have needs, and people never stop having needs.’ And so you go and you go and you go and you go and to stop and do something for yourself is counter-intuitive to your calling which is to help others, it’s about others, it’s about serving them.
The problem is that can’t be sustained and when you find that Jesus has these moments where the crowds are big he withdraws, he sits down by the well because he’s tired from the journey.
I had to sort of be rewired – I don’t have anything to give people if I don’t understand a rhythm of Sabbath and rest and feeding my own soul and that just takes you – your pastor’s heart which got you into this can get you out of this, because you just go go go until you sort of keel over.
So my experience is a lot of pastors they feel terribly guilty and selfindulgent when they do something gratuitously gracious for themselves. It feels like it’s working against what they’re supposed to be doing in serving others and following Jesus but it is actually going to save them in the end.
Do you think because you’re quite funny, and quite engaging onstage, you can get away with more?
Joy is very, very important. Joy is like necessary and without joy, the whole thing becomes something else. So I think that we must recapture joy, even joy in theology.
And these are very serious matters but we don’t have to take ourselves that seriously. We take God very seriously and the work of Jesus in the world very seriously, but we can also have a proper view of ourselves which involves being honest about some of our silliness and absurdity. I know for me, like, if you lose the joy and the sense of wonder and awe that we even have breath, what are we doing?
Do you have enduring insecurities about yourself? Or have you decided, this is who I am, I’m just going to live with it?
I lived for years with: what am I doing here? I don’t deserve to be here. Someone else should take the mic and be smarter and better and truer. I lived for years with ‘I really love this but I also don’t,’ and it just got beaten out of me.
And so now I’m going to have a blast and I’m going to enjoy this and I’m going to do what I do. And I was given this extraordinary breath and life like everybody has and so I’m going to try to do something with it. And see where it goes.
As simple as that.
And that’s why, in the beginning of the interview when you asked about all the controversy questions – yeah, it’s a bit like getting kicked in the stomach; nobody wants to be misunderstood, and when you’re just flat-out slandered, that hurts more. And when people have bad opinions about you, yeah sure that’s painful, that’s painful to lots of people, so aside from the very real, human dimensions of that – ok, like I’ve been through way too much to let that kill me. Does that make sense?
Like you kind of just get to the point where the part of me that would have been truly offended, that part died a long time ago. And even last night, I’m well aware that those questions – sure I’ll make a complete mess of some of these answers, and some of these questions they’re asking – I don’t know. And the woman who really desperately wanted me to, to–
To nail your colours to the mast regarding hell?
Yes. The very nature of the question had a series of sort of assumptions in it that aren’t valid, so I can’t do that for you. So I just, in a room full of people, have to run the risk that I profoundly disappoint her in that moment and that’s just how it is.