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 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.
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. 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 a time, Bell sought to solve this problem by dechurchifying his church; he asked his congregants to think of themselves as a community of “disciples of Jesus” instead. 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.” ♦