The first few years of Mars Hill should have been thrilling. Bell was barely thirty, and suddenly he was one of the country’s most acclaimed young preachers. He was married—his wife, Kristen, had been one of his best friends at Wheaton—and his first son had just been born. But, as the church was thriving, Bell was digging into Biblical history, learning about the Jewish traditions that shaped Jesus’ life, and about the competing agendas that shaped his message after his death. “It started to make sense and become real,” he recalls. “Oh, wait—Herod actually lived! And a lot of what Jesus was saying was about first-century politics.” It became harder for him to view the Bible as a “hermeneutically sealed box,” as he had been taught. He started to doubt the inerrancy of the Scriptures, which made him doubt the faith that had sustained him; he was leading a church, but he wasn’t even sure he was still a Christian. He was exhausted, and, one Sunday, after the nine o’clock service, he hid in a storage closet, dreaming about running away so that he wouldn’t have to preach at eleven. He says, “I remember having moments of, O.K., I’m only going to say things that I know are true. ‘It’s better to be generous than stingy’—O.K., I can do that.”
In many churches, Bell’s newfound skepticism wouldn’t have been at all out of place. In a sense, he had belatedly discovered liberal theology, which treats the Bible as a collection of divinely inspired—but human-authored—texts, subject to multiple interpretations. Fifty years ago, it seemed obvious to many theologians that the future of the faith belonged to skeptics and doubters. In 1963, an Anglican scholar named John A. T. Robinson published a best-selling book called “Honest to God,” in which he argued that crude claims of Biblical inerrancy had long ago been debunked:
In the last century, a painful but decisive step forward was taken in the recognition that the Bible does contain “myth,” and that this is an important form of religious truth. It was gradually acknowledged, by all except extreme fundamentalists, that the Genesis stories of the Creation and the Fall were representations of the deepest truths about man and the universe in the form of myth rather than history, and were none the less valid for that.
A number of theologians went even further, arguing that Christians should view not just the Fall but also the Resurrection as an allegory. In an age when religion seemed to be in decline, some were eager to provide a less religious version of Christianity.
In retrospect, Robinson and his contemporaries were too quick to dismiss “extreme fundamentalists.” The early part of the twentieth century saw a revival of grassroots Christianity. Some of these Christians embraced the term “fundamentalist,” and they inveighed against the dangers of modern culture. Others, who sought to engage with culture, called themselves evangelicals. This was a new movement, and its innovation was to realize that a stern doctrine could thrive in a casual, contemporary context. Nowadays, the “evangelical” label has been adopted by a loose alliance of Protestants, who share a faith that emphasizes both clarity and intimacy: a perfect Bible and a personal Jesus. Despite the recent downturn, this movement has been astonishingly successful. Thirty per cent of white Americans are evangelicals—more than all the mainline Protestant denominations combined.
Bell was born in 1970, and he grew up in the world that the evangelicals made. When he invited Jesus into his heart, as a ten-year-old, he was speaking the expressive language of evangelicalism, even though he didn’t know that this tradition had a name. His college, Wheaton, has long been one of the most influential evangelical institutions in the country, and his seminary, Fuller, was founded to provide an evangelical alternative to the élite mainline seminaries. Bell’s mentor, Dobson, was also a product of the evangelical movement: starting in the nineteen-seventies, he was one of Jerry Falwell’s closest associates, and a board member of the Moral Majority, Falwell’s political organization.
At Calvary, Bell says, he came to regard the word “evangelical” as a kind of secret handshake. When worshippers asked if the church was evangelical, he understood them to be asking, “Is it safe, good, and O.K.? Is it kosher?” By affirming his evangelical identity, he could put people at ease. At Mars Hill, he cultivated a careful ambiguity, allowing worshippers to think that he was however evangelical they wanted him to be. He wanted to make a wide range of worshippers feel comfortable—until, after his crisis, he decided that he didn’t.
Bell eventually strengthened his faith; he knew that the Bible was redemptive because he saw its message transforming the estranged couples and struggling addicts he counselled. But his crisis taught him to distrust anyone who claimed that Biblical interpretation was a simple matter of following rules. It also spurred him to consider the limits of evangelicalism, which makes room for all sorts of sincere expressions of faith but not, often, for sincere expressions of doubt. As the God in his sermons became more abstract, he retained the habit of preaching about the sacred importance of seemingly secular topics like generosity. Outside the church, he created a popular series of stylish and moody DVDs, called “Nooma,” after the Greek word pneuma, which means “breath,” or “spirit.” The videos were achingly sincere, with Bell tramping through washed-out forests and airports and alleys, gazing meaningfully into the camera; many of them look like rejected treatments for Coldplay videos. But they resonated among young believers, who were relieved to discover that Christian messages could be hopeful without always being cheerful.
Successful pastors often build empires, leveraging the power of their personal brands. A booming church might open satellite campuses, where worshippers can watch the weekly sermon on a big screen, beamed in from the mother church. But Bell rebuffed the supporters who urged him to open a Christian school, or a Christian resort, or a Christian humanitarian network. Instead, he set about reinventing his church. Originally, Mars Hill had been led by an all-male team, just like Calvary. (In I Timothy 2:12, Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”) In 2003, Bell came to believe that excluding women from leadership didn’t fit with the Bible’s inclusive message. (In Galatians 3:28, Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”) At a series of rancorous meetings, Bell faced opposition from so-called complementarians, who believe that men and women have distinct roles in the church, and in society. They felt that Bell had already made up his mind, and they were right; in the aftermath, attendance decreased by about two thousand. In 2006, Bell preached a series of sermons titled “The New Exodus,” which was dedicated to the proposition that churches are called to fight poverty, oppression, and environmental degradation. Some heard Bell’s message as an announcement of political liberalism, and attendance dropped by another thousand.
In some ways, Bell was relieved to no longer be running a ten-thousand-person church—in fact, he didn’t much care for running any kind of church. Officially, anyway, he was merely the teaching pastor; the church was run by its board of elders and its executive director. In 2008, he reduced his sermon load to twenty per year, and in 2010 the church hired Shane Hipps, a young pastor with a style reminiscent of Bell’s, to handle the rest. By 2011, when Bell published “Love Wins,” he was as much a touring speaker as a pastor, and he should have been used to controversy. Unlike many provocateurs, though, he doesn’t seem to like thinking of himself as a polarizing person. In writing “Love Wins,” he was dreaming of a world without Hell, but he was also dreaming of a world without arguments—as if the right book, written the right way, would persuade Christians to stop firing Bible verses at each other and start working to build Heaven on earth. But the evangelical tradition was already engaged in a strenuous and long-running argument with other branches of the church. And, without quite meaning to, Bell found himself arguing, too.
All Christians believe that Jesus will come again, to judge the living and the dead. But they disagree about the nature of this judgment. There is plenty in the Bible to suggest that Hell is big and cruel—a place of eternal conscious torment, sparing fewer souls than it claims. In Matthew 18, Jesus tells his disciples, “If your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” (The word translated as “hell” is gehenna, which refers to the Valley of Hinnom, a fiery garbage dump outside Jerusalem.) But few of these Bible verses, read closely, seem definitive; visions and allegories outnumber rules and regulations. And, in the early years of Christianity, some scholars suggested other interpretations. Clement of Alexandria, a second-century theologian, regarded posthumous salvation as a logical possibility: “God being good, and the Lord powerful, they save with a righteousness and equality which extend to all that turn to Him, whether here or elsewhere.” This is a solid verdict, except for its ethereal final word, “elsewhere,” which suggests more possibilities for salvation, in the afterlife. Clement’s most famous student, Origen, imagined life and the afterlife as a divine refinery, in which souls undergo progressive purification until they are fit for reconciliation with God.
As the church matured, these speculations were pushed to the margins; Hell became a permanent feature of Christian eschatology, although its depiction was never standardized. Dante’s striated inferno reflected the Catholic taxonomy of sin: his Hell was a divine penitentiary, where souls suffered in proportion to the evil they had done. (Hoarders and squanderers pummel one another in the fourth circle; in the populous eighth circle, hucksters and swindlers occupy ten separate trenches.) Hieronymus Bosch painted Hell as a riot of mutations—a sick parody of the natural order. The doctrine of Calvinism, by contrast, emphasized the inherently sinful nature of humanity. Calvinist Hell wasn’t weird; it was the status quo. In 1741, Jonathan Edwards nearly caused a riot in a small Connecticut church by delivering a sermon called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which depicted Hell as the only fitting punishment for the crime of being born:
The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider . . . looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear to have you in his Sight; you are ten thousand Times more abominable in his Eyes than the most hateful venomous Serpent is in ours.
The most striking feature of Edwards’s sermon is its lack of proportion: the petty offenses of a short life, on one side, and the endless horror of Hell, on the other. Hell was a vivid symbol of an awesome, unreasonable God, which is precisely why many nineteenth-century pastors, in search of a more lucid doctrine, began to deëmphasize it. Some, like the abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, embraced the “social gospel,” urging Christians to worry, instead, about eradicating the various hells on earth. For others, the move away from preaching Hell was more a matter of emphasis. Dwight Moody, perhaps the most successful evangelist of the nineteenth century, talked constantly of Heaven, which for him was the primary afterlife. The alternative was real, but secondary: an unheavenly place—a non-place, even—defined mainly by what it wasn’t. “In that lost world, you won’t hear that beautiful hymn, ‘Jesus of Nazareth Passeth By,’ ” Moody said. “He will have passed by. There will be no Jesus passing that way.”
A consensus seemed to be emerging: even if Christian leaders disagreed on the fine points of eschatology, they agreed that God didn’t actively torture unrepentant sinners, spiderlike, forever. In 1962, John Hick, a liberal theologian, called the doctrine of eternal torment “an idea which most contemporary theologians treat as a matter of merely historical interest.” One alternative was annihilationism, which held that lost souls would merely cease to exist. Another, more radical alternative was universalism, which held that all lost souls would eventually be found. (In one universalist interpretation, the famous lake of fire, in Revelation, exists not to torment the unsaved but to purify them.) Many churches came to embrace a more malleable doctrine, known as separationism, which cast Hell not as a punishment but as a voluntary form of loneliness—in the words of John Paul II, “the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.”
And yet, despite the efforts of liberal theologians, old-fashioned Hell has been hard to eradicate. Surveys show that a majority of Americans still believe in Hell—though a bigger majority believe in Heaven. The Bible is full of severe-sounding judgments, impelled by a sense of urgency that is hard to explain if, in the end, there will be no lasting consequences. And so, while mainline churches adopted more abstract, allegorical doctrines, evangelical congregations held fast to the idea of eternal conscious torment. Piper, the theologian who bid Bell farewell on Twitter, speaks for many in the evangelical mainstream: “Hell is unspeakably real, conscious, horrible, and eternal.” Plenty of pastors have found, like Jonathan Edwards in Connecticut, that the doctrine of Hell doesn’t necessarily hamper recruitment efforts, despite the fears of liberals. From a certain perspective, the idea of a punitive Hell can seem oddly comforting—an affirmation that suffering is real, and that God is good enough to save you from it.
In 2005, in a book called “Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith,” Bell observed that “the life beyond this one is a continuation of the kinds of choices we make here and now.” And though “Love Wins” is bolder, it sits firmly within the mainstream of academic theology; it even arrived bearing an endorsement from Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller. Bell never denies the existence of Hell, and he never promises that all people will reach Heaven. But he points out that the references to Hell in the New Testament are infrequent, inconsistent, and often ambiguous; it’s never quite clear who’s going, or for how long, or what happens there. The Greek word aiónios, for example, is often translated as “eternal,” as when Jesus warns of “eternal fire,” even though a more literal translation would be “age-long.” There are, Bell allows, verses about judgment, banishment, and doom, but there are even more about restoration and renewal, and on one page he lists ten of his favorites. Often, he presents his insights as verse, which makes sense, because he specializes in invocation, not contention:
No more anger, no more punishment, rebuke, or refining—
at some point