March 19th, 2011
01:00 AM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
New York (CNN) – For two weeks while controversy swirled around him, Pastor Rob Bell stayed silent. His critics said he was playing fast and loose with heaven and hell, salvation and damnation. The eternity of souls was on the line, they said.
All this was over Bell’s new book, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” Critics tore into it before the book even hit store shelves on Tuesday, some going so far as to label Bell a heretic. The controversy pushed the book into the third spot on Amazon’s sales ranking, virtually assuring the book a place on The New York Times Best Sellers list.
On Monday night, dressed in black and sporting his trademark black-rimmed glasses, Bell strolled quietly into the auditorium of the New York Ethical Culture Society. This was his chance to hit back.
“I never set out to be controversial,” Bell told CNN before the event. “I don’t think it’s a goal that God honors. I don’t think it’s a noble goal.
“What’s interesting to me is what’s true. And what’s interesting to me is what’s inspiring. And what’s interesting to me is where’s the life? Where’s the inspiration? That’s what I’m interested in. If that happens to stir things up, that was never my intent, but I’ll accept that.”
Bell said he was surprised by the controversy around his book. Critics said he was preaching universalism, a theology that suggests everyone goes to heaven and hell is empty.
“I’m not a universalist. So that’s just not true.” He reiterated that again in the event that evening where he expounded on that idea and said that he didn’t believe God reaches down and sweeps everyone to heaven.
'Good environment for dialogue'
After a budding career as a rock star was derailed by a freak illness, Bell set his sights on the seminary. Now, at 40, he has risen to become America’s hipster pastor and one of the most influential preachers in the country.
He is quick-witted, non-denominational, and he unabashedly loves Jesus. He preaches to 10,000 people at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, the church he founded. His first four books sold nearly a million copies combined, and his short film series, Nooma, has sold more than 2 million DVDs.
He will tell you he again and again he is a pastor, not a theologian or a biblical scholar.
But for a guy who dresses in black, Bell has made his mark examining the gray areas of Christianity. His questioning of traditional approaches without always giving answers has brought him fans and made his critics gnash their teeth.
“It’s very appealing because he brings lots of facts and lots of information into it and lots of historical context into whatever discussion he has,” said Kristi Berderon, a 25-year-old Bell fan who drove an hour from New Jersey for the event. “He leaves it open-ended. He lets you think and draw your own conclusions for yourself instead of spoon-feeding what he grew up hearing or what he was taught in seminary.”
She and her friend Tommy Hayes are a lot like the others in the crowd tonight: wearing skinny jeans and dark-rimmed glasses - and openly exploring their faith. Berderon’s parents are Southern Baptists; she was home schooled and raised in the church. Today she attends a non-denominational church and self-identifies as a “Christ follower” but bristles at being called a Christian.
Danielle Miller and Maryalice Spencer took a two-hour train ride from Walden, New York, to hear Bell speak. They walked 25 blocks and stood in line in the cold to get in. Miller uses Bell’s short films as a discussion starter in her church. “I think it’s always good to ask those hard questions, and I think that’s what he’s doing, and it creates a good environment for dialogue,” Miller said.
Bell was in New York City to sit down with Newsweek’s Lisa Miller for a conversation on stage and take questions from the 650 audience members and thousands more watching the event streaming live on the Web.
Before the crowds arrived, a contemplative Bell settled into a pew to talk with CNN about the book and to answer his critics.
The book began, he said, five years ago. “As a pastor, you interact with so many people [that] some of the same questions keep coming up. And ultimately you keep bumping up against what people really think about God.”
In his church and around the country, he saw what he considered a misrepresentation of the Christian narrative in the Bible.
“At the heart of the Christian story is [the message that] God loves the world and sent his son Jesus to show the world this love. So that’s fundamentally first and foremost the story. God is love and God sent Jesus to show this love.
“In our culture Christians are known for a number of other things. … Rarely do you hear people say, ‘Oh yeah, those are the people who never stop talking about love. Oh a Christian church - that’s where you go if feel beaten down and kicked and someone has their boot on your neck. You go there because it’s a place of healing and a place of love.’
“I’m passionate about calling people back to [Christianity’s] roots,” Bell said.
'Theology of evacuation'
In his new book, Bell challenges the traditional notions of heaven and hell.
“For many people the fundamental story was one of escape - Jesus is how you get out of here. I think for many people in the modern world, the way they heard it was fundamentally, ‘This place is bad, and there is some other place, and Jesus - believe, accept, trust, confess, join, get baptized, whatever sort of language got put on it - Jesus is how you get to some other realm where things are good.’
“So essentially it’s a theology of evacuation. And my understanding is the Bible is first and foremost a story of restoration. It’s a story of renewal.”
“The fundamental story arc of the Bible,” he said “is God is passionate about rescuing this world, restoring it renewing it. So discussions about heaven and hell … for many people are irrelevant and esoteric. … But what happens is, what you believe about heaven and hell deeply shapes how you engage this world now.”
Bell said if a believer has their eyes on heaven, they can miss the opportunities to bring people a taste of heaven here on Earth - and they can miss seeing the hell around them.
“Greed, injustice, the sex trade in Far East Asia, we see hell all around us, whenever people reject what is good and human and right and peaceful and all that,” he said.
“I begin with this world right now and the observation that we are free to choose. It’s the nature of love. So then when you die, I would assume [given] the nature of love you can continue to make these types of choices.”
For Bell the here and now is just as important as any possible life to come. “I think it’s very very important to point out … [that] we are speculating about after you die,” he said.
“In the Jewish context in which [Jesus] lived and moved, you didn’t have that articulated belief system about when you die. It was very rooted in this life - dirt and wine and banquets, family and fishing. [In] his stories, it’s all a very visceral – this world is our home, this world that God loves, that God is redeeming - so that’s the starting point.
“I think for many people they were taught you’re either in or out. But Jesus invites us to a journey that’s a fundamentally different way to think about it, and that frees you up from a lot of things that I think haunt people, bind them up and make them miserable. Then it creates all sorts of space for wonder and awe and mystery and the unexpected,” Bell said.
His perspective does not line up with many of the traditional views about heaven and hell, of separate spaces and places with streets of gold or lakes of fire.
For Christians who see salvation and heaven as crucial elements to their faith, Bell’s message can be abrasive - which in part led to so many people pouncing on his book before it was released.
What stirred many critics was a promotional video in which Bell asks whether Mohandas Gandhi, India’s non-violent leader, was in heaven. Bell’s answer offers a good insight into his view of salvation.
Bell would not be surprised if he saw Gandhi in heaven. “Jesus was very clear. Heaven is full of surprises. That’s central to Jesus teaching.”
Bell insists there is room for mystery in salvation and that Christianity is open to discussion.
“The historical orthodox Christian faith is extremely wide and diverse,” Bell said. “No one has the last word other than God. I am taking part in a discussion that’s been going on for thousands of years. Everyone can play a part in that discussion.”
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.