Through Hell And Back

Five years ago, Rob Bell wrote a controversial book, left the huge church he started and moved to L.A. But he says what he's doing now is more pastoring than ever.

Back in the summer of 2000, Rob Bell was doing backflips on his wakeboard when he fell and suffered a closed head injury. That means his brain knocked against his skull and caused pretty severe trauma.

In this case, Bell lost the ability to remember the past—and really conceive of the future. His brain was working so hard to restore all of its functions that it just didn’t have room for anything other than the immediate.

“I remember they brought my boys into the hospital room and I just kept going, ‘Wait, these are ours?’” Bell recalls. “I’m asking [my wife] Kristen where we met and what my job is, and I’m seeing it all as if I’m seeing it for the first time. I was getting this tour of my life, and it was absolutely astonishing.”

It took about a week for his symptoms to subside. As scary as his injury was, Bell says the experience forced him to learn a lesson he would never forget.

“I had tasted an entirely different mode of living where you’re only in the present moment,” he says. “I was like everybody else at the time, going to meetings, responding to emails, busy, busy, busy. Then I tasted this different way of living, and I didn’t have any muscles or skills or techniques for this.”

In February this year, Bell published a new book, How to Be Here. In it, he tells the story of his injury and explains how his newfound appreciation for living in the moment reshaped his life.

And because he’s Rob Bell, he packed the book with plenty of inspiration and provocation for his readers to follow suit.

“I was taught how to work hard, how to strategize, how to network, how to multitask, how to climb the ladder,” Bell says, “but nobody taught me how to be fully present. So, in many ways, this book is what I’ve learned over the past 15 years about how to feel like you’re not skimming the surface of your own life.”

But for those who have followed Bell’s ministry career, the last 15 years aren’t nearly as interesting as the last five.

"It feels like I'm doing what i've always been doing: Trying to give language to the deep stream. Everything is spiritual."

Firestorm and Brimstone

Prior to 2011, Zondervan had published four books by Bell, then-pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, including the insanely popular Velvet Elvis. But they didn’t publish the next one.

Officially, Zondervan executives said they never had the opportunity, but a spokeswoman told CNN, “If the promotional video for the book accurately reflects its contents, it is highly unlikely that Zondervan would have accepted Love Wins for publication.”

The book Bell did publish, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, questioned one of the most widely held beliefs within Christianity—the existence of hell and the nature of the afterlife. Basically, he built his book around one question: "Would a loving God really punish people forever?"

The arrival of Bell’s Love Wins was one of the rare occasions when saying it caused a “firestorm” isn’t an exaggeration. TV networks ran stand-alone specials about the book and its author. Publications like The New Yorker covered the brouhaha surrounding the controversy. More than a few colleges and seminaries hosted panel discussions and debates with and without Bell present. Love Wins also created an entire publishing market for books written in response.

Publishing executive Justin Taylor runs a blog more than a few people have called the “evangelical Drudge Report.” He’s made a habit of documenting all kinds of news within the Church world. In large part, it was Taylor who first highlighted Bell's controversial book when he posted the trailer for Love Wins on his blog.

Looking back, Taylor thinks the conditions were just about perfect for Bell’s book to land all of the attention it did.

“Bell had a charismatic persona and a popular reputation (especially among younger evangelicals) for creative envelope-pushing without crossing over into anything heterodox,” Taylor says.

"Opposite from his appeal to young Christians, many older evangelicals had a vague suspicion that he was a good communicator who was increasingly untethered from sound doctrine and careful exegetical theology, such that his trajectory looked sketchy and worrisome.

"These two things combined as background for why, when Bell seemed to be coming out with a more definitive move away from orthodoxy, the reaction was bound to be loud—both from his detractors and from his defenders.”

Not long after the book's release, in late 2011, Bell resigned from the pastorate at the church he founded.

Officially, he was off to Los Angeles to pursue a career in television. But from just about every vantage point, it looked like Bell had fractured his relationship with the Church world, and it kicked him out.

Go West, Rob Bell

It’s true, since Bell disappeared from the evangelical radar, he's only really appeared publicly in scattered events and TV appearances with people like Oprah, with whom he even toured. It seemed like a 180-turn from the Bell many had known through his groundbreaking Nooma teaching videos and popular books. But he doesn't see it that way.

“It doesn’t feel like a 180 at all,” Bell says. “It feels like a long, slow, very natural trajectory and evolution in the same direction.

“It doesn’t feel like a departure at all. It feels like I’m doing what I’ve always been doing: Trying to give language to the deep stream. Everything is spiritual. There is depth in the everyday, and that’s at the heart of the Christ story. It feels like I’m doing what I’ve been doing the whole time, just in different settings."

Bell and wife Kristen have three kids now, and they all live in the middle of Los Angeles. He still writes books. He hosts a popular podcast. He does speaking tours. Oh, and he surfs as much as possible.

In the settings he's in now, he's often the only Christian in the room, which is a stark difference from his earlier career pastoring a 10,000-member church. But, for Bell, this new reality is not a problem; it's part of the appeal.

Bell says his departure from Mars Hill wasn’t a run from the faith, or even from that church.

After Love Wins came out, some of the church’s leaders asked Bell what was next for him as a way of making sure the church could serve him well. As he and Kristen thought about what was next, he says, they kept coming back to this sense of the end of a season.

Finally Present

Bell’s head injury 15 years ago gave him a glimpse into a new kind of thinking: What does life look like without distractions?

He still remembers the feeling: “My brain doesn’t have any capacity for the future, which is where worry and anxiety come from, and my brain doesn’t have any energy or capacity to think about the past, which is where regret comes from. My brain can only be present. I am getting a tour of my life, but my brain is only able to take in what is happening in the exact present moment.”

A decade and a half later, Bell is no longer overseeing a megachurch. He’s not responsible for a congregation. He’s gone from one of Christian culture’s biggest names to a speaker who appears onstage with Oprah, reaching an entirely new audience.

And, in many ways, he’s free from the expectations of many evangelicals who bid him "farewell" during the Love Wins aftermath. For the second time in Bell's life, a difficult experience brought a new kind of clarity. “For many people, being a pastor means you’re also running an organization,” Bell says. “That’s why so many pastors are so burned out and barely hanging on: They signed up for [preaching and pastoring], but actually, day in and day out, the preservation of the institution becomes paramount.”

“I was taught how to work hard, how to strategize, how to network, how to multitask, how to climb the ladder, but nobody taught me how to be fully present."

Now, he says, instead of dealing with the responsibilities of running a megachurch, the expectations from fellow evangelicals or the weight that comes from the pressure, there are fewer distractions.

Maybe this is what being a pastor is supposed to feel like, he says.

“When you don’t have that on your shoulders, then it’s just you and the person,” Bell says. “It’s just you and them and the space between you and whatever it is they want to talk about. So it’s been very interesting to me, because I get endless moments when I am doing the thing people would say would be pastor-y, but there’s nothing in the way.”

Bell doesn’t link what happened with Loves Wins to any kind of traumatic experience. He doesn’t speak ill of anyone from his past and doesn’t seem overly concerned with defending himself to critics. But he still seems to have learned something from suffering—whether a head injury or a wave of criticism. He’s figuring out what it means to allow pain to bring clarity.

“Often, it takes suffering to heighten our senses and raise our awareness of this moment and the life we get to live,” he says. “Often, it takes some sort of trauma or soul-crushing loss to wake us up.”

Woken Up

Even his most ardent critics will concede at least one thing: Rob Bell is an incredible communicator. In this new phase, with a new sense of focus, he’s figuring out what that can look like, free from the noise of his previous life.

Ironically, that means taking it back to the beginning. It means revisiting the sermon itself, and reimagining how it can change the world.

“The sermon is an art form that needs to be reclaimed,” he says. “It’s the original guerrilla theater, somewhere between a recovery movement, a TED Talk and a revival. This art form has been hijacked in our culture. For many people, the sermon is how you build bigger buildings. But the sermon is about the sacred disruption.”

Bell now tours, writes and even takes his sacred disruptions into LA’s comedy scene. He has a residency at Largo, an LA comedy venue that also hosts the likes of Zach Galifianakis, John Mulaney and Sarah Silverman.

It turns out, there are still a lot of people eager to hear the reinvention of the sermon.

“[Comedian Pete Holmes and I] have a two-man show we do,” he says. “So I will be with Oprah and then a couple days later I might be at Largo, and then a couple days later I might meet with a bunch of activists and entrepreneurs. And then I might go out and talk at a conference on science and spirituality. And then I might go surfing.”

Bell still has his critics. And he’s on a non-traditional path for the man Time magazine once called “The Next Billy Graham.” But he says his passion is the same.

“I find the Jesus story and message more compelling than ever,” he says.

Instead of churches and pulpits, he’s in nightclubs and stadium tours. Life has changed dramatically for the guy who started a church, broke new creative ground with videos and books, and became one of the most polarizing figures in modern Christianity. But for him, that’s OK.

He didn’t leave the Church. He’s just trying take what he does best and move beyond church walls.

“I don’t believe this art form should be confined to a particular building on a Sunday morning or a Sunday evening,” he says. “I think it should compete with all other art forms, so that’s what I’ve tried to do. Leaving the local church in some senses was, ‘I have to keep going’ and ‘I have to keep announcing good news and the death and the resurrection mystery built into the fabric of creation.' I have to see how far you can take it."

Hitting his head showed Bell what a fully present life could be like. But starting over showed him how to enjoy it.

“Everything that could go wrong for me already has,” he says. “Lots of places I’d go to speak, there would be protesters out front. So at some point, you might as well be doing something you love.”

Choosing to live that way can be risky, but, for Bell, the risk has been worth it.

“Many people are stuck. They’re catatonic in some life they know isn’t their true path,” he says.

“It’s like, ‘Well, if I did that, people might not understand.’ That’s correct. ‘Well, if I did that, I might have to live in a smaller house.' Yep. ‘Well, we might lose a bunch of money.’ Yep. ‘Well, I might be misunderstood.’ Yep. But you would be alive, and what is better than that?”

Top Comments

Michael Courtney


Michael Courtney commented…

I loved Bells early books and Nooma videos. We showed them at our church, men's retreat and even remember seeing them at Spirit West Coast years ago. He was a big voice of the church. Amazing communicator. But you simply cannot get around the fact that Love Wins was a departure, not necessarily from the church but most definitely from sound theological doctrine. I watched his show on Oprah and it sounded like a self help seminar. When interviewed and asked about Jesus and heaven and hell he continues to be vague and evasive. Even in your article he talks about "the Jesus story". I find that use of words very telling. The word story conotates fiction or something that is of the past and not the present. He's a master communicator, he knows what he's saying and it's on purpose. He's taken the popular cultural stance of "everybody goes to heaven" and is in a round about way, denying Christ as the Way. It's a disappointment for people who loved his work and used his material to teach and encourage. But don't water down the truth of his departure from Christian orthodoxy in an attempt to make it look like some spiritual awakening. And the "farewell " statement came from one of the smartest, most doctrinely sound minds of our time, Dr John Piper. It was a sad farewell because Bell had and seems to continue to sell out to popular culture instead of keeping the Faith that Jesus is the Truth and only through Him can we approach the throne of Grace. I'm still a little somber at Bells falling away. And I would bet there are thousands who feel the same. There seems to be a million different ways to deny Jesus. It's just disappointing. I pray Rob reevaluates his walk of faith.

Stanley Crescioni


Stanley Crescioni commented…

I personally like Rob Bell's teachings. I don't think his message has changed since velvet Elvis. I've been listening to his podcast and the ideas he communicates are no different than those in the nooma series or his other books.
To me, he's reaching more "lost" people because the majority of his audience are people who would never willingly step into a church. Yet, he very clearly articulates the teachings of Jesus to people whom would otherwise never hear it. In other words, he's not "preaching to the choir." Isn't that Jesus' main target audience?


Keri Scaggs


Keri Scaggs commented…

People, just stop with the Scripture volleyball. There's a strong chance everyone commenting here is all too familiar with the verses ...

First off, isn't the Bible all about the "Jesus story"? Isn't that what preachers/teachers are sharing? Quit getting hung up on semantics ...

Here's what I know: I've had the privilege of attending a few of the 2Day events Rob has hosted in Laguna, small groups where we gather to talk about business, life - basically how to live fully. (As John Eldredge says so well, "The glory of God is man fully alive.") When you register, it gives an overview as to why we're gathering. Every time, it ends up becoming all about Jesus. The man can't help himself - and we're all the better for it. So, criticize all you want. Until you've experienced his heart first hand, I'd encourage you to just shut up.

I've been in church since before I was born. My mother was the pianist, and I was raised Southern Baptist (and then I got saved). I've taken communion since I was a child, yet never had a powerful experience with it until Rob's events. Both times, the presence of the Holy Spirit was so strong, I was a weeping mess. I still ponder as to why, and I can't help but wonder if it was due to the fact that we were accepted in our brokenness, and the table was open for us to come together in unity without this hovering hateful religious spirit. Still don't have answers - but I sure have the experience, which I will never forget.

When "What We Think About When We Think About God" was released, I went to hear him speak at USC. The room was full of people weeping, sharing with him how they've been shunned by the church. Some were gay, trans - you name it. It broke my heart, listening to them cry out about how they love God, but have no home. They'd been shunned and abused their entire lives, by the world AND the church. I thought of all the criticism Rob has taken, and how misguided it's been. I would think pastors would be asking, "How have we lost all of these people, and what can we do?" But no ... they keep the religious hardline, and people keep leaving the church. It will continue, too. (And please don't put a bunch of Scripture in the comments, saying how people don't want to hear the truth, blah blah blah. God loves these people, and we can do better. Much better.)

One of my favorite exchanges was with Lee Grady. (Met through mutual friends, and I've always had the highest regard for him. We served together at a conference in Anchorage, and I appreciate all he's done to promote women in ministry.) He wrote a piece critical of Rob, so I contacted him privately asking him if he'd reached out to Bell before publishing. He responded forcefully, basically asking why he should do that. It was lengthy, and obvious he wasn't interested in anything other than his point of view, so I refrained from saying "Well, I don't know ... something about having an issue with your brother, you should go to him privately first ..."

We could use some more of that, people. Really. Speaking the truth in love should flow out of a relationship, and not a crutch to hide behind a critical spirit.

Daniel Verona


Daniel Verona replied to Keri Scaggs's comment

Thank you for this. I went to Rob's How to Be Here Tour in Austin a couple months back and it was wonderful. He really exudes love and joy and compassion.

Michelle Polk


Michelle Polk replied to Daniel Verona's comment

The scriptures really aren't a crutch to hide behind. "Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." Not Rob Bell or anyone else that preaches heresies. It isn't that he isnt a great communicator, a person who has some nice things to say but he destroys all of it with lies. Maybe you haven't read (since you don't follow the scriptures closely) but Jesus didn't speak but what the Father told him to speak. Rob Bell speaks of what Rob Bell thinks. Can he really be smarter than God?

James Thomson


James Thomson replied to Michelle Polk's comment

With respect to Keri Scaggs comments. Thank you for these reasoned and experienced comments. I have recently left my church after 13 years and I heard nothing at all from them. Which saddened me. I was disappointed that my church essentially ignored my passing. After all of the teachings from the Word and various seminars about how to save people who may be lost. I heard from one Pastor we talked at length but that was it. No other communications were received. No one seems concerned about saved members who leave their church. I think and hope that Mr.Bell is preaching the way Jesus did to all of the ignored and unsaved people he comes in contact with.

Daniel Verona


Daniel Verona replied to James Thomson's comment

To Michelle, am I hiding behind scripture? And can you point to one of Rob's "heresies?" If you listen to Rob, many of the things he talks about are really hard. Like forgiveness. Grace. Inclusion. Peace. These things are extremely difficult. Practicing them is laborious, but so worth it. If I just wanted to hear nice things, I'd listen to Joel Osteen. Rob speaks from a place of awareness about the variety of Jewish and Christian lines of thought. He speaks from his experience working with thousands of people and being aware of their pain and their questions. He holds the scripture in very high regard. If you talk with him, you can tell he finds joy and life in the message of Jesus. It grounds him in a way that is hard to describe. It's really inspiring, because so many pastors I know do not seem to possess much joy or life.

Daniel Verona


Daniel Verona replied to James Thomson's comment

Also to Michelle, I've read all four gospels in the last week. Good stuff! :)

Carolyn Robe


Carolyn Robe commented…

Thanks to Relevant for introducing me to this guy. He sounds interesting and creative. I feel as if I should have known about him...but I am not always in tune with what is happening, but I feel as if the Devil is not popular anymore. No one mentions him as a persona....I like CS Lewis's explanation of hell as a separation from God. I do not think it is right to say that "hell is other people" but something about that statement resonates. If our concept of God can change..(.from a childish idea of Santa Claus) perhaps our concept of hell and the devil can change also.

Timothy McPherson


Timothy McPherson commented…

Did Rob Bell really leave the Church? It's like Paul saying in 1 Corinthians 12:21 (CEB): So the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” or in turn, the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.”

It is wrong for any of us to say that someone is not in the Church. We cannot and should not do that.

Just because someone believes differently than you do doesn't mean that he/she is not part of the Church. We are not given that job responsibility to judge what our relationship to the Church is. We cannot excommunicate. We can try, but when we exclude others, I believe God is letting those people back in.

Corky Rliey


Corky Rliey commented…

Bell is certainly on an adventure with a three fold purpose. He seems to be reaching out allowing God to talk it over with him and maybe to find a closer walk with Jesus. I think he is still taking Christ into the world and maybe a part of the world that few can reach without loosing their souls. I am interested to see how he perfects this art form of preaching outside the walls of the Church. Corky

Amy Gerak


Amy Gerak commented…

Hi-- I just wanted to say that I thought this article was too glossy and didn't delve into Bell's current theology enough. I think it would have been more productive to share what he currently believes about Scripture, salvation, his Christology, and so on. I care about him as a person deeply and about his journey, even if I disagree. Still, this felt too much like a lifestyle piece than a true interaction with the man and what he believes. People need to know who he is to better understand if he should be someone they allow to shepherd them or not. I would love to see real delving and deeper interactions in the future. Humbly, Amy :)

Daniel Verona


Daniel Verona replied to Amy Gerak's comment

You could just read his books or listen to his podcasts and decide for yourself...

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