Rob Bell, who once enraged many evangelicals by questioning hell, is back with a new book that could re-ignite their fury. It’s called “What is the Bible?” And in it, Bell calls for the Bible to be read “literately, not literally.”
In these polarized times, many Christians who claim to read the Bible are really more interested in cherry-picking verses to support their political or social points of view, Bell said in a phone interview with the Observer.
“You can pull a verse out to justify almost anything,” he said. “When you read the Bible fuller and in-depth, suddenly you realize that this book, especially by Christians, has been so brutally massacred and misquoted. And we need to call that out.”
Properly understood, Bell argued, the Bible was written “to unite, not to be weaponized to further your side over and against another’s.”
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A former pastor who’s now 46, Bell also covered several other topics in the interview: how to read the Bible more fully, how to view the Gospel stories about Jesus’ miracles and resurrection, how a new Christianity is emerging in the 21st century and how Billy Graham shaped his thinking and career.
It was 2011 when Bell, then the popular pastor of a megachurch in Michigan, angered so many evangelicals that he landed on the cover of TIME magazine.
What riled up conservative Christians was “Love Wins,” then a new book by Bell in which he rejected the belief that anybody who doesn’t accept Jesus as the Son of God will spend eternity in a fiery hell.
“Misguided and toxic,” Bell called such thinking, prompting evangelist Franklin Graham, among many others, to brand him a heretic. A pastor in rural Henderson, N.C., even lost his job after he posted a note on Facebook supporting Bell’s book.
A graduate of Wheaton College (Billy Graham’s alma mater), Bell was called the next Billy Graham by the Chicago Sun-Times in 2006. Five years later, TIME named him one of the world’s 100 most influential people.
What sent Bell down his current path can be traced to an art show held by his church. One attendee saw a piece of artwork quoting Gandhi, the Hindu apostle of non-violence, and left a note reading “Reality check: He’s in hell.”
That prompted Bell to write the best-selling “Love Wins,” and release a video promoting it that began with the pastor saying: “Gandhi’s in hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure? And felt the need to let the rest of us know?”
Bell concluded the video by saying that, in the Bible, love wins.
As for the idea that God would cast into hell a Gandhi as well as billions of non-Christians, he said: “This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith. They see it as an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies and they say, ‘Why would I ever want to be part of that?’ ”
The reaction to his video and book among evangelical leaders, who pointed to numerous verses about hell in the Bible, was swift and intense. Wrote one: “Farewell, Rob Bell.”
Genesis no science text
Bell now lives with his wife Kristen and their three children in Los Angeles. Identifying himself as a spiritual teacher, he goes on speaking tours, hosts a podcast (Robcast), does a regular show at the Largo club in West Hollywood that regularly draws protesters and writes books – “What is the Bible?” is his 11th.
In the new book, Bell argues that the Bible has the power to “transform the way you think and feel about everything,” as he puts it in the book’s subtitle.
But instead of hiding behind vague terms like “inspired by God,” Bell said he starts his reading of the Bible with the human beings who wrote it and with the context in which they wrote. Why was a particular story so important for them to tell? What was happening in the world at that time? What are the messages in the metaphors and in the images?
“That’s how you have a high view of the Bible: You start from what it is,” he said. “When you do that, something very profound and transcendent happens. ... Suddenly you realize you’re not alone and that your hopes, dreams, fears and struggles are, at many levels, not new in human history.”
Those who “skip the human,” Bell said, are prone, for example, to turn Genesis chapter 1 – the creation story that begins the Bible – into a science textbook.
“They essentially act like they were given a wrong kind of book. You weren’t given a science textbook, you were given a book of poetry mixed with history and letters and strange parables with surreal details,” Bell said. “You weren’t given a book with logical conclusions that are mapped out in a Roman numeral outline.”
His main point: Many who grew up hearing sermons about the Bible are hungry for a deeper reading of its stories of human struggle.
“Ways of reading the Bible and understanding the story have been so hijacked and bastardized – especially in very religious cultures – that when you come in and say, ‘Hey, let’s look again, let’s read the story this way,’ it’s like (a reaction) of relief mixed with joy mixed with vindication,” Bell said. “(You hear) ‘Yes, I knew it. I knew growing up, hearing those sermons ... that there’s got to be some better way to see this.’ ”
Miracles and resurrection?
Bell also recommends this deeper reading of the Bible for those overwhelmed by the speeding up of the culture, where so much is kept on the surface via social media and the 24/7 news cycle. “When you (really read) it,” he said of the Bible, “it does something deeper in your bones than just ‘What were Kim and Kanye wearing last night?’ ”
Finally, Bell said, many who might be put off by the Bible because of its branding by some as mostly a book of rules might find a greater understanding of themselves by exploring its stories of what it means to be human.
“I keep meeting educated, really accomplished modern people who have succeeded at every level and yet there’s a longing and ache and emptiness that somehow this system didn’t give them tools and language for navigating the deeper recesses of their being,” Bell said. “And that is what this book is about. How do you forgive people who have wronged you? How do you figure out what you’re doing here? Where does joy come from? ... This is like an ancient library that deals with those exact questions.”
In the interview, Bell also talked about:
• The Jesus miracles told about in the four Gospels.
“I would argue writers of the Bible didn’t have the same modern sensibilities that we do. They were (interested) first and foremost about what those stories meant and how they affected how you live. I’ve seen enough things myself that don’t fit into any normal categories of explainability. So I’m open to all those sorts of things. But I don’t actually think those (details) are the main point of the story.”
• The stories of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
Bell said he’s convinced “something happened,” and “I love that his closest friends didn’t recognize him at first.” But what’s also fascinating, he said, is that the stories offer a contrast to the way of Caesar, the world ruler at the time who used military might and crucifixions to lord it over his subjects.
“This is a story about an enemy of the state who is executed. The resurrection story was the vindication of the Jesus way ... The world is made better through sacrificial love, not coercive military violence.”
• The Bible versus other religions’ sacred books, such as the Koran and the Bhagavad-gita.
“I would begin with: Why do these books connect? I would argue they speak to the timeless human questions. So, as opposed to (having) a mixed martial arts battle – ‘Which one’s better?’ – the more interesting question is: ‘What does this text say about that?’ The divisions, to me, aren’t interesting.”
• Charges from some evangelical leaders that his views aren’t compatible with traditional Christianity.
“I’m as traditional as it gets. The tradition is following the spirit where you’re led. ‘Radical’ comes from the Latin word for ‘root.’ Radical is a person who went back to the source. So I feel like it’s been a long, slow, steady exploration. If somebody has a problem with me, they have a problem with the depth and diversity of their own tradition. I’m having more fun than ever. No regrets.”
• The emergence of a new Christianity.
As a reaction to threats to the environment and the plight of the poor, Bell said, many Christians are trying to live their lives differently.
“It has both an external and internal dimension to it. So, on the exterior – non-violence, care for the planet, care for the poor. But also interior – if you don’t develop practices, prayer, meditation, centering, therapy, whatever, the very nature of the modern world will make you insane. You’ll be worried, stressed and then you’ll have to numb it with substances, chemicals.”
• The way Charlotte-born evangelist Billy Graham shaped him.
“A number of years ago, in Newsweek, (Graham) talked about God’s love for everybody –all backgrounds, all religions. I was, like, ‘Yeah, Billy, yeah.’
“Then, at the end of his autobiography, ‘Just As I Am,’ he tells about all the times he missed being with his family. He tells about this beautiful little boy running across the lawn. He realized that this boy he didn’t recognize at first was his son. I read that when both my boys were young and it sent chills through my heart. So I decided that nothing was worth missing out on time with my family. So I said no and stayed home because of the wisdom that he shared at the end of his book. ... Other than being with you fine people (on occasional speaking tours) I’m home with my kids, making lunches, helping with math homework and driving to piano lessons.”