Heaven is a Place on Earth: Rob Bell's Revolutionary Mission
At 43, Bell looks more like a moneyed California surfer dad than one of America's most popular spiritual leaders, an author-sermonizer who built a megachurch in a former shopping mall before he was 30, has sold 1.2 million copies of his six books, is developing a spiritual TV show for OWN, and has preached the good word at the Viper Room (which, for anyone who was not a teenage girl in the early '90s, is the L.A. nightclub where River Phoenix died of a drug overdose). Bell has the uncanny magnetism of a cult leader or a U.S. president, tempered by the earnest humility of a seeker. He often seems to be plugged in to some bottomless spiritual-energetic power source.
A Christian from birth, Bell found his calling after college, when he volunteered to lead the chapel service at a summer camp where he was teaching water-skiing. "In that moment by the side of a lake, barefoot, with my tongue tied and my heart on fire, I found something I could give my life to," he writes in his first book, Velvet Elvis. But though he always loved stories of Jesus, whom he finds "interesting and dangerous and funny and unexpected," he remembers being unsettled even as a teenager by the "party line" preached from Christian pulpits. When he started Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, at age 28, Bell wanted to embrace doubt and discussion rather than reaffirm "white-knuckle convictions." He inhales books; he draws energy from the back-and-forth of a good debate. At Mars Hill, he taught not only biblical verses, but also context, history, and geography, encouraging new ideas to percolate.
Over time, they did. In 2011, he published Love Wins, a New York Times best-seller that outraged conservative Evangelicals by declaring, basically, to hell with all that hell. "A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment," he wrote. "This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus's message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear." The book has a feverish quality, as if it flowed, Kerouac-style, from the author in one burst of mad, divine inspiration.
Not only did Bell denounce popular notions of hell, but he also redefined heaven. He believes that when Jesus used the phrase "eternal life," he was referring to a quality of life available now. Bell's full-throttle engagement—his I'll-have-what-he's-having exuberance—is inseparable from his spirituality. Nowhere is this clearer than out on the water, where he's hyperattuned to every breeze, every sea creature flopping in the surf. Catching sight of a seal, he is momentarily transfixed. "That's, like, legitimate playing right there," he says. "How great is that? Whoaaaa! Yes! That seal just rode that wave. It's like a torpedo!" Bell believes that faith should electrify our mortal experience, making us open, expansive, and alert to the shimmering, unimaginable beauty and mystery around us. As we stop worrying so much and allow ourselves to "feel reverence humming" in us, he says, quoting Jane Fonda, we will—and this is key—be inspired to leap into action, find our true callings, and, in a flurry of creativity, compassion, and ingenuity, work with God to heal and repair the earth. In other words, make a heaven right here.
Until we do this, Bell has written, we are missing out: "We're trying to embrace our lover, but we're wearing a hazmat suit."
As the sun bears down on his bronzed shoulders, Bell decides it's time for a swim. He leaps into the air and folds himself into a sloppy jackknife. "I. Am. Burning. Up!" he cries, and disappears into the inky Pacific.