Heaven is a Place on Earth: Rob Bell's Revolutionary Mission
Not long after publishing Love Wins in May 2011, Bell began to feel strongly that he was being called to do other things, and that it was time for a new leader to take over what he'd started at Mars Hill. He was still packing the church, which holds 3,500 people, two times each Sunday and had embarked on national speaking tours with stops at rock venues. But he wanted to take his message to an even bigger audience of seekers and doubters. He believes a mass spiritual awakening is afoot in our culture, as religious people question the exclusive labels they grew up with and atheists and agnostics acknowledge "that there's more, that we're loved, that something else is happening." Bell may not be the first religious figure, Christian or otherwise, to argue for the power of the present moment or to find God in the glistening ocean, but he makes an appealing messenger: strapping, engaging, as conversant in the book of Revelation as he is about Louis CK, Vitamix blenders, and the graffiti artist Banksy.
For a little over two years, he has been a pastor without a church. Which has him thinking about the meaning of church. "Church is not a noun," he says. "It's a verb. It can be friends gathering together around a meal, talking about the things that matter most, building each other up. That's a lot bigger than 11 a.m. on Sunday. Eleven a.m. on Sunday can be fantastic. It can also be devoid of spirit and quite boring." At this, Bell lets out one of the tickled full-body hoots that tend to accompany his most provocative statements, as if he surprises even himself with his ability to talk circles around his detractors, who have called him a heretic.
To Bell, an "evacuation theology" focused on getting to heaven—or avoiding hell—promotes spiritual passivity. He's met too many people who want to check the box, do or say whatever they're told will grant them eternal salvation, and then sit back and wait for it. Bell believes our journey should be much more active, personal, and transformative. Perhaps for you the best way to connect with the divine involves hymns and a steeple; perhaps it's a recovery group, or a weekly podcast, or an intimate Bible study, or a tribe of friends with whom you swap articles and books and engage in deep discussions, as Bell does with some of his new local comrades. "It's important to join this discussion that's been going on for thousands of years," Bell says, hopping into his hulking Sequoia.
As you set out on your own spiritual journey, Bell believes you'll know the divine when you feel it. In What We Talk About When We Talk About God, published last year, he argued that God is not some judge-y bearded guy up in the sky who pops in and out of human affairs, but something more amorphous and omnipresent, accessible to us always, "the electricity that lights up the whole house."
Windows down, Bell steers the Sequoia to the beach, where Kristen Bell (not to be confused with the actress of the same name) is perched on a rock in a green trucker cap and purple plaid bikini. Husband and wife will soon release their first joint book, The Zimzum of Love: The Secret to Making Marriages Flourish. For hours every morning for the past eight months (until yesterday, when the pair submitted a second draft), they sat together at the computer. Writing takes discipline for Bell, who has trouble sitting still. But he views it as something he must do to appease his overpowering drive to create—or, as he might say, his drive to participate in remaking the world with God. "I have all these things I need to make, and if I don't make them, I'll spontaneously combust," he says. He claims to have four or five books in his head at the moment and once wrote a novel just to get it out of his brain; it's now living on his computer. ("I have the sequel pretty well laid out," he says.) Kristen smiles tolerantly.
One thing Bell does not struggle with is risk aversion. He rarely pauses to think about how what he writes will be received. "With the books, with everything, it was never about, 'It has to be successful,'" he says, sitting on a smooth black boulder glistening in the sun, his arms wrapped around his knees. "It was always, 'I have to try, because that's where the joy is.'"