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.
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.'"
It was not long after starting his own fast-growing church that Bell suffered a crisis of faith. The pressure of thousands of people's eyes trained on him every Sunday caused him to question whether he was actually offering them anything useful. He didn't want to be a Christian just because he'd been born a Christian, so he studied progressive theological scholars and philosophers such as Dallas Willard, John Robinson, and Paul Tillich, and read as much as he could about other religions. And he ultimately found ways to read the Bible that spoke to him on a much deeper level—and that seemed much more helpful in his life.
When he published Love Wins, evangelical leaders objected loudly to his selective use of Scripture, charged him with historical inaccuracy and decried his "full-blown hell-is-empty-everyone-gets-saved universalism," as one blogger put it. Former MSNBC host Martin Bashir accused Bell of "amending the gospel...so that it's palatable to contemporary people." (Bashir later admitted that he attends a conservative evangelical church in Manhattan, but said his personal beliefs did not influence his interview.) One pastor described the theology behind progressives like Bell as the "last rung for evangelicals falling off the ladder into liberalism or unbelief." Time, in its cover story on the intrafaith brouhaha, suggested that Bell's Christianity was "more of an ethical habit of mind than a faith based on divine revelation." Some Christian bookstores refused to stock the book.
Today Bell greets the criticism with a shrug. "It's like refrigerator buzz," he says. "Some guy thinks we need to talk more about how God's angry? Like, whatever. It's just so boring!"
He is sitting in the courtyard of a minimalist motel on the beach, hosting an event called 2Days with Rob Bell. About 100 people, many of them pastors, have paid $500 to listen to him talk from roughly 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., with breaks for meals, on topics like leadership and the creative process. Unsurprisingly, time is flying by. He rocks back in his chair, grabs his legs behind the knees, and howls when he finds something funny. Sometimes he just jumps straight up into the air. You get the feeling he hosts these events just to burn energy. For hours on end, he cracks people up and sets them scribbling madly in their notebooks. He's wearing a trim short-sleeve, button-down shirt, slim-fitting jeans, and flip-flops, but he seems almost too outsize for this setting, this man who has held arenas of 60,000 now raining down his extraordinary juju on a comparative handful at close range. In addition to religious books and Scripture, he mentions Eddie Izzard, Christopher Hitchens, Jennifer Aniston, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, ESPN The Magazine, Matt Damon, Bruce Springsteen, and the Kardashians. At one point he scrolls through his phone; he wants to show everyone a few of the pictures he's snapped recently, including one of a slick black Ferrari hogging two parking spots. "People are handing you content and truth and stories all the time," he says. "You have to have your radar on."
Bell thinks we are too busy worrying about salvation and questioning our worth to receive the love God presents to us in abundance every day—to feel the reverence humming within us. "I have one life," he tells the crowd. "My kids are all still at home. I get one shot at this." Bell will tell you that he believes in life after death—he hopes to one day see his grandfather, he told Oprah on Super Soul Sunday—but he also believes that our time on earth is what matters.
Someone in the audience asks, "How has it been, being out there, away from the church?" Bell cocks his head and pauses. "I am so happy," he says, actually tearing up a little. "I am so happy." Bell tells me later that he never Googles himself. "We enjoy our life and try to do good work and care for people and help if we can, and take care of ourselves."
The next day, at lunchtime, Bell tells the group that he's arranged for his friend James "Jamo" Pribram, who owns a surf school, to help us catch some waves. "You're about to be born again!" he cries. We stream out to the beach, most of us pale, from landlocked states, not in especially great shape. Bell's friends have hauled a bin of wet suits onto the sand, and they set about collecting waivers, arranging boards on the beach, and teaching us to spring upright on them from a prone position. Suddenly, there's Bell, strolling toward us, a black wet suit rolled down to his waist, a retro wood-veneer surfboard tucked under his arm. He has the freckled torso of a much younger man. He takes stock of our progress. Then he turns and peels toward the water, gliding effortlessly onto his board, paddling surely, leading his people into the vast ocean.
The water is freezing, but we soon forget. As we dodge the modest waves, a softly heaving current makes our feet dance on the rocks below. We squint in the sun, strangers, blessed on this day, clearly, by something.
He views Christianity as a path, first and foremost. Bell believes that "the universal needs a particular"—that we need guidance to become the people we are capable of becoming. The power of a path, he says, "is that you set your intention to become more aware, to heighten your senses and sharpen your eyes, so that you don't miss anything." True spiritual experience often begins in those instants when your soul takes a picture of things, he says.
Children are great at inspiring these moments. "When it's just you and your kid and yet you're like, 'This is so much bigger than us,'" says Bell. "It feels like you're being shown something about the universe."
Bell is behind the wheel of the Sequoia again, driving his two younger children, Preston and Violet, to school (the oldest, Trace, went earlier). Violet, a disarming 4-year-old blonde moppet, sits in her car seat in pink leggings, slowly gnawing at a flower-shaped cookie with pink icing. "Violet is all organic and vegetarian, but regularly eats a cookie for breakfast," notes Bell. His dogma has obviously inspired his offspring: Violet suddenly cries out with glee, "Look at the ocean!" We are cresting a hill overlooking precipitous green cliffs descending into blue. To Violet's right are two large black paddles; the boards are on the roof. As Preston jumps out of the car in front of his school, Bell calls, "I love you, man!" and then mutters, "Oh, my word, I think he made it on time. Amazing."
He looks at his daughter in the rearview mirror. "Violet, what do we usually do after we drop Preston off?" Then he cranks the music—"Boll Weevil," a jaunty song by the band the Presidents of the United States of America—and the two sing together.
To watch Bell with his kids is to see what we are all chasing. Not a sun-kissed existence in California (though that looks nice too), but peace and grace in each moment.
The reassuring sense that we are loved, that this has meaning, that something bigger is going on here.
That we are always, eternally, okay.
Learn how to find joy and meaning in every day life with Rob Bell's eCourse.