A Fallen Fundamentalist Icon Finds Redemption in Venice Beach

Banished from his church over his “blasphemous” book, one of America’s most famous preachers has found a new following in young nonbelievers seeking spiritual salvation

LA Magazine/December 8, 2021

By David Gardner

The doors to Rob Bell’s back house were open, and the world outside was buzzing. Dogs barked in neighboring backyards, helicopters hummed overhead, and cars rushed by in an endless ebb and flow like the waves Bell had surfed that morning in Malibu. He wheeled a white office chair toward the desk until his belly brushed against the wood. He moved his mouth close to the microphone. “Check one two,” he said. “Check one two.” He eyed the levels on a monitor to his left. He knew the outside noises would wander in here and whisper in the background of his broadcast, but that didn’t bother him. He liked hearing the birds sing.

He took his iPhone from his pocket and tapped it a few times to check what episode of the podcast he was about to record. He flipped open a pair of notebooks. And, finally, from a bookshelf over his shoulder, he pulled a black bible. Its cover was weathered and worn, the leather peeling from years of daily reading. Holding it with two hands, he turned to me and said, “It’s an absurd premise, I know, to just sit here by myself and talk about this old book with strangers.”

Ten years ago, the premise wouldn’t have seemed absurd. Back then, Bell was among the most prominent Evangelical pastors in America. His Michigan megachurch, Mars Hill, attracted over 10,000 worshippers a weekend. His debut book, 2005’s Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, sold half a million copies. And he performed annual speaking tours to packed theaters around the world. One newspaper called him “The next Billy Graham.” But that was before Bell went to hell.

In his fourth book, 2011’s Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell wondered aloud whether a loving God would really condemn billions of nonbelievers to eternal torment. The book sold half a million copies and landed him on the cover of Time. It led to friendships with the likes of Oprah Winfrey. But it also led conservative pastors to label him a heretic and a false teacher; it led to him leaving not just his church, but the church; it led to him questioning the faith that had made him famous. And it led him to Los Angeles.

In exile, Bell’s book sales slowed, and so did tickets to his speaking tours. For years, he wrestled with what to call himself personally and professionally. He sensed that there were other outcasts like him—people who had lost faith in religion, but not in God. He just didn’t know how to connect with them.

Then, in 2015, a couple of friends recommended that he start a podcast. More than 300 episodes and tens of millions of downloads later, the Robcast has helped to resurrect Bell’s career. His book sales have bounced back. This year, he’s embarked on his first international speaking tour since the pandemic. As Americans increasingly leave religion behind, many former evangelicals have found comfort in Bell’s no-strings-attached spiritual instruction. And once again, Bell has found himself at the forefront of evolving religious expression in the United States.

He leans into the microphone and laughs. “Hello, my friends,” he says, “and welcome to another Robcast…”

A few months before the pandemic began, I spent a week with Bell in Los Angeles. I wanted to see how someone who had shaped the megachurch culture that I grew up in felt about it now. I wanted to know why someone who had seen the Bible used against him like a weapon was teaching from its pages every week. I wanted to know if he still considered himself a Christian.

I grew up in a church that was obsessed with hell. Every Sunday, after the songs had been sung and the collection plate had been passed and the sermon had been preached, the pastor would ask if anyone wanted to accept Jesus as their savior. “If you died tonight,” he would ask, “do you know that you know that you know that you’re going to heaven?” The alternative, he never failed to note, was unpleasant: an eternity in a lake of fire. On most Sundays, I wasn’t sure if I was going to heaven, so I raised my hand to be saved—just to be safe.

When we joined the church, it met in a rented jazzercise room with about a dozen people from our neighborhood in north Tampa, Florida. By the time I was a teenager, it had become one of the largest churches in Florida, welcoming thousands of people every weekend into multiple multimillion-dollar buildings. I went to church at least four times a week, for Bible study, for worship band practice, for youth group, and for Sunday services. Even as I became a leader, I kept raising my hand regularly. I’ve been saved more times than I can remember.

Then, one Friday night, after a teenager from a nearby high school had committed suicide, our youth pastor invited a guest preacher to speak, he said, to help us heal. This preacher, who had the body of an NFL linebacker, bounded onto the stage with the bible clipped onto his belt and jumper cables connecting the book to the T-shirt buttons by his heart. The absurdity of it all unsettled me. Then, when he announced matter-of-factly that the young man who had taken his own life was now in hell, I stood up and left.

A few weeks later, I encountered Rob Bell’s work for the first time. I didn’t think I ever wanted to go to church again, but a few friends invited me to what they promised would be a service unlike anything I’d experienced. The pastor has tattoos! they told me. Sometimes he even swears! That Sunday, I went to a dimly lit theater with sticky floors and a faint aroma of stale beer, where church consisted entirely of watching a Rob Bell video called “Breathe.” It was part of a series of videos he made called Nooma (a phonetic spelling of the Greek word for spirit). They were moody, like music videos. They were never more than 15 minutes long. And they asked questions that conservative Christians considered edgy, like whether God was a woman. In “Breathe,” Bell rode a train and talked about the ancient Jewish understanding that the name of God was the sound of the breath. It was an understanding that God was more connected to life than to death.

Like me, Bell had been raised in a conservative Christian household. He was born in Michigan in 1970 to a father who was a Ronald Reagan-appointed federal judge and a mother who was a schoolteacher. His first mentor in ministry was a board member of the Moral Majority, the Jerry Falwell-led organization that married conservative Christians and conservative politics. Bell followed in his parents’ footsteps to Wheaton, a prestigious Christian college in Illinois, where he spent more time with his band, _ton bundle, than studying. He found his life’s calling while he was working as a ski instructor at a summer camp. He was asked to give a sermon, and he knew that morning that he wanted to spend his life preaching.

Now, nearly 30 years later, I was about to see Bell deliver something very like a sermon in a venue very unlike a church: Los Angeles’s iconic Largo at the Coronet. As Bell walked on stage, I sat in the back and looked out at the 200-plus people who had packed into the small theater. A handful of them were older, but most of the crowd looked a lot like me: early thirties, comfortably into adulthood but clinging desperately to some of their youthful edge. In other words, an astonishing array of facial hair and piercings and hats. I realized they’d come to see Bell tonight for the same reason I had: they were searching for answers.
Before the pandemic, Bell performed at Largo regularly. Sometimes he did shows with his close friends, like author Elizabeth Gilbert or comedian Pete Holmes. But on this night, Bell was alone. He’d set up the stage like a living room, with a projector humming in the middle. “Hello, Largo friends,” he began. “A while ago, I wrote some books, and what was interesting about them was that everyone who read them loved them.”

The audience erupted with laughter. Both Bell’s rise and fall in mainline Christianity were rooted in his openness to questioning the church’s teachings and its culture. I remember once asking my youth pastor if he preferred Guns N’ Roses or Metallica—and he replied “Amy Grant.” But Bell embraced and found inspiration in what the church condescendingly called “secular culture.” It made him more accessible to a younger generation, like me, who were finding the first fault lines in our faith. And it made him a commodity to church leaders who were sensing that so many of us were starting to slip away.

Much of Bell’s audience, then and now, fits into that “none” group. In the early 1990s, when he was studying at the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary in California, evangelicals dominated America’s religious landscape, making up roughly 30 percent of the population. Back then, nones amounted to less than 10 percent. But by 2018, they had risen to 23.1 percent, while evangelicals had fallen to 22.5 percent. In Los Angeles, nones comprise a quarter of the population.

Part of the reason for their rise is generational replacement—around the world, older religious people are dying, and younger, more secular generations are coming of age. But there’s something else at work. “The leading hypothesis is that much of what we’re observing in the rise of the nones is an allergic reaction to the mix of conservative politics and religion,” said David Campbell, a Notre Dame professor and the coauthor of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. “It’s caused many people to look at religion and say, ‘If religion means being a Republican, that’s not for me.’”

For Bell, the breaking point with the church was in part political. He became radicalized when George W. Bush ended his infamous May 2003 “Mission Accomplished” speech with a quote from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. “The war in Iraq, and the unquestioning support of it by people claiming to be Jesus followers, revealed a spiritual bankruptcy at the heart of the dominant Christian culture in America,” he wrote in his 2020 memoir, Everything Is Spiritual. “I often thought of walking away from the whole thing.”

For the church, the breaking point with Bell was Love Wins. Although Bell never definitively wrote that hell didn’t exist, asking the question was considered sinful. “Evangelical Christianity is rooted in certainties about heaven and hell,” said Kent Dobson, who replaced Bell at Mars Hill. “Rob wasn’t trying to be controversial, but he was pressing against the psychological foundations of faith. People believe because it gives them the certainty of being in the right group. Anyone who challenges the notion of who’s in and who’s out must be attacked.”

Among evangelical leaders, the response was rancorous. The Gospel Coalition, a conservative network of church leaders, convened an emergency panel to critique Love Wins. One prominent pastor, Francis Chan, wrote an entire book, Erasing Hell, in response. It was one of a half-dozen response books. Another pastor, John Piper, tweeted “Farewell Rob Bell.” A week after the book’s release, Mars Hill lost 1,000 members. When Bell returned from his promotional tour, he could sense a new tension with the staff. “People there loved me,” Bell says, “but they were exhausted by me.”

In May, two months after Love Wins was released, Mars Hill hosted a baptism service. Bell had no responsibilities that day, so he grabbed a stack of towels and passed them out to the newly reborn. For the first time, he felt that the church would be fine—maybe even better—without him. He wept. When he told his wife, Kristen, about the experience, she agreed it was time to go. The elders asked him to stay but in his heart, he’d already left. Bell’s last sermon at Mars Hill was in December 2010. Then, as with countless souls who came before him, he moved to Los Angeles to start a new life.

Ten years later, at the Largo, Bell told his life story as he flipped through the slides on the projector. Near the end, he said that his father had recently been diagnosed with dementia. Bell described his father as a lion in winter. As the crowd went quiet, he held one hand to his heart and the other out toward them like he was still the holy man handing out blessings. “Never stop learning who you are or where you come from,” he said. “But set your tradition free from everything it couldn’t be for you, and set yourself free from everything you couldn’t be for it.”

When Bell first moved to California with Kristen and their three children, they started a new Sunday morning ritual. They’d left Michigan in the middle of winter, and it felt foolish to do anything but make up for lost sunshine. So on the Sabbath, they’d enjoy a big breakfast before walking a couple of blocks from their rented bungalow to Laguna Beach. Once everyone was settled, Bell would zip up his wetsuit, pick up his paddleboard, and splash into the water. For him, being in the ocean meant being with God.

On those Sunday mornings, he would paddle in parallel to the beach, his mind moving as quickly as his body, trying to process the pain he’d felt at having been so harshly rejected. All he’d wanted to do was to help people see God as he did—not as exclusive and judgmental, but as inclusive and welcoming. After a few hours, he’d return to shore with sore shoulders and an aching heart.

In those first few years, Bell wondered whether he was still a Christian. And he didn’t know what to call himself professionally either—at parties, he’d say he was an author, and left out the pastor part. Without local congregations sending busloads of the faithful to his speaking engagements, ticket sales to his tours shriveled. Without prominent placement on shelves in Christian bookstores, his follow-up to Love Wins, 2013’s What We Talk About When We Talk About God, sold only a tenth of the copies. Through his Hollywood connections, Bell wrote a pilot for a drama called Stronger with Carlton Cuse, the showrunner on Lost. ABC optioned it, but it never aired. He filmed two episodes of a talk show for Oprah’s network OWN, but it wasn’t picked up.

The problem was he was looking for a new audience in the same old spaces. Religious conservatives crowded traditional platforms—the pulpit, publishing, television, and radio. When Bell looked at the podcasting landscape, he was dismayed to see it too was dominated by many of the same voices who had cast him out. But podcasting had no gatekeeping, and Bell found that freedom refreshing. “I had this sense that there was a mass of people with a spiritual longing,” Bell said, “but who didn’t want to be part of any institution.”

He was right. For young folks, religious identity has eroded, but faith has not. Only 13.6 percent of nones are atheists. The vast majority—about 70 percent—describe themselves as “nothing in particular.” Among them, 90 percent say that they believe in some spiritual force, 60 percent are comfortable calling that force “God” and 50 percent still say that religion is important to them. “That’s tens of millions of people who are spiritually seeking,” said Pew associate director of research Gregory Smith. “They’re not connected to a religious institution, but they’re interested in faith and spirituality.”

The response to the Robcast was immediate: It debuted at No. 1 in the Religion and Spirituality category, and Apple named it one of 2015’s best new shows. The podcast’s success led to a rebound in his book sales and to a return to annual touring. And even though his podcast now gets around 180,000 downloads a week, Bell doesn’t take any money from the show. “At a time when so many institutions have lost their way, the uncensored and unsponsored spaces are vital,” he said. “There is a conviction to this. As a listener, you can’t brush off anything I say by thinking, ‘Oh, he’s paid to say that.’ I’m just here for the love of the game.”

As a result, the Robcast is refreshingly lo-fi. There is no intro or outro music, and Bell doesn’t edit episodes. His children can regularly be heard interrupting him to beg for breakfast or car keys. Some episodes have guests, and they can range from obscure, like a man who quit his job at a bank to become a professional squash player, to celebrities, like How I Met Your Mother’s Josh Radnor and Rainn Wilson from The Office. Bell isn’t an especially skilled questioner—his most common reply is “Say more about that”—but he is earnest and enthusiastic, and his guests tend to respond in kind.

“Rob’s not aggressive on the podcast, and he wasn’t as a pastor,” best-selling author Jen Hatmaker says. “He’s curious, and curiosity is very underutilized in religious communities. Certainty is valued. Curiosity is seen as a lack of faith. I have always been grateful to Rob for that. I followed in his wake, and he continues to be a lead blocker for so many of us in spiritual leadership.”

Although Bell is firmly outside of the church now, his messages haven’t changed much. Most episodes of the show are based around the Bible. “When I realized that these could be sermons,” he said, “it unlocked something in me. It freed me to return to this art that I’d loved for 30 years, without any of the other baggage that had been built up around it.”

When we were together in the back house, he recorded an episode about the Old Testament book of Ruth. Even when he’s alone, Bell still speaks to his audience as if they’re sitting in pews. He’ll often interrupt himself with an emphatic, “Are you with me?”

After the episode was over, he closed that peeling bible and picked it up again. “I have this sense sometimes that maybe I’m here to rescue the bible from religion,” he said. “I’m not inviting you to do anything other than read it with me and see if it helps you in some way to figure out who we are, here and now. There’s no sign-up. There’s no bait and switch at the end. It’s just the pure joy of wondering, ‘Does this help?’ For some reason, this far into it, I keep getting inspired by these scriptures.”

When I lost my faith, I felt adrift. In the first half of my life, I’d been tormented by the idea of hell. Then every Sunday, I’d be reassured that I wouldn’t end up there. Religions can be like that: Even if the answers can seem ludicrous, they are still willing to confront the ultimate questions of our existence with confidence. After all, our planet is not even a speck of sand in a universe that is nearly 14 billion years old and at least 46.5 billion lightyears across—and somehow getting bigger. Our world is made up of subatomic particles that don’t exist in one definite place until we observe them. It seems hard to imagine that, in our lifetimes, science will offer satisfying answers to basic questions like: Why does anything exist at all? or What is consciousness?

I grew up with a sense of certainty, like I was walking on solid ground. Then a trap door of doubt opened up and sent me into a freefall. Whereas Christianity had once offered me a profound sense of purpose in life, I now wondered if my existence was nothing more than a meaningless accident of an indifferent universe. The difference between Rob and me, it seemed during our week together, was that those questions didn’t depress him. They excited him. After having spent the previous decade wrestling with the afterlife, he seemed to have committed to spending this decade celebrating this life.

When we went surfing and Bell caught a particularly good wave, he’d still bail off his board at the end so that he could feel the jolt of the cold Pacific Ocean on his skin. When he saw something characteristically L.A., like a smoothie menu that offered ashwagandha and lion’s mane boosters, he’d snap a photo on his phone. If he liked something he ordered, he’d insist on sharing it. When he shopped at Trader Joe’s, he sang “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll” out loud as it played on the loudspeakers. When his kids congregated in the living room, he’d throw himself entirely into whatever he they were doing, whether it was playing Minecraft or playing the guitar.

One day, over lunch at a vegan Mexican restaurant, he asked me about my faith history, and I told him about how I’d left the church. More than most people, Bell understood the impulse to walk away from a toxic faith. Then he told me a story. That month, he’d taken his daughter to get ice cream after school and to pick up a few T-shirts from a clothing store he liked. A couple of employees there had recently listened to an episode of the Robcast. They had bonded over their shared history with Christianity, and their shared grief. Each was recovering from the death of a parent. One of them, a man named Steven, rang Bell up, handed him the receipt, and then asked him an audacious question: “Are you a Christian?”

“Absolutely,” he said.

When he recounted the conversation, Bell couldn’t contain his joy. His voice rose. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d just said yes to that question. “Normally, I’d say, ‘What does the word “Christian: mean to you?’ or, ‘I am, but not like a Donald Trump Christian.’ But I just decided to let go of all these disclaimers. The people who polluted this thing—they don’t own that word. And part of moving forward is taking that word back. There’s this ancient path. It’s freed me. It’s grounded me. It’s made me more compassionate and kind and forgiving and loving. And it is centered around the Christ. So am I a Christian? Yeah. Fuck, yeah! What else would you call it?”

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