Rob Bell, the bestselling author whose book Love Wins caused a firestorm in the evangelical community, shared on Tuesday how God's love led him to become a Christian minister when all he wanted to do was play in a band.
"When I was in college, I was in a band ... I was convinced this is what we were going to do with our lives, and this was everything to me," Bell told the audience at The Viper Room in Los Angeles, Calif., on Tuesday evening to mark the paperback publication of his New York Times bestselling book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, which questions whether the Bible actually teaches about a literal and eternal hell.
Bell, the former pastor and founder of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich., said he was hoping some day after he finished college, he and his band members were "going to make it." They would live in tiny apartments, take horrible care of their bodies, "just so that we could make it."
Bell, who recently resigned from the megachurch and wants to create a spiritual drama loosely based on his own life, said he actually thought his moment was coming after two huge gigs were scheduled in two big clubs of Chicago. "We were convinced this was it."
However, on a Friday night, several weeks before those gigs, Bell had a headache. While his friends were practicing, he was on his couch, and the headache wouldn't go away. "I thought I was going to die. This is how I am going to go."
Bell went to a doctor, who then took him to a hospital emergency room and called a neurologist and other experts. They told him he had viral meningitis. "The fluid around the brain has become infected and swollen up, and [is] squeezing your brain against the wall of your skull," he was told.
"I remember laying in the hospital bed, miles from home, and my friends from the band visited, and said, 'Wow, we'll have to cancel the gigs.' And I remember the sense ... like something bigger is happening here than just a brain infection.
"I came back to school, and recovered and recuperated ... The band broke up."
Bell then realized he needed a job, and was directionless, as he had made no other plan than being in the band. "I wanted to do something with my life, but I had no idea ..."
He had been to church with his family when he was younger. "I had heard stories of Jesus, and I had found the stories about him compelling, even at a young age ... junior and high school." He found that Jesus' love was different from what he found in the world.
At school, Bell recalled, everything was about hierarchy – winners and losers, who's in and who's out, who's popular and who's not. "[But] the Jesus stories were about God's love for everybody exactly as you are ... The idea that I was loved."
Bell then shared how he became a Christian minister.
Around the time when his band fell apart, "the idea sort of came out of nowhere. I distinctly remember people saying things like, 'Have you thought about being a pastor?'" And Bell would respond, saying, "What?" "But I had some sense, like there was a new thing that was happening in the world with this Jesus that I had heard these stories about, and that maybe I can be a part of it."
He decided to go to seminary in California. And once he volunteered to preach a sermon there that changed his life. "I remember standing up to give a talk, and I remember taking off my sandals because I was so overwhelmed with the sense that I was on a holy ground, and that my life was never ever gonna be the same.
"So I sort of threw myself into it, and it turns out that the end of my ideas about what I was going to do with my life was actually the beginning of what I have tried to get my life to. The end is a beginning."
Bell said this experience also taught him to "keep my palm open." We often hold on to people, relationships, jobs, status and so on, but things fall apart just so that there can be a new beginning, he said. "The beauty of an open palm is, you can't put anything new in a closed fist ... Something has to die so that something new can be born."