Former megachurch pastor Rob Bell, founder of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich., recently shared how his 2011 book, Love Wins, led to a fallout with the congregation and forced him on a "search for a more forgiving faith."
Bell details this search in a recent interview with The New Yorker, and discusses his invitation to Christians interested in a different kind of church, "one that can keep pace with the rising 'waterline of culture.'"
"Bell is now loosely aligned with a cohort of pastors worldwide who are searching for ways to move beyond old-fashioned worship," Kelefa Sanneh of The New Yorker wrote in an in-depth, Nov. 26 feature on Bell, entitled "Hell Raiser."
The main issue discussed in Bell's recent interview regards Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, in which the former pastor questioned the existence of hell and the evangelical teaching that only those who believe in Jesus Christ go to heaven.
Bell received a vast amount of criticism for his book and even lost members of his Mars Hill Bible Church congregation. The New Yorker writes that "word went out that a prominent megachurch leader had rejected Hell, thereby embracing heresy."
Critics accused Bell of being a heretic, a political liberal, and a Universalist, among other labels.
Bell told The New Yorker that the publication of his book resulted in a 3,000-person decrease in membership at Mars Hill Bible Church, which he founded in 1999.
"The book put pressure on the people around Bell, who found themselves having to defend statements they might never have heard, let alone approved," The New Yorker writes.
"Congregants reported that friends and family members were asking why they were allowing themselves to be led by a false teacher," the magazine continues.
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Wife of the megachurch pastor, Kristen Bell, remembers staying home from service for some weeks because she could not stand the criticism her husband was receiving for his book.
"There was a cost," Bell told The New Yorker.
"And part of the cost was, we couldn't keep doing what we were doing at Mars Hill," she added.
The Evangelical Alliance issued a review of the controversial book, saying that although Bell displays "brilliant communication skills" in Love Wins, he also communicates only part of the truth regarding hell, which can be "disturbing to those who believe in the other half of the truth."
Others, however, argued that those accusing Love Wins of being a book about simply heaven and hell were missing the bigger picture and message conveyed by Bell.
"[Love Wins] is a book that invites people to remember the life God is offering them and that encourages them to thrive as they joyously participate in that life," wrote Julie Clawson, a Christian blogger for the site OneHandClapping.
Bell, however, argued that he never meant to be controversial with his book.
"My interest is in what's true and where is the life and where is the heart and what inspires. And if that happens to stir up a few things, that's something I accept," Bell said at the time of his book's release, as previously reported by The Christian Post.
Ultimately, Bell and his wife chose to leave their West Michigan church and seek a new way of life in California, where Bell and Carlton Cuse, producer of the hit TV series "Lost", are teaming up to work on a "faith-inflected talk show."
Bell also holds retreats with fellow pastors near his Orange County home, and enjoys surfing. He is also working on a new book.
As The New Yorker points out, although many viewed Bell's Love Wins as a form of evangelical dissension, others view Bell as "a reassuring figure: proof that it's possible to challenge certain articles of faith without leaving behind faith itself."
"Before, he was a dissenter in evangelical West Michigan," Sanneh writes for the magazine. "Now he is a lifelong believer in secular Southern California. And, in that world, his faith may seem more distinctive – and more important – than his doubts."
Along with Love Wins, Bell is the author of The New York Times bestseller Velvet Elvis. In 2011, Time magazine named Bell one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.
Teaching Pastor Shane Hipps temporarily took over Bell's position at Mars Hill from Dec. 2011 until June 2012, when he announced that he would be stepping down from his position as lead pastor.
Mars Hill Bible Church is now led by Pastor Kent Dobson, son of well-known megachurch Pastor Ed Dobson.