What the Continued Crucifying Of Rob Bell Says About Modern Christianity


It’s often been said that we Christians eat our own.

This unsettling expression is all-too true, and apparently Rob Bell is on the menu yet again.

For a people whose go-to ideas are love for God and love for others, we Jesus folk are often pretty horrible toward one another, especially to those of us who attain any sort of position in the larger culture.

Oh sure, we’ll root like crazy for them to reach the masses on their way up, but once they do, we’ll as willingly and passionately go about the work of ripping them from their lofty positions; discrediting them, ridiculing them, shaming and shunning them in the process.

In the Church, as in so many other spheres of life, we love to love you when your star is rising, and few in modern times have risen faster or higher.

A decade ago, Rob Bell was a flat-out Christian Rock Star.

He was the guy on the conference speaker circuit, his megachurch Mars Hill Bible Church was a blockbuster, and his thought-provoking short films were staples of every young adult ministry in the country. He was known as a wise, engaging, creative, articulate teacher of the Bible; someone who was speaking about Jesus with a fresh voice that people in and outside of the Church resonated with.

He had a rabid army of fellow believers who hung on every word he uttered, who lapped-up every morsel he tossed them, who cheered him on like a local kid making the Bigs.

For a while, it was a Christian Bubble love fest.

Then something happened.

Rob Bell sinned.

But his offense wasn’t a moral lapse of any kind. It wasn’t an abuse of power or a sexual transgression or some financial misdeed, or any sort of ministry impropriety. (These had been, and continue to be the hallmark of so many Evangelical leaders, so that would be natural to assume).

Rob Bell’s sin, was simply that he didn’t stick to the script.

He deviated. He dared to ask questions. He challenged the status quo. He moved against the grain.

He went rogue and everything went South, (or rather, went to Hell).

The relationship turned toxic when Bell wrote a book called Love Wins, in which he challenged the idea of Hell; a seemingly untouchable, immoveable pillar of the Christian worldview. He asked a ton of really natural questions about reconciling eternal punishment with a loving God, and he examined matters of life and faith that had become foregone conclusions to most believers.

In the now infamous and pivotal volume that caused the Church to break-up with him, Bell didn’t give many answers. He only asked people, to ask the questions. He invited inquisition.

In our modern Evangelical Christian subculture, well that’s simply not something we tolerate, and it wasn’t long before Rob Bell was being crucified by his peers.

Pastors began stepping over one another to speak out against his dangerous teachings.
Bloggers churned out post after post lamenting his tragic, heretical detours.
Conferences stopped booking him, well-known allies began distancing themselves, and before too long Bell was a virtual leper to his own community; the same community that had carried him proudly to prominence just months earlier.

Rob Bell became a dirty word in church circles; a punchline, a pariah.

As so often happens in the modern Church, he was intentionally and mercilessly pushed to the margins of the Christian community, just a few feet from irrelevance. There he would be left to languish for a few months before hopefully dissolving into obscurity.

Only Bell didn’t do what his critics wanted.

He didn’t tearfully repent and beg to get his club membership renewed.
He didn’t fade into oblivion.
He didn’t fall apart or fight back.

As so many of his brethren mercilessly attacked him, he simply turned around, stepped out through the dust-covered doors of the suffocating Christian bubble, and spoke to those who would still listen.

It turns out, there are a lot of people still listening.

Bell’s resurgence has come at the hands of worldwide media mogul Oprah Winfrey, who has given Bell a prominent position on her network, and provided him a new and massive platform; the kind that most Christian leaders, bloggers, and writers would give up houses, kids, and arms for, if they’re honest with themselves.

And this has brought the venom-peddlers out of the woodwork once again. The same Christian people who treated him so horribly, now act like he’s abandoning them.

The condescending critiques of his recent crossover to pop, rival the Nashville pushback against Taylor Swift. Supposed Biblical purists, (you know, the “Love God, Love people”, people), have bent over backwards to take their shots at his motives and his methods. They’ve dissected his interviews as a lawyer parses a legal document looking for loopholes.

Bell’s been maligned for softening the Gospel; for crafting a new age, feel good, bastardized version of Christianity that is theologically neutered and built for mass consumption. He’s been vilified and demonized for perverting the message of Jesus to grow his brand.


Bell’s been doing something braver than most of the pastors overseeing churches in this country would ever do, yet the same thing that so many in their congregations wish they would do.

He’s admitting the real questions that surface in the excavation of deep faith. He’s looking to separate what in this religion is of God and what is of us. He’s asking why we believe what we believe, and asking believers to do the same.

These are somehow unforgivable offenses to the “forgiving people”.

It all illustrates the sad state of the core of Evangelical Christianity in America, and why more and more people outside of it want no part of it.

We’ve lost the ability to welcome diversity of thought. We’ve made the Church a members-only club, defined by the narrowest of doctrines and the most rigid understandings of God and Scripture.

We have two religious menu options when it comes to orthodoxy: Totality or Heresy.

The moment that anyone, however prayerful or thoughtful or earnest they may be, comes to a conclusion other than what we’ve defined as acceptable, they get kicked to the curb. As Christian leaders cling tighter and tighter to a faith tradition that seems less and less culturally relevant, they expel anyone who doesn’t check all the right boxes, who doesn’t say all the right words in all the right ways using all the right Bible verses.

Bell is no fast food, arm-chair theologian, remember.

He’s a Bible geek whose experience with and understanding of the ancient Scriptures was one of the main reasons for his rise in the first place. This wasn’t a guy who skimmed the easy passages that most American pastors recycle as part of a limited Sunday morning, Smooth Jazz Jesus playlist. This wasn’t someone who preached from the cozy confines of the Creation story, or the Psalms, or the Sermon on the Mount.

This was the pastor who launched his megachurch’s first year by working line by line through Leviticus; possibly the most confounding, least user-friendly, most challenging Biblical book to make sense of in our modern culture. Definitely not something a novice would go near.

That’s the heart of the problem here. Rob Bell was and is, a bright, reasonable, thoughtful pastor, whose extensive exploration of the Scriptures, and whose life and ministry have yielded for him lots of questions, and some answers that far too many Christians just don’t want to deal with.

It isn’t as if he suddenly became less knowledgable about the Bible. It’s not as though he unlearned everything he ever knew about ancient Greek and Hebrew language. He didn’t become less intelligent or less creative or less authentic or less hungry for God.

He’s simply reached conclusions that he isn’t supposed to reach, and that really pisses off Church people.

Christian leaders, those in your buildings and outside their walls are more like Rob Bell than you may want them to be. They’re genuinely looking for God, and they aren’t afraid of the difficult questions as they search. They don’t run from the tension between what they read in the Bible and what they experience every day. They’re looking for a sturdy, useable faith that stands up to scrutiny, and a Church that allows space for grey and gives real grace in it.

They’re looking for a faith community that doesn’t dismiss and eliminate and destroy those whose conclusions don’t all line up neatly with the party line. They want to be part of a people who seek and wrestle and coexist, even in the questions.

They’re looking to find Jesus in the way we deal with one another.

I wonder what our response to Rob Bell is teaching them about us.

It’s probably not good.






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615 thoughts on “What the Continued Crucifying Of Rob Bell Says About Modern Christianity

  1. I find myself in Rob Bell’s shoes in a smaller way. I am an ordained minister but I am not a pastor and the congregation I worship with is small. But, I too ask myself questions. What IF the bible is ….wrong? What if….we don’t UNDERSTAND it? What IF Jesus did NOT come here to die for our SINS? Is there really sin? What if the REAL story is that Jesus came to teach us how to love, how to remember who we really are, children of a divine being which then makes us also divine? What if he was willing to die for these teachings, showing us that Love is THAT important? I want to share a different view with my fellow church members whenever it is my turn to speak on Sunday. But I know I have to bring the new ideas to them slowly, one premise at a time. My church, Community of Christ http://www.cofchrist.org is a very much a liberal church, but we make room for conservative believers. In fact we don’t insist that any one person must believe like everyone else. It is more what you would expect in a “modern” church and not at all Evangelical. I think evangelical movements are a thing of former times and we have to move forward and grow in our understandings to continue to be what we are called to be. I can do that in this church, but when I find that I am growing in new-old ideas faster than our “professed beliefs” then I have to be careful how I word things when I speak from the pulpit so as not to get myself in trouble. I don’t want to have to leave this particular community of christians because I love them. And yet I know I AM a heretic! Did you know that the word HERETIC means “knowing”? That is all it means really. I am rooting for Rob Bell. WE HAVE TO ASK ALL THE QUESTIONS, BECAUSE AS THE SAYING GOES ” AN UNEXAMINED BELIEF IS NOT WORTH BELIEVING, AND AN UNEXAMINED LIFE IS NOT WORTH LIVING. Go Rob! There ARE people hungry for a dose of real truth!

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  4. By rejecting Rob Bell, we as the church are only obeying what the scriptures tell us. He is a false teacher who teaches a different gospel than what was preached by Jesus and the apostles (see below) by teaching what the world wants to hear rather than what God has actually said through his word (i.e. his teachings on hell, sin, the cost of discipleship, etc). The bible is clear that we should not associate with such people and instead expose them for what they are, antichrists.

    Galatians 1:6-9 – “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”

    Romans 16:17-18 – “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.”

    2 Peter 2:1-3 – “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.”

    2 John 1:9-11 – “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.”

  5. When you use the word “crucify” in such contexts, I immediately conclude “Hey, I’m just an accusing asshat who wants my cultural tribe to win but wants to appear kindly and nice. ”

    Rob Bell is not especially interesting, neither better nor worse than challenging voices of other generations, who are willing to challenge orthodoxy but still hold to something of the faith. Big Whoop. There are a million of those guys. Are they unfairly criticised by rigid, brittle Christians who could stand to learn a few things? Sure. So what?

    It’s you who is dichotomising, and Bell. Yes, your opponents also do that, but that is irrelevant.

    This has been on pause for a half-hour while I pondered the most useful thing to say. For better or worse, this is the best I can do: “wrestling” with the great ideas of the self, the culture, and the faith does not mean “trying to fit Christianity into modern hipness.” That is wrestling with gerbils, not angels. Pointing out the flaws in other Christians is a matter of no importance whatsoever. You have to go back to the beginning and start again before you can move forward.

  6. One of the many reasons I left the church a number of years ago due to the really ignorance of many believers. The unwillingness to ask questions and to doubt (of the devil) and the inability for most to embrace today’s world without demonizing almost everyone because they do not view the world through the same lens. And that lens is one they crafted thinking it is the mind and heart of God. The evangelical church today is obsolete in being able to contend with what matters and where people are at today. Good bye dear church it was a nice ride but I am on to bigger and better things and choose not to be a hypocrite like so many and forget the teaching found in Romans 2:1 “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things”.

  7. It does bother me that so many have vilified Bell. It poisons the well of hearing anything from a person who often has a lot of good to say. I really benefit from his preaching. Arguably the best sermon on preaching that I ever heard was when he spoke at the Duke convocation alongside NT Wright a few years back. Just phenomenal.

    The one issue I have with your essay, however, is that it isn’t just the “conclusions” Bell reached (to be sure this is true for many). I was excited to read his book on Love Wins – and hopeful. But what was disappointing for myself and for some reviewers was with his poor argumentation, loose use of certain texts, and failure to address some very relevant texts. Hell is still a very difficult problem and I lean a direction but remain open to many possibilities. But I think his exegesis was just not very satisfying.

    Still enjoy much of his work – but it is not just the conclusions he reached; rather it is how he got there that many find more troubling.

  8. I’m in the process of reading the book, “10% Happier” by Dan Harris. Terrific! The blurb on the back says the book “…takes readers on a ride…to the bizarre fringes of America’s spiritual scene…” (In my opinion, nearly all of organized religion is bizarrely near the fringe)

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  11. i have discovered preaching the Gospel has very little to do with following the teachings of Jesus.

  12. Love wins, but hate isn’t going to climb up out of the bunker to shake hands any time soon. We have much work to do. Well said, Mr. Pavlovitz. Pax!



    It is without a doubt one of the MOST IMPORTANT Bible studies YOU will ever read!

  14. It’s not as simple as not towing the “party line”. Sometimes people veer far enough of that their teachings become too damaging to embrace — and a separation is needed. For the record, there were a lot of us who didn’t embrace the teaching and leadership of Bell from the beginning. The masses of Christendom are first of all, not necessarily Christian, and second of all — just as fickle as any crowd. So why would any of us be surprised that the public opinion of Bell has changed in the “Church” — whatever the “Church” is. Him getting an audience through Oprah surely isn’t a positive thing in your mind??? That’s a sign that the “camp” he sits in is not the “camp” I want to be in.

  15. Thanks for this, Jon. While I was reading this, I was actually realizing that I’ve been on a similar journey as Mr. Bell. I have also started asking questions and coming to “different” conclusions that are “unacceptable” when compared to the “What we believe.” website pages of most churches.

    I KNOW all the “evangelical” doctrine back and forth. I’ve studied and read my Bible and studied some more. I thought of myself as an “apologist” and “defended God and The Word”.

    But now that I’ve changed my views, Christians treat me like I never read a word of the Bible and have no idea what orthodox doctrine says or how it is interpreted from scripture.. It’s like they think I just crawled out of the woodwork to “lead people astray” with my “feelings” gospel that has NO Biblical backing. What’s worse, I get this from my OWN family members who explain theology to me as if I’ve never heard it before. It’s very frustrating and very “rude”. It’s like they think that somehow, even though I’ve done the whole “Christian” thing for 30+ years, that I really didn’t :”get” ANY of it. That I was just “faking” or “playing” at being a Christian, and that my views now PROVE that I never “really was a Christian”. What a terrible thing to say to anybody, let alone your own flesh and blood.

    Sorry, I’m really just using your forum as a place to vent. It’s just when I read what you wrote about how people forget the kind of scholar that Mr. Bell is that really hit a nerve with me. Not that I’m even in the same league, educationally speaking, but just that how can people FORGET that you’ve “grown up” in this stuff. You KNOW it backwards and forwards but that there really are OTHER ways to think about these things that “what we’ve always known.”

    Thank you for standing up for the truth, even when it gets you so much flack.

    • I remember seeing David Hayward’s art where there is a pic of a man at a table, and a saying of “I studied to show myself approved, but when I shared my conclusions…I became unapproved.” I am still going to get a print of that for my home. Three years at a hard-core, fundamentalist, evangelical, conservative Bible college in the American South taught me a whole lot. I don’t feel safe in churches of any type, partly for “falling away from the faith” and going elsewhere (risking the lightning bolt of God coming through a window or door and frying my ass for sitting in a church of the “unapproved” variety), or for risking going into a church of the “approved” variety and getting fried and harshly judged by the people there for being “heathen” and asking what I believe are legitimate questions. Either way, I feel scared and screwed.

  16. “for there is love that is as strong as death, Jealousy demanding as the grave, and many waters cannot quench this love”
    God did not treat Israel as his son but as his beloved. Jesus did not consider the church as his ‘son’ but as his bride. while it is unthinkable for a father to punish his son by hell fire, I have come across Lovers commit heinous crimes out of Jealousy. hell is a logically necessary part of of true love spurned.

  17. Hey thanks for writing a candid and honest critique of our sinful treatment of one another as Christians. It is refreshing. I believe that often we focus on being “right” rather than being loving. That is counter to what I believe Jesus taught us. I am amazed at the number of comments on this article and imagine many resist what you say here, thus perhaps proving your point (not to mention MY naming of THAT reality as though I have the “right answers” too). Jesus please help us serve you faithfully in the Kingdom of God and please help us live into the questions and live into the love you embody. Thank you for John Pavlovitz. Please continue to speak through him and help us all listen to one another so that we may love as you love. Amen.

  18. Well said! Thank you very much for this article. We so appreciated Rob Bell asking questions we had as we grew up in the church but never thought there was a space to ask those questions. Peter Hiett is also asking questions like Rob Bell. Check out his short film series at http://www.downsideup.com.
    God bless and keep pressing in!

  19. It sounds to me like the crux of much of this discussion has to do with Atonement theology. For many evangelicals and fundamentalists, the “penal atonement” understanding of our redemption, through Christ’s death and resurrection, is the only biblical reality. Judgment is key. God’s wrath over sin needed to be appeased before we could be reconciled to Him, and Jesus bore all of that wrath on the cross (“paid the price”) in order to change God’s orientation to humanity. But there are other Atonement understandings. The one that our denomination subscribes to was developed by a theologian of the renewal movement that swept through Scandinavia in the 1800’s, P.P. Waldenstrom. He rejected the prevailing notion that God’s wrath was satisfied by the cross because it made God the object of reconciliation and lacked scriptural support. He instead asserted that humanity, not God, was the object of the Atonement; that God was the initiator, not the recipient, of the work of reconciliation in Christ. It was out of God’s love, not His wrath, that God reconciled the world to Himself. So again, Atonement was not to appease God and render Him more gracious, but to take away humanity’s sin and render us righteous before God. This Atonement took place in Jesus. This “breath of fresh air” regarding the Atonement has been an important, helpful, renewing lifeline for many evangelicals and fundamentalists who struggled for years in their conservative, penal-oriented, total-depravity-oriented denominations, resulting in more joyful, grace-filled living.

  20. Reblogged this on Tides of the Mind and commented:
    This is such a great article!! I loved Rob bell the first time I heard him speak… Then I learned not everyone thought he was as amazing as I did. I couldn’t understand it then… I do now.

  21. All interesting stuff – but you omitted a couple of very important words from the title. Should read “In the USA”. Sad to say, the implementation of Christianity in the US is rather different from how it appears elsewhere – but in complete keeping with the nation’s mindset and culture. The best thing that could happen to Christianity in the US would be for it to be banned, church membership made a crime, Christians forbidden from holding public office. Then we’d see who was a true believer and who was there for the feel-good factor.

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  23. I actually ignore the guy. He’s pretty much exposed himself as a false teacher in bed with the world agenda…so I move on. What DOES bug me are character attacks and anger and maliciousness I’ve seen. If a heretic speaks, I note it. I say something. and I move on with my life.

    • David, who in the hell are you to call someone a heretic? How about a non reactive response like maybe Rob is right and then move on.

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