Monday morning, 8 a.m PST. My phone rings. It’s Rob Bell calling from New York City where he’s headed for Central Park to take a stroll with his wife between media appointments. “How’s my favorite heretic?” I ask. Before I can turn on my recording device, he’s already answering. This transcript picks up a few moments later, as he’s telling me what he’s recently discovered is the true definition of the word “heretic.”
Our “interview” is really a conversation between longtime friends. I’ve known Rob for nearly 23 years. We went to college together. He is one of my favorite people. None of this is a secret as I’ve written about Rob and my admiration for him in the past. Which is why you won’t see a traditonal “news” story or straight-forward book review from me about Love Wins. I am aware of my own biases, which is why what I’ve written publicly about Love Wins and the ensuing controversy surrounding it have appeared as columns — works of opinion and commentary. Something to keep in mind as you read the transcript below. The transcript has been very, very lightly edited for clarity.
It comes from the Greek, “hairetikos,” that means, “able to choose.” That’s literally what it means. So everybody is forced to believe or think or subscribe to a particular thing, but there are those who are actually able to choose. Hahahahah. How awesome is that?
How are you doin? How is Vasco?
He’s good. I just got back from dropping him off at school.
Oh my goodness. Greatest thing in the world, dropping kids off at school.
It’s my favorite time of the day, those 10 or 15 minutes in the morning. I just love it.
I picture you driving along the ocean, with sea birds circling.
We drive down the big hill, toward the ocean, and then back up another hill to his school, which is called, “Top of the World.”
Oh my word.
He can see the mountains where he goes skiing and he can see the mountains on the other side. It’s pretty grand.
Oh my word. That’s great.
So, are you doin’ alright?
I’m doing great. We had a party, Mars Hill through a Love Wins release party last night and several thousand people showed up. It was unbelievable. Unbelievable. Cheering for a book they haven’t read yet – that level of like excitement. I mean, some of them had read it, but it was unbelievable. So I’m sort of floating along.
Oh good. I’m glad you feel you’re being supported because I know you have a lot of support in the circles we know in common, some of whom have read the book and others who are champing at the bit to read the book.
Hahahahahah. That’s great. Wow!
Last week I was walking through the airport in Atlanta and I realized I had your book hanging out of the back of my bag and I thought, Maybe I should hold on to that just in case somebody sees it and tries to snatch it from me.
That’s everybody’s dream is that you’ve created something that people want to snatch out of other people’s bags.
Yeah. As a person who is a writer and deals in ideas, it’s great and I’m not sad for you in the response to this book, even though some of the personal or theological attacks are upleasant. You’ve made a beautiful thing.
Apparently some people are on the marketing team – they just don’t know it.
Hahahahha. I love it.
I want to be mindful of your time, Rob, so how much time do you have for me?
I’m walking up Fifth Avenue to Central Park with my lovely wife – a stroll. She’s about to walk out of a shop….
You’ve written a really beautiful and powerful book.
Oh wow, thank you. You’re too kind.
I’m not being kind I’m being honest…It’s exactly what so many people need to hear. In my mind it’s a love note to Jesus and about Jesus.
That comes through very very clearly. You’d really need to sort of have your head up your butt to interpret it any other way, but ya know, there are plenty of people who seem to enjoy that perspective on life.
Yeah, well, some people have already made up their minds. And that’s to say, Listen – you’ve already made up your minds. So, whatever conversation we’re having here is kind of silly because you’ve already made up your minds.
Exactly. My sense is that you didn’t write the book for them.
No. I wrote it for people who are thirsty.
Yeah, well there’s a lot of water in that rock, right?
Yes. Well said.
So, my take-away from the book is that Jesus really doesn’t matter because we can believe in Hubba-Bubba or the Tooth Fairy or Conan O’Brien and we all get to the same place eventually. Is that right?
Hahahaha. Oh, ya know, I wish I had that succinct summary at the beginning – I could have been so much clearer. I wouldn’t have needed 200 pages. Hahahahaah.
Ok, so that’s not the take-away. What is the take-away? I’m gonna pretend like I don’t know.
I begin with the world that we live in right now and the simple observation that we can choose heaven and hell right now. I see lots of hell around me all the time. We all do. From greed to abuse to rape to genocide to exploitation of people who are vulnerable, we see this around us all the time.
And then I see people choosing peace and joy all the time, and experiencing extraordinary peace that transcends anything you can get your mind around. I’ve sat with people who are days away from dying of cancer and they are connected with a peace and a joy that is so extraordinarily real it’s almost like you can see it in the room.
So I begin there. I begin with this life, with what we see around us and I begin that way because that’s how Jesus talked. He talked about realities that are right here right now. And so my assumption is that love wins. Love creates freedom. Love always demands freedom. And so we are free to choose. And this freedom has consequences. You can resist and reject this love, both in your own experience of it and in the ways in which you refuse to extend it to others, and you can receive it and pass it on to others, which seems to me to be the center of what Jesus keeps bringing up. ‘Love God. Love others.’
So love demands freedom. Freedom has consequences and then it also creates all sorts of possibilities. And so my experience has been that the love of God that Jesus came to give us and show us and teach us about, when you say yes to it, all sorts of things happen that you could never have dreamed up on your own.
Freedom and consequences and possibilities. And if we can choose these realities now, that Jesus came to offer us and show us, then I assume that when you die, you can continue to choose these realities because love can’t co-opt the human heart’s ability to decide.
But after you die, we are now firmly in the realm of speculation.
And I think it’s important for us to start here and now with what we can see and know and observe, and be honest about what is in fact speculation.
I think it’s important to point out that in the Hebrew consciousness out of where the Christian faith flows, Earth is where the action is. And that for millions and millions of people in our modern world, a fundamental Christian message they were taught is about evacuation. The highest form of spirituality is escape, essentially.
When I was reading the book again, I kept thinking of that line from a U2 song – “We’re packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been” – and is that heaven? Is that the kingdom of God? What are we talking about? And as you said, this is totally speculation even though we get glimpses of it in scripture: Where are we going after we die?
I think it’s important to point out that, in the Hebrew consciousness, out of which the Christian faith flows, it was always Earth is where the action is and that for millions and millions of people in our modern world, the fundamental Christian message they were taught is about evacuation. The highest form of spiritual practice is escape, essentially.
That’s been hard wired into their consciousness. Jesus is how you get somewhere else. And that is not the central narrative of the scriptures, which over and over and over refer to this place as our ‘home.’ The central story is a God who loves the world, calls it good, and has set about a restoration/renewal/redemption/reconciliation/rescue effort. (I’m trying to think of more words that start with ‘R’.)
It’s a very, very important distinction because it leads to all sorts of things. How you understand that arc, if you believe that the real issue is just how not to get left behind, then why work to care for the earth? Why make a big deal about how many nuclear bombs we’re stockpiling?
And that’s why these issues do matter. Heaven and hell can be these kind of vague, esoteric sort of things that Bible people do when they have time on their hands, which actually have huge consequences for how you live and move in the world right now.
I was thinking about the person who passed you the note about how Gandhi is burning in hell…
They actually attached it to the artwork so that everybody could see it.
Sweet! I thought about when we talk about heaven and hell and who goes where … I heard Archbishop Tutu speak a few years ago in Chicago and he was talking about his homeslice the Dalai Lama and how people ask him whether the Dalai Lama will go the heaven and he’s like, ‘Duh. Whatta you think? Do you really think that man doesn’t know God?’ I thought about you being on the stage with them a few years back when one of them tickled the other … These conclusions that you’ve come to were obviously gathered, at least in part, from a lot of study and serious analysis of scripture and first-century Judaism and all that great scholarship, but I wonder whether it was shaped also or perhaps a catalyst for it was people in the world who you encountered like Tutu and the Dalai Lama …
You see the spirit of God in them so very clearly, but they come wrapped in a label that we’re told is not where God is supposed to be.
Yes. Oh Yes. For sure shaped by that. And my experience is that lots and lots and lots of Christians (and people in general) have had experiences with people who the categories that they have been given – this person would be out, excluded, not part of the team, however you want to say it. And you have experiences where your labels get all screwed up because the people who are supposed to be the real Jesus-followers don’t seem to be much like Jesus. And other people seem to be far more like Jesus.
So, yes, it’s deeply shaped by travel and long meals with all sorts of fascinating people. But then, taking me back into the Jesus tradition, Jesus is terribly inexclusive. (I made up a word, ‘inexclusive.’) He’s really really exclusive – ‘I am the way, the truth and the light; no one comes to the Father but by me;…If you’ve seen me you’ve seen God.’ And also in the same breath is extraordinarily inclusive – ‘I’ve got sheep who are not of this flock; I will be lifted up and draw all people to myself; I’ll return at the renewal of all things.’ And at one point there’s even that line, ‘Oh they’re not against us? Oh, then they’re for us.’ So there is a paradox at the heart of who Jesus is. He is at once incredibly exclusive and incredibly inclusive. And you can’t resolve that tension, which his followers have been trying to do for thousands of years.
So you can affirm his exclusivity and create and leave all sorts of space for the surprise of heaven and it’s ok. You can do that. And you’re not betraying him.
I think that’s the real issue here — that for so many people it’s either or.
I think it’s interesting that you bring up that verse — I am the way the truth and the life — because six years ago, when I interviewed Barack Obama about his faith, that verse came up. And in that interview, which is still the longest he’s ever given about his faith, we talk about that verse. And his responses are regularly used to, depending on the reader’s perspective, either “prove” that he is, in fact, a Christian believer or to “prove” that he is absolutely not a Christian believer. I’ve long thought that our “answer” to that paradox lies in how we hear that verse. And our answers are what get us into or, occasionally, out of “trouble” with critics. So you’re in good company.
I think that when how you answer a question becomes a litmus test for whether or not you are a follower of Jesus, we have lost the plot.
Sometimes the real thing at hand is we are talking about fundamentally different categories here. If you and I go to the symphony, and then our friend afterwards asks us, ‘Did you win?’ We’re like what???
So I think it’s important to point out that when Christians sort of develop their litmus test questions that’s lovely and has its place and can be very important, but Jesus didn’t primarily define his followers by how they answer particular questions. That sort of does great injustice to the fullness of his calling to be a disciple and to live in the world a certain way.
It’s easy to get suckered into discussions and debates and categories that you end up being co-opted by and suddenly you’re defending against that or trying to work your way out of that and they were never categories that were Jesus sort of categories to begin with.
I never got the impression from reading the Gospel that Jesus was preparing us for some sort of sword drill.
Hahahahah. That’s a great line.
Thank you. You can use it. … You say in my favorite chapter in the book that ‘The Good News is better than that.’ Some people have what they believe is the Good News but if you peel it back it’s something uglier than that. The idea that in our lives, God is the God of unfettered grace, mercy and love and infinite second chances, but that when we die it’s – ‘Oh, sorry. Too late. You had your chance.’ And that those who didn’t choose correctly in life are condemned to eternal suffering and pain. It’s a schizophrenic idea of God that juxtaposition seems untenable.
It’s psychologically unbearable. No psyche can handle that. It’s devastating.
Like having an abusive or alcoholic parent. The inconsistencies are crazy making.
Can you tell me the short version of where the slogan, “love wins,” comes from.
The slogan started with a sermon that I did – something about the Jesus way versus the Caesar way and that the resurrection was a vindication of the Jesus way over and against the Caesar way.
There was this dominant, violent coercive power that was crushing everybody in its sight and Jesus comes along to offer a whole other way of understanding power and offers himself. And that the resurrection was a vindication of a whole new way of understanding how to be in the world.
So it was some long historical Jesus-resurrection-Caesar-type sermon. And I talked about the practicality of how the universe actually works and so then I made these stickers up and at the end of the service I handed them out – these Love Wins stickers. That was years ago and somehow the phrase just exploded.
I remember going to see a band at a local club and there was a serious heckler that would not leave the band alone and they invited him to the front of the crowd – it was one of those moments where the whole audience went totally silent. I was like I cannot believe they’re not only acknowledging this heckler but the singer invited him up to the front of the stage’s barricade area and he says, ‘I just wanna tell you right now, I just wanna tell you right now: Love wins.’ It was one of those moments – I can’t even explain. I think that band is at SXSW – the Bangups they’re called. They’re awesome.
So the phrase had just extraordinary traction.
I’ve had a sticker on my car for years. Strangers in traffic often give me the thumbs up or yell asking where they can get one.
Yeah, so I’ve had this content knocking around my head and heart for about five years – knowing it was a book. And I thought, oh the book’s called this or the book’s called that – and then all of a sudden what I was actually trying to get at was the freedom of choice and that a lot of questions when you begin with God is love a lot of questions about heaven and hell and who goes where … God gives us what we want. That’s how love works. Love always allows us to choose.
And then I was like, Oh. I already have the title. I’ve had the title for years.
It was perfect. One of the other points in the book that’s really stayed with me is when you go back to the parable of the workers in the vineyard and there’s one who’s been there all day, and the one who’s been their part of the day and the one who comes in toward the end of the day and the boss, God, pays them all the same. And the first two are like, ‘Hey, hold on a minute, that’s not fair!’ That seems to resonate through the people who say death bed conversions are cheap or false, or how could it be a possibility that Hitler had a change of heart and is in heaven because that doesn’t seem “fair.” But God says, ‘What do you care? Didn’t I treat you fairly?”
“Are you envious because I’m generous?” [God says.]
A couple of things are true there that I think it’s important to point out. Like when it comes to the Hitler question or Quaddafi or whoever is the bad guy of the moment, I think it is important to affirm the human longing for justice.
There is deep within each of us a profound longing for justice, that those who oppress the weak would be held accountable. Know what I mean? So when it comes to Hitler and ‘he just can’t get away with that,’ it’s like Amos – ‘Let justice roll like a river.’ There’s a long tradition of very holy people who longed for the world to be restored, repaired, made right and that that would involve justice and judment.
So I think it’s important to affirm that longing. The problem is it becomes ‘those bad people,’ know what I mean? That person over there who has failed to love their neighbor. The problem becomes when we place the evil people who have oppressed their neighbor over there and don’t recognize our own category and need for grace.
I think that’s the thing that really really throws people off. People talk about hell and judgment, but underneath it all, it’s just a giant mechanism to get them off the hook.
And I think that’s what people smell in our culture. The people who talk the loudest about hell and who’s going there, it’s actually something in us – our spirit – says, ‘Wait wait wait. This is about a bunch of other things. This is a wonderful way to avoid your own contribution to the mess.’
In the book I talk about how a lot of people pick up on, I think, the fact that hell feels like people saying, essentially, Jesus talked about grace but those people over there, who seem to be having a good time, they’re going to get theirs. It’s payback for my life now. And that’s where you’re like, wait. That’s not the [point of] eternal life.
Tell me again about the definition of ‘heretic.’
Well, if you go to Etymonline.com, it’s roots are in the Greek word which means ‘able to choose.’ A friend of mine said to me the other day, ‘By the way, do you know what the defnition of ‘heretic’ actually means? It means something really amazing.’ So I looked it up while we were talking on the phone and I think we laughed for a half an hour about it.
So, you’re fully a heretic, then. Aren’t we all?
I think one of the most lethal aspects of that word is that it ends discussions rather than starts them. It packs a lot of violence. And that’s why I think it’s so dangerous. It ends discussion and it’s holding hands with violence.
It’s polarizing, it’s stultifying. Well, it can be all of those things. Maybe it’s time to reclaim the word’ heretic’?
I think we’re going to head over to Strawberry Fields now.
One of my favorite places in the world. I always try to leave a rose. The morning after our wedding, when we had stayed at the Plaza Hotel the night before leaving on our honeymoon in Ireland, I brought some of my roses from the wedding down and left them on the ‘Imagine’ mosaic. It’s a beautiful place – sad and happy at the same time.
I’m passing a bunch of school kids. We’re in a tunnel. It’s a group of prep school kids all in tartan plaid uniforms and quilted North Face knee-length jackets. Oh my word. Ok, when we were freshmen…
Yeah, so when we were ‘kids,’ did you envision what you might do when you grew up and did it look anything like this?
Ummm, I distinctly remember having something nuclear within me and having no idea what that meant or how to express it. I remember in a sculpting class realizing I couldn’t make the clay do what I wanted it to do with my hands. I couldn’t translate what was in me into the clay, and this frustration that there were things in me that I couldn’t figure out how to get them out in their proper form.
I do remember that. A profound passion and restlessness in equal measure. And I think the first time in the band, the first time we ever performed, I had written these songs and then we shared them with people, and something within me felt like I was tapping into who I actually was. It was like meeting myself for the first time. And then the first time I preached, I felt like I had come home.
It was …yeah …to this day, seriously, talking about it, I just stumble over myself because of how holy it was.
I know a bit of what you’re talking about…I’ve never felt more loved than when I realized I was doing exactly what I was created to do. I for one was not remotely surprised that you ended up doing this sort of thing. I think I was more surprised that you ended up pastoring a huge church, but the fact that you are continuing to express this prophetic call that you had when you were 18 that I saw way back then – because, ya know, I’m an oracle that way – I’ve been following what you’ve been doing and obviously your ministry has meant a lot to me and the books you’ve written and the art you’ve created. But this – this message – to me, is so clearly one of the reasons you were sent to walk among us right now. It’s so clearly you and it’s so clearly God. I’m just happy to be a witness to it. And I’m really happy to be able to hand everyone I know a book and say, ‘This is how much God loves you.’ So thank you, Rob.
Well, thank you. I cannot tell you how many of my friends like you say the exact same thing. I don’t even know how to explain it. From the very first draft, reading sections of chapters out loud, and there was this overwhelming gut-level reaction of, ‘Yeah. This is it. Just keep going, just keep going. Keep going and enjoy it.’ So that means more than I can explain.
You’re welcome. You really reclaimed something for me as well, in the chapter where you describe kneeling next to the Judge and your mom when you were a little kid, saying the ‘sinner’s prayer.’ Cuz I had the same experience, except my mom was in the kitchen making tea and I was watching Jimmy Swaggart on television.
Ohhhh. That’s awesome.
Yes. Because God has an amazing sense of humor. But when you ‘become a Christian’ when you’re 10 and then life happens after that and it’s messy, it’s hard to look back on that sometimes and feel like it was authentic and still has the real meaning it had when I was younger. But the way in which you express it reclaimed it for me and I’m sure it’s going to do that for a lot of other people – affirming the experience of the Holy no matter what age you are or how it comes.
Yes. “I had that sense that the book should end after all of the places the book goes, it’s important to end by affirming that Jesus comes to you in all kinds of ways and it’s all good. It’s all OK.
The book begins by deconstructing that and I think it was very important to put it all back together again at the end.
Do you have a favorite part/passage/thought/phrase in the book?
I like that whole series of observations about how people are saved/redeemed/validated/affirmed/rescued in the Bible, in maybe the first full chapter. ‘And then in this passage…’ That feels like lift-off. When I first thought, well, if you were just reading this for the first time and asked, whatever the thing is how do you get in? What does Jesus say to, ‘Good. That’s what I’m looking for.’ It’s the most obvious sort of question but I’d never seen it just sort of listed.
You can’t help but just go, Wow. It’s almost like it’s so simple, that it’s revolutionary.
That’s one of the main things that started the book. Ok, that deserves a lifetime of exploration because that opens up everything.
Do you plan to actively try to engage someone like John Piper and some of the other folks who have been particularly loudhailers in criticizing you and the book?
(We get disconnected. A few seconds later he calls back.)
I’m at a roasted almond stand now.
Tell me that last question again?
I set out to try and tell the millions of people who are compelled with Jesus or who have never heard of Jesus or who can’t swallow the package they’ve seen about Jesus. They can’t do it. So that’s what I’m about. I’m interested in painting the most beautiful possibly compelling pictures and images and metaphors and stories and explanations that will put Jesus in language for a world that desperately needs to hear it.
I am happy to have a conversation with anybody, but defending what I’m doing or trying to convince other people of its validity, isn’t my calling. And that is precious energy that could be spent doing the thing that I am here to do.
So it’s no offense — I don’t have any anger, I don’t have any bitterness, I don’t have some grudge of any sort. And I’m not at all closed to such things, but it isn’t what gets me up in the morning and it isn’t why God put me here.
Amen to that.
My wife often says, you cannot take people where they don’t want to go.
Ya know, Kierkegaard says a saint is a person who ‘wills the one thing.’ And I think that he was on to something with these people around us who focus on the few things that God did, in fact, ask them to do. And they just do those and it’s very powerful. I take that very seriously.
And by the way, I’m not trying to be a saint. I don’t want to cast myself as a saint, here. Let me back up.
Kristen has this joke that my life motto is, ‘I love everybody and you’re next.’
Yes. I know.
So I assume with everybody that if we sat down and had a meal, we would become friends and discover all sorts of fascinating things about each other. I live with that basic assumption.
And what a wonderful way to live. Some might even call it “Jesusy.”