An atheist’s encounter with Rob Bell – by Ronnie Stockton

I have considered myself an atheist all my adult life.  But earlier this year I accepted an invitation to an event hosted by Greenbelt at Westminster Central Methodist Hall where the US pastor Rob Bell was speaking.

Before going to hear him, I researched a little bit on Google and Youtube. I found his style to be concise and his tone passionate and positive.  But also I was surprised to see the level of controversy that this man had caused and was further shocked to read that in some quarters he was considered a blasphemous heretic.

A heretic?  At Westminster Central Methodist Hall… I couldn’t wait!

Factional politics

What struck me about the massively negative response from some sections of the Christian community was the sense of polarity and factional politics that seemed to exist within the Church.  Rob Bell clearly represents what I see as an inclusive, caring and intellectual perspective which is in stark contrast to my image of much US evangelical Christianity, which can appear to be the shallow religion of a narcissistic, self-interested, rampantly capitalist society. Take these two contrasting quotes for instance:

“I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God”  GEORGE W. BUSH

Love frees us to embrace all of our history, the history in which all things are being made new.  Everybody is following somebody. Everybody has faith in something and somebody. We are all believers.” ROB BELL

The quote from Bush distances me from the Christian message and leaves me feeling like someone whose belief system is not only erroneous, but also totally incompatible with Christianity.  This is why I have tended to run a mile when the topic of Christianity or wider spirituality has been raised. On the other hand, the quote from Rob Bell is inclusive of all religions and atheists too – it takes me with him.  This is just one quote, but what compelled me to listen to this man was a tangible sense of his belief in the equity of humanity and the need to love.

Inspired to hear more

I have been inspired to watch many of the NOOMA videos and listen to lots of Bell’s talks on-line.  In one of them Rob Bell poses a question that went something like “If Jesus Christ returned today, would he want to see use blithely worshipping him, or would he be more content to see us living as he did, incorporating his teachings and principles into our lives?”

This simple question spoke to me more than any other prior attempts to open my eyes and mind to Christianity.  Bell also said:

“Jesus is bigger than any one religion. He didn’t come to start a new religion, and he continually disrupted whatever conventions or systems or establishments that existed in his day. He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain and name him, especially the one called “Christianity”

I was overwhelmed by the honesty and clarity of the statement and curious to further explore the fuller context of the Christian message.

So what impact has listening to Rob Bell had?

I’ve had no ‘miraculous conversion’ but I am now open to all of the mysteries and unanswerable questions that accompany the stories and parables of the Old and New Testaments.  I initially ascribed this opening up process to the power and persuasion of Rob Bell and the sense of elation that accompanied hearing ‘his’ story.

What is increasingly apparent to me though of course is that Rob Bell is talking about Jesus – thus the story that speaks to me is the story of Christ.  Before this recent stage of my journey, I positioned my atheism from the perspective of someone who does not believe in organised religion.  But now I want to explore the ties that bind my ethical beliefs to the perspective of faith.  What I’m learning is that the Christian message chimes far more tunefully with my own than I had realised.

A spokesman for a generation?

From what I witnessed that night at Westminster Central Methodist Hall, Rob Bell appears to be emerging as the spokesperson for a generation.  Along with the content of the message, the aspect of the evening that thrilled me most was the demographic of the audience, which was largely young people, who have a progressive view of politics and religion.

We live in in an age of continuous scientific development and this continues to raises doubts about all forms of faith.   Rob Bell and like-minded Christians offer a potential conduit towards the restoration of credibility for Christianity.  Furthermore, from a self-interested perspective, although not ‘a believer’, I feel more involved and included and, most importantly, open and curious towards faith and the message of Jesus.

Ronnie Stockton works for the West London Mission

33 thoughts on “An atheist’s encounter with Rob Bell – by Ronnie Stockton”

  1. Thanks for this Ronnie. What I like most about this analysis is that it shows the way that Rob Bell offers an effective link, or bridge, between the church and the outside world. I have found that his NOOMA series of DVDs, because they pose tricky questions rather than give simple answers, are by far and away the best resource to get people outside of church discussing issues of faith. Whether or not you agree with everything he says is not the point – I think Rob Bell’s work offers a much needed connection to a world which is searching for a deeper sense of justice, of meaning and a stronger basis for life. I would wish that Christians would spend the energy they use in arguing about him to better use and seek to connect those outside of church to the message of Jesus.


  2. There are many who accuse Rob Bell of ‘watering down’ or ‘false teaching’ what I have found is that sometimes you have to engage people from there standpoint rather than our own. This can leave some Christian people feeling ‘out of sorts’ its interesting that Jesus was happy to be labelled a heretic or false teacher, as long as he engaged with people. Before you can preach hell fire you need to earn the persons respect and trust otherwise it just looks like a ‘holier than thou, threatening style message based on control’

    People often say Jesus spoke about Hell more than Heaven, which is true, but Jesus spoke more about life and told stories more than He spoke about Hell. Interesting isn’t it.

    I like Rob Bell, controversies and all, I think when you look at Rob’s messages you see the hope over fear approach and He’s comfortable in his own Christianity to be able to engage with people of all different backgrounds and viewpoints.

    You can be fundamental in your beliefs without being fundamentalist…. for some their is no distinction, but with any area of life you get those who are passionate and go beyond passion into obsession, where a doctrine or viewpoint becomes a sacred cow, in one sense, the doctrine becomes a God which needs militant defense.

    I want to write a blog post myself entitled – THE CROSS HAS NO POWER I haven’t yet plucked up the courage to do it as I know the amount of hassle it will create. But here is the truth, the wooden cross Jesus died upon has no power. The power to restore mankinds relationship with God is not from a Cross, but came from the sacrifice Jesus made when He choose to die upon it. Jesus is the power not the wooden cross. When we look around the worldwide church, we could easily be confused into thinking the power of the Christian message is based upon a 2000 year old piece of wood which has long since rotted away.

    Great post….. Dean


    1. thanks Dean for your comments – very interesting thoughts. I am not equating Rob Bell with Jesus but you are right in saying that Jesus did not mind stirring up controversy and we need to be confident to engage and share and debate without resorting to the kind of violent damnation we see on-line so often. I think its amazing how the different groups in the church mirror the groups who opposed Jesus – and its a lesson to me not to be someone who just follows him when it easy to (like the crowds of palm sunday) and then desert him when times are tough (Good Friday). thanks – BTW, if you do write that post then let me know and maybe I could refer to it or have it as a guest post on my blog.


    2. We don’t look at the physical cross as some kind of “power” we look at the cross as a symbol of love and sacrifice that Jesus poured out. The symbol of the cross indeed has some power as th symbol of love, grace, mercy and kindness. That is where the ultimate sacrifice laid down his life for us. We cannot forget about the cross.


  3. Ronnie, Thanks for being so transparent with your journey. I, for one, think I need to apologize on behalf of Christians for the rancorous rhetoric and conflict surrounding Bell and his latest book. Another book that gets at the heart of this conflict, I think, is Prodigal God, by Tim Keller. He explores Jesus’ parable of the TWO lost sons in Luke 15…the younger, wilder, irreligious son and the elder, law-abiding, uber-religious son. Neither love the father for himself, but rather they love hm for what he can give them. In the case of those of us who identify more with the elder son, our tendency is to try to earn God’s love by our religiosity.

    Sometimes, that takes the form of being overprotective of our doctrine. Don’t get me wrong. I think truth is incredibly important, and doctrine is an attempt at distilling the truth. But the Bible says in Ephesians 4 that we are to “speak the truth in love.” We are only capable of doing so when we aren’t reacting to challenges out of fear…fear that the right doctrine we sometimes use to earn God’s love might be lost.

    Many of the naysayers of Bell’s book focused on the exclusivity of Jesus. That is, they focused on the Christian belief that Jesus is the only way for us to be reconciled to God. I think they are absolutely right, and if some of them only believed that deeper in their souls they would put their full trust in him instead of in their own ability to ‘get it right.’

    As the Bible says in 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear….”



  4. Ronnie,
    Thank you for being so open about your own journey. Rob Bell is a very inspiring speaker and thinker. His recent book, Love Wins, seems to have been very influenced by CS Lewis and Tom Wright (recently Bishop of Durham) but what he is able to do very brilliantly is to create space for people to ask questions for themselves and of faith.

    What is also great, although rarely outside Christian circles, commented upon is the number of people on a similar wavelength – Jim Wallis, Brian Mclaren, Carl Medearis (now he is really interesting – great friends with people like the no.2 of Hezbollah – goes around having conversations with people in the Middle East about Jesus). People looking to follow Jesus not just become a preservation society or prop up a troubled institution (although I’m a CofE vicar!).


    1. Thanks for your feedback Will. I’ve researched some of the people that you name check and I’ve found Jim Wallis to be the most inspirational to date. Some of the Carl Medearis articles make interesting reading and some of the excerpts from ‘Speaking of Jesus’ felt accessible, but somehow lacked the ‘spark’ of my encounter with Rob Bell’s various articles.

      For me though, the main gift is the discovery of the Sojourners website and learning of Jim Wallis. Many of the world views and ethical perspectives expressed on Sojourners are akin to my own and the Sojourners mission statement “to articulate the biblical call to social justice, inspiring hope and building a movement to transform individuals, communities, the church, and the world” really speaks to me. Apart from the words ‘biblical’ and ‘church’, this statement reflects my own aspirations and describes fully the motivations that inform the professional path that I have chosen. I thank you for the introduction.

      I guess that it would be fair to say that I’ve now (at the very least) conquered my tendency to ‘run a mile’ when the topic of Christianity is raised!


      1. Hey Ronnie – I feel bad – I have worked with you for a year and not fully introduced you to ‘Big Jim’ Wallis! I think he has probably been the biggest influence on my thinking over the years.


    1. Hi Ken – no sorry if my comment was confusing. I (Jon) wrote that comment in reply to Ronnie’s reply. Ronnie is ‘the atheist’ who wrote the original article that was posted on my blog. Jim Wallis has been very influential to me but Ronnie has just come across him.

      Thanks for the link and its interesting but I have to say how much I disgree with what has been written in this article – I am not surprised at such divisive name calling but for me it is simply cheap abuse. I am not surprised at people criticisng aspects of what Rob Bell and Brian McClaren say but Richard Foster! This is just hammering anyone as a heretic who stands outside of the narrow perspective of a conservative evangelical approach. The main point I get from Ronnie’s piece is that people like Rob Bell at least give a good chance of a connection for people outside the church to the message of Jesus – rather than the unattractive and destructive and judgemental approach taken by the author of the link you sent.


      1. Jon,

        While I can sympathize with your response to the link posted and the criticisms it makes is it always wrong to make criticisms of teachers and their pronouncements in the public eye? What do you make of the Apostle Paul and his rather strong statements of those who preach another gospel in Galatians 1, and his response to Peter in Galatians 2?

        I ask more in general rather than with regard to the specifics in the linked article as I have not read it yet. Is it OK to teach something which is false if it helps to make a connection with folk like Ronnie? Or can we teach the truth and still be winsome and loving towards those who differ whether it be Ronnie or Bell.


      2. Hi Paul and thanks for the comment. You’re right that it is sometimes necessary to criticise other Christian leaders – I have done it myself on this blog in my critique of Morris Cerullo –

        I think the point I am making though is that Bell gives us opportunities to connect – I don’t line up with everything that he says but his DVDs have enabled conversations with people that would not have been possible. In these conversations I sometimes say things like ‘I would put more emphasis on blah-blah than him’ or ‘I don’t completely agree with him on this’ etc. This is not about making him into a saint – but also neither do I think he is a false teacher like some have said. For example, I think his book ‘Love Wins’ goes no further than CS Lewis does in ‘The Great Divorce’ or for that matter in the Narnia books – yet Lewis is so trusted that people can overlook aspects these ‘more liberal’ aspects of his theology.

        The night we went to hear Bell speak he spoke about Jesus – this was his focus and his message delighted, challenged and inspired people. When I read the people who slate him so ungraciously (as opposed to legitimate critique) I hear is the echos of the Pharisees who were so offended by Jesus’ desire to show grace and truth to ordinary people.


      3. Jon,

        Thanks for your prompt and courteous reply. As a result of you comparing Bell with Lewis I found this article which was quite interesting

        I find Bell somewhat strange and potentially manipulative. His promotional seemed to suggest that he was a Universalist, and yet the book seemed to leave that question undecided. Was the promotional video an attempt to sell more books by suggesting something that would shock and yet wasn’t true? I am not sure that he would be a reliable guide.


      4. Thanks Paul – I will read the article and come back to you.

        I find Bell an amazing communicator and it was not until I went to do spend some time with his church that I understood better the contextual nature of his theology – because it is a very conservative area where even to go to his church is quite contraversial. It cannot be compared with anywhere in the UK really – and he is someone who is comfortable with questions. For example I would agree that the Bible’s teaching on hell is full of mystery and that many verses can be interpreted universally. I actually feel that Lesslie Newbigin answers a lot of these questions brilliantly in far more depth.

        I know Bell has weaknesses and I don’t like the whole ‘rock star’ thing – but the viciousness of those who attack him – either locally or via the internet appear to me to be completely OTT.


      5. Jon,

        Do you have a reference for Leslie Newbigin’s work? For all their faults sometimes the American bluntness can be helpful,


      6. Hi Paul – yes – sorry to reference something I have written but this is a kind of intro to his theology I did a while ago –

        I read the Bell – CS lewis article you sent – very interesting and got me thinking. I think it made some good points but I don’t think took into consideration enough the different contexts into which Bell and Lewis are operating. I think if Lewis was writing and ministering into contemporary US context he would be treated with huge suspicion. thanks for sending it to me.


      7. Jon,

        You are probably right about CS Lewis ministering into the contemporary US scene. Someone who is dead is a lot less threatening than someone who is still alive and active.


  5. You can’t quote bush on Christianity. Quote John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, C.S. Lewis or another Godly figure. Not Bush. Definitely not Bush.


  6. Hi Cory,

    Thanks for the references to Piper, Driscoll and Chandler, all of whom I have yet to access, but I’ll no doubt explore them. I chose the Bush quote mainly because of the stark contrast to the position that that Rob Bell appeared to adopt…… but the sad fact of the matter is that I CAN quote Bush on Christianity. His voice is part of the vocal roar that emanates from the (mainly US) Christian Fundamentalist movement and I would contend that sadly, this is a Christian perspective that projects itself boldly around the world and along the way attempts to outshout proclamations of forgiveness, compassion and love.

    That is why I was so inspired by the Rob Bell meeting at Westminster Methodist Hall. Here was a confident voice, a Christian who was neither an apologist nor an evangelising ‘arm-twister’.

    I fully accept that Bush and others of his ilk are by no means the majority in the Christian fold…… but until relatively recently, the only voices that reached my world were the rantings of GWB’s kind or the God Channel TV preachers who warned me of my impending doom as a sinner (unless I paid my way into eternal happiness of course). I was lucky enough to meet someone who shares Rob Bell’s confidence about his own Christian identity and he introduced me that night to Bell and since then a whole lot more. I’m grateful that this happened because now I’ve accessed swathes of new ideas around Christian teachings and principles, learning along the way that there is a confluence between some of my own beliefs and some of those that are Christian. I’m pretty confident that the new sources of enquiry that you have provided will take me further down the path, so I’m grateful to you for your response.



  7. Well Ronnie I can tell you this. Bush is not a very good example of what a Godly man in pursuit of Jesus looks like. That is why I wouldn’t take any quote from him.

    I am sorry you experience the “prosperity gospel”. It is a false gospel indeed. I never once hear Jesus’ name come up or anything about his grace mercy and sacrifice. Rather I hear more of the “pay and it’s about what we do” which is false. Look up “why I hate religion” by Mark Driscoll. God’s love for us is not dependent on us, how much we give or how “good” we are. Rather his love for us is based on what Jesus did on the cross. Jesus paid the price. He drank the cup so we didn’t have to. I encourage you to explore those men and steer away from the prosperity gospel from those on tv. They are right, hell is indeed real, but we can only escape hell through Jesus not money or anything else.

    I also encourage you to not listen to Bush on Christianity. Not very reliable even though he claims the title. Then again many claim the title and aren’t christian. I myself am not a fan of Rob Bell and disagree with much of what he teaches.


  8. Ronnie,

    Thanks for sharing. I encourage you to continue on your journey in trying to discover what the Christian gospel is all about. I have gone on that journey myself, starting about 12 years ago, and continue to do so each day.

    Cory has pointed out some good sources already. I’d like to add Scot McKnight to the list. His recent book “King Jesus gospel” seems to be promising, although I’m still working through it. Another good read, although heavier and more academical, would be “Surprised by Hope” by N.T.Wright.

    In light of your post. There are two things I’d like to note.
    1) Christianity has a certain exclusivity to it. We cannot ignore that. Reading the Scripture all the way through from Genesis to Revelation, one cannot come to another conclusion than that. Otherwise, I believe we fall into the trap Augustine warned us about many centuries ago: “If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself. – Augustine”. So ultimately one always has to work through this exclusivity somehow. How one does that is a personal struggle, which I cannot advise you on much. But consider this a “heads up” that you will encounter this decision on exclusivity sooner or later.
    2) That being said, I do think the mainline Christian society, especially here in the US, is going about demonstrating, or “preaching about” if you want, this exclusivity the wrong way. We tend to do it via “fire and brimstone” more so than in the way Christ really did this by showing compassion, care, provision, love, mercy, patience, etc. Those traits are what should set us apart as Christians here and now. And we all fall short of that, me not in the least.

    On Rob Bell then. I like the “Nooma” series, I like the general message of “Love Wins” in the sense that God’s grace should entice us to live the gospel here and now, more so than expect this “we’re saved and we’re going to have a disembodied semi-spirit existence sitting on clouds playing a harp” notion that most of us have. Especially since that message promotes a “Us vs Them” attitude on who’s going to hell and who isn’t. On the other hand, I don’t go as far as to agree with him on the universalism he seems to advocate. And I use the word “seems” since after reading the book twice, I’m still not 100% convinced that that is what he’s advocating. I’m almost closer to putting his vision to what C.S.Lewis wrote about in the “Great Divorce”. I think the premature and sometimes vitriolic reaction to Rob’s book was unfortunate and didn’t leave much room for good discussion about a renewed Christian focus on the message of the gospel I see in many other places.

    Good luck on your journey
    In Him


  9. Interesting post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. FYI it was George H.W. Bush who said that (a few decades ago), not George W. Bush.


  10. That’s correct. George W. Bush’s father made that statement when he was running for president in 1987, and it’s worth noting George H.W. Bush is neither an evangelical or a fundamentalist.


  11. Voice of a generation? No! However, Rob Bell does recognize that the Jesus of control and institutional power (the Jesus formed in modernity) is different from the Jesus of radical social and spiritual reform of postmodernity. It is a great thing that someone who has aligned himself with the atheism of the secular society. Love for all people is intrinsic within the Gospel. Control and institutional power makes love conditional but that isn’t the love of God in Jesus Christ. Salvation may indeed be something beyond recognizing the love of God and the God of love but we certainly need to emphasize the heart of a message of love and acceptance and we need people like Rob Bell to do so from a heart of love for all others. Call him what you will, ‘Voice of a generation’ or ‘Heretic’ but Jesus still meets people on the edge, left of centre and in ways that change the heart a little at at time as well as on the Damascus Road. Thanks for this!


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