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Former Pastor: If there is a God, does he even make a difference?

There is much to learn from Ryan Bell, former pastor, and current “Speaker, Author, Teacher, Activist at the Intersection of Faith, Justice and the Common Good” – as he describes himself.  A passion for learning and doing well emanates from every effort of this forty-plus ‘religious nomad.’  Seemingly that longing to know has shaped Bell all his life, drawing him to question and strive for excellence in many ways.  Under his leadership, the Hollywood Adventist Church won an “Innovative Church of the Year award.”  It also propelled him into a faith crisis and the public eye; hearing his heart may save lives.

Despite his public recognition and even success, unrest with the status quo brought Bell into conflict with his church leadership that eventually led to a request for his resignation.   A man whose very identity interwove with the church, Bell found himself wandering in a tangle of doubt.  “I have struggled to relate to the church and, if I’m honest, God.  For the next 12 months I will live as if there is no God. I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration, refer to God as the cause of things or hope that God might intervene and change my own or someone else’s circumstances.”  His 12 month journey ended as 2015 began; his resolve to live without God continues.

While the headlines blaze “Former Pastor Embraces Atheism,” the truth is a bit more complex.  Bell explains that he is a humanist first and an agnostic atheist second.  He is no longer sure there is a God—or if that even matters.  Bell feels his emotional and intellectual energy is more wisely directed to living with integrity and in right relationship with others and nature.  In fact, he summarizes the conclusion of his trek saying, “I am not doing a victory lap.  I count this a loss…intellectual and emotional.”

The truth in Bell’s story resonates deep in my heart for I believe he is a voice crying out to churches filled with people who only know God with their head—not their hearts.  Our church pews are littered with ‘walking’ dead; too many people have mistaken religion and church as God. The churched-dead drink deeply of poisonous lies such as ‘God is (just) human nature writ large’ or ‘Humanity created God’ when disillusionment sets in.  Nothing but the real God ever satisfies!  Bell speaks to that, too, when he says, “I would love for there to be a God.”  Good News, Mr. Bell and other questioners:  There is a God!  Christians never need fear asking questions—but must also remember true knowledge comes from God.

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Bell shut himself off from the source of knowledge in his year-long search, determined not to pray or read His word.  He chose, instead, atheist manifestos and humanist writings.  “The relentless search for knowledge and truth” Bell found in the atheist community is not new; it is the same nature that first ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil.  God promises that those who search for HIM with all their heart will find Him.  The key is that the search must be focused on finding Him, knowing His character.  Knowledge is a simple by-product.

Of his Year Without God, Bell says, “I didn’t really notice any difference.” That presents a chilling truth to me for many who faithfully serve the church:  they already live without God.  Bell simply made a conscious choice to honestly say what he already lived.   A neighboring pastor contacted Mr. Bell after he announced his decision to continue ‘life without God’ and said, “I have the utmost confidence you will end up in the right place.”  He certainly has a greater chance now that the pretending is done.  If you simply have religious rituals that make you feel comfortable and safe, I encourage you to embrace Ryan Bell’s question:  Assuming there is a God, does God make a difference in the world?  Then avoid Bell’s error:  Seek your answer from God, not those who never met Him.

About Billie Jo

Billie Jo is wife to Craig and mom to Rusty and Riesa. Formerly employed in the human service industry, the past fifteen years have been dedicated to homeschooling. She is a freelance writer for a number of print and internet publications. She is also passionate about serving in the community. She works in a GED preparation ministry and a community-based servant program that provides opportunities for youth to serve others. It is passion for the love of Jesus and His transforming work that motivates her writing and serving. "I love to see God at work in the lives of others and this is the way I see best."

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25 comments

  1. Lili

    Excellent article, Billie Jo! I love the comparisons between dishonestly pretending to live like a Christian vs honestly admitting to not living like a Christian. So sad that one could have salvation at their fingertips but miss it altogether. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Lisa

    Love the end of your article–seek God Himself, don’t look to those who have never known Him to find Him. I certainly hope this man will truly find Him. Our message must be first about a relationship with our Creator, not about church attendance and works. Sometimes, this gets muddled.

    Thanks for pointing to this truth!

  3. He is his own god now. That’s how it goes sometimes. You hit the nail right on the head that he never had God at all. As I read this I thought to myself, if I did that I would die of sadness. Even now tears fill my eyes at the thought of living without my precious Jesus. I cannot bear to think of it any longer. Thanks for this Billie Jo. We should pray for him, I know.

  4. Thanks, all. Lili, I think many are more deceived than dishonest. They don’t even know it’s a lie. Lisa, I didn’t realize how many didn’t know the difference until I came to the Bible belt. There’s no pressure to go to church in the northeast…you go because you believe or you don’t go at all. Sonay, I’m with you; it would break my heart to walk away from Jesus. Those trials of life that force you to reach the place of Job, ‘Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.’ are a precious trust, I think. Again, thanks partners!

  5. Amelia

    Playing church and knowing God are as different as red and blue. So when he stopped playing church, he realized he had nothing left…he didn’t really knew God. I couldn’t walk away from God even if I wanted to because there’s no me without Him. Great article Billie Jo

  6. Melinda

    Great job on this very difficult subject. It breaks my heart to think that one who was lead a flock was wandering so aimlessly that he actually felt he needed to walk away from God.
    Life is already difficult I can’t imagine living it without Jesus.
    I pray that God will somehow use this man’s ‘journey’ to open our eyes to the truth of our deep need of Him.

    • Thank you. I had a friend attending a church with a pastor who continued though he told her Jesus never came out of the tomb. How does one live with that degree of contradiction? It would destroy me. We are united in the prayer for God to use Bell’s journey, Melinda! I am sure He will.

  7. John Clark

    Yes. People mistake real Christianity for going to church. Some don’t know what they believe, and some don’t even read their Bibles. My pastor said this morning that it is possible for people to go to church all of their lives and not know that Jesus is the Son of God. Like you said, too many, don’t see the difference between church and a relationship with Jesus. If the Church was operating like it did in the Book of Acts, it would definitely be making a difference.

  8. Renee

    This is a well written article that speaks truth and represents Ryan’s opinion and journey summary in a fair manner. You made so many valid points. There are so many “dead men/women walking” in churches or even churches that are dying because they are not seeking God for who He is, but they are seeking something to meet their own needs. God doesn’t need us. He is God. We need Him to serve a greater purpose than serving ourselves. Thank you for pointing out the truth.

  9. Thanks, John and Renee…the whole team really. You guys are the best. John, you’ll like this quote from my morning: ‘The book of Acts wouldn’t have been written if the Church didn’t ACT.’

  10. Joel

    Billie Jo,

    Thanks for writing this. I think you presented this situation perfectly! Thanks so much for sharing. God bless.

  11. Billie Jo, my heart goes out to young adults today. So many are wandering after they leave church youth groups, still testing the waters for who is real, what is real, and questions about who they are and is there anyone who really cares. I like to encourage youth pastors to continue in relationship with high school seniors who age out of youth group. They need us, not our meetings.

  12. Stephanie Hanouw
    Stephanie Hanouw

    Nicely done, Billie Jo. Yes, it is a sad case indeed. I do agree that seeking answers about God one needs to go to God. I think that was a very important point you made in your article. Turning away from the source of knowledge to find knowledge is, well, foolish. I would have to judge his heart (which I can’t) to know for sure where he is coming from, but God can and does and will do so righteously in the end. Hopefully the man turns around and pursues the Truth more diligently.

    • I read in Proverbs yesterday about care for the heart and the paths trod. I thought how Mr. Bell would have so benefited from those words of warning. I have a picture in my dining room of a sheep dog calling for help for a stranded weak lamb…the landscape is barren and vultures are in the background. We must be those sheep dogs, crying out in prayer to the Shepherd. He already knows but the lambs need hope. 🙂

  13. John Clark

    Someone should ask him the question, “If there is no God then why are millions of Christians being persecuted, imprisoned, and tortured for refusing to deny their faith?” People are not going to do that if there is nothing to put faith in.

  14. That guy was just a “pastor” to begin with since not one SDA is acknowledged by God since they call Him a liar by denying hell. Plus, even if he was a pastor in a biblical denomination, then he was never a believer, let a lone a pastor, since those that deny Yeshua coming in the flesh never were with us in the first place. (1 John 2:19,22) It’s one thing to fall away. But to eventually question His existence. That’s not falling away. That’s never truly believing in the first place.

  15. Greg

    Billie Jo,
    Excellent writing.If you do not know God it really makes you think. I hope Mr. Bell comes to know the one true and loving God. Very Good article and what a comfort to know-God is only a breath away!

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    in the dawn, because i love to learn more and more.

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