Ryan Bell received a Master of Divinity degree from Andrews University and a Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary. He was a pastor for 19 years, most recently the senior pastor of the Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church until March of 2013 when he resigned his position. Beginning in January of 2014, he formally began to live for one year without God. He started a blog on this journey, “A Year Without God.” There is a documentary of this time in the works. And at the end of that year, Bell decided to keep on living without God. During an interview with NPR at the end of 2014, he said: “I think before, I wanted a closer relationship to God, and today I just want a closer relationship with reality.”
As he began his “journey” into atheism, Bell said: “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.” In effect, he would do whatever he could to enter into the world of atheism for a year. At the time, he felt it was important to clarify that he was not an atheist; at least not yet.
In an NPR interview at the end of 2014, Bell said he looked at the majority of the arguments for the existence of God and didn’t find a convincing case. “I don’t think that God exists. I think that makes the most sense of the evidence that I have and my experience.” As I write this, Bell continues on without God and hasn’t shown any signs of turning around. This last quote seems to indicate the central factor in his journey away from God: evaluating the evidence for God from the starting point of his own reason and experience.
Frankly, I think that any attempt to reason your way to a belief in the existence of God or to self-consciously live apart from God will end in a similar place. It doesn’t matter if you do so in the midst of taking a break from God or not. Christianity sees human reason as tainted—fundamentally searching for autonomy from God. That’s the story told by The Fall in Genesis 3: wanting to be wise like God. Wanting knowledge of good and evil independent of God’s counsel. Wanting your reason and experience to be the final arbiter of all things.
Bell had determined to live as if there was no God, and in the process he drifted away from God. Personally, I think his drifting began a long time before he began his year away from God. The desire for independence from God meant that when he cast off his anchors (praying, reading the Bible, etc.), the drifting just accelerated. I say this with no rancor towards the man; I don’t know him, but I do know myself. And I know that if I tried to live my life independent of God—to cast off my own anchors—I would drift too.
The writer of Hebrews knew of this danger and cautioned his readers to be careful: “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Hebrews 2:1). Again in verse 3:12, he warns that an evil, unbelieving heart will lead you away from God. In Hebrews 3:12 and 13 the warning is twofold: to not lose your faith and to encourage one another so that your heart is not hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (Hebrews 3:12-13)
The author of Hebrews had just quoted Psalm 95 in verses 3:7-11 and now applies the situation of the wilderness generation of Israel described there to the circumstances of his readers. Verses 3:15-19 directly connected this section of Hebrews to the warning given in Psalm 95. Verse 3:15 repeated the caution of verse 3:7 and Psalm 95, if “you hear God’s voice, don’t harden your hearts” as you did on the day of testing at Meribah.
The Israelites had accused God of abandoning them, of bringing them into the desert to die of thirst. Even though they experienced what God did for them in the past, their reason failed to see how He would provide water for them and their cattle. “Is the Lord among us or not?” So at the command of the Lord, Moses struck the rock at Horeb and water came out (Exodus 17:1-7).
The progression in Hebrews 3:12-13 is from a heart that is evil (sinful) and unbelieving, to one that turns away from God and is ultimately hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. David Allen noted in his commentary on Hebrews that this is not a passive turning away. Rather it was deliberate disobedience. “This is the antithesis of the spirit of those who draw near to God” (Hebrews 10:22). In Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, Paul Tripp said this progression was the result of indwelling sin.
On the cross and in the resurrection, Christ broke the POWER of sin over us (Rom. 6:1-14), but the PRESENCE of sin remains. Sin is being eradicated within us, and this will continue until we are sin-free. But while sin remains, we must remember that sin is deceitful. Sin blinds—and guess who gets blinded first? . . . Since each of us still has sin remaining in us, we will have pockets of spiritual blindness.
To illustrate the importance of the community of believers in dealing with our pockets of spiritual blindness, imagine a circle of people sitting in a room with several posters on each wall. Then one person is asked to describe the poster hanging directly behind them without turning to look at it. They can’t—because the poster is in their blind spot. But any of the other individuals can help them, because the poster is not in their blind spot. That is why the writer of Hebrews encourages us to watch out for and encourage one another. We all have spiritual blind spots that we can’t see into. And sin is likely to approach us within our blind spot. Remember it is deceptive.
Along with David Allen, I agree that it would be reading too much into the words “evil, unbelieving heart, leading you away from the living God” to see this as having the sense of apostasy. Once I taught a course on biblical counseling at a small Christian institute. Theologically, both myself and several other staff members were theologically Reformed. At the annual board meeting for the institute, the board voted to not renew the contracts for all Reformed-leaning faculty. Reportedly, one board member said: “We have purged the evil from among us.” Christians are sometimes too quick to see individuals with theological beliefs at variance from theirs as “unbiblical” or “apostate.” As David Allen commented on the passage:
The context does not define what the author intended here. “Taking the Greek term apostēnai as it is used here and burdening it with the theological baggage of apostasy is premature. . . . It is better to interpret it broadly as distrust, disobedience, or disloyalty, and not attempt to define the exact scope of the warning.
So instead of entering into an Arminian (he lost his salvation), Calvinist (he never really was converted) debate over Ryan Bell and his current state of professed atheism, I think I’d rather pray to the God he doesn’t believe in to make Himself known. For those who do believe in God, there is still hope for Bell and others who demonstrate distrust for God in their life. The author of Hebrews declares:
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12-13)