Christian author's book sparks charges of heresy
Rob Bell is under fire for his latest book before it even hits the shelves.
March 1st, 2011
06:00 AM ET

Christian author's book sparks charges of heresy

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Rob Bell, a pastor and author who has achieved rock star status in the Christian world, is preaching a false gospel, his critics say. And some of those critics are Christian rock stars in their own right.

The pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Bell has authored a book called Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, which ignited a firestorm of controversy over the weekend, weeks before it arrives in bookstores.

On Saturday, in a blog post on the popular Christian website The Gospel Coalition, Justin Taylor blasted Bell's new book, out March 29, for teaching "false doctrine":

I’m glad that Rob Bell has the integrity to be lay [sic] his cards on the table about universalism. It seems that this is not just optimism about the fate of those who haven’t heard the Good News, but (as it seems from below) full-blown hell-is-empty-everyone-gets-saved universalism.

Universalism, in its broadest terms, preaches that everyone goes to heaven and that there is no hell. Critics say it represents a break from traditional Christianity, which they say holds that heaven and hell are very real places. In most Christian circles, universalism is a dirty word.

Taylor's post was quickly tweeted by several prominent pastors, including John Piper and Mark Driscoll, connected to the Gospel Coalition, a coalition of theologically conservative evangelical churches, and a full-blown theological controversy was on. By Monday, Taylor's response post had racked up a quarter million hits.

Other bloggers, meanwhile, are calling Bell an outright heretic.

Bell is not the first prominent Christian pastor to be recently accused of wading into theologically troubled waters. Bishop Carlton Pearson, once a mentee of famed Pentecostal televangelist Oral Roberts, has been run out of two churches and branded a heretic for preaching what he says is a gospel of inclusion with broad universalist themes.

Last year, Brian McLaren - a popular Christian author and a former pastor - was accused of breaking with Christian orthodoxy and delving headlong into universalism in his book A New Kind of Christianity.

But it's rare that theological arguments become top ten trending topics on Twitter, as Rob Bell did on Saturday.

“To be honest, it was a pretty rough weekend,” Taylor said in a phone interview. The 34-year-old heads the editorial content for Crossway, a Christian publishing company in Wheaton, Illinois.  Taylor he says his blog expresses his personal opinion not the opinion of the coalition.

"We’re talking about the big things here, things that have been historically defined as orthodox, " he said. "I have a high degree of confidence in what God is saying and what we can understand."

Though many things that separate Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians, “this isn’t one of them," Taylor said. "We’ve historically agreed on many things, the person of Christ, heaven and hell. This isn’t a peripheral academic debate. What Rob Bell is talking about gets to the heart of Christianity.”

Taylor has not read Bell's forthcoming book in its entirety. His blog post was in response to the description released by Bell publisher HarperOne and a promotional video that features Bell.

"Rob Bell hasn’t sinned against me personally,” Taylor said, which is why he did not go to Bell before making his comments public. Instead, Taylor said, Bell's book represents a clear example of false teaching.

In the promotional video Bell refers to the nonviolent Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu, and asks, "Gandhi's in hell? He is?"

"And someone knows this for sure?" Bell continues. "Will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell? And if that's the case how do you become one of the few? "

The video follows a trend in Bell's career as a pastor: he has long asked tough theological questions and challenged traditional answers. The short promotional video raises lots of questions without offering definitive answers.

"What we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like," Bell says in it. " The good news is that love wins."

Those lines raised eyebrows for Taylor and others. "It is not preaching the gospel as found in the New Testament," Taylor said. "The New Testament is pretty clear if someone preaches a false gospel… that we are to reject that and have nothing to do with them."

For all his hipster leanings - including black rimmed glasses - Bell has a traditional pedigree. He went to Wheaton College, the Harvard of Christian schools, and later graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity.

But the Mars Hill Bible Church, which Bell founded, is not attached to any denomination. Were it attached to one - the Presbyterian or Catholic church, say - his book and video could raise eyebrows in the hierarchy and might lead to a church trial that could result in Bell's expulsion.

"A larger denomination would take his credentials and excommunicate him like they did to me,” Bishop Pearson told CNN.

By Sunday evening, Pearson was getting sent articles about the Bell flap. He said it reminded him of his days as a charismatic leader of a big church in the largest Pentecostal denomination. His questioning of hell from the pulpit led to his ouster.

"What happened to me is happening to Rob Bell," Pearson said. "If you denounce hell, it's like you are denouncing God. You’re going to be called a heretic."

“I thought my people loved me and would walk through the valley of the shadow of death with me, but they didn’t,” Pearson said.

Bell's church did not respond to requests for an interview. His Twitter feed has been silent since he posted about writing a piece for CNN's Belief Blog a few weeks ago. His publicist at HarperOne said he would not be doing publicity until his book hits shelves.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Leaders • Michigan • United States

soundoff (2,200 Responses)
  1. HedgeYourBets

    Wow ... after reading some of these comments, you've gotta laugh when the Christian extremists accuse the Muslim extremists of being dogmatic.


    March 1, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  2. Joni

    For real...Who the hell cares what this man believes in...opps sorry...who the "place that doesn't exist" cares what this man believes in. lol Come on. He is expressing his beliefs. If you can have the right 2 preach that God will damn u & u can burn in hell for sins like fornication & blasphemy...then he has the right 2 preach that there is no hell & everyone goes to heaven. People have the right 2 believe whatever they want...stop fighting wars over it, stop killing people over it & stop invading countries because :God said u should have their oil"!!!!

    March 1, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  3. Pers

    Rob Bell should pick up a copy of Hans Urs Cardinal von Balthasar's "Dare We Hope that All Men Be Saved?", a classic of Catholic eschatology. I think he may be pleasantly surprised as would those who find themselves drawn to Pastor Bell's vision.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  4. JDonaldson

    I don't know why there is a debate...the test is simple and very old...you simply sew him into a burlap sack, toss him into a river, and let God decide if he is a heretic. Alternately, you can make him walk across hot coals and see if the soles of his feet are burned (because the soles and soul sound very much the same, and are thus connected.) This isn't rocket scince people..it is all in the Bible...the Book of Gelato, I believe....

    March 1, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
  5. DK

    none of this matters, because there are no gods

    March 1, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
  6. jpb

    I was taught that Satan's greatest deception is convincing man that there is no hell. Looks like that has started.

    Importantly, God is perfect and all knowing. His Plan accounts for those who have not had the opportunity to accept Christ. All those who declare the "black and white" concept that the millions (or billions) who didn't accept Christ in this life (who were never given the opportunity, even) are condemned outright reveal that they don't understand that their knowledge is limited and imperfect. God is infinitely aware and fair in His judgment. It will be fair, but that doesn't give anyone a free pass to "eat, drink and be merry." We will also be accountable.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • Joni

      Actually it's Satan greatest deception is convincing man that he doesn't exist. But whatever...you believe what you want. You have the right, just like you have the right to share your beliefs in a public setting. Whether it's wrong or right!

      March 1, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  7. Sean BG

    The commandments preceded the rest of the text(s) and wasn't there something about idol worship or false gods? Kinda makes everything other than those rules a little bit suspect. And last I knew, the key difference between philosophers and 'prophets' is a combination of martyrdom and nothing written in their own hand. All alleged statements as far as I can see. I'll let ya know when I get there, wherever there is...

    March 1, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  8. Eric

    Arguements such as these are so funny to those of us completely outside of them. Ah, I love being an Atheist. Tell me, who among you would be laughing and giggling if there were an article on CNN where a man was decried by Harry Potter fans for denying Voldemort was ever really evil?

    Thanks for the laugh guys and gals!

    March 1, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
  9. Daryn

    So they're arguing over who has the best imaginary friend? Or are they arguing over which imaginary friend has the best imaginary house?

    March 1, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
  10. TIred

    Too bad heaven and hell don't exist and that these people are all fighting over a fantasy.
    The outright blatant arrogance of christianity and the other big religions is disgusting. I think what outrages me the most is the judgement that is passed on all non-believers, but it goes beyond that... why would anyone want to belong to a group as narrow minded and childish as an organized religion. If you actually do some research you will discover that (specifically) christianity is based on and take beliefs from religions that existed long before; the virgin birth, rising from the dead and many more tales that were directly lifted from earlier cultures. I know these groups of individuals will never see just how much they have been lied to and frankly I could care less how they endlessly waste time arguing over their invisible friend, I would just like to live in a world without all of this nonsense, and anyways aren't all these people waiting to go somewhere better, maybe you could all plan to go a little sooner rather than later. Religion has caused the death of millions and is is only interested in trading lies for money and sadly you are all missing out. There is no such thing as heresy... and to see fools discuss it makes it all the more pathetic.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • tkj001

      Tired, I could not agree more. I'm sick of being marginalized by those who believe. If we don't believe what they do we must be mentally ill. I'll own mental illness, but at least I'm not stupid. I had an argument with a family member over the tax exempt status of churches who also benefit from public safety that everyone else has to pay taxes for police and fire department services. My argument is if prayer is so powerful, the next time a church catches fire the members can all hold hands and pray the fire out.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  11. GLMcColm

    First of all, the term "universalism" refers to the belief that all religions are associated with the divine (hence the Unitarian Universalist Church accepts the divinity of other religions). Secondly, the notion that every - including Satan - will be saved goes back at least to Origen (fl 200 Ad) and whose proposals freaked out the increasingly corrupt church. And finally, AHEM, the word heretic was launched by Irenaeus (also fl. 200 AD), which meant "someone who presumes to disagree with Irenaeus". The term was picked up by the Roman Empire (by which time the Catholic Church was the Empire's pet poodle) to describe ... well, Orwell would call it the thought crime of disagreeing with the legally enforced dogma.

    REAL Protestants know all this, which is why REAL Protestants wear the badge of "heretic" with pride.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  12. JonathanL

    So what is Christianity, an exclusive club, a finger pointing game? Sounds like fun, but what is it? And what is so good about heaven, do they have a Marriot? I don't know. What if there is no heaven or hell? What if there is only a heck where you have to sit in a waiting room forever on a hard bench surrounded by pumpkin heads and hobos? Did anyone ever ask? Very apparently no one really knows anything about this and yet everybody is arguing about it like they are sure as Hot Dickens. Why can't they change the subject and start arguing about what color hair the giant woman living on the dark side of the moon has today? At least that would be something they might be able to prove.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  13. Scott L

    Dr. Timothy Keller is one of the most balanced teachers I know of. New York Magazine called him the most successful Christian evangelist in New York City. His teaching has been the salvation of men and women from all strata of life in lower Manhattan. Here's one of the things he said about Hell–http://bit.ly/cnRW9

    March 1, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  14. Db

    I don't see why we have to publicly pull people/leaders through the dirt who don't quite match up with our theology. It's embarrassing when people hang out their dirty washing. We should all be too busy working in the Kingdom that we don't have time for it.

    f one reads Luther or Calvin or any author or theologian (human) – one will always find things that we disagree with. As for the topic matter, let God be the judge and let's get on with the job in hand to "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."

    March 1, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
  15. Truth

    The Bible very clearly states that there is a heaven and a hell.

    God doesn't decide who ends up in hell based on how much he "likes" them. God loves every soul and longs for all to follow him, but it's those who choose not to accept the free gift of life offered through the death of his son Jesus that will go to hell.

    And if you've ever visited a national park you don't need someone tell you about Jesus to know there is a creator. Isn't it interesting that most of the most remote places, who's inhabitants are never likely to have someone tell them about Jesus, are also some of the most beautiful places on earth? God's plan is still in perfect motion regardless of how "hard" of a question that is to answer.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • Sybaris

      You are absolutely correct!

      Those places and peoples untouched by the scourge of religion and man made supernatural beings are indeed the most beautiful.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • zzlash

      Your God is a strange deity – automatically sentencing the majority of the planet to hell who are not christian.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  16. awasis

    Do I need positive proof that Santa Clause doesn't exist to determine that he isn't real? No. The same goes with Jesus and the Bible. Where is this Jesus after 2000 years of stalling? You Christians with your hell and damnation. Hey everybody I am saved!!!!! I am a righteous panty waste that gets off on pretending to care that others will burn in hell but secretly loves it. I dare not question a god that acts worse than a child when not being paid attention to. What a sick religion. You cow tow to some fickle God that doesn’t care how you live but only what you believe? Hitler could have been saved if he repented before he died yet Gandhi is in Hell? What kind of self center egotistical God would do that? If there is a god why don’t you use the brain that he gave you and realize the Bible is nonsense.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • JonathanL

      Unless you believe in miracles, do not expect anyone of religious leaning to respond to logical statements and questions. They are hardwired to dismiss logical argument, fact, and science from early on. An extreme form of this brainwashing is in the Taliban who try for forbid any education and have killed people for teaching. – I could make a list as long as a roll of tiolet paper of the names I've been called since I started questioning religion (from soft terms such as 'doubting Thomas' to communist and satanist (none of which I am). I prefer logic, proof, scientific observaton and method, evidence, etc... Arguing about mythology as if it is fact is kind of petty anyway and frivolous. Let them argue about how a santa claus can fit down a chimney. Have faith?

      March 1, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Al

      awasis; you are so right. Plus they quote bible like it's one book. There are thousands of different versions written by many people according to their taste. If we spent half the energy we waste on religion on something useful like science (or any other education) or fixing other problems like poverty, this world would be a lot better place to live.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Mike

      whoa!! Did you know you are in the Bible?

      2 Peter 3-4 : "knowing this first: that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, "Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation."

      March 1, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • Q

      @mike – so are commands to slaughter children and infants (1 sam 15:3). When you have a book advocating child murder, the authors probably anticipated some "scoffing". O.k, now defend the righteousness of this child murder order from the same God declaring though shalt not commit murder. I know it's easy as long as you don't think about it...

      March 1, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • WarhammerTwo

      Anyone here ever read CS Lewis' The Great Divorce? CS Lewis was a Christian, then an atheist, then came back to Christianity after being influenced by the writings of George McDonald. I don't want to give it away, but I think its a great read for anybody no matter what you think or believe. I thought of it when you mentioned Ghandi in hell. As a Christian, I don't think he's there. And my opinions of the afterlife, if there even is one, follows a lot along the lines of CS Lewis. Check it out if you get the chance. One last thing, please don't pigeon hole all Christians into the same category. there are lots of Christians out there, ranging from very, very liberal to very, very fundementalist. I mean, i believe in God, but I don't think he's a big guy in a white robe with a big beard floating up on a cloud. I don't think God even has a physical form. I consider God to be what everyone calls love. God is our conscience, that overwhelming universally accepted notion of right and wrong. God is guilt. Y'know what? It's too complicated to get into here. Let's put it this way. I call myself Christian, but I am very non-traditional. Please don't lambaste me for it.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  17. jim

    It's a story. A description of the creator of the universe. Written by bronze age people. To religious people, every other religion is "myth" and their own description of the creator is the "correct" one. Anyone who disagrees with the church hierarchy/bureacracy is then labeled a "heretic" or "non-believer" or "bad." Guess what? You can't choose to believe a story even if you want to believe that that it's true...if you realize that it's a story people keep telling each other and think outside the box of socialization for a minute. People become enchanted with the idea of being re-united with their loved ones after this stint on earth we call 'life' and will defend it fiercely. No one wants to take that away from people. But when religions try to alter public policy to suit their personal beliefs or the ones hand-picked by their pastor, it. is. nonsense and anti-American. Freedom of religion is good. Freedom from religion is good.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • crucified

      Have fun in Hell, Where all the freedom from religion is prscticed..

      March 1, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  18. Johny

    Perhaps we are all destined for Hell and Heaven is a lonely place...

    March 1, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  19. crucified

    Hell's description is Luke 16:19-31

    March 1, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • Whamms

      Great passage, but remember it's a parable.

      Hell is pretty key Christian doctrine, but there's room for interpretation as to what exactly it is.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • crucified

      @Whamm don't confuse parable with allagory.. Parables are descriptions using real events, things, and places.. the parable is a description of Hell and is not open for interpretation

      March 1, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  20. Wayshower

    God is a non-polarized being. At the core of every living creature is a part of the spark of the "Source/God". People follow the doctrines of their religions but never delve deeper into the knowledge in between the words. They only look at the literal words on the page, and interpret them through 3rd dimensional brains most of the time. When one looks on the spiritual books of most of the worlds religions, the true meaning shines through that we are spiriual beings having 3rd dimensional expeiriences and the answer to enlightment of this world is LOVE each other, and our world, without judgement and without our "False Ego's" misguiding us. You can either be your own worst enemy if you lead your life through your EGO self, or your greatest companion if you live your life through the SPIRIT WITHIN.

    Love, Truth, Humility, Discipline, Honor, Strength, Courage, Responsibility, Patience, Justice, Mercy, Peace.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • Servant of G*D

      Roar!!! praise the KING of kings Long live JESUS CHRIST son of God, in amen's name; the One and only One he lives thy KING from within. Oh my Lord thy God I worship you mighty King all mighty and Powerful.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • brianbowers

      God? What's that? This article is just a bunch of imaginary hoakum.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Jim M

      I couldn't agree more. Thank you for understanding that we are all part of the whole. In a 3D world, opposites must exist for this dimension to exist. The false belief of separation has been the greatest impediment to peace on earth.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.