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. Motrek

    It's the same old situation, take the things you don't like out from the Bible and then you can say whatever you want. The fact is, whether you believe the Bible or not, the Bible clearly tells of a day of reckoning. Those whose names are not in the Book of Life will be cast into the firey lake of burning sulfur. I didn't write it, you don't have to believe it, just take it or leave it.

    March 1, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
    • Anna

      Thanks. I'm leaving it.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
  2. Kendra

    China Vs Godzilla = No more China

    March 1, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  3. maureen delaney

    I'm was raised a Catholic, am a Christian and don't believe in hell...or purgatory....or limbo. I believe we pay for our wrongdoing here one way or another and understand and accept that I'll never be sinless nor will any other human.

    March 1, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  4. Kendra

    Somali Pirates Vs USA = No more Somali Pirates

    March 1, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  5. M.

    I just have to say that I find it extremely funny that while living in 21st century, I can connect to the Internet and read about...charges of heresy.

    March 1, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • Lincoln Place

      I say she's a witch. Burn her!

      March 1, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • dagnar

      Too funny!

      March 1, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  6. iveeno

    Saw a post where a non-believer expect that at death his electrical brain impulses will stop, and that's that. End of Life (EoL.)
    Questions: Of what is all matter made? Energy.
    Can energy be destroyed? No, only changed.
    Are your essence, soul, thoughts, feelings, love, 'intuition, etc' real – are they made up of energy? Yes.
    Can they be destroyed? No.

    Only God can destroy energy.

    March 1, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • Craig B.

      Yes, but your assumption that the soul exists is false, or can not be proven.

      And that energy will leave your body as heat, not as some magical force that will drift up to heaven.

      I am sorry, but this type nonsense just makes you look foolish, I for one would be embarrassed, but that is just me.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • iveeno

      Craig – am I thinking that anyone on a reality TV show is foolish, and I'm embarrassed for them, but that doesn't mean they are.

      Your physics is inaccurate. Find out what energy potential the human body has. If you are thinking hp then you are not taking this conversation seriously.

      When electrical energy ceases, there is no heat as it takes a resistance to tranform that energy. Any heat would have been dissipated through resistance as the energy was being transferred through it. Further, ceased energy has no heat – but as Newton proved, it is still present.

      If you believe that the energy that represents the sum total of everything you are, were, will be, the memories, reanimations and every other movement, thought, dream, emotion can be contained in some battery in your head which is discharged at the final moment, you must not have much stored in it.

      I offer debate without insult. As a post graduate in a technical field I can understand, absorb and teach many scientifically based classed. I find them fascinating. Some I find lacking in totality and do not hesitate to say so. Every week some 'breakthrough' is reported that takes the old, well-used theories and tosses them into the drink. I believe that is the way of things. Being a realist I do ot believe that man has gather the sum total of all knowledge nor ever will. I believe, as do all great scientists, that there is a level of thought that we as a species cannot achieve, and as such, things we shall never comprehend.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • Carl

      Iveeno's interpretation of physics naturally means that broken TV sets must all be still operating in some magical afterlife. Somebody is definitely is definitely confused, and I don't think it is Newton.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • Craig B.

      Friend, when your bodies electrical system stops, that energy does become heat and is released, look it up.

      You are making these crazy assertions that the soul is electrical energy, please cite a source or show proof of this.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • Wormfood

      Iveeno, I respect what you believe. If that works for you, fine. For me, I also believe that at death I cease. You point to the fact that essence, soul, thoughts, feelings, love... are energy and can't be destroyed. Okay look at this way: Essence/Soul – Nothing to point to here. You and others have the belief there is a soul. Thoughts, feelings, love, ... These come from the chemical and electrical interaction in our brains. Note, we don't even know where consciousness comes from yet. But I assume you believe this the soul. Well when we die that chemical/electrical interaction stops. We are done. I look at this this way, You have puzzle that is put together. At the puzzle's death it is broken apart and scattered to the wind. The puzzle pieces/energy are not destroyed. But they are not together either. So the puzzle as an individual is gone forever. That's just my belief. Thanks for the exchange.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  7. LisaH

    I just can't believe people are condemning Bell based on a blurb from the publisher about a book that's not even published. Can you at least wait until you've actually read what he has to say?

    March 1, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  8. atomD21

    The sad thing to me, as a christian, is that as a whole, we are so afraid to question things. I refuse to take what another flawed human being tells me as absolute truth. Our assertion that we have the monopoly on truth and righteousness is flawed at best, catastrophic at worst. Who's truth is right? Catholics? Presbyterians? Mormons? I am looking forward to reading this book, just as I have read several that outright deny most of what I believe. Our jump to judge and condemn all that doesn't align with what a pastor tells us is ridiculous and dangerous. We need to slow down and realize that our "absolute truth" is a misconception. God is far too powerful to be defined by a religion run by man. What we as American Christians view as abhorrent sins, Christians in other countries see as not a big deal. Who's right? And before you tell me to seek the Bible for answers, which translation? I have a Bible app on my phone with no less than thirty versions of the book. I welcome challenges from people, as I refuse to serve a God who can't stand up to questions and challenges.

    March 1, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • iveeno

      As a Christian it is one of my firmest foundational pieces that no matter what question I ask I can find an answer within the Bible, by speaking to learned Christians, by reading, by observation or by prayer. I find that absolutely nothing can assail the groups of beliefs to which I cling tenaciously, though I often begin the journey by thinking, "There is just no way this can be explained." There always is. When you believe in something, when you love someone, when you have made a decision, do it all the way. Love your spouse unreservedly, support your team without restraint, believe in your God wholeheartedly. Pick a side and stick with it, and once you have made the decision to believe in a person, a system, a team or a manner of living, don't be a traitor to yourself and don't let anyone tell you differently.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • Anna
      March 1, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • Anna

      "Pick a side and stick with it, and once you have made the decision to believe in a person, a system, a team or a manner of living, don't be a traitor to yourself and don't let anyone tell you differently."

      This sounds a lot like "close your mind" to other perspectives. Also, why do you only consult with other Christians? Have you considered that non-Christians might have something of value to contribute?

      March 1, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  9. Eric Bryant

    Erwin McManus shared a great message called "Life's Toughest Questions: Is There A Hell?" which can be found at http://www.mosaic.org/podcast.

    March 1, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
  10. MickG

    This is heresy to the Word of God (see biblical references below).

    I dont mean to diminish God's Love at all, but if God's Love, which is more amazing than my feeble tongue, mind, and fingers can try to express, "wins out" like he is saying regardless of our salvation and sanctification & justification, then the Blood of Christ, the New Testament teachings, God's Love entirely.... is cheapened and has little to no effect at all.

    I dont have a good reply to his Gandhi contention but I believe this hymn answers it best
    I know not why God’s wondrous grace
    To me He hath made known,
    Nor why, unworthy, Christ in love
    Redeemed me for His own.

    I know not how the Spirit moves,
    Convincing us of sin,
    Revealing Jesus through the Word,
    Creating faith in Him.

    But I know Whom I have believèd,
    And am persuaded that He is able
    To keep that which I’ve committed
    Unto Him against that day.

    Daniel 12:2 And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt
    John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
    John 5:28-29 Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.
    2 Peter 3:7-9 But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men. But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
    Revelation 20:12-15 And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire

    March 1, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
    • Robin

      I'd love to have you provide the name of each person who originally wrote each one of your "biblical" quotations. It's a well-known fact that none of the books were actually written by the person for which they are named.

      The bold truth is, no one actually knows if a god exists, not even you. Believe what you want, that does NOT make it true.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • Lincoln Place

      Blah, blah, blah. Heaven and hell exist only on Earth while we are alive. After we die, we exist only in the memories of those who knew us. There is no god.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • Motrek

      Robin, you make a good point. There's a big misconception about faith and what it means to believe. Faith is not wishful thinking or ignorant optimism. Faith is how you react to something that you have come to trust by trying it out. In a sense, you demonstrate faith every time you flip on a light switch because you've come to trust that the switch, wires, bulb, and power company will all do their thing and provide light. The guys who wrote the books of the bible experienced something they couldn't necessarily explain but they did find that when they took this "God" at his word, he came through every time. It was only logical and reasonable to respond to him "in faith". A Christian is one who has read the promises made by this alleged "Christ" in this "bible", has tried out the promises, and found that this "Christ" fellow is still doing what he promised centuries ago. It's definitely not make believe or wishful thinking.

      March 1, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  11. Michael Daily

    Good for him! Heaven and hell are archaic, bigoted concepts that need to be dispensed with.

    March 1, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  12. Well good then

    So long as these people are busy screaming at each other, maybe they'll leave the rest of us alone.

    March 1, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • Carl

      But they won't leave us alone. As the old joke goes,

      A man is walking along a street in Northern Ireland when a stranger sticks a pistol to the back of his head.

      "Catholic or Protestant?" asks the gun-wielding stranger.

      "Atheist!" says the helpless man.

      "Catholic atheist or Protestant atheist?"

      You can't get away from these thugs. They insist that you join in the fight. Ever hear one of the religious loons declare that "atheists don't really exist" or some similar nonsense? They refuse to believe that anyone is sitting out of the game. That's why the terrorists have no problem killing random civilians. If you don't join them, you are the enemy.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  13. chip

    Unversalism started in the Bible. 1 Timothy 4:10 "That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe."

    March 1, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • Motrek

      You understand that the sense of that passage is that Jesus is the only Savior that has been provided for mankind. There's no one else. He can still be rejected.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • greg

      "all people" is not really saying everyone on earth. paul is talking to a christian in his letter and that same greek phrase πᾶς
      'pas' is used often but rarely ever meaning all men everywhere or all of earth. spurgeon says, "... 'The whole world is gone after him.' Did all the world go after Christ? 'Then went all Judea, and were baptized of him in Jordan.' Was all Judea, or all Jerusalem baptized in Jordan? 'Ye are of God, little children', and 'the whole world lieth in the wicked one.' Does 'the whole world' there mean everybody? If so, how was it, then, that there were some who were 'of God?' The words 'world' and 'all' are used in some seven or eight senses in Scripture; and it is very rarely that 'all' means all persons, taken individually. The words are generally used to signify that Christ has redeemed some of all sorts—some Jews, some Gentiles, some rich, some poor, and has not restricted his redemption to either Jew or Gentile." (Charles H. Spurgeon, Particular Redemption, A Sermon, 28 Feb 1858).

      March 1, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • Carl

      "Especially" those who believe? What the heck does that mean? God is only sort of a savior for those who don't?

      March 1, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • Motrek

      Greg, Carl was wondering about the use of the word "especially" which I think is the Greek "malista". Do you think Paul meant that it is believers alone who can truly grasp what God has done through Christ?

      March 1, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  14. David Smith (muddleglum)

    Christ is Life.
    If you don't choose Life, what is the consequences?
    If you will exist forever and reject Life, what are the consequences?

    March 1, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • lkinva


      March 1, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • Carl

      Sounds like nothing more than that many words of gibberish.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  15. Byrd

    It's not so much that its universal as defined, but universal in the sense that we each make our our Hell, if you want to call it that. And it promises to be one hell of an education for us all, but burning in a lake of fire doesn't seem terribly instructive, but actually kinda vicious to me. An unending education of exceptional quality is what awaits us all. Some of us are actually looking forward to it in hopes of learning all we possibly can and making ourselves even better citizens of Earth and this thing called Existence, but for others, I daresay, it will elementary once again, my dear Watson...

    That's basically all there is to it, and if you examine your life from that angle and feel comfortable, then by all means carry on! But if not, I hear you're going to have one hell of a good teacher to bring you up to speed!

    March 1, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
  16. Fr. Seraphim Turland

    I would strongly suggest the author deviate from "Sola Scriptura", read the Old Testament, and the writings of The Fathers of the Christian Church of 33AD, the Orthodox Church of the East. Perhaps then, he would not fall into heresy.

    March 1, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • Mike

      With all due respect...Sola Scriptura is the only thing that's keeping what this guy teaches in the ranks of the absurd.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
    • wileyfreeman

      That comment just shows how far from God you really are. Stop worshiping the Bible and try talking to God.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  17. Comeon

    Come on – EVERYONE.....enough. Or we can just all go on thinking we know more than everyone else. Believe what you believe and keep it to yourself.

    March 1, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • lkinva

      Ain't that the truth. This whole "debate" is one reason I'm not religious at all.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • Eric G.

      I agree. Those who think they know everything annoy those of us that do.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • dagnar

      Agreed, but one cannot get rich selling books if the opinion is concealed.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
  18. outhere

    I was taught about universalism as a child in the United Methodist Church. Many within that denomination did not believe in hell or believed that Jesus' sacrifice ended hell and we didn't study revelations. It was a bit murky about whether all religions when to the same heaven though....

    March 1, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
  19. Sao

    This book will be Rob Bell's demise. You reap what you sow....God cannot be mocked...

    March 1, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Byrd

      He can be easily mocked if you happen to catch him in the the false guise of a shrubbery!

      March 1, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • Chris

      I'll mock god right to his imaginary face. God = invisible sky daddy

      March 1, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • Byrd

      Invisible sky daddy, indeed. I'm a Rocket Man...Rocket Man....!

      March 1, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
    • Craig B.

      You are correct in your assertion, how can one mock one that does not exist.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • fsmgroupie

      na na na na nah

      March 1, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
  20. Thomas

    Holy cannoli, please don't lump all Christian into one group! As a life-long Christian, I would never put myself in a position to declare (or claim to know) who is going to some place called Hell and who is going to someplace called Heaven. I hold with little regard those mortals who claim to have that kind of knowledge, for they are probably trying to sell you something.

    March 1, 2011 at 3:55 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.