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. NL

    Thinking for oneself: Is anything I think okay just because it's me thinking it? Or should I be rigourous and disciplined in my thinking?

    So, what are you saying? "Think for yourself, but if you come up with the 'wrong' answer then maybe you're being influenced by somebody evil, or just not trying hard enough?" Something like that, maybe?

    March 1, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  2. Tom

    Starting a constructive dialogue shouldn't be considered heresy. This isn't Salem in the 1600's.

    March 1, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  3. JJ

    Yep, challenging thoughts – why else would he write? I would venture to guess that Bell is not trying to give divine explanations here – he knows his place. He's challenging you to understand what you believe and why you believe it. Far too many people will jump on the heresy wagon before they've cracked a single page of the book. It's no different than proclaiming that, "the Bible says so", without having read or digested it for yourself. Your brain is a gift – use it wisely.

    March 1, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  4. Cameron D.

    I am not at all trying to be offense to you, I just know without any doubt who God is and what WILL happen when Jesus comes back to claim his people (saved persons). I would not be doing my job as a Christ Follower if I let you believe that there was some other way to avoid being left behind. I know it sounds exclusionary but it really isn't. God has two choices really, make us believe through thought control which he will not do because he promised us free will. Or give us his word, show us miracles, show us love, forgiveness and mercy and insist we have faith in him to Save us from satan's tomb. He gave us Jesus, who was God amoung us and yet we still did not believe and I believe that if he came down and lived with us today many would deny him still. Therefore it is a choice that each one of us has to make. My job as a Christ Follower is to spread the word of God so that God's prophesy of every person will have been told of God's salvations be fullfilled before the end of times. So you and every non believer in Jesus will have to chose life or death with your own free will. The choice is yours and you WILL chose. I hope you consider your choice wisely and ignore me, and everyone else trying to tell you what to do and do this one thing. Ask God to reveal to you the truth and ask for forgiveness and salvation through Jesus Christ. It may not happen right away but God is never late so when that moment in time occurs you will know it is God. I promise you, God will make himself present in your life so that your faith will strengthen to the point you will have no doubts about the truth and God. No one will be able to tell you anything that would change your mind about who God is. In turn you will do everything you can to bring God to others that don't believe also, because you don't want them to parish. You will want to see them live and not fall for the lies of Satan and the world. Fact is, if everyone really new what Hell was like then they would not play around with their souls and laugh at us crazy Jesus Followers. Eternity is a serious matter, one which no one should take lightly. There will be a moment of truth like it or not, which every soul will be accounted. God encourages questions, he wants us to ask and seek answers. Seek and ye shall find. There will be a time that all the jokes and quips will be silent and the stubborn will be crying and begging for another chance saying "I didn't know". Well yes you did. You chose not to want to know and that will carry a bitter price of death. Sadly, God says many will ignore or poke fun at the truth. After reading through this blog, I can see God is right again as always. It breaks my heart that so many will parish when it is so easy to be saved.

    March 1, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • Jebus

      You're a fruitcake! i hope that somewhere deep inside, you realize that you really don't or cannot know anything!

      March 1, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • Cameron D.

      As I said before Satan's job is easy, all he has to do is get you to believe ANYTHING else. ANYTHING but Jesus is God and Saviour. Scientology, Hindu, Buddism, whatever. Satan's got you. He uses false teachings, embarrasing Christians, tripping up Pastors, discrediting the Chuch. Whatever. Doesn't matter what. So long as he can get you to ignore Jesus he's won. That my friends is a very easy task in todays world. One that he will eventually pay for but with many others souls as company. Think about that.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • Anna

      Jebus, play nice.

      Cameron, I know you are well intentioned but...really, there's a whole bunch of us, billions of us, who don't believe the way you do and don't want to be saved. It's very annoying, actually. Please understand that as a non-Christian I respect your right to believe the way you do. I only wish that you and other evangelicals would respect mine. Namaste.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • Cameron D.

      Jebus, Yes I am. And I may not know anything I must concede that. I do know this though, God is who he say's he is and Jesus is my saviour. I may not know anything else but that, and that's ok with me because when eternity comes knocking, I know where I will be. Do you?

      In the grand scheme of things, that's all I really need to know.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • Cameron D.

      Anna, that is exactly why God says Billions will parish. Ignore me but please don't ignore God. You owe it to yourself to at least seek him out intellectually. I promise you this, if you seek God's truth you will find it. Don't change your mind but at least study a little to see what it's all about. Your eternal life depends on it. I may not know anything else in this world but I do know this. Jesus walked this earth and was killed to save our souls. Now that I know. If that is true then what happens to those who don't believe he did that. I will give you three guesses and the first two don't count.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  5. Chris

    If Wheaton is the "Harvard of Christian Schools", then Calvin is what, Yale?
    Dordt is probably Sarah Lawrence...

    March 1, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  6. Mike

    What's the point of logging into a belief blog and giving your opinion if you're not a "believer"? Your arguments are irrelevant. I don't spend time on atheist blogs trying to convince people that my beliefs are right... seems like a waste of time.

    March 1, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • Texas

      An atheist is a believer. They believe that god does not exist; they have no proof (you can't prove no existance) hence they believe it.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • Texas

      sorry spelling error.


      March 1, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • Arturro

      Mike, because those of us who actually use our brains and think for ourselves like to see what the "sheep" and "zealots" are thinking and doing. This allows us to attempt to try and stay ahead of the idiocy and ridiculous ideas that stem from overly naive believers. As to trying to change your mind,well, if believers could simply keep their religion to themselves and stop trying to push it into every facet of society, then I guess "we" could stop worrying about the damage you do everyday to the young and our society as a whole.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
  7. NL

    How much of the Christian idea of Hell actually comes from the Jewish, and how much really comes from the Greeks? In Hebrew what we have is Sheol, or "nothingness" after death, which is pretty much what science and atheism also see as what awaits us after we die. When the New Testament was translated into Greek we have the substi.tution of the word Hades and the myths concerning ironic punishments for all eternity. A simple mistranslation of a Jewish concept may be at the heart of the whole controversy.

    March 1, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Ants?

      Let's not let the Christians off that easily, they want hell, they need hell ,don't ruin it. Eternal damnation in a never ending fire, that's the punishment and a damned good one. Hey how about this for a concept, the soul exists and the soul gets sucked into the sun! That's real hot and will last a long time, but not eternity. Didn't the greeks invent the soul and the egyptians christ, I know don't ruin it we had a good story going.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
  8. NJ Bob

    "GOD" is simply something I shout when polite society won't let me shout "F&#%"!!

    March 1, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Jebus

      Right on!

      March 1, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  9. Gary Brudelie

    "God is a consuming fire. (Duet.4:24). Were it not for His mercy, we would all be consumed. (Lam. 3:22) Fear not man who can destroy the body, but after that there is nothing more they can do; but rather fear God who can destroy both body and soul in hell.(Matthew 10:28). There is a hell and those who go there are destroyed (perish).

    March 1, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  10. NJ Bob

    Who cares? ALL religions are false.

    March 1, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Adrian GMV

      Including yours..

      March 1, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • a believer

      do you know more than 90% of the population on this planet believe in God, in one form or the other? So ya.. you are the only truth and you are smater than all of us. Happy now Bob?

      March 1, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  11. Ants?

    I fear alot of the metaphor was lost in translation.

    March 1, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  12. raven26

    Well, isn't it fuzzy and comforting to know there are no consequences.

    March 1, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • Church of Suicidal

      Not as fuzzy and comforting as knowing we'll inherit the earth and live forever.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
  13. oriental

    God can not be described. it is niether this nor that , It is self evident , even atheists can experience god in their soul , infact our soul is equvalent to god... describing god in terms of religion and personality is ignorance. trying to define god is akin to a blind man explain colors.

    March 1, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
  14. a_GHOST

    I'm pretty sure that when you die, you are no longer a phsyical being per any of this world's laws and/or restrictions...which means you won't be "burning" at all, anywhere, ever. It's just one of many, many blatant contradictions in that famous, ever-changing book that if people would think for themselves to the fullest and actually read it...you'd understand. There are over 40 different versions of The Bible that I've found via research, and I'm sorry, but I'm not going to fully believe anything that says "version" on the cover...because that means it's been changed or adapted to fit the needs of the time it was written. Anyone 100% firmly believing in and living one's only life on Earth according to a "version" of a supposed truth is living a lie.

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

    People need to believe what they want to believe and stop pushing it on the public with books and stuff like the Jehovah's that keep knocking on our door every monday. Well just to add to the firestorm and for a bit of fun, on day I said while watching a video on the atheist movement... "God I love being atheist".

    March 1, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  16. Jeff

    God is merely a concept by which we measure our pain.

    March 1, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • patricklmitchell

      Have you experienced pain? If so, how did you measure it?

      March 1, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  17. Lindsay M

    Noticed a typo in the Taylor quote. Otherwise, nice wrap-up of the situation.

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

    Police oFFICER vS hIPPIE = JAIL for hippie

    March 1, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
  19. RP

    Heresy and apostasy are two of the most widespread messages in these end times. The doctrine of the Bible and the New Testament have now been watered down into a do what you want all inclusive call to all. This is in direct conflict with scripture and basically invalidates the coming of Christ, His ministry, teachings and death on the cross and resurrection. To say that man's fallen and depraved behavior has been remedied by the death of Christ with a get out of jail free card is ludicrous. Salvation, redemption, conviction of sin and changed lives all manifest to the truth of Christ. Why the second coming, the tribulation, the warnings, the prophecies of impending doom for those unwilling to repent? Absolutely ridiculous!

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

      You are stone drunk on reigious garbage. Knock off the kool aid, dude.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Patrick

      Yeah, I think trying to sell Christianity with out the hard work part is kinda dumb. Why would you be good if you knew you had a get out of jail free card. Good thing I also believe that Christianity is a bunch of crap. It's a religion for children. As in that you better be good and follow the rules your "father" has set forth. It's for people who are afraid to grow up and realize that this is it. The world is what it is and your time here is all you get. Everything in this world is a manifestation of the divine including each and every person. You simply must be brave enough to look within yourself for "god". Christianity is a road block on that journey and needs to be moved aside so people can find what is truly divine and not just a crude human mask for god.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  20. Kendra

    Bears Vs Star Wars = Star Wars.... by a hair

    March 1, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43
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.