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. clemsondave

    Umm... I'd like to see him actually claiming these things people are accusing him of. All I've read so far is him asking tough questions and NOT answering them. How do we know how he will ultimately answer them in the book? Could actually be the best marketing effort ever...

    March 1, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  2. Religionis4Suckas

    how dare he says there is no hell, what is this world coming to

    next week they will be telling me santa lives in new york and not the north pole.

    what we need here is some praying, cuz we all know that works. light a few candles, sing a few songs, wear a few robes . cuz that make sense and works ! and while we are at it . lets get some dino riding in . build a boat that can hold and feed 6 milion + animals. hay to lets throw common sense out the door and open a few more evil jesus camps . and get a few more con-men evangelists . hay they could hit this guy on the had say amen and he is cured.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • Kannon

      Sir, you take that back!

      Jesus camps are not evil! What is wrong with indoctrinating a young mulleted child with a message of hate and intolerance?

      March 1, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  3. Andy

    Why are we so afraid to ask questions? Surely if there are answers, we shouldn't fear the posting of questions. I think it interesting the book hasn't even hit the shelves yet, and "leaders" in the Christian church are already denouncing Bell as a heretic. He may rightfully be one, but after watching the video 5 times in a row, I can't find any answers. He's posing questions, and if the book comes out to show his firm belief in Jesus as the only way to God (John 14:6) there are going to be a lot of people who claim to be full of love, eating crow. Come on....wait for the book people!! And in the meantime, stay curious, and ask lots of questions about what you believe. Christianity has many flavors depending on the country and culture you come from. Make sure you're identifying the core messages without creating sub-culture where you keep people from knowing God, making a country club for like minded people, and forgetting about the least of these. (Matthew 25) May we be a people known for Grace who serve a God who bestowed the ultimate Grace for us....mainly His only Son.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  4. Al Smith, Jr.

    Why is asking questions about something that doesn't make sense, Heresy!

    I sure hate to think that Heaven is a place only for people who are willing to blindly follow along and never ask questions...because if it is, I'll surely be kicked out the first day (even though I'm a saved Christian).

    March 1, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  5. Razier

    Is there any greater blasphemy to God than attributing "Hell" to him? By doing so you are making him the greatest monster ever to exist. Even the furnaces of Hitler were temporary.

    If we are not all saved then what was the point of the "Atonement"? If you say it all depends upon your faith in Christ and your own good works then what was the point in his sacrifice. It either worked or it didn't.

    I'm an atheist by the way, so please don't rebutt this by mockery. I am simply trying to explain the problems in dogma that Bell is exposing in Christian terms.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  6. Bible Scholar 2

    Seems like he is pretty ignorant of 2,000 years of the historical Christian perspective. If all dogs go to Heaven, what's the point of the Christian faith?

    March 1, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • John Richardson

      Wow, what a creepy question!

      March 1, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • NO one is RIGHT

      It's funny how many religious folk preach equality and all, but they are so quick to judge their fellow man. I will give you a hypothetical situation, say there is a muslim or buddhist that has brought up from birth only being taught those ideals. Then you come along preaching all your ideals and tell them that they are wrong. Who are you to say who is wrong or right? Who are you to say that your belief is stronger than theirs or that you are doing it for the right reason? Seems a little contradictory to me. No one is right, as stated by the late and great George Carlin, "I was a Catholic, until I reached the age of REASON!"

      Thank you,

      March 1, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • Lily

      I would say that the point of being faithful and acting rightly anyway is that it is (or should be) a heartfelt response to the love God shows us. What's more mature and genuine – following a parent's commands because we fear being punished in some way, or because we love them back for the love and care they show us and we trust they have our best interests at heart?

      March 1, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  7. joel

    if you've actually read a rob bell book or seen a video then you know that he is no heretic. he is a good man, and his words have affected my life for the better in many ways. just youtube "rob bell nooma" and try to understand the love in his words.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  8. M.H. Thomas

    So....we are writing a story and making comments about a book no one has read yet? Do we really have to invent schisms? Wait until it can actually be read............then make a critique.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  9. Hmmmm

    didn't learn how to spell in though did I....

    March 1, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  10. BobRoss

    Vaughan Wynne-Jones: "Please. That's what every Christian sect has been doing since this Nicean conference in 325 A.D."

    The Council of Nicaea had nothing to do with determining the canon of scripture... so I don't know where you're getting that from.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  11. The Word of God

    I've been silent too long. It's about time that the Church drops the chip on her shoulder and remembers the bridegroom, Jesus.

    Church: are you so arrogant as to believe that it is YOU who chooses who goes to Heaven or Hell? No, that judgment is reserved for the Father in Heaven alone. You are right to claim that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ at his crucifixion is the only reason humanity can be redeemed back to the Creator. And you are right to conclude that all who arrive in Paradise do so only because of what Jesus has done. But you are WRONG to make presumptions about who all the Father has applied this redemption to.

    God is not so weak and feeble as to be restrained by the English and Hebrew languages. There is but one God, but many human languages...so He has many names, more names than can ever be counted by mortal fingers.

    Don't you read your Scriptures, Church? Don't you know that this very Jesus who gave his life for humanity's sins, this very same Son of God was alive before he was born?

    Have you read the first chapter of the apostle John's gospel?

    "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made. In Him was life, and that life was the light of all humanity. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

    Before Jesus was born as the Son of Man, he was alive as the Word. And the Word has been known to all humanity since the very beginning. We who are born in the Spirit know Him by His name of Jesus. Others know Him as the Great Spirit, as Love, as Compassion, as Truth, and many other names that cannot be counted.

    The Word brings salvation, not the Church. And the Church will never tell The Word whom He can save and by which measures He can measure a human's destiny.

    What then is the Church to do, if determining the eternal salvation is a foolish waste of time?

    The Word has not left you without understanding, Church. Didn't you read what Matthew wrote? Jesus said:

    “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

    “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

    “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

    “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

    “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

    “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

    “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

    So you see, none but Jesus will know on that day what their eternal destination will be. But He has made it clear what The Church must do: feed the hungry, bring water to the thirsty, house the homeless, clothe the impoverished, take care of the sick, and console the imprisoned.

    This is the Word of God.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • RichG


      March 1, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • Whorhay

      Well said.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • John

      Very well put! The funny thing about looking at comments is that <1% of them are actually educational and intellgent, and when they are, they get no responses.....I solute you for speaking the truth and in a well thought manner 🙂

      March 1, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • sarah


      March 1, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Chad

      RichG, go to sleep somewhere else 🙂

      March 1, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
  12. DavidB

    There is a tidal wave of irony in christians calling something a "false doctrine" in this day and age. These people deny the obvious evidence of evolution, a 4 billion year old earth, and the ambivalence of the laws of the universe to "human sin". Global warming is coming and Jesus is not. How much further into sand can you all stick your heads?

    March 1, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • Christopher

      An increasingly fewer number of Christians believe that evolution did not occur. Most of us believe everything that is true, and we can see the overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of evolution.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  13. Hmmmm

    I for one do not base my own moral and spiritaul beliefs on any text written in a dead language and repeatedly translated over multiple millenia. I remember playing the telephone game in kendergarden....do any of you?

    March 1, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • sargeanton

      The Dead Sea Scrolls proved that the message has NOT changed over the millenia. Get a clue.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  14. Cletus

    You don't need Jesus, the Pope, or anyone to mediate between you and your creator. Just sayin.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:08 am |
  15. Pauline


    March 1, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  16. Gustav Malloy

    It's silly to get upset over variances in what people believe. Your beliefs are personal, and shouldn't be forced upon, or affected by anyone else.

    It's also frustrating to see all the people poo-pooing any kind of religion because they feel they are too "smart" for it. Nobody has all the answers to the universe. At least religious people aknowledge that.

    God = Science, Science = God

    March 1, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • Kannon

      Excuse me? Did I misread that?

      "Nobody has all the answers to the universe. At least religious people aknowledge that."

      I've seen very few people of faith acknowledge that considering that they consider the bible universal truth and believe they understand everything through God. Frequently the theist position is to attack scientists because scientists do not claim to know everything.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Dave

      Here, Here!! Very well said!

      March 1, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  17. bookshrink

    With respect to Mr. Taylor: How do you know you're not the false prophet?

    March 1, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  18. Kannon

    My unicorns are better than your unicorns! According to my book on unicorns, they can't have blue fur, only pink and white!

    March 1, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • John Richardson

      Blasphemy! My unicorns are blue!!!

      March 1, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • Kannon

      How can I express my discontent with what you said in an incendiary fashion? I know.

      You John, are a HERETIC!

      March 1, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  19. Hypatia

    Another fairy tale and the purveryors of the first fairy tale are upset. Awwwwww! Y'know, this sounds just like a bunch of teenaged girls battling over Team Edward or Team Jacob....

    March 1, 2011 at 11:05 am |
  20. fred Pickles

    Shannon: your long argument starts with false teaching in the first sentence. Read the Bible. It says only God is Eternal. Eternal life is a gift that comes to believers after the resurrection on the Lord's Day. Nowhere does it say we are eternal souls.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:04 am |
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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.