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March 19th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

Rob Bell punches back against claims of heresy

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

New York (CNN) - For two weeks while controversy swirled around him, Pastor Rob Bell stayed silent. His critics said he was playing fast and loose with heaven and hell, salvation and damnation. The eternity of souls was on the line, they said.

All this was over Bell’s new book, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” Critics tore into it before the book even hit store shelves on Tuesday, some going so far as to label Bell a heretic. The controversy pushed the book into the third spot on Amazon’s sales ranking, virtually assuring the book a place on The New York Times Best Sellers list.

On Monday night, dressed in black and sporting his trademark black-rimmed glasses, Bell strolled quietly into the auditorium of the New York Ethical Culture Society. This was his chance to hit back.

“I never set out to be controversial,” Bell told CNN before the event. “I don’t think it’s a goal that God honors. I don’t think it’s a noble goal.

“What’s interesting to me is what’s true. And what’s interesting to me is what’s inspiring. And what’s interesting to me is where’s the life? Where’s the inspiration? That’s what I’m interested in. If that happens to stir things up, that was never my intent, but I’ll accept that.”

Bell said he was surprised by the controversy around his book. Critics said he was preaching universalism, a theology that suggests everyone goes to heaven and hell is empty.

“I’m not a universalist. So that’s just not true.” He reiterated that again in the event that evening where he expounded on that idea and said that he didn’t believe God reaches down and sweeps everyone to heaven.

'Good environment for dialogue'

After a budding career as a rock star was derailed by a freak illness, Bell set his sights on the seminary. Now, at 40, he has risen to become America’s hipster pastor and one of the most influential preachers in the country.

He is quick-witted, non-denominational, and he unabashedly loves Jesus. He preaches to 10,000 people at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, the church he founded. His first four books sold nearly a million copies combined, and his short film series, Nooma, has sold more than 2 million DVDs.

He will tell you he again and again he is a pastor, not a theologian or a biblical scholar.

But for a guy who dresses in black, Bell has made his mark examining the gray areas of Christianity. His questioning of traditional approaches without always giving answers has brought him fans and made his critics gnash their teeth.

“It’s very appealing because he brings lots of facts and lots of information into it and lots of historical context into whatever discussion he has,” said Kristi Berderon, a 25-year-old Bell fan who drove an hour from New Jersey for the event. “He leaves it open-ended. He lets you think and draw your own conclusions for yourself instead of spoon-feeding what he grew up hearing or what he was taught in seminary.”

She and her friend Tommy Hayes are a lot like the others in the crowd tonight: wearing skinny jeans and dark-rimmed glasses - and openly exploring their faith. Berderon’s parents are Southern Baptists; she was home schooled and raised in the church. Today she attends a non-denominational church and self-identifies as a “Christ follower” but bristles at being called a Christian.

Danielle Miller and Maryalice Spencer took a two-hour train ride from Walden, New York, to hear Bell speak. They walked 25 blocks and stood in line in the cold to get in. Miller uses Bell’s short films as a discussion starter in her church. “I think it’s always good to ask those hard questions, and I think that’s what he’s doing, and it creates a good environment for dialogue,” Miller said.

Bell was in New York City to sit down with Newsweek’s Lisa Miller for a conversation on stage and take questions from the 650 audience members and thousands more watching the event streaming live on the Web.

Bell and Miller on stage at the New York Ethical Culture Society auditorium.

Before the crowds arrived, a contemplative Bell settled into a pew to talk with CNN about the book and to answer his critics.

The book began, he said, five years ago. “As a pastor, you interact with so many people [that] some of the same questions keep coming up. And ultimately you keep bumping up against what people really think about God.”

In his church and around the country, he saw what he considered a misrepresentation of the Christian narrative in the Bible.

“At the heart of the Christian story is [the message that] God loves the world and sent his son Jesus to show the world this love. So that’s fundamentally first and foremost the story. God is love and God sent Jesus to show this love.

“In our culture Christians are known for a number of other things. … Rarely do you hear people say, ‘Oh yeah, those are the people who never stop talking about love. Oh a Christian church - that’s where you go if feel beaten down and kicked and someone has their boot on your neck. You go there because it’s a place of healing and a place of love.’

“I’m passionate about calling people back to [Christianity’s] roots,” Bell said.

'Theology of evacuation'

In his new book, Bell challenges the traditional notions of heaven and hell.

“For many people the fundamental story was one of escape - Jesus is how you get out of here. I think for many people in the modern world, the way they heard it was fundamentally, ‘This place is bad, and there is some other place, and Jesus - believe, accept, trust, confess, join, get baptized, whatever sort of language got put on it - Jesus is how you get to some other realm where things are good.’

“So essentially it’s a theology of evacuation. And my understanding is the Bible is first and foremost a story of restoration. It’s a story of renewal.”

“The fundamental story arc of the Bible,” he said “is God is passionate about rescuing this world, restoring it renewing it. So discussions about heaven and hell … for many people are irrelevant and esoteric. … But what happens is, what you believe about heaven and hell deeply shapes how you engage this world now.”

Bell said if a believer has their eyes on heaven, they can miss the opportunities to bring people a taste of heaven here on Earth - and they can miss seeing the hell around them.

“Greed, injustice, the sex trade in Far East Asia, we see hell all around us, whenever people reject what is good and human and right and peaceful and all that,” he said.

“I begin with this world right now and the observation that we are free to choose. It’s the nature of love. So then when you die, I would assume [given] the nature of love you can continue to make these types of choices.”

For Bell the here and now is just as important as any possible life to come. “I think it’s very very important to point out … [that] we are speculating about after you die,” he said.

“In the Jewish context in which [Jesus] lived and moved, you didn’t have that articulated belief system about when you die. It was very rooted in this life - dirt and wine and banquets, family and fishing. [In] his stories, it’s all a very visceral – this world is our home, this world that God loves, that God is redeeming - so that’s the starting point.

“I think for many people they were taught you’re either in or out. But Jesus invites us to a journey that’s a fundamentally different way to think about it, and that frees you up from a lot of things that I think haunt people, bind them up and make them miserable. Then it creates all sorts of space for wonder and awe and mystery and the unexpected,” Bell said.

His perspective does not line up with many of the traditional views about heaven and hell, of separate spaces and places with streets of gold or lakes of fire.

For Christians who see salvation and heaven as crucial elements to their faith, Bell’s message can be abrasive - which in part led to so many people pouncing on his book before it was released.

What stirred many critics was a promotional video in which Bell asks whether Mohandas Gandhi, India’s non-violent leader, was in heaven. Bell’s answer offers a good insight into his view of salvation.

Bell would not be surprised if he saw Gandhi in heaven. “Jesus was very clear. Heaven is full of surprises. That’s central to Jesus teaching.”

Bell insists there is room for mystery in salvation and that Christianity is open to discussion.

“The historical orthodox Christian faith is extremely wide and diverse,” Bell said. “No one has the last word other than God. I am taking part in a discussion that’s been going on for thousands of years. Everyone can play a part in that discussion.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Devil

soundoff (1,308 Responses)
  1. Matt

    I watched the interview pictured above. I wished he would have at least had the stones to give anyone in that audience a straight answer. He said nothing in such eloquent ways. It makes me wonder what he says in his sermons. I am nervous for the future of the people of his church.

    April 1, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      Matt,
      if there are are some people in his church who really belong to the Lord, God will raise red flags in their spirit so strongly that they won't be able to stay under this man's teachings. We have this promise from the Lord: I know My sheep and they know Me. They know My voice, and will not follow the imposter, but will flee from him "
      But we must pray for those who come in, allured by the sweet coated message that's full of enticement to the soulish part of man. Those are the ones who are most vulnerable because they have not been yet grounded in the Word of God and Spirit of truth, and have no discernment. satan will target them heavily.

      April 1, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • jabarhead

      I don't want to be a member of such a Satanic church. I want to get into Heaven like you guys!

      What church do you guys go to...? Are there any other good churches that have the right theology with which we ALL agree...?

      Please advise the rest of us who are in peril of Eternity of damnation in Hell.

      Thanks!

      April 1, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      This one thing is surely evident, that what carries your Jabar-head does NOT walk , but slithers!
      You have a tongue and a spirit of a serpent ! !

      April 1, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
    • jabarhead

      (you're funny. and you take yourself pretty seriously. as a confident Christian, it's both entertaining and sad to read your responses. I can literally feel your insecurity through the Internet. But, I'm sure if you're open to God's will, he will continue to work on you. that is my sincerest wish: that for the weakest, bullying Christians like you among us to find enough personal confidence in God's work in your own life, that you don't feel compelled to ruin it for the rest of us...)

      Anyhow, "one thing thing is surely evident" ... you still haven't (or can't) tell us where the flawless doctrine of God is. Who has it? Who's teaching it? What church we should all look to for the right theology?

      Is it that hard? It seems so very easy for you to write about how wrong someone is, but when given the perfect oppertunity to offer something better to follow, you can't (or won't.) Why not change directions and tell us: who on Earth is the right one? With the perfect theology that only you and a few others have seemingly found. Why won't you share with the rest of us?

      Or is it your only goal to tear down without offering anything to follow - a real-world person or church that has the flawless understanding of God that you were obviously blessed with.

      Still waiting....

      April 2, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
  2. Phillip

    Apotropoxy: I appreciate your excellent talking point! You managed to bring this up without resorting to name-calling and immaturity. I wish this were the tone of every blog!

    Perhaps part of the answer is that E (and many others) define evil with a man-centered model of existence, rather than a God centered one. Perhaps you do not see it as malevolence and evil when you step on a spider in your house, which is trying to bite your children. Could you prevent it? Does that make you evil, or zealous for your own good? The answer the BIble gives is simply that God willed to create good and evil to magnify himself. He is at the center, and we are not really that important. This makes sense to me personally, when you consider how small we really are. Is God selfish and self-centered? Sure. But this is also reflected in how each of us, who are made in his image, live our lives... so the accusation ought not be only directed outwardly, but also to our own mirrors...

    Jabarhead- my point was that this man is envoking the authority of his own opinion. If this is his only platform, I can reply with my own authority (as you point out). If he claims to speak from the position of Scripture, he must say what it says. Can I suggest that in the interest of counterpoints and discussion you work to dissipate insults and anger rather than put others down and assuming that if someone disagrees with you they are automatically "stupid"?

    Let me ask you this (and this is just a simple and honest question, I'm not trying to be "perfect" or whatever): Do you really believe that the Bible is unclear when it says "Wide is the gate that leads to destruction and many find it?" Do we need an infallible and perfect interpreter to at least agree on the authorial intent of this verse?

    April 1, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • jabarhead

      "Wide is the gate that leads to destruction and many find it?"

      Okay, so you're saying that this quote is "clear"...? I will admit this is clear when you define for me clearly what these words mean:

      "wide" (hmm, not quite an exact measurement, is it?)
      "gate" (damn, there goes the Bible again... always jumping into elusive metaphor. sucks to be a literalist.)
      "destruction" (man, that is so specific! you're right, there is no room for interpretation here at all.)
      "many" (who are these many...? is it 10? 100? both numbers seem like "many" to me when we're prescribing destruction. or is it billions? are you the one that has authority to tell the rest of us who they are...?)

      Now, after you define those words CLEARLY, tell me exactly how this is SO "clear" about Heaven and Hell.

      I look forward to your response.

      April 1, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  3. Apotropoxy

    • Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
    • Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
    • Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
    • Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
    – Epicurus

    Note: The standard response by Abrahamic theologians to Epicurus’ conundrum is to say that god gave man Free Will. They leave alone the obvious- an all-powerful deity would also have created "Free Will".

    April 1, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • jabarhead

      Apotropoxy,

      You are too intelligent for this blog. Please leave this page immediately.

      Respectfully,

      Stupid Christians arguing that I'm right, you're wrong and you're going to hell, I'm perfect, did I mention I'm right and I have Bible verses to prove it?

      April 1, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  4. Phillip

    “The historical orthodox Christian faith is extremely wide and diverse,” Bell said. “No one has the last word other than God.

    Let me just play to the stupidity of this quote: How does he KNOW that God has the last word? How does he know that heaven is full of surprises? On what authority does he say these things????

    April 1, 2011 at 8:40 am |
    • jabarhead

      so true.

      of course, it begs the question: on what authority do any of us agree or disagree with him?

      what authority is it that you have again?

      please continue to "just play to the stupidity" with even MORE stupidity.

      April 1, 2011 at 9:26 am |
  5. IkanThink

    to continue to Chapel Hill, the original OT had no devil. The Xtians needed him so God did not take the hit for all evil things God did, or to establish original sin, or give some credibility and fear to this new religion

    March 31, 2011 at 10:49 pm |
  6. Bibletruth

    Yes, Jesus is clear about heaven and hell. Heaven is the home of the finally saved ...one can think of it as eternal life. Hell is the state of the finally lost...eternal death = eternal non life, eternal non-existence. Again read and consider every place in scripture the word soul, immortal, immortality, etc. and you will know what God says. By the way, God tells us Satans destiny: Satan, your destiny is the lake of fire...your time to that event is short...you may go around like a roaring lion all you want, but your time to that event is short...there, in the lake of fire ,I shall bring thee to ashes, and never shalt thou be anymore. Yes, Satan will experience hellfire and it will annialate him...and all the lost will experience the same thing, the lake of fire, which will bring them to ashes and never shall they be anymore....then the universe will be clean and pure and sin will not rise up again.

    March 31, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
  7. Craig

    It's absolutely crazy to me that Christians tear their brothers apart when someone offers an opinion on the faith that differs from their own. Where's the gentleness and respect? Where's the love? If I wasn't already a follower of Jesus this would give me cause to never consider it. Interesting bell mentioned Ghandi bc I believe he said he loved Christ, it was Christians he didn't like bc they did not reflect Christ. As a Christian I am ashamed and when the church is shamed so is God.

    March 31, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
    • truth

      of course we are tearing him apart! he probably isn't even a brother! rank false teaching like this has lead MILLIONS of people, along with myself, to believe that Bell has never even accepted salvation through Christ! no way would he go this far astray if he actually believes in Jesus.

      March 31, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • jabarhead

      "MILLIONS"

      please provide a link to the study or poll where this number is presented.

      there isn't one? well, I guess considering the strength of your other logic (see: "probably" and "no way... if"), this isn't the most retarded idea you made up to sound intellectual today.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:11 am |
  8. Hear it is

    Mr. Bell may be alot of things but he's also a capilatist. In this down economy, he's doing pretty good with his book. Good luck Mr. Bell. I'd rather have people "producing" faith than lesser needed products.

    March 31, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  9. sdlover

    Bell's theology is formed by cherry picking a very few verses in Bible, ignoring the rest, and using his imagination to determine what makes sense as if he has a good perspective of how God would view things. He doesn't accept the authority of scripture and he is dishonest about what Jesus does and doesn't say in the Bible. False teachers are nothing new. The Bible warns about people with hard hearts who will not accept true message of salvation in the parable of the sower. Rob Bell is cool and hip and very accepting. He attracts alot of people who want to worship themselves and create God in their own image. His suggestion that believing in heaven and hell and the orthodox view of Christian salvation leads to not being any good here on earth is bogus. A true faith leads to good works. That's in the Bible too but Bell probably didn't read that part. Also, the message of the Bible is about redemption of souls and renewing a relationship with God NOT renewing the world. The Bible teaches the world is fallen.

    March 31, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      Well said!

      March 31, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
    • jabarhead

      I'm still waiting to learn which pastor on Earth has all of the Bible interpreted flawlessly.

      I want to know who to listen to. If Bell is wrong, then you're implying that there is someone on Earth who is "right." Who is this person or persons with flawless theology? Point him out do that we may all follow him/her.

      That goes for you too, PRISM. You still haven't responded. Are you the only one on Earth with all the scriptures perfectly translated and understood? And, if not, then I guess we should be weary of listening to your dribble as well, too, right?

      I can't wait to read your response that doesn't respond to a logical question, but merely quotes the Bible and over-used "Christian" jargon to cloak bigoted judgement and self-righteousness.

      April 1, 2011 at 9:09 am |
    • mb2010a

      "Bell's theology is formed by cherry picking a very few verses in Bible, ignoring the rest, and using his imagination to determine what makes sense".

      That also describes every one of the so-called organized Christian religions. They all "cherry pick" the Bible to promote their own "religious views". It's all hearsay any way you look at it. The Bible is the word of MAN, not the word of G_D.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  10. chip

    Kind of sick of hearing the ignorant say that Jesus talked about hell "all the time." Learn to use a Lexicon. The words appear very few times in the entire New Testament, and most of the time in context can't possibly refer to a place of torment after death: Gehenna 12 times, but this is a geographical location near Jerusalem; Hades 10 times, but this is simply "the grave" where people sleep; and Tartarus (1 – in James), which Jesus never even uses. Rob Bell is right on with his analysis. Contrast the use of "hell" (which is 3 different words, mistranslated, actually) with: Love (115 times), Grace (156 times), Forgive (146 times), Life ("zoe" 135 times). If your focus is on Hell, it's in the wrong place.

    March 31, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • PPLETON

      I DO AGREE THAT OUR FOCUS SHOULD NOT BE ON HELL, BUT THE EVANGELICAL, BIBLICAL MESSAGE IS THAT NARROW IS THE PATH THAT LEADS TO SALVATION AND THAT ONLY BELIEF IN CHRIST HAS US ON THAT PATH. MISSIONARIES FOR CENTURY'S HAVE BEEN MOTIVATED BY LOST SOULS TO WIN THEM FOR CHRIST. WE MUST BE CAREFUL NOT TO DILUTE THE CORE GOSPEL MESSAGE IN THE NAME OF ASKING QUESTIONS AND FIXING FOCUS.

      March 31, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
    • jabarhead

      or, maybe we should be careful not to dilute the search for truth in the name of Dogma and tradition.

      April 1, 2011 at 8:55 am |
    • God Illusion

      Incorrect – your immediate focus should be on turning off your caps lock. One thing at a time.

      April 1, 2011 at 9:56 am |
    • daniel

      @PPLETON,

      Why are you shouting? I'm in a library. Turn off your caps lock.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:42 am |
  11. Michael, Chapel Hill

    Bible is available to everyone unlike many other religious books. Anyone with sincerity could read and understand what Jesus said. Jesus being the only one who has seen "here" and the "hereafter," clarifies many of our doubts. Jesus is clear about heaven and hell. If pastor Bell preaches against it, he is preaching, "some other gospel."

    March 31, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • IkanThink

      So the Bible has a clear, simple message that needs to be read with sincerity and Rob Bell has missed the mark, huh? Except that the other 4,000+ Xtian sects all think they have sincerely established that message with accuracy and probably differ from your interpretation (why is that BTW)? At any rate, Satan started out as a Greek god Hermes who led the dead to their resting place, his character evolved and was included in many apocryphal stories omitted by the Talmud. That's why he is not really mentioned in the Xtian Bible much – his evilness needed to be tweaked, along with the presence of angels. So, the ORIGINAL OT

      March 31, 2011 at 10:47 pm |
  12. who cares

    I read some of these comments and it just reinforces my faith and belief that I live amongst CRAZY people!

    March 31, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  13. Sam

    If he's not universalist what is he? I mean, I guess he wants people to buy the book to see what he actually says about heaven and hell but this didn't seem like much of "answer to the critics".

    March 31, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  14. mhklein

    I can't understand some religious people. How can you be certain of what God will or will not do? Who can say if Gandhi is in heaven or in hell? These decisions are completely out of our control. It is time for us humans to learn a little humility.

    March 31, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Tyler

      My thought would be that if you believe God sent the Bible down to this earth to speak directly to humans and communicate his love and message, that would be where we get the idea. Knowing that, you take verses like John 3:16 which says, "God so loved the world that he sent his one and only begotten son, so that all who believe in him may not perish but have eternal life" and also Ephesians 2:8 which says, "For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God," and we use those as chriteria for how we become saved.

      April 1, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  15. Henry Plantagenet

    You do have to wonder about certain people, who believe heaven has value because of who is kept OUT.

    March 31, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • God Illusion

      It's just an extension of the country club mentality – exclusivity equals value. Oddly enough most christians see heaven as a country club in the sky where their dead family and friends are waiting for them.

      It's so silly it's laughable, but seriously – that's what they think – wish-thinking that has endured 1000s of years fostered by threats and promises.

      April 1, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  16. Fritz

    http://dogdays-phoenix.blogspot.com/

    Here is Jesus' facebook page

    March 30, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
  17. weasel

    Nothing wrong with questioning what is considered conventional thought. It how people advance.

    And Paul, blab all you want and call them fantasies all you want. The fact that you so desperately need to insult others, shows the fear you hold deep down.

    March 30, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
  18. Jean Berrouet

    Is Pastor Bell advocating Pluralism without realizing it?

    March 30, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
  19. RainyAlaska

    Paster Bell doesn't believe God wants controversy? How do you know what you believe unless you're confronted? If you just have faith and are never tested, do you have real faith? I think God approves of controversy and debate (to a point). I don't want to be blindly led down someone's path of faith. God can take a little controversy, it wouldn't be the first time in 2,000+ years.

    March 30, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
  20. Bart

    Genesis 1:1 reports that God created "heavens and earth". It says nothing about God creating hell. People created hell and moved into it. Why don't you get the hell out? Follow Moses, the Prophets and Messiah Jesus and come back to our
    Father in heaven. The kingdom of God is in your midst. Primitive creatures with an undeveloped language depend on literary
    devices to communicate ideas as well as those who try to communicate with them. The redemptive message of Jesus is as
    simple as all of God's messengers could possibly make it.

    March 30, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • Magic

      Bart,
      "The redemptive message of Jesus is as simple as all of God's messengers could possibly make it."

      That's the best that an all-knowing "God" can do? Hmmmmm.

      March 30, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • paul

      Haven't you all had enough of the childish heaven and hell fantasies. Get real, get a life, and give up your supernatural, magic thinking. There are no gods. Get over it and live in reality.

      March 30, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
    • Sam

      Jesus Christ talked all the time about hell. Using one verse and ignoring the rest of the Bible doesn't really prove your point. Unless you don't believe anything Jesus Christ said in which case you really shouldn't be using Gen 1:1 to try and prove anything. Furthermore, I'm not a theologian but couldn't one make the argument that Gen 1:1 was prior to Satan's rebellion against God and thus no hell at the time?

      March 31, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • jabarhead

      Magic,

      an all knowing god made you.

      I guess sometimes his creation isn't always perfect after all.

      hmmmmmmm.

      April 1, 2011 at 8:58 am |
    • TruthandJustice

      In Genesis 1 the word 'heavens' refers to things seen in the sky (outer space). It has nothing to with the place where God is. Try again please.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:59 am |
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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.