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. Mr. Guy

    I love Science and I love Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit...also known as God. Science is so cool...why? Because all science is doing is discovering what God did in creation and how it He made it. All science can do is discover and describe God. Science is one of the highest forms of Worship to the Ancient of Days...by discovering God and his Physics/Chemistry/Biology. What we do (man) with that information is another thing all together.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  2. wt

    Isn't Christianity basically the idea of bailout wrapped up in the guise of a religion?

    March 1, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  3. student

    If indeed Rob Bell is teaching what he has been accused of teaching...that good ppl will go to heaven based on their good works...then he is a heretic. that simply is not Biblical Christianity.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  4. Jess

    This is 2011, and people still believe that a 70 year life span will result in eternal damnation (billions of years). People ... THINK !!! I left the church after 15 years because of this ridiculous belief. The real good news: if there is no heaven or hell, then what is there for Jesus to save us from? You are free to embrace life. YES ... now that is good news!

    March 1, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  5. crucified

    Luke 16:19-31 Gives a great desscription of Hell from Jesus. some dismiss thought to be parable.. which is a misunderstanding because it is not an alagory.. parables were descriptions using REAL things and places, meaning Jesus' description of Hell is exacting. Hell is real, and Matthew 7:13-14 says who goes and so does Matthew 12:31-32 which talks about the unpardonable sin Which is Dening "Jesus Christ" which gives you the Holy Spirit to change you.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • Fabiola Ribeiro


      March 1, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  6. Jason Medlin

    If you knew someone was pointing people away from Heaven and thousands were following him, wouldn't you say something? These men have...http://blog.christianitytoday.com/ctliveblog/archives/2011/02/rob_bells_book.html

    March 1, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  7. Jarod47

    '...Taylor he says his blog expresses his personal opinion not the opinion of the coalition'
    OK now my opinion, hereafter called The Good News', is:
    Hell does not exist. Also, heaven does not exist, god does not exist, jezus does not exist, original sin does not exist, the devil does not exist ...
    Have a happy life.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  8. Jodester

    Hmmmmm the book does not come out til the end of March and yet here we are in a tizzy over what it says. The author is a heretic? Sounds like sales to me. If Rob Bell has stimulated a conversation (possibly a snarky one) about who is God? Who are we? What do we believe about the relationship of one to the other? then he has done a service for us all. Mr. Bell's videos have always been about sparking thought, conversation and powerful faith in God. How will this book be different? I think it was also Jesus who said, "Judge not, Lest you be judged" and those people were caught in adultery. Bell hasn't been proven to be guilty of anything. In America people are allowed freedom of speech. I guess we'll find out at THE END OF MARCH unless of course we burn him first. Are you collecting the firewood?

    March 1, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  9. raul

    This opiate that you call religion, has saved you to have to deal with people that would love, in other reality, to eat you in pieces. Thanks to Marx there has been a lot of persecution against this idiotic religion. Thanks to Marx there has been a lot of blood shed, just for the sake of equality. By the way, if you believe in Marx, do you have a PC or a Mac? Why don't you give your money to the poor? Why do you ask for better salaries?

    March 1, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • Observer

      So only religious people have died in the fight against Communism? Dream on.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  10. Nathan Bridges

    I think it's important to note that the author here has misquoted Rob Bell in this piece. It's a quote from the promotional video for the new book. Eric Marrapodi qoutes Bell as saying

    "What we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God likes,"

    After reading this article I went and watched the video and what Bell actually says is

    "What we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about God and what He is like."

    That is a huge difference. It completely changes the meaning of what Bell is saying. I'm not defending Universalism here I just think it's important to note that Eric Marrapodi is misrepresenting Bell in that quote.

    Frankly for a CNN publication there should have been better proof reading here to catch that glaring mistake before it's post.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  11. tony

    According to my bible, God needed to the hide the Israelites from the Egyptian army one day, but was to drown them all the day after. I wonder how you preach the existence and power of god on that basis.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  12. Seattle

    In the end, no one knows jack about what comes after you die. The only "universal" constant in human life you CAN count on is death and taxes. But death more importantly is something everyone does alone and in their own way.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  13. michael

    not sure why you waste your time with non believers when their whole purpose is to get underneath ones skin. let them have their beliefs and we keep ours. as sad at it is that they know the word of god and still denouce Him, would you really want to walk side by side with christ when he comes again. rejoice in the fact that we will be with our loved ones after death, and those loved ones that are not christian yet, focus your energy and time on them. follow Christs commandment and love eachother as he loved us. those who disbelieve is only a crutch to live their lives as they wish and justify everything they do with a decent conscious.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Fabiola Ribeiro

      Unfortunately brother Jesus also call us to talk about him to all people especially those unbelievers, however you do have a point that most people here who question God's existence it's not because they never heard of him, they just choose not to believe... I guess it's useless to think that someone here will try to look for God 🙁 if only they knew what they're missing out

      March 1, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  14. pmmarion

    "I have a high degree of confidence in what God is saying and what we can understand." Therein lies the problem with people. It is hubris to think that ANYONE can even to begin to say what god is saying...

    March 1, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  15. mikel

    Another excuse to justify destructive and deviant behavior. Why fight sin when it is so easy to deny it as sin. Good luck on Judgment day...

    March 1, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  16. Dan

    Jesus Christ Himself said that only a few would be saved. (Matt 7:14) To say that everyone goes to Heaven is to call Jesus a liar. Jesus also taught about hell. Anyway, these things are not really that surprising. The bible warns us that many false prophets and teachers would come. Rob Bell is just one of many in a long line of false teachers.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • Fabiola Ribeiro

      This is sadly true Dan. Many will come dressed as sheep and teach a false doctrine, because that is not what Jesus taught, he said there is a hell prepared for those who do not believe in him. I've had a friend who didn't yet something happened a miracle, now he's truly a believer. God can show many of you that he does exist but you need to ask him but not with pride but because you really want to believe in him.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  17. John Richardson

    Hey, even if the subject matter is imaginary, the debate and discussion is real. long live reality!

    March 1, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  18. raul

    The divinity of Jesus did not need any explanation until some heretics started teaching against it. Universalism is a dogma, that alludes no questions. The dogmatics universalist think they know better than any other denomination. But, when we see the way the behave against the morality transmitted in the church, we see a lot of contradictions. Just because a denominations is loosing young followers that doesn't mean the need to change doctrines. Jesus once was by him self and a small group of followers after he reveled his nature as the bread of live disciples needed to eat a drink. Evolution is still a "theory" but it has not even had a passed the stage of thesis. Evolution is one of the biggest lies in earth.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • vel

      Unfortunately, "raul" you use the results of evolutionary theory being quite true everyday. Medicine, especially antibiotics, is built on it. As is all of food production.

      March 1, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  19. TheRealJesus

    Well, this guy's half right at least. No hell, and no heaven.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  20. C B

    All religion is idiotic. It is, as I believe Marx said (and one of the only things he said that made sense), the opiate of the people.

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

      if you think that is the only thing Marx said that makes sense to you...you need to hit the books my friend...

      March 1, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • raul

      Listen man,
      This opiate that you call religion, has saved you to have to deal with people that would love, in other reality, to eat you in pieces. Thanks to Marx there has been a lot of persecution against this idiotic religion. Thanks to Marx there has been a lot of blood shed, just for the sake of equality. By the way, if you believe in Marx, do you have a PC or a Mac? Why don't you give your money to the poor? Why do you ask for better salaries? Where do you live, in a house or at the streets?

      March 1, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • C B

      @mpouxesas: I've read everything by Marx, et al., and I think most of his inane babble is just that – nonsense.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • KM

      I'm with you, Rob Bell. Notice the word "commendation" in the following Scripture verse [1Corinthians 4:4-5]. This is not a typo.
      "I am not aware of anything against myself. but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God."

      March 1, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • Patrick Lewis

      Marx had a lot of interesting ideas that are utterly unworkable – nice, but unworkable.

      As for religion, beliefs in "universal truths" have held society together since man was capable of any society beyond a family tribe. In this modern age, some of these dogmatic "universal truths" are replaced by science, law and ethics.

      That said, I like the idea that everyone goes to heaven, or in other words, there is no "Final Judgment." It takes all the loopholes out of the system. I mean, I could be a total psychopath, but if I accept Jesus right at the end, everything is cool. How is that fair?

      March 1, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • sandra

      Here is the the 'quote' in context ...
      Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man—state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d'honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:25 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.