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. crucified

    Humanism is imaginary and caused by Pride
    Atheism is imaginary and caused by Anger
    Agnostic is imaginary and caused by Pride

    March 1, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • Observer

      A recent poll/test showed that the average atheist and average agnostic knows more about the Bible than the average Christian. So what is the "cause" for their apparent ignorance of what they are talking about?

      March 1, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • crucified

      @Observer the "cause" is Pride.. They believe in themselves. Their faith is in themselves. They do not feel they need anyone or anything to save them.. Christianinty is the only religion with a SAVIOR. and it is obious in humanity we need saving. but it is PRIDE that seperates these from the truth ironically.. the DEVIL was cast out of heaven for the Sin of Pride. Yet these people believe they are better than the Devil who was an archangel and the gardian of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

      March 1, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  2. OMG

    If you are given a choice to either burn in hell and spend eternity with an evil angel OR, go to heaven and walk on streets of gold with nice angels, what do you go with? It is not something that is too hard to weigh out. If you look at the choice, it almost seems like you are scared into being a Christian. You either go to a place of eternal happiness or a place of evil. In a day and age where we have scientist throwing fact after fact in your face and no real proof of a god at all except what is written in a book by people thousands of years ago, it is hard to make that choice. Not saying that I don't think something created the earth and the universe but people do have the right to use their own brain to make a choice. What if we end up finding a new planet with life on it, got past the language wall and found out they have a totally different god or do not believe in a god at all? Are they wrong or are we wrong? Just being honest.

    March 1, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
  3. Observer

    If Jesus is praised because he made the ultimate sacrifice for all of us, why isn't anyone talking about all of the brave soldiers of all religions and orientations who have also made the ultimate sacrifice for all of us?

    March 1, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  4. Joe

    As these nonsensical debates continue to get more and more attention, I am consoled knowing that it is only a matter of time before people wake up and realize this is all a monumental waste of time and energy. There are real problems in this world, right now. While the fools of the world spend their time arguing over nuances within an anachronistic fairy tale, the rest of us are concerning ourselves with figuring out how to make this world a better place. A megalomaniacal god who demands to be worshipped in a particular way lest he burn me for eternity is not worthy of my respect or consideration. Any place he is, I wouldn't want to be. I have young children who I advise regularly about the evils of religions and the nonsense of faith. If you want to believe in a giant stuffed panda or a grotesque bloody man tied to a 2X4, feel free to do so. Just don't expect reasonable, thoughtful, good people to sit idly while you fill the airwaves and the "news" sites like this with your gibberish. We're getting pretty sick of it. Sheesh. Get over it.

    March 1, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  5. Martha

    Arguing over who's in and who's out seems like a waste of time. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand – not some far-off place. Worrying about whether Hitler or Ghandi is in heaven or hell...that time is better spent in prayer and good works. I'm surprised Bell is even addressing it.

    March 1, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  6. Pacoz

    Mormon answer to the problem: Baptism vicariously for those who never got the chance to receive it in this life. Christ paid for our sins vicariously. We can be baptized vicariously for our ancestors and others who weren't baptized. "else why are they then baptized for the dead..."

    And in heaven there are multiple degrees of glory, not just heaven and hell. "caught up unto the third heaven..."

    Want answers to the really hard questions? mormon.org I'm telling ya. God is speaking again, and not mumbling.

    March 1, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • W247

      Jeremiah 14:14 (New International Version, ©2010)

      14 Then the LORD said to me, “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I have not sent them or appointed them or spoken to them. They are prophesying to you false visions, divinations, idolatries[a] and the delusions of their own minds.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
  7. Jewel Rogers

    As a Christian we believe that in order to gain salvation a person must believe in the gift that was given which is Christs death for payment of our sins. If a person does not accept this gift how can they reap the benefits??? This is a fundamental belief in christians. Now don't get it twisted, not all Christians believe in organized religion. Matter of fact the apostle Paul speaks on that very subject a lot and describes the hypocrisy you see in it. I would love for God to change his mind and those who are good people (and I know a lot) can also go to heaven however another fundamental belief of Christianity is that no man is saved by works "lest no man boast" A person Must have faith that Christ paid for your sins. These things we are seeing now with the changing of scripture to appease everyone was written in the bible as well so I don't know why people are shocked this is happening

    March 1, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
  8. A. Bodot

    If you counted up all of the religions, sects, denominations, traditions, individuals, etc., who said they and they alone had the way to salvation how could anybody be sure they choose that singularly correct, right way to God? None of it is clear and none of it is absolute. Anymore, I just send out prayers to a supreme being I don't understand and ask, please save us all, but I totally understand it if you thought none of us worth saving.

    March 1, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
  9. Lizzy10

    I kinda think you have to wait for the book to be read before you condem the guy. I'd like to believe that we all have a shot at redemption, but will have to wait for death until we really know what's going to happen. How about we believe what Jesus said "No one can come to the Father unless it's through me". Maybe that means when we die, we meet Jesus and he asks us if we want to go with God. Who knows?

    March 1, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
  10. Kavinsky

    I always find if funny that these articles are written as if this stuff is real.

    March 1, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • Ken Schmidt

      Prove it isn't real. If you can't are you willing to accept the consequences? Think about it...does leading a good life really bother you...your children?

      March 1, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  11. Kevin

    I just cant believe CNN would allow a headline like this. I'm embarrassed to be a reader.

    March 1, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • sjc82

      Haha, he says about an article published on the CNN "Belief Blog".

      March 1, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  12. Hayden71

    Reading this thread gives perfect evidence to what many are writing on this thread.
    "Enter in through the narrow gate, for wide the gate and broad the way that leads to destruction, and many are they who enter in through it.
    For narrow the gate and straitened the way that leads to life, and they are few who find it." Matthew 7:13, 14.

    "Wide is the gate, broad the way that leads to destruction" were Jesus' words not mine. The gate and road is wide enough to fit anyone and everyone's opinions, religion and way of life, but it leads to destruction.

    Listen to what he says though at the end of the passage,

    "Whoever therefore hears these my words and does them, I will liken him to a prudent man, who built his house upon the rock;
    and the rain came down, and the streams came, and the winds blew and fell upon that house, and it did not fall, for it had been founded upon the rock.
    And every one who hears these my words and does not do them, he shall be likened to a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand;
    and the rain came down, and the streams came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, and it fell, and its fall was great. Verses 24-27.

    Popular opinion speaks of a "broad" road and the end of that is destruction, but Jesus' true way of salvation (himself and his work on the cross) is the unpopular road. Call me "narrow minded" if you will. The "narrow" road leads unto life according to Jesus and he's trustworthy in contrast to many who post their "broad" opinions.

    March 1, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  13. Curt M.

    If we believe that God is a God of infinite mercy, how do we explain hell? If hell exists, is it evidence of a limit to God's mercy?

    March 1, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • Ken Schmidt


      God is infinitely holy & just therefore there must be a hell to show His infiniite mercy.

      March 1, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • salvice

      You hit it

      March 1, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • Hope

      There is Hell for those who reject God's mercy and forgivness, because God is just. We all deserve judgement, it's just that some of us realize what we have comming and have accepted the only escape.

      March 1, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • Curt M.

      Reply to Ken's reply - When I first read your response to my questions, I thought you were being subtly sarcastic. But as I read more of your posts and understood your perspective, I realized you were being straightforward.

      So I have another question: If "there must be a hell to show His infinite mercy" for a God who is "infinitely holy & just," then what is mercy?

      March 1, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • W247

      It is because of God's mercy that you are offered an escape from an eternity in hell.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • Ken Schmidt


      W247 has the correct explanation you seek. God's infinite mercy is that while we are still yet sinners He provided a way through His Son Jesus Christ to be saved from hell & eternal damnation. So His eternal mercy is His Son Jesus Christ. We can accept His Gift or reject it.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • Curt M.

      So God's mercy is limited or conditional, based upon one's decision when "offered an escape from an eternity in hell"?

      One thing I struggle with here is seeing God as all-merciful, which I believe He is, if He begins with the supposition that we are all going to hell. It has the look of a human-conceived "trap," a projection of our imperfections and limits on an omnipotent and omniscient and all-merciful God.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • Ken Schmidt


      A common adage says that Grace gives what we do not deserve, i.e., Eternal Life, while Mercy withholds what we do deserve, i.e., Eternal Punishment; but, Mercy goes much deeper, in that it is the Lovingkindness of God through His Son Jesus Christ. Choose wisely, choose Jesus:)

      March 1, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
  14. Ken Schmidt

    Heaven & hell are real places. Many ways to hell only One Way to heaven and that is through faith in Jesus Christ as the only Son of God who died for our sins and those who repent and believe on Him will be saved and go to heaven, period.

    March 1, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • callen

      It should be noted that there is only 1 way to hell and thats not believing Jesus is Lord.

      March 1, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Kavinsky

      Really?! Have you been there?

      March 1, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Ken Schmidt

      Callen you are playing with fire because even satan believes in Jesus Christ yet he will be in hell. Therefore, there are many ways to hell and One Way to Heaven through Jesus Christ.

      March 1, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • callen

      well let me know if I was right or not if you decided to go, sometimes that the only way. I don't mean to sound mean but people are just hard headed enough to find out the hard way when its silly. Its so easy to accept Jesus.
      I don't mean this disrespectfully so all your religious people relax.
      Accepting Jesus in the beginning for most people is fire insurance. You would think that even the thought of hell being real would encourage you to take this seriously. Once you say the prayer in faith ask Jesus to start changing you and over time He will.
      I'm glad a lot of people are reading these comments because there comes a time in everyones life when they die and a lot of you will remember what is being said on here today on your death bed. So remember if you are on your death bed just call on Jesus, its the only thing that matters in life.

      March 1, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • Ken Schmidt

      The Bible is the Truth and states there is a very real place called hell. I need no other proof.

      March 1, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • sjc82

      I admire Rob Bell for being one of the few, genuine Christians, brave enough to ask really tough questions. Christianity was never about living the most comfortable life humanly possible. Maybe Bell's critics should actually read the book—when it's release—and ask themselves some tough questions about their faith before pointing a finger at Bell and calling him a Universalist.

      March 1, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • callen

      Ken the reason why satan can't go to heaven even though he believes is Jesus is because Jesus didn't come to redeem the fallen angels. Jesus came because He loves man not fallen angels. There is a big difference. I am not playing with fire, I am saying the gospel. People are looking for good news, not more reasons they are bad people going to hell. Start proclaiming good news and not condemnation.

      March 1, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • Recovering Baptist, now Episcopalian

      Okay, I don't know if those who do not accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are necessarily going to Hell, and neither do you. Jesus said, "No man comes to the Father but by me," and I believe that with all my heart. He does not say, "...but by faith in me." (Paul does, but I'm more inclined to go with Jesus himself when it comes to soteriology.)

      My point is that no one on this Earth has an insight into the unknowable will of God. I believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven, but I am not so arrogant to presume that I know just whom He may elect to admit.

      March 1, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • Ken Schmidt


      The reason satan can't go to heaven is not because he doesn't believe in Jesus Christ but because he won't accept Jesus Christ as his Savior. He fell from Grace because of his disobience due to pride.

      Recovering Bap/Epis,

      Yes, we do know that those who will not repent and accept Jesus Christ are going to eternal damnation in hell. There is a component of God's will made knowable in the Bible.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • Ken Schmidt

      Remember!!! God has two components to His will. God has an absolute will & a permissive will.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
  15. The Word was God

    If anyone who claims to be a Christian yet refutes the claims made by the bible on the divinity of Jesus or his miracles or his legacy, then yes, that is heretical..by definition..

    March 1, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  16. mike

    No one knows what happens after death, but we are all free to speculate. My own belief is that everything exists as a thought within God's mind and that heaven, hell, and purgatory are "real". I believe that those condemned to hell will relive the pain they consciously caused other people during their earth time – over and over again for eternity. Those in purgatory go through this once and then are ready for heaven. I believe that those in heaven have the joy of assisting God with continued creation and the time and opportunity to know all of the other residents.

    March 1, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • Kavinsky

      So everyone has their own little private heaven or hell?! That's almost as ridiculous as the thought of heaven and hell itself. Whatever helps you sleep at night, I guess.

      March 1, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  17. callen

    Anna the only problem about what you are saying is that you are rude towards God. Its more ignorant that anything. To say the bible is useless and its only your opinion about him that matters... its very rude. God said He "magnified His word above His name" so that means whether God is love or not His word is above His name and I would encourage you to find out what he said about getting to heaven.
    I will give you the short version.
    Jesus came died for our sins because we were sinful and He loved us so much. He took all the punishment that we deserved, He already went to hell for us and the bible says all we have to do is believe in Jesus and confess Him as our Lord. I would encourage you to do that and ask Him to show you the truth in His word.

    March 1, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • cwby

      callen, if God loves us so much and wants us to be with him, he could have skipped the whole "Earth" thing and put us straight in Heaven.

      There's a good reason we're here on Earth. Earth IS Heaven. Why people expect more, like "streets of gold" is beyond me.

      March 1, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • callen

      the reason why God doesn't just bring us right to heaven is because if He did that then we would be robots, not choosing to love Him but having to. God has trillions of angels to have in heaven, He wants your friendship and love and someone to love. Its like having kids, you have them because you love them and want them to love you. You could buy a real life doll that just says " I love you" over and over but its not real.

      March 1, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • Chris

      Callen, you are using a circular argument. I do not recognize the Bible as God's Word, so quoting it does nothing. You are appealing to authority. In this case, the authority of scripture, more accurately, the authority of your interpretation of scripture. Your arguments are without merit to a person who does not believe the Bible to be authoritative.
      I'm sure you next response is going to include something along these lines "What you believe about the absolute truth does impact its truthfulness"

      March 1, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
    • callen

      no my response is then why are you on this post? You do know its about the bible and God and Jesus.....weird

      March 1, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
  18. QS

    "The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world that he doesn't exist."
    – Charles Baudelaire

    The greatest trick man ever played was convincing the world that god does exist. There, fixed! 🙂

    March 1, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • Kevin

      You got it.

      March 1, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • Hope

      The fool says in his heart there is no God.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • QS

      The indoctrinated person says in his heart there is a god.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  19. christianbob

    Universalism/inclusion presents one major problem for the organized church system. They lose control of the masses. It's the love of God that is supposed to draw mankind to redemption... not the fear of judgement/hell. I beleive there is a lake of fire and brimstone but it is used to purge and cleanse from sin, not to destroy God's creation. Who knows, we may all need to spend some time there for the ultimate purpose of our Creator.

    March 1, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  20. Philip

    Just watched the video, it seems to imply universalism a bit, but it doesn't claim it. It just raises questions. I've seen Rob Bell raise questions before, but I don't think I've seen him reject Biblical teachings before. So I'm not going to be surprised if he's just stirring the pot so people will read his book, not because he wants sales but because he thinks he's found "the right way" to present it to our culture.

    March 1, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • Tod

      Maybe we should wait to read the book? Maybe?

      March 1, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • Religious Jerk

      Philip & Tod...

      With you guys...Rob is a question asker and absolutely does challenge the status quo. I have found in what exposure I have had to his teaching, that he gets folks looking at heart issues–not a bad thing. I will withold judgement and will gladly read the book. I don't hold exclusive rights to knowing "THE TRUTH"...Jesus does that...I just do my best to follow and grow.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:20 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.