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. RobA

    I'm pretty sure that the phrase "charges of heresy" is inaccurate. More like "accusations" of heresy. This is not Iran...you can't legally charge people with heresy. Hopefully things stay that way, despite the current American conservative insurgency.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • ST Mannew

      I agree, too many religious words floating around. But thankfully Christians don't hang people for disagreeing with them. They just critique their teachings. And if Bell's teachings fall outside of understood truths of the Bible, he will be corrected.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  2. Jeff

    All religions are cons Wake Up!

    March 1, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  3. ManzMan

    I am still not convinced that the bible isn't just a comic book. I have two or three at home. Perhaps I should read closer. Will get back to ya'll. Thanks.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  4. Cricket

    According to the so-called Christian ethic, those in the deepest areas of the world who have never heard of any of this nonsense are condemned to everlasting hellfire. I guess that's where, "Yes, sir, no sir, no excuse sir" originated?

    March 1, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • ST Mannew

      That’s not true; a righteous person who follows the goodness of truth is just as righteous as the any believer. No matter where they are, that’s biblical.

      You are letting your feelings about Christians fog your opinion about the Bible.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  5. bbaltrus

    Not sure if anyone has ever read of listened to Rob Bell, but the message is clear if you have. Jesus called us all to radically Love each other, and in the end Love will Win.

    If you are so inclined here is the original sermon (http://sites.google.com/site/curtisklope/RobBell-lovewins.mp3). I try to listen to it at least twice a year since I found it three years ago. It grounds me like no other sermon I have ever heard.

    If the book is along the lines of this sermon, then there will be a lot of apologizing to Rob

    March 1, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  6. Lisa Kaiser

    Bravo, Rob Bell. Nobody but God know what happens to our souls after we die. I grew Roman Catholic and was taught that righteous people of all faiths go to heaven. I think Ghandi is in heaven, Moses, Miriam, all the Jewish the prophets, and many other people from many other faiths are united with God.

    I have recently converted to Judaism. The teaching: the righteous of all faiths have a share in the world to come. Christians have become arrogant and think they alone speak for God.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • Wrong, Lisa

      Sorry, Lisa, but you couldn't be more incorrect. Christians don't speak for God; Jesus does. And He said that if you don't choose Him, you won't see the Father. Pretty clear and simple. Whether you believe this or not has no bearing on its validity. According to you, there is no standard but man's to determine their eternal salvation. If that's the point, what's the motivation to convert to another faith? Who cares? Just do what you've always done, try to be a "good person" (whatever that means) and cross your fingers that when your light goes out, another one turns on in eternity?
      No, thanks, Lisa. I'll stick with the Truth: Jesus Christ.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
  7. Denizen Kate

    More than 90% of the world's population believe in god in one form or another. Why do you suppose that is? Could it be that for most people, life here on earth is not at all heavenly; it is a hard thing, a daily struggle for some just to survive. Is it any wonder that we, as a thinking species, need to believe in something beyond this life? Could it be that it is just too scary to believe that once we're dead, that's it? That's all there is? I know a lot of intelligent people who believe in god. Belief doesn't make you an idiot (all the name-calling in this comment thread is just mean). I may be an atheist, but at least I understand why we need to believe. As long as your beliefs do not affect how I live my life, that's fine with me, but please stop trying to scare me into believing what you do with horror stories about a place you call hell.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  8. scott

    When you distort bullcrap, you still have bullcrap.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  9. dtfallout

    Because of the belief that God exists and that he is perfect, many assume he is unfair to them and their own personal hell. So how is it unfair for an innocent person to die so that guilty people can be declared innocent.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  10. mikhail

    It's all false doctrine – who cares if he makes stuff up?!?!

    March 1, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  11. Cameron Dalton

    One last thought. I am not being arrogant in stating what I believe to be truth. I am just stating what God has shown me to be true in his Bible and in my own heart and mind. All I am doing is trying to express the facts as I know them to be. Similar to seeing a person in a buring building, most of us would try and save that person from certain death right? Now some would argue that the building isn't burning and tell me to leave them alone. Some would say I was seeing things and that the flames and smoke where figments of my imagination. While yet others would say "leave me alone it's not your place to save me". Jesus commanded me to spread the word of God. That's all I am trying to do. I am far from perfect and sin on a daily basis as do we all. The point is that God also know that we are sinners and some of us worse then others. No matter, we all are givin the free gift of salvation if we ask for it. So if you should find yourself burning in a building and chose to do nothing then don't be surprised when the flames begin to burn your flesh. Christians are sinners. They make a lot of mistakes and do a lot of bad things. However, they TRY to do the right thing and know who to ask for forgiveness when they do wrong. The fact is the closer your relationship with God then the less sinful you will be. The closer your relationship with God the more you begin to behave like a believer. I will admit there are a lot of believers that don't behave as such but that is thier choice and not a reflection on God. Bottom line is this, forgive me if I sound arrogant as it is not my intention. I wish to express my desire that all be saved and how easy God made it to be saved. Once you are saved, the closer you get to God the more your spirit will change, conversely the further away your get from God the less you will express godly traits and desires. So if you asked me if Hitler was going to heaven I would say probably not because he didn't express outwardly the traits of God or a saved person. However, only God knows his plight and by grace and love, had Hitler, seen the light and got on his knees and repented and begged God for forgiveness, God would have forgiven him like a child who has done wrong. I don't see Hitler doing that though, do you? We are all Gods children and many times behave as such. Thank God he doesn't count all of our sins over our lifetime and way them against our good deeds, for none of us would make the cut now would we.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  12. Lindsey Brutus

    It's great that these issues can be discussed openly in our country. Remember folks that many countries won't let you do this. It is a shame that there are more and more in this country who would limit or outlaw public discussion of religion. Long live the First Amendment!

    March 1, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  13. Starman

    Seriously people! There are 1500 different "Christian" religions and each one is different and each one thinks the other teach false doctrine (as well as the other going to burn in ever fire). Get over it

    March 1, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  14. Muhammad's Turban

    The scriptures teach that God wills all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. It's funny that Christians believe that little ole humans can thwart the will of God. If God wills all to be saved then at some point, at some time, all will be saved. Christians hate this original Christian doctrine because there's far more profit in scaring people to believe than there is teaching about a Savior that doesn't fail in saving the world.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  15. Paula

    Human beings need hell-not because we are all damned but because we require it as a way to respond to evil. It speaks to a certain fairness-and yes, revenge- that humans require. It helps us put the world into boxes- it especially speaks to our Greco-Roman heritage. The established church has thrived on hell. But many thoughtful folks reject that theology. I learned a long time ago that God can't be put into boxes. It is His world & His heaven & His hell & how He runs it may surprise us all. Having read most of Bell's books & viewed most of his videos, I have a honest respect for Rob Bell's sincerity & faithfulness. My guess is that he is simply voicing what many have pondered. And for that, I applaud him.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  16. Kevin

    I don't really care about the heaven and hell debate. There's enough for me to worry about today, which I think Jesus had something to say about once.
    The scary/weird part for me is this pastor's assumption that his congregation would "walk throught the valley of the shadow of death" with HIM. That's a troubling sublimation of his congregations devotion to God into their devotion to him. In fairness, it may just be an unfortunate side effect of evangelicals loving to reference scripture as much as possible. But I've also seen enough stories where both pastor and congregant forget who or what should really be the focus of devotion.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  17. Andrew

    This isn't the first time this has happened to Bell. His first book, "Velvet Elvis," was accused of denying the virgin birth. And I have a feeling that this is just as big a misunderstanding as that was. Bell does and says everything he can to get his readers to really wrestle with what he says and with what they've been taught their whole lives. This book probably isn't arguing for universalism; it's most likely just asking the questions. That's why I like him so much. I don't agree with a lot of what he says, but I very much appreciate the way he tries to get Christians to open their minds and think about their faith instead of just blindly following whatever they've been told. His books can do a lot of good, but brashly calling him a heretic without even reading the book is just going to cause unnecessary strife.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • matt

      well said

      March 1, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • notbuyinit

      Virgin birth? I love thast story! how many teenage girls throughout the history of mankind has turned up pregnant and said a angel did it? LOL...christians are weird.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • Q

      Abstinence – 99.99999% effective!

      March 1, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  18. ModernHeretic

    All pastors, priest, and supposed holy men are no different from the original bigot himself, "John" who convinced himself of his wisdom to judge, forgive and condemn. Questioning religion is your subconscious helping you to deal with REALITY.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • Frankly Speaking..

      Right on! Even the disciples of jesus were open to reason..

      March 1, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • Richard

      To Frankly Speaking...if you were as open to the truth as the disciples you would go to lbible.org and listen to the truth and understand why all of your points are incorrect. It isn't your fault that you are mistaken, it's because you haven't heard the Word of Truth spoken by a pastor that understands the orginal language and the different dispensations of the Bible. Please check it out before you pass judgement. lbible.org

      March 1, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • notbuyinit

      to richard...

      there is no god, jesus was a myth. look it up.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • Frankly Speaking..


      "It isn't your fault that you are mistaken, it's because you haven't heard the Word of Truth spoken by a pastor that understands the orginal language "

      Sorry to disappoint you son but there is not a single pastor alive who understands the dead language (ancient aramaic) that bible was revealed in.. The next time simply say something like "you cannot be brainwashed like a lot of us"

      Thank you

      March 1, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  19. sw

    The God in the christian bible says that you're only saved through acceptance in Jesus who died for the sins of all. If this is false, then Jesus was crucified for nothing. Many people believe that we can get into heaven just by being good. God doesn't send good people to heaven... who's definition of good are these people using, theirs or God's? God's definition of good is perfection... none of us are perfect. That's why he sent his son to pay the price for our sins, to wash our sins away. The guy questions whether Gandhi is in heaven or hell. I respect Gandhi and think he was a good person, but if he didn't accept Jesus in his life then I'm sorry to say that he is not in heaven. I remember when Dale Ernhardt, the race car driver, died. A reporter asked his son if he is in heaven. His son said yes because he was a good person. He may be a good person under our (man's) definition of good, but God has judged him under His definition. I'm sure that may be hard for some to accept but my faith is in God's word. God does have mercy on us and realized where mankind was heading. That's why he sent His son, that's why he gave us a way out. We can't just do whatever we want here on Earth and except to be accepted into heaven with God's arms wide open. We all accountable to HIM just like we're accountable to our parents, grandparents, friends, family. The bible clearly says that it does not take acts of good works to get into heaven, if so, how do u know that you've done enough? It only takes an act of faith in Jesus. I live in Grand Rapids, Mi, the home of Mr. Bell and have chosen not to go to his church. The message that he is sending is very dangerous to those seeking God. I don't want this to sound like a rant, but I just want to make sure that whoever reads this knows the truth, not as I see it, but as God declares it to be.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • CAM

      SW... you are spot on.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • Frankly Speaking..

      Did jesus himself claim he died for our sins ? Did he claim unequivocally anywhere in the bible that he was god ??.. Read the bible and most certainly a surprise awaits you 🙂

      March 1, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • displeased

      So all the innocent children who have been raised in households to believe otherwise will burn in hell? If there were a god, it wouldn't make sense that it punishes people for ignorance or for committing sins from mental illness because he made them that way, right? I really don't understand your religion.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • Ms. J

      Couldn't have been said better – amen, amen, amen!!!! Thank you!!

      March 1, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • richunix

      Ok I have about had enough of the Christian pundits (both educated and un-educated) rhetoric with belief in a fantasy. For two thousand years (most of that time under the threat of death), the Christian had to re-invent a deity from a simple man to a GOD. So let’s place those facts in a modern area:

      1. Moses states he saw GOD in a burning bush and was handed two or three tablets (if you believe Mel Brooks). Of course NO one else witness this transaction and the tablets (if existed) are lost to antiquity. And the Christian have the gall to question John Smith about seeing the golden tablets in a top hat!

      2. No one in the intervening years has parted the (any) sea, created a pillar of fire, turn to salt; flooded the planet (maybe a basement or two) come back from the dead, or killed an entire generation of first born and walk on water BAR NONE.

      If you haven’t figure it out by now, you never will. These are stories. They were created and inspired by men of all major cultures and if you really look, you will see the same story told with a different GOD’s name and a different location. If anyone today tried to use any of the for mention events in court they would get laugh out town. But yet when you ask a Christian did these things really happen…The resounding reply would be… Sure they did, cuz the bible told us so.

      No one (yes not one) who has a wasted money and time for PhD degree in theology has ever proven that any deity has ever existed then or even now. There basic argument is “intelligent design” or in laymen’s terms “something has had to create this”. So when I ask the enduring question what was the argument prior to modern thinking….I think his dumb look was still free. So take a “rock” outside and drop it, in planet with positive gravity, it will fall, but before it makes ground contact; ask your deity to stop it. Simple test with a simple result. Or will they fail to argumentum ad verecundiam.

      With all its failing the world is still a wonderful place and I enjoy each day, for life is wonderful and does have meaning. I will die and with that, I do not fear death for is very much part of life. Man will continue and yes we will evolve, as change is the only consent in this universe. If you really want to see if you live forever…. Go outside (or in your house) and look into a child’s eyes….you will see the spark of mankind and then you will realize we are eternal. For those who wish to believe….please do so as it gives you whatever comfort as life is the pursuit of happiness.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • Richard

      You are absolutely correct in what you have written. It is by belief in the Lord Jesus Christ as your saviour that you are saved, and not by works. Every person can do good things, whether they are inherently good or bad, but that is not the criteria for going to Heaven, as you have so eloquently stated.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • notbuyinit

      I am not buyin it. First off...there is no god. So right there your premise is amazingly short sighted. You see christians like you believe in jesus, while the jews reject that notion. The muslims believe jesus was a great guy but christians think mohamed was evil. Its a cyclical adherence to antiquated fables that is killing this planet.

      This guys take on universalism is interesting to make a buck off of but not feasible. There is no heaven, there is no hell.

      Religion, in every form on earth, is an evil and corrupt thing.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • Ants?

      Heresy!! Good Old Boy # 3 is still turning laps on Gods oval, no road courses for our lord. God loves Nascar, every race, we all pray and then the fly over.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • Atheist crunch

      eternity in any sense of afterlife is stupid

      March 1, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  20. Hilda

    The saddest thing about deception is that today's false teachers fail to comprehend the kind of "pride" and "self-importance" that it's born of and rooted in. For example, Carlton Pearson says, "I thought my people would walk through the valley of the shadow of death with me, but they didn't"! Thank God they knew the Lord for themselves and realized that they were only to follow Pearson as he followed CHRIST. Someone should tell this poor deluded man that it's about JESUS –
    NOT about Carlton Pearson.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • Frankly Speaking..

      Thats how ridiculous "god died for our sins" sounds..god died is a self contradictory statement and if you believe that you are as delusional as this man

      March 1, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • deb1986

      The blog is incorrect. The Pope said if you are a heretic or pagan, you can go to heaven and not purgatory. He said if you follow your faith and hold it true, God would not punish you. This change in the stance about non believers getting into heaven was just made within the last 2 years. By this new stance, Gandhi would be welcome into heaven.

      This pastor would be promoting something the Pope just changed radically for RCC members. The state of grace of one's soul can outweigh dogma.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • M-kell

      It ( the church) is set up just the way a Roman emperor wanted it set up, just like a Roman religion; head god (God -Zeus) , head gods son (Jesus-Hercules) and lots of little Gods for minor things (dimi-Gods – saints). Hell was a Egyptian concept that the early church stole!

      March 1, 2011 at 2:33 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.