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. Jeff

    Based on what I read in the article above it sounds like Rob Bell's new book asks challenging questions about Hell. But it does not sound like anyone has read the book to read what Mr. Bell's answers are to those questions. The questions themselves are certainly not heretical to ask. So, I don't think we can fairly say that Rob Bell is a Universalist, and preaching a false gospel, until the book is released and read.

    March 1, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  2. Gus

    If God the Father is an all loveing God why would he exclude many of His children from His presence? Our Father in Heaven does not condemn us to either heaven or hell. All of His children will have the opportunity to hear the gospel in this life or in the next. We have been taught by the Savior that we must love all persons not say to one another, you are going to hell because you don't believe in the same God that I do. We are all Gods children regardless of who or what we belive in. We make the choices of how to act and how to live our lives. Our free agency is what helps us return to our Faters presence. Hell is more a state of mind than a place, regret of what could have been is what makes hell in our minds and the anguish of wrong choices is what makes it unbearable.

    March 1, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • femi

      Gus, er.. not a state of mind. Read the gospels. Hell is a very real place. then read revelations to see where hell and its contents end up.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • Godless

      Hell is real? Where, exactly, is it?

      March 1, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  3. Liam Hays

    I could never be a christian for the simple reason that in order to do so, the doctrine insists that we are all condemned in our natural state. I believe that life and dignity are intrinsically sacred and blessed, whomever that life belongs to. Universalism is not technically Christianity, for it removes the "Savior" necessity. Without that requirement, what is left is a form of Judaism; Christ was a Jewish Rabbi, after all. Pretty much everything he preached is found in the Torah.

    March 1, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
  4. ChuckB

    He can find a home with Unitarian (a name that also raises Christian hackles) Universalists. The whole issue of blasphemy is humorous considering the lambasting Christians give Muslims for the Koran passages that speak negatively of Christians and Jews. From this article, it seems Christians will expel and shun members who teach non-doctrinal beliefs, folks whom they consider unbelievers. Why is it OK for Christians to expel and stigmatize unbelievers but when Muslims do it signifies intolerance? Is there really any difference between zealots of any religion?

    March 1, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • Anna

      None that I can see.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • Micah

      Last time I checked, modern Christians don't kill someone for disagreeing with them.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
  5. Jon Zebedee

    Read the Old Testament. There is no heaven and hell. Ancient Jews didn't account for the afterlife. Plain and simple. Those ideas evolved.

    March 1, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
  6. Ants?

    Chill out dude, you'll surely fry for this.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
  7. Carlos

    The hilarious part about this is that they are all arguing about something that doesn't exist. This "argument" is akin to two toddlers fighting over what color wings a fairy has.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • bloofer

      It's like a bunch of kids fighting over who has the strongest Big Friend in the Sky.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  8. brad

    Thanks again, Reality. Why we're at it, let's add "CNN" to the banned list.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  9. AnneSD

    "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."

    If you haven't read the book yourself, your opinion is completely without foundation. Why would you be so foolish as to publish your opinion on a book you haven't bothered to read?

    March 1, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • dbnotcooper

      Its standard operating procedure for individuals who base their worldview on 2000 year old allegorical literature inspired by the various pagan gods of the time period.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  10. InEarnest

    Actually, in a way he's right, it's just that those who believe that a certain kind of unbeliever is thought to go to hell. It's really about human life. But he doesn't seem to explain this. Anyone who has taken a human life will not be in heaven.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  11. JR

    God is love. Hell is absence of love.
    Perfect love does not judge.

    The bible is full of contradictions because, though divinely inspired, it was written, and then translated, by human beings. Humans who, by their nature, can not fully conceive of perfect love except through their belief in God.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • Godfrey

      Please look up the word "tautology". Very little of what you've just said makes sense.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  12. TraderJoe

    The man is right. just because he is not in align with New Testament does not mean he is wrong. And who wrote New Testament and why? Someone did not like the Old Testament and decided to change things to suit them. Now this guys did not like that so he is trying to change what he did not like. All you religious people to wake up and realise that we made the religions and modified them as suitable to us. God have nothing to do with religion.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  13. Jon

    The question is what do we do with Jesus. Either He is who He says He is; the only way, the truth and the life, and the only way to God, (John 14:6) or he is one of the greatest liars of all time. He can not be both. Sounds like Rob puts him in the latter, and still calls himself a Christian.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Godfrey

      Either he is who he says he is, or he is one of the greatest liars of all time.... OR he never existed, OR he did exist and was delusional, OR etc...

      There are a number of possibilities, of course. Out of all of them, the least likely is that the Creator of the Universe came down in human form, sacrificed himself TO himself to exculpate unborn masses from having broken ambiguous rules that he himself made, and now requires only unblinking belief to avoid being tormented for eternity (oh, by the way... he LOVES us all too).

      Moronic. Ever hear of Occam's Razor?

      Funny how people apply rationality to everything except the stories they were told as children... which should be the first to go.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • The Jew

      Jesus was not the liar, and never was. He was a decent Jewish man who warned of the dangers in the Jews getting too close to Rome and in their corrupting their temple. He preached basic, fundamental Judaism. He preached adherence to kashrut, or the kosher dietary laws. He preached not working on Shabbat. And he preached universal kindness. He did not talk about hell, as Jews do not believe in hell. But his way of believing was difficult; it challenged, and it provoked, and it made people uncomfortable. Especially Romans and establishment Jews. He was killed because he was politically dangerous to the existing world order. But make no mistake: he was NOT preaching what people today call Christianity.

      No, the big liar was Saul of Tarsus, the used car salesman of the bible, who wanted so badly to spread the news of his conversion that he diluted Jesus's message down to acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah and get into heaven. No hard work, no advanced spirituality. Just believe. It was The Big Lie of all time. Without Paul, there would be no Christianity. There would just be Judaism. And that's why any questioning of this paper-thin, dogmatic cult is met with such vitriol.

      The only Truth about God is that there is only one God. The rest is commentary. Now go learn it.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • dave

      Well of course a third choice is that Jesus never made the claims you think he did. Jesus could have been, like others before and since, a man of peace who was assasinated and whose life inspired groups of followers to establish a mythology and ultimately a religion loosely based on his life and deeds.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • Godfrey

      Dave: a fair point. There are many possibilities.

      Jew: you are correct that Paul (aka Saul) popularized Christianity, but you have zero evidence to support your assertions about what the "real" Jesus was really like. There is absolutely no contemporary evidence of the man Jesus (the former sources pointed to by apologists, like Josephus and Tacitus, have been discredited and in any case are not contemporary).

      So here we have a man, you, who is claiming things about Jesus that are impossible to support with any evidence whatsoever, and calling somebody who did exactly the same thing "liar".

      How are you different from Paul?

      March 1, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Minos

      Godfrey– You're an old stick in the mud grouch. Anyone who states that all of our the stories of childhood "should be the first to go" as a sacrific on the alter of "rationalitiy" is just plain crusty, boring, and hard hearted. You parade yourself as a man of wisdom and intelligence when in fact you're a closed loop of negativity and narcissism. Do your kids and their children (and the world) a favor and leave the book selections and story telling to whoever is in their life who knows joy, values creativity, and cherishes imagination in addition to logic and truth. In a word, a balanced and open minded person with a big heart who won't raise intellectually and emotionally stunted children who end up like you.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • daflew

      I fully agree with 'The Jew' and his comments. Many modern day churchians really follow paul, and therefore are 'paulians' not Christians.

      March 1, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  14. daflew


    March 1, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  15. Godfrey

    "In dark ages people are best guided by religion, as in a pitch-black night a blind man is the best guide; he knows the roads and paths better than a man who can see.

    When daylight comes, however, it is foolish to use blind old men as guides."

    — Heinrich Heine

    March 1, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • sam

      I love it when non-religious people come to religious stories and try to convert me to non-religion. Keep pretending that you aren't worshiping anything. But don't fool yourself into thinking you can make me feel stupid or bad for worshiping God instead of money or my job or my looks or my athleticism or my intellect or my trust fund or my health or my "good works" or whatever it is you are clinging to instead.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • ST Mannew

      So true, I have Christ (the light) who is the Truth. That's why none of your conjuring holds any weight whatsoever with me. You’re just the blindman leading more blindmen.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • Godfrey

      Sam – I'm not saying you should feel "bad" about believing in gods and monsters and talking donkeys and such. It is in man's nature to believe such things: we are hard-wired to accept even the silliest stories, and there are few stories sillier than those found in the Bible.

      But you should be able to justify it in an open discussion. Interesting that the only way you can do so is to pretend that worshiping magic and folklore makes you a better person than someone who sees the world through a material lens.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • Hereticforhire

      However, the "daylight" that is revealed in Heine's depiction is really nothing more than a momentary flash of an atomic bomb. This 'daylight' only reveals that the answers these enlightenment and post-enlightenment thinkers came up with do not lead to any kind of superior views – followed to their logical conclusion, these other views allow for events like the holocaust and communism – not that religions don't do stupid killings at times. I think your daylight is destructive. If I approach life from the lens of materialism, then I am really some sort of liar when I claim there are absolute morals and ethical systems. I think Sartre is correct in his assessment of meaning, if there is no god. There can be no absolute morality if there is no absolute with which to ground it.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:50 pm |
  16. Robert

    There was once a time where everyone in the world, save one, thought the earth was flat; that the sun and stars revolved around the earth. Just because the majority think you are wrong doesn't make it so.

    I wonder why christians are seemingly so hesitant to question their beliefs, isn't their faith strong enough to withstand some honest scrutiny? Unquestioned faith leads you down the road to being no better than the radical Muslim extremists or any other cults.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • femi

      The questioning is not the issue. The problem is that we think all knowledge must be subject to what we can totally comprehend and that is not the case. Even Jesus had to tell his disciples that there were things He could not tell them cos they could not bear it at the time.

      We all have questions but subject them to the Word and the witness of His Spirit. It's when we question and try to use our finite knowledge experience and wisdom to explain the infinite wih Him revealing it that we get into murky waters.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • Hereticforhire

      It's not a question of not allowing a question of faith – it is a question of denying what has been a key component of the Christian faith. Bell's approach is a denial of the Scriptures that he claims to follow. It's that simple. He is not putting out a question to debate as much as he is saying that these Scriptures that he claims to follow are not right. So he either needs to reject these Scriptures, or choose to subject himself to their authority.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
  17. Really, come on now

    I don't believe in heresy– that kind of thinking leads to a lot of hate and bloodshed guys. I think it's great to explore every side of spirituality because we really should know a lot more about it, and a great big chunk of society has abandoned it. From looking at history-yesterday's heresies are tomorrow's philosophies. There's a lot to be learned in calmly disagreeing with someone.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • Godfrey

      I must calmly disagree with you.

      We don't need to know more about "spirituality" except insofar as we need to understand that the supernatural is a delusion... and often a harmful one at that.

      If you intend to spend your life "explor[ing] every side of spirituality" you might as well just have your brain removed.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • ST Mannew

      Godfrey, and I calmly disagree with you. The problem you have is that you do not know what spirituality is, and I find it quite ridiculous that an atheist would try to pretend to know what it is, seeing that you don’t believe it exists. How can you judge something that you don’t think exists, you have effectively eliminated yourself from the ranks. The Truth is never harmful to anyone; it is only those who put themselves in opposition to Truth, they by default put themselves in harms way. To be Spiritual is, to possess the Truth, which is Christ, He is the Beginning of and the life in the Truth (Reality). You can build all the strawman arguments you want, you will have to deal with the Truth one day, if you like it or not.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • Godfrey

      Your veiled threats (and the attached sense of gloating) aside, you are making a poor argument. To say that I cannot know what spiritualism is since I don't believe in it is silly. You have no idea, for instance whether I ever DID believe in it – as an apostate spiritualist, I would have a much wider view than someone like you, who is still caught in its mire.

      You should question your own smugness here: it would do you good.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
  18. Ants?

    Let me give you my beliefs and explain why I named it "Ants?" One day I pulled up in my 2 ton SUV V-8 Explorer and noticed I had run over some ants. They were scurring around, doing triage and hauling off the dead and injured and I thought, they must worship my Goodyear Tires as a God, the taker of life. I imagined a small replica Goodyear on the alter of there worship. Then I thought, poor ants they have no idea they are in my driveway on the planet earth, orbiting the Sun, in the middle of nowhere in our milky way galaxy, with billions and billions of other galaxies. Then I thought "oh crap, I have no idea I'm just an ant on this meaningless hunk of cooling rock hurling thru space, orbiting a meaningless sun in a nameless galaxy in a backwater part of the universe, and I'm only going to exist for a micro second in the endless stretch of time. In the end, when we as intelligent beings (relatively) conceive of the truth for that one horrifying moment, it suddenly becomes well worth the Sunday mornings and 10% to belief, to have faith, that you, because you are good and have accepted Jesus as your personal savior will exist in perfection forever. It's powerful medicine, but I personally can't buy into it, we will all die and no longer "exist" so live life to it's fullest and don't bash anyone over the head even if they are a different religion, unless they have stolen some of your stuff!

    March 1, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • LittleChild

      we'll all be over the arguments when we die...and no...the ants were still praising YAWEH...the ants have never worshiped anything or anyone else...

      I gather you didn't read Proverbs 6:6 "Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise:"

      The ants were just cleaning up your mess of things...consider that an act of mercy...

      March 1, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
    • Minos

      Ant's don't "carry away' their dead. They're amazing little creatures, but your anthropomorphism of insects is even more silly and irrelevant to the subject at hand than some of the Looney tunes Bible verse / flame throwing fundamentalists out there who think they can stuff an Infinite God in a little box they can slip in their pocket.

      You cannot PROVE that life has no meaning - so it's your opinion based on a very dark interpretation. Your negative projection is a reflection of your grumpy ungratefulness and blindness to all the best that life has to offer - love, joy, beauty, and hope. How one perceives and interacts with their environment strongly influences their biology as well as their overall quality of life.

      It's tempting for a blind man to deny the broader reality called "sight" as opposed facing the fact that they personally lack the sense required to see. Someone who lacks taste will not appreciate a gourmet meal - or even a Happy Meal for that matter! Your lack of "spiritual" sense in no way whatsoever says anything at all about reality, it speaks only to your blindspot and perceptual limitations.

      March 1, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  19. Sue Zahnd

    If there is a heaven/hell....I suspect that the parable of the Sheep/Goats is more in line with who is "worthy"...what you do for the "least of these". Personally, I am a Unitarian Universalist. Our founders figured out things a while ago...We are able to seek truth (not have it imposed) and our first principle (not creed) is that "we believe in the inherit worth and dignity of all human belings". Of course, that also means that if you get 5 UUs together; you will have 5 different ideas and then someone will say, "on the other hand":-).

    March 1, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • David

      But if it like the parable wouldn't God offer even the Goats the chance to learn and change. Seems like very few people if any are worthy of eternal punishment even if they make bad choices.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • Southern Christian

      Jesus is there for everyone, the goats and the sheep. He will not force you to come to Him though.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  20. David

    If God and love are not synonymous, if I am not worshiping god every day by living a life of love, then call me a heretic.

    March 1, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • Southern Christian

      Love does not forgive sin which will preclude one from heaven. Works in this life will not earn one aplace in heaven. That is reserved for the Lord Jesus Christ. He only is the way to God. There is no other way as He preached while on earth.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • humility

      forgiveness of sins gets you into heaven. all you have to do is ask. asking god for forgiveness is an act of hulity and belief in his power. But how do you ask? Let us not pretend to understand. If belieef in heaven and hell help make you a more loving person then it is worth believeing in. if believe in heaven and hell make you a less loving person, ("all I have to do is ask god for forgiveness") then what's the point? My concern is that the latter interpretation does not lead to acts of kindness and love. Pinoccio had Jommeny Cricket (Jesus Crist.) We all have that voice inside that helps us understand the difference between right and wrong, love and hate. I will do my best to listen to that voice, amd when I fail I will ask forgiveness, not from god, but from those who I have hurt. For is it not the same thing? It is a cowardly act t oask for forgiveness only from the unknown.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:41 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.