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. truthiness

    I would like to see any of this so-called evidence of the existence of a heaven or hell. The bible is a book written by people thousands of years ago. Jesus was a great man and philosopher but he didn't do magic. The only things that should be taken from the bible are lessons, it should in no way be taken literally. We no longer need religion to explain the unexplainable, science has taught us how humans and animals truly came on to the earth and it is clearly evident that a lot of things that are said in the bible are obviously false and people who dont realize that need to begin accepting reality

    March 1, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  2. iswimalot

    But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only A FEW find it. – Matthew 7:14

    March 1, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  3. Julio

    Any boy can claim whatever they want, the BIG question is: Is it the truth? Aren't we fabricating our own gods just like the isralites whom just dind't like the way God was running things? Aren't we creating our own gods so that we can sleep better with our sins?...

    March 1, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  4. James

    I highly appreciate the love-all mentality. Loving everyone is our first priority. However, the way to heaven is a narrow path and only few find it.

    March 1, 2011 at 10:25 am |
    • Rabid Rabbit

      And none of us here now have any way of knowing who among those who have passed have found that narrow path. I would think that make all true believers just a little bit humble.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
  5. DavidK

    Ghandi said it best.....'I have no problems with Christ. It's Christians I have the problem with. I have found very few Christians that are Christ-like'.

    March 1, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • RobA

      Fan clubs are like that. They always go too far.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  6. RobA

    Oh no, don't take Hell away from me! How will I mislead my children and force them to accept my archaic beliefs if I don't have the threat of Hell handy?

    March 1, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  7. conradshull

    It takes a Knuclehead to not understand the difference in scope between slaughtering people who disagree with one's inflexible beliefs and getting really mad at them for it.

    March 1, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  8. edmundburkeson

    What is the point? It seems like historic faith is under fire here. It is certainly not new that people step outside the bounds of Christian diversity. It happens all the time. The author has an issue with the fact that there are standards to which Christians are held accountable. Okay! So univeralism does not square with the historic Christian faith. Trying to force this issue will give you nothing but hemmoroids. Get over it!! Stop trying to sanctify modern univeralist viewpoints by slapping Christian labels on them.

    March 1, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • RobA

      The fact is, there are only 2 people to whom each "Christian" can be held accountable regarding how Christian they are...themselves and God. Arguing over whether this or that is or isn't Christian changes Christianity from a dynamic philosophy into a stale, obsolete club whose members are desperate to preserve the illusion that what they think matters to anyone but them. It is for a person to say whether they themselves are or are not an adherent to a faith.

      You can't just dramatically point a finger at them and bellow "UNCLEAN" whenever someone does something you disagree with. Well, you can, but it's totally meaningless and it devalues your faith.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  9. Ben

    I know universalism is appealing, but when you think about it that means that Mother Theresa and Hitler share the same fate. It just doesn't make sense. There has to be justice carried out to some extent at least. Obviously they share the same fate if atheism is true, but if Christianity is true I don't see how universalism can be justified.

    March 1, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • RobA

      That's the problem with religion in general, a tendency toward voluntary blindness. "I don't see" does not equate to "It can't be" anywhere except in the narrow minds of the naysayers themselves.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • Universe

      Congrats for fulfilling Godwin's Law.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • Rabid Rabbit

      "Atheism" and "Christianity" are not the only two choices (although some Christians may believe so, considering anyone who isn't a Christian in their eyes an atheist by default). Speaking as a dyed-in-the-wool universalist, the cool thing is that if I'm right, when we meet on the other side, I will have the opportunity to say "I told you so," but if either atheists or traditional Christians are right, y'all won't get to say it to me 🙂

      March 1, 2011 at 11:30 pm |
  10. Tabletop

    "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..."

    So...this is a story about a tweet by some guy about a promotional video and summary about a book written by another guy that no one has read in its entirety yet. It's not even on the shelves yet. Of course, everyone already has an opinion on this topic, pastor, book and religion in general based on an article that may or may not have taken this guy's words out of context. Awesome job, CNN.

    March 1, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • John

      Well said! Really great point.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

      Don't worry. The Catholic Church has probably already added it to the Index. That should guarantee it will be a top 1000 seller at Amazon when it is finally released.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  11. Mel

    Organized religion must control our lust, greed, and fear in order to keep us in the fold. That is why human-defined religions insist on heaven and hell - to promise reward for our faithful adherence to their creed, and to promise punishment for those who stray from the defined paths. The truth is that no human being can really know that which he or she cannot explain. It's all beyond human ken, so why don't we just admit that and live the best life that we can? If there is a divine being, that being is more likely to look upon such an admission favorably than if we invent myths to explain the unfathomable. These myths, in the form of organized religion, are a prime cause of much human misery.

    March 1, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • Robin

      Very well said, Mel. I agree comletely!

      March 1, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  12. Mike Dodd

    If you believe in the Bible, then you have to believe in hell and judgement as it is clearly stated in there. If you don't believe in the Bible, then how can you be a Christian, since it is the source of our information on the life, death, and reserection of Jesus. Also, the Bible is clear that not everyone will be in heaven. Again, if you don't believe that, fine, but don't call yourself a Christian.

    March 1, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • RobA

      Christians nowadays don't "believe in the Bible," they pick and choose the fables from it that most strongly support their particular level of philosophical derangement. Unless of course you yourself believe in slavery as a punishment for theft or destruction of property, or in ceremonial purification for anyone who touches a dead animal? Because those things are in the Bible too.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

      The Bible also says that men are not to cut the sides of their hair, eat pork or shellfish. The same Bible honored adulterers (David, Solomon) and caused a righteous man (Job) to suffer relentlessly. It forced a prophet (Jonah) to a city where he expected his message would not be accepted and it would be destroyed – instead, in less than a day the entire city repented and Jonah was disgusted that God would not destroy it. The same Bible showed Jesus forgiving sinners, eating with Gentiles, healing on the Sabbath and forcing the money lenders out of the Temple of Herod! Given all that why do you have a problem recognizing that the Bible is full of contradictions? Read the four Gospels and you will find a loving and forgiving Savior who shows us the way! Read Paul's letters and you will find a bitter God who would prefer to punish us than to welcome us into his presence!!

      March 1, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • T. Lee

      @MikeDodd: "Hell is clearly stated (in the Bible)" [summarizing].

      No, actually it isn't – at least not as ministers and priests teach that it is.

      First – distinguish between "Hell" and the Lake of Fire of The Revelation. They are two different things.
      Secondly – do some research on the words for "Hell" and how they grew into being mistakenly taught as "Hell" as it is today.

      The Hebrew word usually translated as "Hell" is "Sheol" (literally a "hole" or "hollow place" in the ground). In the KJV "sheol" is rendered "hell" 31 times. It is rendered "grave" 31 times, and "pit" 3 times.

      So why the "inconsistency? If it is a place of burning fire, i.e. "Hell", then why render it as the "grave" or "pit"??

      Because as you see, "Sheol" was never considered to be a place of fire and torment by the Hebrews. To keep this as short as possible without going into more detail – when "Sheol" was translated into Greek (LXX) it became "Hades" reflecting the Hellenistic concept of eternal destruction and thus not a "hole in the ground" as neither did the Latin translation of "Sheol" into "Infernos" reflect the original meaning of the word from the Hebrew.

      There are a couple of other words usually translated (such as "Gehenna") but not enough time and space to present that they too are not intended literally but metaphorically as was the example Jesus used regarding the "rich" man and "Lazarus" in "hell" in the parable-style he used throughout his ministry (Matthew 13:34) up until the very last when his disciples exclaimed he suddenly wasn't using that style of teaching (Jn 16:25-29).

      So- do some research – preferably independent of denominational and seminarian teachings.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  13. T. Lee

    Both the teaching that some go to Heaven, some to Hell, or as this man preaches ALL go to Heaven and there is no Hell are "teachings of man" that have little to do with what is actually in the Bible.

    Whether taken as literal or metaphorical, in the story of Adam and Eve there was never any provision for "going to Heaven" – because they were going to live forever on the earth as long as they obeyed the directives of their Creator. The only way therefore to "die" was to "sin" – and since the only to get to "heaven" (according to the teachings just mentioned) is to "die – then is "sin" and "death" a "blessing" because of winding up in "heaven"?

    It is flawed theology derived from the inclusion of "immortal soul" teachings from the Hellenistic and other religions incorporated into so-called "Christian" belief by the early church and continued to this day.

    If there are to be no people on the earth after death – then what is the purpose of the "New" Earth after this present age is brought to its conclusion? Again – not paying attention to what is actually indicated in the Bible regarding both the future of the earth and mankind that is to live on it is to be deceived into believing something else by those "doctrines of men" alluded to earlier (and the "New" Heavens that are spoken of at the same the "New Earth" is described is another matter and better discussed separately).

    March 1, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • Robin

      Where in the Bible does it teach about hell....where does it even say the word "hell"?

      March 1, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • T. Lee

      Robin – please consider the comments just entered in response to @MikeDodd.

      Perhaps that will help (at least begin) to answer your question.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  14. Gleah12

    We cannot call ourselves Christians and pick and choose what parts of God's word we comfortably want to believe. Jesus was crucified for a reason and this is purely it. The sin of man and his rejection toward the truth. If those that are called to teach the Word would just stick to the truth, with love, and stop chopping it up to fit our comfort zone more souls would be brought to know and accept our Savior, Jesus. Otherwise, those that choose to believe these false teachings unfortunately will find out that Hell does exist. And another tear will drop from our Saviors' eye.

    March 1, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • RobA

      The problem being that "truth" means whatever the person telling it wants it to mean. For example, your odd little extrapolation here claims that Jesus died because people don't believe in the Bible. Really, do Christians just make this up as you go? Even the people who wrote the Bible took several decades to work out the details, and look what a shoddy job they did. It's the most self-contradictory work of all time.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • NoGodHere

      That is what religion is, picking and choosing which " words of god " to follow and which to ignore. The bible is an ancient story written to be appropriate for the TIME it was written. It's a fairytale people, get over it.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • Denogh

      "We cannot call ourselves Christians and pick and choose what parts of God's word we comfortably want to believe. "

      You're absolutely right. For this reason I'm going to start stoning non-virgins on their father's doorstep and stoning witches (I work with a Wiccan, actually, so that's handy that I don't have to go far to find one). I'm going to start asking my female colleagues if they are menstruating so I can be sure to keep a safe distance to avoid impurity. In fact, in keeping with God's infinite wisdom, I'm going out to purchase a non-Jewish slave right after work. My apartment could use a good cleaning.

      You see, if you follow all of "God's word" contained in those (very selectively chosen) 66 books, you end up with some things going on that our modern sensibilities find disgusting.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  15. JohnQuest

    Seems to me, Bell is as right as any other person speaking about the Bible. Unless a person can read the mind of God (assuming there is a God, which I am not assuming) it's all guess work and wishful thinking, including the authors or the Bible.

    March 1, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • Mike Dodd

      That's fine if that's what you believe. But, if you are using the Bible as the source of truth, the Bible is clear about hell and judgement. It's not interpreting the mind of God, it's reading the Bible as the inspired word of God. If you don't believe fine, but this Pastor is claiming to believe the Bible and a Christian, but misrepresenting what is in the Bible so as not to offend anyone.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

      Uh, Mike, would you mind telling me where in the four Gospels Jesus makes any mention of Hell? I know that Paul tries to drown us in the concept in his Epistles, and John the Evangelist in his magic mushroom hallucinations called Revelations does so, too. But where in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John does Jesus specifically say anyone will be going to Hell?

      Here is another tidbit for you. A Jew of the 1st Century CE would not have the same concept of Hell as descendants of the readers of Dante. To them Sheol was a place where God would be absent from them for eternity. That, to my way of thinking, is worse than the tortures imagined by a 13th Century Italian author.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • CatholicMom

      Joe from CT, not Lieberman,
      The New Testament lies hidden in the Old Testament and the Old Testament is revealed in the New Testament.
      Try reading the Bible in that Light.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  16. Dave Guck

    If Mr. Bell calls himself a "pastor and Christian author" and doesn't know how to become "one of the few", he needs to have his credentials checked.

    March 1, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

      I always love to question people who refer to themselves as "the few" as to how they are sure they have been selected. The Greeks has a term for this – Hubris. Before going around claiming you are more worthy than others, you had better reevaluate your own life and make sure you have no hypocrisy in your heart when you meet the Creator!

      March 1, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • John

      Glad you got it all figured out.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • Robin

      You need to go back and read the whole article again. I think you missed the entire point.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  17. Gort01


    March 1, 2011 at 10:16 am |
    • Ryan

      Does truth change over time?

      March 1, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • RobA

      Unfortunately they are serious. Mentally, for them it is 1511.

      And yes, truth changes over time. That's the difference between truth and fact; truth is manipulated to fit a desired outcome. Facts simply exist.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • CatholicMom

      Truth cannot change! Whatever is True cannot change and become false.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • stejo

      cath mom – used to be true that the earth was the center of the universe – not a fact, The Truth. Stating otherwise could get you killed in an unpleasant manner. Truth changes, facts don't. Truth is a human concept; facts aren't.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  18. Sam

    I'll have to read the book. The idea that we're all going to heaven is patently false. It simply wouldn't make any sense, why even bother being a Christian?? Might as well live like a sinner and go to heaven anyway. Now if he's going more along the line of C.S. Lewis in "The Last Battle" that perhaps God might allow people who were sincere in their belief but had never been properly introduced to the One True God into heaven, that has some potential.

    March 1, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • JohnQuest

      Sam, how do you know what has or does not have Heavenly potential?

      March 1, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • ok.

      Because Sam is a Christian, therefor he innately believes in supernatural things and judges everything and everyone around him.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • John

      So that's why you are a christian?

      March 1, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • Mike Dodd

      Wonderful to know I'll be in heaven with Hitler, Stalin, etc. Seriously, the guy is a heretic if he is a Christian pastor teaching this.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • rosa linn

      you do realize that c.s. Lewis was a devout christian man who included that included his opinion about what he thought may or may not happen when God calls us all home. No one actually knows what will happen. he guessed, he might be right or he might not, but regardless, there is a heaven and there is a hell and there is a Yahweh and there is was ans will always be a Jesus Christ. You'll ask me how i know of course. let me ask you something, how do you know you love your parents? you'll ask for proof that you can look at and touch. let me ask you another question, can you give me proof that you love your mother? can you physically hand me the proof of you love; that your heart fells love for your own mother? you cant. nevertheless, that love is still there and is just as real as anything else. Christians as myself feel the exact same way about God and Jesus. we can not prove it, but we KNOW it. please at the very least think about the things that i have said. ask questions. at the most (in your opinion) you'll have ONLY lost time.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  19. SDFrankie

    He claims unicorns have pink eyes. For that alone we should burn him at the stake. Clearly, as has been taught for ages, unicorns have golden eyes. Golden! How can we allow this devil to continue to draw breath?

    March 1, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • Robin

      I hear ya....when someone says to have an open mind, they are really saying...listen to what I am saying and believe me cause you are wrong....that is not an open mind that is a brainwash.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • Drbbt

      Why did you even take the time to post this? Or read the article for that matter?

      March 1, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • Jason Kichline

      Did you know unicorns are in the bible too? http://www.biblegateway.com/quicksearch/?quicksearch=unicorn&qs_version=KJV

      March 1, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  20. Knucklehead

    The differences between the Christian Right and Islamic Fundamentalism are becoming less and less. Pretty soon they'll be issuing "fatwahs" and calling for the deaths of all those who preach a "false doctrine."

    March 1, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • Hmm...

      Sure, because disagreeing with someone and stoning them are the same thing.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:16 am |
    • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

      I guess you haven't been listening to Pat Robertson over the past couple of years.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • ok.

      Seeing as how all religion is false to begin with, it is impossible for this guy to teach a false religion.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:25 am |
    • Greg

      this will be a favorite church for rapists, murderers, and evil people everywhere. but really, this religion is no crazier than others who simply forgive sins before 1 dies. wake up, there is no just, loving god. look at all the pain and suffering in the world and tell me how a loving god would allow that to happen.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • Xandersun

      Well, not too long ago, some "Christians" did lynch anybody who did not hew to the "Christian orthodoxy" that God created the races to be separate. Or that even more recently that God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve? I wouldn't count out descending back into barbarism spurred on by religious fanaticism on the "Christian" side either. Economic crises can have very surprising results (who would have thought "civilized Germany" in 1913 would have descended into what it did 20 years later?)

      March 1, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • CatholicMom

      A loving God gave us free will and we choose the Way rather than follow the Way set down by Jesus Christ. But suffering and pain can be joined to Jesus Christ’s sufferings on the Cross and He will turn it to good use for the sufferer or the world. Look at the Good that came from His sufferings on the Cross for us! We are asked to take up our Cross and follow Him. When we do take up our cross [our sufferings] and offer it out of love of neighbor we find that our cross becomes a light yoke.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:24 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.