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. Frank

    This is the third time I've seen CNN publish a story that p!mps progressive pinko interpretations of Christianity in as many days.

    March 1, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
  2. Brian

    I consider myself a born again Christian. I read the Bible regularly. I have also studied near death experiences where individuals who had died (without a heartbeat) for between 15 and 45 minutes. Some of these people who had died were not Christians and yet most of these people experienced a contact with an unconditional love in the form of a brightest light that engulfed them. Most who have had this experience called the light "god" As these individuals were in the light every moment of their life flashed before their eyes as it showed everything good and bad thing they had done. All the light was concerned about was what they had done for their "fellow man" and how they "loved" others. A very few of these people who had died experienced a literal hell with fire and torment. As a Christian I struggle with the thought that billions of people are going to hell because they are not Christian. Does that make me an unbeliever because I don't believe a loving God will send people with other beliefs than to hell? I do believe Jesus was the son of god. http://www.biography.com/isurvived-beyond-and-back/ This website is just one of many places to hear about how non christians have experienced heaven.

    March 1, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
  3. Caloy

    Hey Bob Long Hairs. Your a slave to Bronze age mentality. Get over your Big Daddy in the Sky fantasies or join the ignorant in their ravings.

    March 1, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
  4. Arick

    Just let people believe whatever they want. You probably aren't going to change their mind, if anything you will just make them angry. I don't care about people's religious views. Want to be a Christian? That's fine. Want to be an atheist? That's fine as well. World would be a better place if people would just mind their own business.

    March 1, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  5. crucified

    Hey it is the Obama-nation that causes Desolation in Mark 13:14.....

    March 1, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  6. Bob Long Hairs

    hell wants u!

    March 1, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
  7. Mr. Bones

    So the main stipulation for entering Heaven is believing in Hell? Where's THAT written?

    In that case, I guess Glenn Benton and all those other death metal dudes are gonna be REALLY confused someday when they're handed a harp and a set of wings. "Aw, wait...what? NOOO!!!!"

    March 1, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
  8. Johno

    As Paul states in 2nd Romans, nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even sin. God is our father, our papa, not our judge. Would you send your own children to hell? Unfortunately, this revelation doesn't fit in with some preachers understanding because it doesn't keep their congregation in a perpetual state of fear that they are going to hell.

    March 1, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
  9. Caloy

    Believe in Hell, not believe in Hell. Either way, its all a bunch of Hooey!

    March 1, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
  10. Bob Long Hairs

    i met Vice President Joe Biden once... he said he believes in hell

    March 1, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
  11. Bob L

    Christ said "the kigdom of heaven is within you"
    What makes you think hell, if there is one, will be found anywhere different?

    March 1, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
    • Mr. Bones

      So we each create our own hell (or heaven) within us; that's more in line with how I think.

      That, or you get sent to Peoria.

      March 1, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
    • Josh D

      This text (Luke 17:20-21) is where Jesus is scolding the Pharisees, who are merely looking for a physical, tangible, visible sign of the coming of the kingdom of God. In the ESV (an excellent literal translation), Jesus says, "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you." The KJV does translate it as "the kingdom of God is within you", but most biblical scholars don't regard this as the best translation of the Greek text, nor do they think that Jesus would have said that to the Pharisees, whom He was in the middle of scolding for their unbelief. The text is actually Jesus' way of referring to HIMSELF (giving preference to the "in the midst of you" translation). In other words, He was telling them that, when the Kingdom of God comes to them, people won't be pointing to signs in the sky – they'll be pointing to HIM – since He is the inauguration of the Kingdom of God, and His return is imminent!

      March 1, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
  12. Bob Long Hairs

    obama is evil

    March 1, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
    • Mr. Bones

      I defy you to tell me where the President was mentioned in this article.

      March 1, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
  13. Kendra

    China is HELL.. so is mexico

    March 1, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • crucified

      been to those places... I would suggest Somalia and Malasia as better descriptions of the bad place.. Malasia smells really bad!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      March 1, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
  14. Bibletruth

    Levi...the reason only 1% of those in that huge evangelical congregation raised their hand is because those that actually prayerfully study the bible (not skim read to find something they can hang their doubts on) cannot stay in churches that preach the things these huge "tickle their ears and lets have fun" churches teach. Almost everything they teach is wrong. Even those things that seem true based on a sentance statement, end up being twisted into error as they explain what they mean. So sad and I mean so sad.

    March 1, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  15. Dom

    Let's give the book a chance. Read it and then comment. So much is taken out of context.

    March 1, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • Mr. Bones

      But that takes away from TV-watchin' time! Nobody's gonna actually read the book.

      What planet are YOU from? Thinking people are going to actually read before they judge...p'shaw!

      March 1, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
  16. stephanie

    doesn't belief in hell kind of fall under the covenant of free will? for those of us who believe in God, but not predestination, we believe that God tells us things or shows us signs and it is up to us to follow His word or way. He won't force us to believe His word, whether spoken directly to us or through another person in the form of biblical writings. so whether we believe in hell because that's what they tell us in church, or whether we choose to believe it because of how we choose to interpret biblical writing, it's still our choice. i gave up on organized religion a long time ago, after years worth of contradictory catholic flip-flap. this argument over whether hell exists has been ongoing time immemorial. i've read the old and new testament, i've listened to many supposedly learned men on various religious issues, and in the end, the book was written by men, it's still being fed to us by men, it's still being discussed by men. mere mortals, who are as fallible as any of us. i believe in God, and i have formed my own ideas about what that means. i believe that when i die, i'll find out for sure one way or the other, in the meantime, i refuse let the church beat me over the head with the "YOU'RE GOING TO HELL!!!!!" crap. God knows what's in my heart, if i REALLY wished the old bat behind me in line would drop dead after trying to shove her cart up my bum (because, you know, that's how to get the cashier to ring up the guy in front of me faster, right?), He'll send me to hell, if there is one.

    March 1, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • Josh D

      Wow, Stephanie – It seems that you've really just kind of invented your own religion altogether. A "covenant of free will"? Where exactly did you get that from? And you say that you've READ "the whole Bible", yet you don't believe the things that it says – Did you really read it seeking to find out whether it was true, or had you already decided beforehand that you didn't believe it?

      Jesus spoke more about hell and the coming judgment of God more than any other topic in all of Scripture, so if you really did read the Bible, you certainly couldn't miss that theme coming through in the pages of Scripture! Yet you really think that men "wrote" the Bible, rather than preserving the inspired Word of God as it was given to them for us to read and obey?

      And you don't "believe" in predestination? So, when you read Romans 8:29, Ephesians 1:5, and Ephesians 1:11, you just kind of chalk that up to the Bible not really being what it says to be, but rather being authored by humans for some selfish purposes? Is that why the human authors were always talking about their imperfections, their shortcomings, and God's grace to them in spite of their many failures? Just what exactly was the "human" motivation behind that?

      When it comes down to it, God's Word is either TRUE or it's NOT...and I, for one, have already learned that it is undeniably true. Many have tried to disprove or ignore its teachings, yet God's Word remains unchanged and in full effect! I certainly hope that, in time, the Lord will open your eyes to the reality of His love – and the unchanging truths of His Word. May the Lord show you grace and mercy as you continue on your spiritual journey (hopefully toward Him!).

      March 1, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
    • David Smith (muddleglum)


      As soon as you said free will, I knew you had to believe in hell. If Christ is Life, then rejecting Him has one consequence - Death. Existing forever in Death is hell.

      That focus is backwards, of course. Choose Life - it's as simple as that.

      March 1, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
    • jsd

      Sorry Josh D, but it is rationally more plausible that men “wrote” or added to the bible parts that is not God’s word. It is funny how you ask the question as if it seems to make more sense that a book that has many inconsistencies and unverifiable truth has somehow perfectly expressed God’s will, word for word. And I am not sure if you have any historical knowledge, but religion has been used for profit many times throughout history. Wars, selling penance, etc – human motivation in other words. To claim that The Bible is undeniably true is very ignorant. If it was undeniably true, everyone would be Christians, but the fact is that there are contradictions, historically, scientifically, and even contradictions within The Bible itself.

      David Smith, your logic is false, or at least in the way it is explained. Existing forever in death is not death. If you still exist, you are not dead. It is more of a spiritual death, separation from God.

      This is not a criticism on Christianity but the false logic applied in defense of it.

      March 2, 2011 at 1:19 am |
  17. fsmgroupie

    burn in hell you non believers! ha ha ha ! burn! burn! burn! my son jesus ( who loves you ) is cranking up the heat right now!! so get on your knees and beg for forgiveness, love me , sing songs of praies to me, worship me or burn burn burn! (but i love you)

    March 1, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
    • crucified

      You miss the point... God is Holy.. Heaven is Holy... You are not Holy.. You are not allowed in... Jesus is Holy... Hang on to Jesus, You get in because He is Holy!

      March 1, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • fsmgroupie

      Abraham! Go forth and murder your only son Isaic to prove your love for me or you will surely burn in hell for billions of years!!!

      Yes god ok god what ever you demand god . Thanks for the free will.

      March 1, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
    • fsmgroupie

      Abraham! Go forth and murder your only son Isaic to prove your love for me or you will surely burn in hell for billions of years!!!

      Yes god ok god what ever you demand god . Thanks for the free will. I love you so much.

      March 1, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
    • holycow

      Christian love?

      March 21, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  18. Bibletruth

    If you love me keep my commandments.
    Fear God and Keep His commandments for this is the whole duty of man.
    The saints of God are defined in scripture (in rev and elsewhere) as those that keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus
    And of course those who want to excuse there sinning life because "I'm only human", dont despair.... through Christ all things are possible. We are to become partakers of the divine nature...thats what being born again is all about ...and then you will PROVE on your own two feet in this world what is that good and acceptable and PERFECT will of God Romans 12: 1&2)

    March 1, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
  19. Seetheway

    He doesn't preach Hell, because he thinks he can hide from his sin just like unbelievers. One day their sin will be revealed and it will be too late to change your mind about the reality of God and Christ Jesus.

    March 1, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • Arick

      And you are without sin?

      March 1, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • Anon

      No one is, which is why God gave us free will to make decisions for ourselves.

      March 1, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
    • marinemom41

      No one said anyone was without sin. As Christians, we are forgiven.

      March 1, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  20. crucified

    Wow! I am so excited with all the blasphemy and athestic comments. the Rapture must be coming soon.. Cannot wait.. Ya'll enjoy yourselves down there..well you know.. that place.. well anyway i cant wait...

    March 1, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • Ants?

      See that's the thing with the religious after a while you just want everyone else to go straight to hell and burn for eternity it's really not very loving, christian, warm and happy is it?

      March 1, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • crucified

      @ Ants? I am sad for those choices that some have made..... I wasw just voicing my happiness that I am about to meet my Maker.. I cannot change their mind and cannot change where they are going if they make the choice to deny Christ.. I am sad for them.. but I am more happy where I am going.

      March 1, 2011 at 5:36 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.