Christian author's book sparks charges of heresy
Rob Bell is under fire for his latest book before it even hits the shelves.
March 1st, 2011
06:00 AM ET

Christian author's book sparks charges of heresy

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Rob Bell, a pastor and author who has achieved rock star status in the Christian world, is preaching a false gospel, his critics say. And some of those critics are Christian rock stars in their own right.

The pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Bell has authored a book called Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, which ignited a firestorm of controversy over the weekend, weeks before it arrives in bookstores.

On Saturday, in a blog post on the popular Christian website The Gospel Coalition, Justin Taylor blasted Bell's new book, out March 29, for teaching "false doctrine":

I’m glad that Rob Bell has the integrity to be lay [sic] his cards on the table about universalism. It seems that this is not just optimism about the fate of those who haven’t heard the Good News, but (as it seems from below) full-blown hell-is-empty-everyone-gets-saved universalism.

Universalism, in its broadest terms, preaches that everyone goes to heaven and that there is no hell. Critics say it represents a break from traditional Christianity, which they say holds that heaven and hell are very real places. In most Christian circles, universalism is a dirty word.

Taylor's post was quickly tweeted by several prominent pastors, including John Piper and Mark Driscoll, connected to the Gospel Coalition, a coalition of theologically conservative evangelical churches, and a full-blown theological controversy was on. By Monday, Taylor's response post had racked up a quarter million hits.

Other bloggers, meanwhile, are calling Bell an outright heretic.

Bell is not the first prominent Christian pastor to be recently accused of wading into theologically troubled waters. Bishop Carlton Pearson, once a mentee of famed Pentecostal televangelist Oral Roberts, has been run out of two churches and branded a heretic for preaching what he says is a gospel of inclusion with broad universalist themes.

Last year, Brian McLaren - a popular Christian author and a former pastor - was accused of breaking with Christian orthodoxy and delving headlong into universalism in his book A New Kind of Christianity.

But it's rare that theological arguments become top ten trending topics on Twitter, as Rob Bell did on Saturday.

“To be honest, it was a pretty rough weekend,” Taylor said in a phone interview. The 34-year-old heads the editorial content for Crossway, a Christian publishing company in Wheaton, Illinois.  Taylor he says his blog expresses his personal opinion not the opinion of the coalition.

"We’re talking about the big things here, things that have been historically defined as orthodox, " he said. "I have a high degree of confidence in what God is saying and what we can understand."

Though many things that separate Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians, “this isn’t one of them," Taylor said. "We’ve historically agreed on many things, the person of Christ, heaven and hell. This isn’t a peripheral academic debate. What Rob Bell is talking about gets to the heart of Christianity.”

Taylor has not read Bell's forthcoming book in its entirety. His blog post was in response to the description released by Bell publisher HarperOne and a promotional video that features Bell.

"Rob Bell hasn’t sinned against me personally,” Taylor said, which is why he did not go to Bell before making his comments public. Instead, Taylor said, Bell's book represents a clear example of false teaching.

In the promotional video Bell refers to the nonviolent Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu, and asks, "Gandhi's in hell? He is?"

"And someone knows this for sure?" Bell continues. "Will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell? And if that's the case how do you become one of the few? "

The video follows a trend in Bell's career as a pastor: he has long asked tough theological questions and challenged traditional answers. The short promotional video raises lots of questions without offering definitive answers.

"What we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like," Bell says in it. " The good news is that love wins."

Those lines raised eyebrows for Taylor and others. "It is not preaching the gospel as found in the New Testament," Taylor said. "The New Testament is pretty clear if someone preaches a false gospel… that we are to reject that and have nothing to do with them."

For all his hipster leanings - including black rimmed glasses - Bell has a traditional pedigree. He went to Wheaton College, the Harvard of Christian schools, and later graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity.

But the Mars Hill Bible Church, which Bell founded, is not attached to any denomination. Were it attached to one - the Presbyterian or Catholic church, say - his book and video could raise eyebrows in the hierarchy and might lead to a church trial that could result in Bell's expulsion.

"A larger denomination would take his credentials and excommunicate him like they did to me,” Bishop Pearson told CNN.

By Sunday evening, Pearson was getting sent articles about the Bell flap. He said it reminded him of his days as a charismatic leader of a big church in the largest Pentecostal denomination. His questioning of hell from the pulpit led to his ouster.

"What happened to me is happening to Rob Bell," Pearson said. "If you denounce hell, it's like you are denouncing God. You’re going to be called a heretic."

“I thought my people loved me and would walk through the valley of the shadow of death with me, but they didn’t,” Pearson said.

Bell's church did not respond to requests for an interview. His Twitter feed has been silent since he posted about writing a piece for CNN's Belief Blog a few weeks ago. His publicist at HarperOne said he would not be doing publicity until his book hits shelves.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Leaders • Michigan • United States

soundoff (2,200 Responses)
  1. crucified

    universalism is Pride in Self!

    March 1, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
  2. crucified

    Humanism is Pride.. Atheism is Pride...Agnostic is Pride....of Self... Christianity is Faith in Christ!

    March 1, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
    • fsmgroupie

      Christianity is a dictatorship. Get on your knees and worship me or I will burn you in hell for billions of years.

      March 1, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
    • Hunter

      A wise old woman once said that she "looked down on people who looked down on people" - so secure was she in the correctness of her belief. She was proud of her position. Do you suppose Jesus would be pleased with her pride? It is probably better to leave judgement to the Lord. Foregoing judgemental behavior is a powerful witness to the Gospel; something non-believers pay attention to. It works much better than pasting simpliistic sticky labels on folks you don't even know.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:47 pm |
  3. fsmgroupie

    Mitt Romney wears the magical mormon underwear. Unbelievable.He could become the most powerfull person in the world and he believes in magical underwear.

    March 1, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
  4. Bibletruth

    Search the scriptures.....while we cant do this in this format, if there is disagreement about a verse then study all the verses in context concerning that subject – all of them...then you will know. This "ya but" and "I think" stuff will never get you to the truth. As Jesus told Nicodemus, you must be born again, i.e. transformed by the renewing of your mind and only the Holy Spirit can do that. And Nicodemus said , you mean I have to start over like in my mothers womb? and Jesus said yes. You must not look at the word of God through the filter of your education and lifes experiences-that will becloud it...you must look at it fresh, not filtered and desire with all your heart to be a son of God and my word will fill you with joy, peace and contentment, and a desire to bring the same to others.

    March 1, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
  5. fsmgroupie

    Mitt Romney wears the magical mormon underwear. Unbelievable.He could become the most powerfull person in the world and he believes in magical underwear. Scary.

    March 1, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
  6. Chuck The Canuck

    I dispute the existence of pink unicorns. Everyone knows that unicorns only come in white. It is heresy to think otherwise.

    March 1, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
  7. crucified

    I win !!! Last to Comment.

    March 1, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
  8. Alix

    Thank you, Pastor Bell! That is exactly what I have long believed, and I thought I was the only one.

    March 1, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
  9. Nathan


    March 1, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
  10. Bibletruth

    Oh wont that be fun...heaven a few yards from hell so the saved can enjoy the shreiks of the lost, especially those of their moms and dads, children, brothers and sisters, husbands or wives, etc.. how joyful...and the excruciating pain of burning but not consuming will be alleviated with a drop of water? And of course they can talk to one another. And of course the tortured ones will continually blaspheme god. Friends, please wake up ...there is no way you will stick with Jesus in the crunch thats coming if you believe such things. There is no way the human mind can reconcile an all loving and merciful God (which God is) to a monster that would torture one for all eternity for a brief life of sin on earth (think of that 16 year old girl or boy who died in a car crash but never accepted the salvation God held out to them). a few years on earth not accepting Christ and God will tortur for trillions and trillions of years which is a split second in terms of eternity. Please actually study the bible instead of imbibing satanic teachings which have only one purpose-to turn people from God or for those who dont turn away, have that ominous black cloud regarding the rightous character of God in their brains, which will come to the fore at just the right time to get them lost. Satans plan.

    March 1, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
    • JCO64

      Are you saying that preaching hellfire is a Satanic plot based on a bad interpretation of the Bible? The “lake of everlasting fire” and “wailing and gnashing of teeth” and “the smoke of their torment ascendeth up forever and ever” are not in the Bible? I was reading Matthew 25 and Revelation 14, it seems pretty cut and dried.

      March 1, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
    • Sadie

      Do you think that when you are in the prescence of the great God you will even be thiking about earthly things?
      God gives each of us opportunities to turn to Him and accept Jesus as our savior, if we choose to ignore Him (as many on this thread have done publicly) He will give us exactly what we wish for.... to be left alone.
      I am the only Christian in a family of Athiests and it breaks my heart every single time a family member dies and I know they weren't saved. I pray for them and attempt to start conversations but there comes a point when you are told to leave them alone or mocked that you have to shake your head and walk away.
      I know that God will blot out the heart break when I come face to face with Him. I have faith.

      March 1, 2011 at 10:47 pm |
  11. rowan raphael

    1.God placed every man into the body of Christ and judged all at that point, and was "satisfied".
    2.There is no 2.

    March 1, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
  12. Brian

    I am a born again Christian who belives Jesus is the son of God but after years of research on Near Death Experience I beilive that not just Chrisitans go to heaven. The attached website is an interview with 21 individals who died and experieced at NDE. It's very interesting that many atheist who died saw God in their near death experience. Now they believe in a God. Very intersting research article. http://www.near-death.com/experiences/evidence06.html

    March 1, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
    • ST Mannew

      Actually the Bible teaches that Christians are not the only one's who have eternal life. He chooses who He wants to know Him. He gives us apart of Himself that seals the believer in the Truth (Christ).

      March 1, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
  13. pleasedotell

    Hmm, so because there is uncertainty as to whether Gandhi goes to heaven, there is no hell & so everyone else should share a universalism room w/ murderers, rapist, pedophiles, & racists. It's like saying let's abolish jail because of one innocent party. Even if I was the innocent party, I would rather suffer in jail than to know my release would abolish the jail system & every offender can go free.

    March 1, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  14. Rich

    "is preaching a false gospel" – It's all False!

    March 1, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
  15. paxman2

    Yes, my dear atheist brothers and sisters, the Bible can't stand as proof or any historic writings, if you don't believe them. But you're all still avoiding answering the question about the six 'kids' then, now adults and the evidence collected by scientist who studied them. But of course, you will never believe until you see the proof yourself. Watch the u-tube videos of Mirjana. If you believe she's a pathological liar then I don't know what proof you will accept, short of the proof for all of you which they say is coming, within their life time. But they also say you will regret waiting until the sign, maybe your hearts will be too hardened to be converted even with absolute proof. I'll keep praying for you. Pax.

    March 1, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
  16. Christopher

    "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."

    I disagree. Its doubtful given the state of the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II that Bell (whether as a lay person or clergy) would find himself excommunicated, suspended, or otherwise silenced. Clerical aberrations to the doctrinal or moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church are often rewarded with more responsibilities, not punishment.

    As for the Prebyterian Church, one would be wise to ask "which one"? If he were in the Presbyterian Church, USA, they might very well look the other way. But if he were a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America or one of the other conservative groups within the Reformed family, he would most definitely have some explaining to do in a church trial.

    March 1, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  17. Dog Boy

    Ok John, let's take the first verses Mitch listed: Numbers 31:17-18

    Reading the whole chapter, I see god commanding Moses to "take vengence on the Midionites..." for the wrongs they did to the Israelites. When the army finished killing, looting, and burning, Moses was angry at them for not killing the women who, "..were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the LORD in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people".

    So, kill the women because the Israelites could not keep their own faith. If they were true believers, they wouldn't have been enticed from their faith. Unless the Midionite women were sorceresses who cast a spell on the Israelites.

    And, why kill the boys? And, why, "...save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man"?

    I am willing to learn. Please show me the context that "justifies" the above actions in the name of a "loving god".

    March 1, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
    • ST Mannew

      I would consider it no worst than wiping out an entire generation of children through abortion, just so feminists could trot around and feel free.

      March 1, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
  18. hilltop

    Pastor Bell needs prayer. True love describes the whole painting not just the colors used.

    March 1, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  19. RealisticHumanist_986487563

    And the Lord saith unto them "Verily I say unto you that thou art gullible and malleable, and shall provide many generations of pious hucksters and soothsayers with a bountiful feast for their families and many additional homes for the purpose of vacationing at the shore when the sun waxeth, as well as many vessels of transportation and other luxurious items for which they have no need and their children have no appreciation. And yea, I say unto you that they will become very skilled at evading the very taxes which could otherwise be used to help the infirmed and the hungry as I have done here, in my sandals and my dirty robes. And the downtrodden among you shall say with one voice reaching up to the heavens... 'ah, what'ya gonna do?'. Amen."

    March 1, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
    • ST Mannew

      Spin, spin and more spin:

      Lion's share of giving is given by Christians and Christian orgs. If the poor had to rely on you and people like you, this planet would have been emptied long ago. You think love is giving someone a clean needle to shoot up, rather than doing the hard work of trying to stop someone from self-destruction. Humanists are all talk, mostly complaining about the people who actually do something. They would rather save a seal than a child. You don’t do anything other than talk about doing something. You are of no use to yourself, much more than you are of any use in helping someone else.
      You should do what humanists have always done, nothing, just stay out of the way of those who actually are able to help. You can’t even get past yourself to see the plight of the world’s hurting. Go raise a $millions and save a seal, so you can pretend your helping, then you can all sit around and congratulate one another on how good you looked while you swam around with the seals,

      March 1, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
  20. lance

    early church was all universalist.... just saying

    March 1, 2011 at 5:52 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.