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. TampaMel

    As a non-religious person I must admit that if you are religious then Universalism is the only belief that makes sense. Although I am non-religious I believe in God and in that belief I believe that God being God must be greater than ourselves. The belief that bad people go to a place like hell, in my mind, is anti-God. Retribution is a human notion. Would you punish you child forever for something that child might have done that displeased you or would you try to get your child to understand the meaning of that bad thing that child has done. If we are the children of God could God do no less then to give us that understanding even after we pass to the next life. Also the belief of a hell, to me, is a religious vehicle to get people to remain religious. A Catholic priest once told me, "If you know of Jesus' teaching and do not believe in him as the son of God then you are condemned." Why would God condemn you for something so petty. Why do we imbue God with human traits? In the end I believe religion perverts the real meaning of God to a human definition and this is sad and the cause of a lot of pain.

    March 2, 2011 at 6:26 am |
  2. saywhat

    Saying no (there isn't a hell) doesn't make it so however. it bothers me to hear people condemming others to hell...their words are about as powerful as the ones who claim there is no hell. I guess you'll have to wait and see for yourself

    March 2, 2011 at 5:19 am |
  3. Lily

    Okay, great. This guy has seen through the bizarre idea of hell. That's progress. So why is he still a Christian minister? Why is he a Christian at all? If you recognize the silliness of a doctrine that is so fundamental to your religion, the next logical step is to reject the whole religion. I mean, it's kind of fundamental to Christianity. The core of Christian teaching is that we all need to be saved from going to hell. Take that away, and there should be no further reason to cling to this crazy religion.

    March 2, 2011 at 4:29 am |
  4. Jacob

    I have a few questions:

    1) What does it mean to "accept" God? Does that mean telling everyone that you have? Does that mean invoking his name before you do every little thing? Or does it mean following Jesus' teachings, loving others and providing for the poor and needy? I'm betting there will be as many definitions as respondents.

    2) Since many people on this blog claim to "know" what God wants, let's agree that they are, in fact, correct. This would lead to the perfect certainty that the will of God is knowable (since they can know God's will, other people ought to be able to know it). That, in turn would mean that it is possible to follow God's will in such a way as to be able to predict what God would desire in situations that are not specifically mentioned in any religious text. Now for the leap- by admitting that we can follow God's logic in some situations, we have to conclude that there is a pattern to God's decision-making that we can understand. Since we can understand it, it ought to be relatable to human logic. Now, by any possible stretch of human-like logic, how does it make sense that people ought to be punished for eternity for finite crimes?

    3) Who on this planet hasn't "sinned"? Since we've all done things that the Bible prohibits, how does anyone get to heaven? And if God knows all things from all times, and made everything the way it is, why has God made so many people sinners?

    If anyone can come up with an answer to any of these three questions that doesn't simply involve a jumble of the words "Bible", "believe/belief/faith", and "grace", I believe I'd quite enjoy talking to you.

    Until such time as I have been convinced otherwise, however, I have to conclude that there is no grand plan, no organizer of the cosmos, and no eternal hell awaiting us when we die.

    No insult intended, but thousands of little kids do believe in Santa Claus. We all have to grow up someday. I much prefer the idea of people genuinely caring about one another to the idea that some little fat man does all our caring for us. I feel the same way about God. A warm hug from a loved one or an uplifting word from an old friend is infinitely more meaningful than talking to myself before I go to bed.

    "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

    March 2, 2011 at 3:57 am |
    • Greg

      FANTASTIC post! Your Santa Claus comment is right on the money. I highly recommend the book "Ougrowing God: Moving Beyond Religion" by Alan Jeskin. Former Commanding Officer of an F/A-18 squadron, and former born-again Christian. Fantastic read. I would challenge any Christian on here to read this book and then have a discussion. Sometimes it's important to see what the "other side" has to say... I even read Timothy Keller's "The Reason for God" to debate with my Christian friend. Needless to say, that book was drivel and his "reasoning" wasn't based on classical "reason" at all... but I digress...

      March 2, 2011 at 5:24 am |
  5. dude

    sin separates us from God. sin is presently alive and well on planet Earth. those who practice sin do not know God and will not be with Him when they die. anyone who does not believe in the sinful nature of unredeemed people is greatly deceived and knows nothing of current news or history. if we did not need a savior, then what did Jesus die for? and if we do need a savior, and if that savior is Jesus, then we must believe Him when He says:

    "if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins ."

    "He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him."

    And the apostle Peter said: "Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved."

    It is clear that we need saving. And if we do not acknowledge that salvation comes from Jesus, then we lose. I did not choose Christianity because it presented the sweetest picture of God, but because, from both a research angle and an experiential angle, I discovered that it is true. The story of the human race is not over yet. From what I have heard in the Spirit, I believe there will be a powerful end time revival before Jesus returns. The lines will be clearly drawn and many will be saved (and many will not).

    March 2, 2011 at 3:00 am |
  6. john leddy

    the bible is such obvious B.S. that it is not worth debating.

    March 2, 2011 at 2:55 am |
  7. john leddy

    it just boggles the mind that anyone living in the 21st century believes in hell. a place where real fire burns up spiritual souls. just how does that work? and what sin deserves an eternity of punishment? eternity – trillions of years are not even a fraction of a second of the punishment you will endure. oh yes, our heavenly father is such a loving and just god.it is all such obvious nonsense!!!

    March 2, 2011 at 2:52 am |
  8. Awakened

    So, let me get this straight: if you are a catholic priest and abuse little boys, but go to confession every day, you don't go to this hell they are talking about... But if you are a baby that happens to die as an infant in a place of the world were babies are not baptized, that baby goes staight to hell...makes no sense...

    March 2, 2011 at 2:49 am |
    • Dora

      Awakened...It is not true. Babys do not go to Hell. Baptism is what is done after a believer repents of sin, and is saved.
      A baby cannot reason, and is not accountable as a sinner. If Catholics say it has original sin, it is the "stain" of original sin, and not willful sin. When and if, the baby grows to be able to reason, and make decisions, then he/she can accept Repent and be saved, followed by Baptism which is by immersion.

      That is all scriptural, not just my opinion

      The part about confession, I will let a Catholic answer.
      As for my own opinion, that is a terrible thing, to abuse. They should be pulled from the church, and be put in jail with all other criminals.
      They should be defrocked from the church.

      March 5, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  9. yeshua1

    @Justina – I guess you missed the "Judge not, lest you be judged" passage in the Bible. You are probably to busy working on your "Holier than thou" routine.

    March 2, 2011 at 2:46 am |
  10. yeshua1

    @Justina – I guess you missed the "Judge not, lest you be judged" passage. Probably too busy working on your "Holier than thou" routine, eh?

    March 2, 2011 at 2:44 am |
  11. ThisGuy

    If you are going to discount Christianity on the basis of God's justice, fine, so be it.

    But to claim you're a Christian pastor and to then go and attack God's Word, that is completely wrong.

    2Pe 2:1 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves.
    2Pe 2:2 Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned;
    2Pe 2:3 and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

    March 2, 2011 at 2:22 am |
  12. Da King

    Mr. Bell thinks he is God.

    March 2, 2011 at 2:12 am |
    • Jdhaus28982

      coming from someone with the username "Da King". Interesting.......

      March 2, 2011 at 8:06 am |
  13. Makikijoe

    I agree with Bell.

    Millions of people who have had the Near Death Experience have reported what they have seen on "the other side".

    It's nothing like we Christians were led to believe. We get a "life review" and we judge ourselves. The Buddhists and Hindus, who believe devoutly in reincarnation, are much closer to the truth about the afterlife. Some of the early Christians also believed in reincarnation. But their beliefs were in the minority and they were treated as heretics when the church became better "organized". It became centrally (and harshly) controlled by church leaders insisting on strict uniformity of dogma.

    The truth is, we all souls who have had many, many lifetimes. The purpose of these eartly visits is for souls is to achieve "soul advancement" to the point where we become more and more God-like and no longer need to "take on the flesh" anymore.

    P.S. Love is the key to soul advancement.

    March 2, 2011 at 1:46 am |
    • yeshua1

      Science has explained near death experiences as processes that happen inside the dying brain that cause hallucinations complete with "out of body" sensations. No one really knows what happens after death. Christians talk about "Kingdom Come," and Judgement Day, yet think people are judged and sent to heaven or hell immediately when they die. The Bible says in several passages that the dead are as those who sleep, and they know nothing. There are a whole lot of people believing a whole lot of things about the afterlife.

      March 2, 2011 at 2:29 am |
  14. Da King

    The Mars Hill Bible can say that Jesus was made of blue cheese if it wants to.
    Believers tolerate much worse. But, we already have His peace.

    March 2, 2011 at 1:30 am |
  15. Chris Collino

    The whole counsel of God's word (Romans and Proverbs) seems to indicate that we are responsible for what we know when it comes to deciding for God or against Him. Since we live in a material world, once we leave that world what do we have?? Without God we have nothing. The Hebrew concept of death is "separation". Hell is ultimate death....separated from everything and everyone.

    March 2, 2011 at 1:23 am |
  16. RBrady

    I would rather live my life believing there is a God and dying finding out there isn't one than living as if there is no God and dying only to find out there is.

    March 2, 2011 at 1:03 am |
  17. Bill

    I am sad for humanity. Our lives are full of crap. We only want to share it with everyone else. No one is interested in the real truth...which has.nothing to do with dogma. For the evangicals, a dark room is hell. They have to live in the darkness. So that makes them happy.

    March 2, 2011 at 12:46 am |
  18. Bill

    No one is so blind that he will not see. Pretense is another matter. What is wrong with religion isn't faith, it's religion! "Religion" is dogma and that is determined by big frightening folks who threaten you because they have nice shoes and ties and the absolute consensus of an ignorant mass. Faith may be given, but it is earned. Faith is what we, all of us, bring to our lives in moments of personal expressions of our humanity and our vulnerability. We look to a greater power and hope we are worthy. We judge, we aren't worthy. Period. Sad world. There's still hope for humanity because we are PART of the answer....not the answer. Lets leave some room in our world for humans....but more importantly, for the rest of life on this planet.

    March 2, 2011 at 12:38 am |
  19. Quilter77

    Hell was never created for people. It was created for Satan and the angels who followed him when his pride got in the way. God never sends anyone to hell. People make the choice themselves. Jesus said "I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father except through Me". So people have a choice.

    March 2, 2011 at 12:37 am |
    • Chad

      Ah, yes... the old "free will" spiel. If I hold a gun to your head and tell you to do something, but that's it's really your choice to do it or not, but if you don't do it, I'll pull the trigger, is that really "free will"? That's exactly what your sadistic god does. Plus, if he's all-knowing and has total foreknowledge (which the Bible says he does), then he knows long ahead of time who will "freely choose" and who won't (or can't). Is that five-month old baby who was killed in the Christchurch earthquake doomed to eternal damnation and suffering? What about free will there?

      So let's review: An all-powerful, all-knowing god creates a person. This person is, by all practical definitions, a genuinely good human being. She loves her family, gives generously to charity, cares for others, commits no crimes in her life, and lives a humble and decent life. However, she never learns about the Christian story, or perhaps she hears about it, but doesn't embrace it. The god who created her knew long in advance that she would live a wonderful life and enrich many others' lives, but would not accept salvation for whatever reason. Thus, she would unfortunately be subjected to pain, suffering, and torture FOREVER. Why would such a god ever create this person to begin with, KNOWING she was to be damned? Just to amuse himself by watching her live a virtuous and good life, only to be cast into the fiery pits of hell for her trouble?

      Face it, the notion of a timeless, omniscient god and the free will of humanity to accept or reject that god are utterly and mutually irreconcilable. If a god-as-master-creator is TRULY omnipotent and omniscient, then he created each of us perfectly according to his inerrant plan and we are each nothing more than puppets carrying out HIS will, not our own.

      March 2, 2011 at 1:38 am |
    • yeshua1

      Actually Chad, no need to review. I've heard what you are saying many times before. Your beliefs are the truth to you, because they are your beliefs. It looks like whether its based on religion or not, everyone thinks what they believe is the truth. Nothing new in that at all. I believe in God. You don't. You think I'm foolish, I think you're foolish. There, looks like that's settled.

      March 2, 2011 at 1:52 am |
    • Da King

      Amen sister. Sadly most have too much fear, pride and rebellion to ever get to know him. If you are fortunate enough go get a revelation of Gods love through Jesus Christ and become motivated by your love for him, you will be free and know peace for ever. I pray that those who read this will open their hearts to our loving creator. In Jesus' name, I pray.

      March 2, 2011 at 2:18 am |
    • Chad

      So basically, since you have no actual argument, you choose to remain ignorant and call it "faith." Awesome.

      I was a Christian for many years. Over time, I simply let logic and reality enter the equation and now I reject it (and all organized religion). It's incredibly liberating. But you keep on choosing the parts of the bible you want to believe and practice, cheerfully ignoring the rest. Like all Christians, you'll be a blithering hypocrite (at least according to the bible), but that's okay, because you're "saved."

      I would encourage you and your ilk to "get to know Jesus." Follow his teachings and obey his commandments. Sell everything you own and give to the poor. Know anyone who has actually done that? I don't. Trust in god to provide everything for you (no doctors, no health insurance, none of that stuff allowed). If you are injured or very ill, don't call 911, just pray. Are you a REAL believer? Or just a superficial believer? 🙂

      Amen, sister! Yeah!

      March 2, 2011 at 3:18 am |
    • Rich


      First of all... You seem to assume the baby, and the girl you hypothesize go to Hell.

      No one knows that. Christians do not claim to be God. Yes there are requirements, laws, but those are often superceded by Love and Charity.

      Secondly, your analogy with the Gun to one's head is flawed.
      (Like all analogies are...)

      You are judged on the life you have been given, and what you have done with it.
      What's wrong with that? Should there be a just God, will have a punishment that suits the crime.

      March 2, 2011 at 3:19 am |
  20. Gil T

    The thing about firestorm limelight and cloister lighting is neither one is of much use for enlightening, only for igniting the masses to a frenzy. I have not read Bell's book, but I readily reject any teaching which dismisses hell as the place of eternal torment. About as useful as igniting the masses is the use of labels such as Universalism, Conservative, etc.
    At best this could represent a mis-guided failed effort to understand the biblical expression which spans the entire history of man in the sight of God: "The righteous shall live by faith." At worse, it is a rejection of hell altogether. The stated trend of Bell asking tough questions is as familiar a tactic as it is unconvincing and smacks of flakiness.
    This popular tactic is what dazzles and impresses the uninformed that the questioner must surely have the knowledge and understanding on these matters when in fact that could be (and often is) the farthest thing from the truth. This is made evident in the sampling of Bell's own questions regarding Ghandi, billions and billions of people, and, the stark revelation of his own ignorance -a man who stands before the congregation of the Lord- : . . . how do you become one of the few?

    March 2, 2011 at 12:32 am |
    • Jay

      Gil – who cares if you discount his words, prove to me that there is a hell.

      March 2, 2011 at 12:59 am |
    • RBrady

      Jay, prove to you there is a hell? Prove to me George Washington was America's first president. Guess we just have to take the word of a bunch of dead guys who put it in a book.

      March 2, 2011 at 1:10 am |
    • Da King

      You may find out soon enough.

      March 2, 2011 at 1:25 am |
    • Jonathan

      Actually George Washington wasn't our first President. He was just the first official one. 🙂

      March 2, 2011 at 6:05 am |
    • RBrady

      Ahh..and actually Jesus wasn't the first so called Messiah, just the first official one.

      March 2, 2011 at 6:29 am |
    • Jdhaus28982


      You're prolly one of those guys who thinks that Obama was born in Kenyan simply b/c you weren't physically there to witness his birth. There must be a whole team of doctors assigned to you 🙂

      March 2, 2011 at 8:03 am |
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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.