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. SuperFed

    ‎"In answer to your inquiry, I consider that the chief dangers which confront the coming century will be religion without the Holy Ghost, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, politics without God, and heaven without hell.” ~ William Booth, founder and of the Salvation Army. 1829-1916

    March 2, 2011 at 9:27 am |
    • Servant of G*d

      Go Spurs Go humble Timmy I wish you your 5th ring. I hope God listens I want the Spurs to win I love humble teams. Amen

      March 2, 2011 at 9:32 am |
  2. RevRan

    If there is no hell, why did Jesus come and die on the cross and be tortured and thirst? It's because He took our punishment. Some people think they are smarter, but the theif on the cross said "we received the due reward of our deeds." He knew something you dont!

    March 2, 2011 at 9:20 am |
    • Servant of G*d

      REV RAN Jesus died a cruel death so YOu and can realize how much God loves man. God needed to see that and it makes so he can dwell amongs his people pray to him and repent first with thy heart then talk to him he shall listen it is the reason he died , so he can dwell amongs us and free us from Hell, behold the dark prince lies ahead in this conscience of reality he is there and his creatures thats why there is so much evil, everthing is energy God is the source of the LIght. always and forever through his son Jesus Holy Christ the King of kings the Messiah.

      March 2, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  3. Servant of G*d

    A human reborn is when his mind and his heart connect to the Higher Power, and yet its amazing to realize that all hidden knowledge is inside us, God knows his children because he manifests in our lives yet all this will never be on mainstream because of Adam and Eve we are all on our own and its up to his people to hear his calling, can t you all see the signs, the world is becoming a hotbed fullfillment of the word of the force, he shall rescue his people because my God is a mighty God. I dont want to see a war in front of my eyes I cant Kill for the sake of war but the good thing is death is only a state of mind everybody lives if you believe and see his manifestions behold many will redicule me but its okay they already did it to my divine brother Jesus CHrist. Oh my heart makes much Noise with Love and Peace. Amen>>>..

    March 2, 2011 at 9:18 am |
  4. Steve From NH

    Servant of G*D missed his morning pill again.

    March 2, 2011 at 9:16 am |
    • Servant of G*d

      steve woe to you for your insults you dont know me YOU viper coward! Only a coward insults people behind the scenes. Coward.

      March 2, 2011 at 9:20 am |
    • Servant of G*d

      steve i bet you mistake kindness for weakness. you have it wrong GOD shall always prevail.

      March 2, 2011 at 9:23 am |
  5. Pixburgh Pixie

    What's that? An inclusive church? No hell for Ghandi? Gee, I might have stayed if the church of my upbringing had been anything like this! Go Bell go! Keep bringing the love!

    March 2, 2011 at 9:15 am |
  6. 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 2, 2011 at 9:10 am |
  7. Servant of G*d

    The King of kings there is only One. *Amen****************

    March 2, 2011 at 9:10 am |
  8. Really

    C'mon CNN a "firestorm"...really. Universalism has been around since the time of Christ. I tis nothing new to the church. Geez, the secular media never gets it right, never. It's fun to watch them spin and toil uselessly.

    March 2, 2011 at 8:52 am |
  9. Gruuun thy servant

    I love you with all of my ligtning heart and soul. My King Jesus Christ amen Through Amen....Amen

    March 2, 2011 at 8:47 am |
  10. Servant of G*D

    the Kingdom of Heaven is whats inside man he who seek him; thy God with all thy heart ; God shall manifest amongs his children. Wake up brothers and sisters and relax and enjoy Amen thy King of kings ahhh the Pwr of the Cosmos!! Roar I am reborn and I worship you God almighty through my divine Brother JesusCHrist in Amens name...amen

    March 2, 2011 at 8:44 am |
  11. RBrady

    It has been my experience that so many who think belief in Christ is foolishness are the ones who at some point in their lives got on their knees and prayed fervently, only to find their prayer was not answered. Thus begins the grudge match.

    March 2, 2011 at 8:37 am |
  12. Reality

    More book hyping by Gilgoff and Marrapodi!!! One assumes they get a "slice of the mumbo jumbo pie."

    March 2, 2011 at 8:25 am |
  13. Deneen

    "Bishop Carlton Pearson, once a mentee ... ."

    Seriously, "mentee"? The word you're looking for is "protege." Don't know why I read CNN anymore, the reporters seem like they were all in the bottom third of their class at journalism school.

    March 2, 2011 at 8:18 am |
    • Pixburgh Pixie

      Protégée is indeed a fine word, but perhaps the author *meant* to say mentee, which is another fine word.

      March 2, 2011 at 8:47 am |
  14. Gary

    What is so hard for the human sympathizers is that by their vain imaginations they cannot picture a place of hell or torment that last forever and thus they cannot believe it and they comprimise with it and make justification over it which gives them a feeling of rightiousness that exceeds the known rightousness of God who clearly sent his son Jesus to die for a reason i.e to save mankind from the coming distruction forwarned in the scriptures. Man wants to lift himself up and be able to say "I have more compassion than God so this can't be true" But God's compassion was sent in his Son Jesus. God chose this method like it or not.

    March 2, 2011 at 8:13 am |
    • culheath

      @ Gary: That's exactly the sort of existential paranoia I am talking about. Why are you so afraid of life that you can't imagine permanent death being part of it? Why do you insist on an eternal ego afterlife? What purpose could it serve? You seem to have zero faith in letting the universe unfold as it should. Death is exactly like pre-birth...nothingness. simply being here now is a good enough gift for me. Just how greedy are you anyway?

      March 2, 2011 at 9:01 am |
  15. CP

    Ever hear of purgatory? For years the Church said, show me a little love, show me a little cash, some real estate, we'll put the word in and get your loved ones out of that pseudo-hell and into the good place! Oh, and your babies, the wee ones that weren't baptized, yeah, they're in there too, but for a small donation we can take care of that for you while we're at it. It's all just a way to control people and make them do what you say.

    Now, Bell I can work with. He's saying, you're all saved, in my religion God loves all of you, regardless of your beliefs. It's who you are that matters, not what you believe. He's saying Jesus died for all of us, you can join him or not, but either way you're in. He's not trying to control you or make you follow his beliefs with threats or coercion, but rather with logic and love.

    March 2, 2011 at 7:53 am |
    • Melissa

      okay, I am with you to a point. If all children graduated with straight A's no matter if they studied, or attended, or listened, I mean we love them don't we? Don't you think eventually everyone graduating from that school would be illiterate? And that would lead to unemployment, poverty, depression, possible drug use, dependency, and then they would have children who would follow their lead and then possibly the destruction of the modern world. But they all got A's, no one was left out. God wants us to have a GOOD life, to enjoy, to love, to prosper, to have a relationship with you. There have to be boundaries, expectations, consequences. If there were no law, no AGREED upon social mores, there would be chaos. And that is what hell is chaos.

      March 2, 2011 at 8:48 am |
  16. Goldenmarble

    I admit - I don't understand the point of "Hell". It seems like nothing more than the notion that bad things happen to people that don't agree with Christians. Or maybe it's the axe held above the necks of Christians to keep them in line. Either way, the belief of its existance says absolutely nothing positive about the believer.

    Look, there's bad people in the world who do bad things. But your life shouldn't be any less fulfilling if those bad people aren't tortured for all eternity. I feel great sympathy for anyone that believes they cannot be happy unless others are endlessly punished.

    March 2, 2011 at 7:50 am |
    • Melissa

      But those 'bad' people chose their path, everyone will hear the Gospel and have a choice. We are all BAD people, but by the grace of God we have a choice now. We have salvation offered to us by God sending His own Son to die a horrible TORTUROUS death, then TOOK the keys and power of hell from Lucifer. Jesus rose on the third day and sits at the right hand of the Father to judge the living and the dead. His OWN Son, could you let your son die on a cross? Our children are punished for doing 'bad' things because we want GOOD things from them. Why so alarmed to think your Heavenly Father would not also punish.

      March 2, 2011 at 8:37 am |
    • Jp

      So you feel that it's fair to sin for 80 or 90 years and be burned in fiery torment forever? Thats what the bible says?
      While revelation refers to the lake of fire etc. This represent everlasting destruction or cutting off, not torment. The bible states clearly that the soul that is sinning, it itself will die. Adams sin resulted in death not fiery torment.

      Gehenna and hades are words used in the bible for the common grave. This idea of hell and eternal torment were not first century christian teachings and came into the church later.

      March 2, 2011 at 9:14 am |
  17. Rob

    To get an idea of Rob Bell's (and the Emergent Church's) philosophy and teachings, see two presentations I gave a while back on the subject: http://www.slideshare.net/schumacr/reflections-on-the-emerging-church-part-1 and http://www.slideshare.net/schumacr/reflections-on-the-emerging-church-part-2.

    March 2, 2011 at 6:56 am |
  18. Jason

    It is hard to believe people still really believe in heaven and hell. I guess it makes people feel smug to think they are the selected ones.

    March 2, 2011 at 6:47 am |
    • Gary

      It is even harder to believe that people of all beliefs or non=beliefs "athesist" will die like everyone else yet are confident and comfortable in not knowing or careing where they will go when they die.

      March 2, 2011 at 7:56 am |
    • Melissa

      Do you have children? Do you correct your children, do you have consequences for bad behavior for your children? Is there not a certain path you want for children? You tell them eat your veggies, clean your room, do your homework, be nice, don't cuss, don't drink, don't do drugs? You do this so that they will have a 'good' life? They will be healthy well adjusted social human beings that thrive and are happy? How much MORE does your Heavenly Father, the Creator of the Universe, YOUR creator, want for YOU! And just like our children there are consequences to behavior. If I never tell my child not to run out into the street or put their finger in a light socket-then the consequences of their actions can lead to death. If we do not take the Word of our Creator and abide by the laws and obey our Father-then the consequences can lead to death, eternal death. But if we aknowledge Him before men then He will aknowledge you before God and say "this is my good and faithful servant".

      March 2, 2011 at 8:26 am |
    • Demiurge

      Melissa, my corrections to my children don't involve tormenting him for hours or days beyond a minor transgression. That's what the Lake of Fire amounts to: eternal suffering for finite transgressions. YHWH is evil if he both exists (highly unlikely) and enacts such a punishment. If YHWH does enact such punishments and exists, YHWH is unworthy of worship and we should look forward to a day when humanity can overcome such a tyrant, as the Egyptians and Tunisians have overcome their tyrants.

      March 2, 2011 at 9:09 am |
  19. shawn

    Ah, religion. People quibbling over the fine points of imaginary things. Let me tell you this: the average length of a unicorn horn is 23.4 cm, not 21.2 cm as is commonly thought.

    March 2, 2011 at 6:41 am |
    • Servant of G*D

      Many are asleep they are stuck within the matrix, although once one finds out who we really are Behold humans are sons of a living God, through o ur Lord Jesus Christ we all shall know Amen the Holy Ghost.

      March 2, 2011 at 7:43 am |
    • bloofer

      “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
      Then he is not omnipotent.
      Is he able, but not willing?
      Then he is malevolent.
      Is he both able and willing?
      Then whence cometh evil?
      Is he neither able nor willing?
      Then why call him God?”


      March 2, 2011 at 8:56 am |
    • Steve From NH

      DARN! I just finished my Unicorn Horn caddy, and it was based on the 21.2 cm figure. BTW, the Jehovah's Witnesses are sure that Heaven only holds 24,000, so we're mostly screwed regardless....

      March 2, 2011 at 9:15 am |
  20. culheath

    religious people are the least faithful of all and spend all their time trying to deny their doubts and prove themselves the most humble of all

    in other words, they are really annoying self-centered paranoid existential jerks

    March 2, 2011 at 6:37 am |
    • Gary

      Hmmmm you sound very angry and in need of psycotherepy for that anger.

      March 2, 2011 at 7:54 am |
    • culheath

      @gary : Not angry at all...just stating facts. It would just be easier on the rest of us if religious people didn't have the compunction to try to spread their psychotic existential doubting thru constant proselytization.

      March 2, 2011 at 8:50 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.