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. hal

    orthodoxy, what is orthodoxy? simply and most correctly it is what is written in the apostle's creed. that is what chrisitans throughout the centuries have agreed upon. what's in it is orthodoxy, what's not in it is not central to christian faith.

    March 6, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  2. John

    If he's a universalist, he has a lot of company. And he's part of a distinguished theological tradition, from Origen through John Murray. It's something to be proud of.

    March 6, 2011 at 7:23 am |
  3. Jim

    Hey let's read the book before we bash the writer, I wonder how many people have seen Rob Bells videos or read his other books? Rob often says something shocking to get the readers attention just like Jesus did. and as far as the comment on sprinkling vs dunking it has nothing to do with water Baptism is a greek misnomer for the Hebrew Mikveh or cleansing. Jesus said unless I cleanse you yoiu are not clean. Rock on Rob....

    March 5, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  4. 4granted

    An important step in clarifying your beliefs is to talk about and even defend them. So the fact that the publicity campaign for Rob Bell’s book has provided an impetus for Christians to actually do theology (to figure out what they think about God) is a positive thing. Even if you disagree with Bell, it’s important for Christians to wrestle with what they believe. Another great resource on heaven, what it's like and who will be there is “Heaven Revealed” by Dr. Paul Enns, released this week by Moody Publishers. I recommend it. Here’s the amazon page: http://dld.bz/P8sz

    March 5, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  5. Parcheesi

    Right or wrong, I think it is good to have this topic be in the mainstream discussion area.. A good reminder that every person must come to a decision on what they believe and the potential consequences/benefits for that decision.

    March 5, 2011 at 8:59 am |
  6. DLN

    2 Peter 2:1-3
    1 But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. 2 Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. 3 In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.

    Gospel of Mary
    "Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect Man, and separate as He commanded us and preach the Gospel, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Savior said."

    March 5, 2011 at 1:10 am |
  7. canth

    Thank you, Rob Bell, for challenging the absolute insanity of 'Billions of people are going to burn forever in Hell because our god is going to put them there and punish them forever for questiong his ever-lasting Love.'

    What a concept!

    It has universally repulsed me from every flavor of Christianity that has ever been shoved down my throat, including the brand my father tried to suffocate me with, with belts, whips, and fists.
    The fact that everyone hates the very idea that GOD would be great enough, and actually loves enough to forgive everyone equally moves me to be compelled by it more. You have my support!

    March 4, 2011 at 10:34 pm |
    • Reid

      Canth, you seem astonished at the idea of Hell being a place of torment, but I would like to know what you do with passages such as this:
      Matthew 25:41 KJV
      41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.

      If you look at the context of this passage it is clear that the judgment day is being spoken of. In my opinion "everlasting fire" sounds just like Hell. Hell is everlasting, and we are told that the fire in Hell can not be put out.

      What about this one:
      Luke 13:27-28 KJV
      27 But he shall say, I tell you, I know you not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity.
      28 There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out.

      This is also speaking of the last day. "Weeping and gnashing if teeth" sounds like Hell too.

      You also imply that your father was cruel to you in trying to make you a Christian, and for all I know he may have been and he may have been a very bad example, however I would like to remind you of these passages:
      Proverbs 22:15 KJV
      15 Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.

      Proverbs 23:13 KJV
      13 Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.

      Please do not make excuses to come to Christ because of any bad examples of Christians you have had over the years, even if those examples are from your parents, because on the day of judgment God will not let you off because you have had bad examples.

      Please do not be a wicked person and harden your face but be holy, and direct your way in the paths of righteousness.

      P.S .Many of the New Testament quotes were things that Jesus said, if that is of any importance to you.

      March 5, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • Sara survivor

      I'm sorry you were abused. There is no excuse. You were beaten by a human man misusing the words of a loving creator. There are better ways to teach a child. If you give scripture a chance you may see that God forgave so many times when people disobeyed and rebeled- yes sometimes harshly, but also with amazing patience and compassion too. Ultimately God sacrificed His Son so we would not have to bear the consequences of our sin. He made the rules and then He paid the price FOR us. That's called Grace. I'm sorry your earthly father did not know that. You did not deserve what happened to you. Please remember Jesus understands. He was mocked, whipped until his flesh was pealing off, denied by his friends, and crucified. The difference is Jesus had a choice. He could have stayed in heaven and avoided all that pain and yet Jesus chose to come down to earth and die for you and I. He made that choice even if you choose not to acknowledge it. You have the choice to learn what your father did not and feel the gift of God's grace. To others, I ask that you stop damaging people that are already hurting. If you have not been beaten or misused then youreally don't understand. Canth, I will pray you search for God's grace in His Word and know His love for you.
      Sara (a survivor) I choose to be a victor instead of a victum.

      March 6, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
  8. Monna Payne

    While it seems a little unfair to judge Bell prior to his book actually being released, it's even more important that the church learn to let people ask genuine questions about faith – without condemning them.

    March 4, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
  9. Greg

    The actual biblical version of heaven and hell is not the same as what Christians traditionally preach. A lot of the ideas were borrowed from the Greeks, Egyptians, Nordic, and many other groups, not to mention the literature and other works, such as Dante's Inferno-a Divine Comedy, and Milton's Paradise Lost. If one relies on just the bible, there is no afterlife until the final judgment and the events of Revelation. There is no hell, just permanent death, maybe being cast into the lake of fire or something like that, with the soul being consumed. A lot of the changes were made to make Christianity more palatable, and to bring it in line with other groups which had an afterlife souls immediately or quickly attain. This still goes on even more recently, where the ideas of curses, and other effects which could prevent salvation through no fault of the person, and which could be passed down from parent to child.

    March 4, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
  10. michel chavaniac

    No one alive has ever really heard from god or allah or any other imagined cloud dwelling denizen.
    You believe because if you don't you'll be just another bag of protoplasm waiting to rot and that would be
    just too much for your delicate little brains.

    March 4, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • Barry

      Actually to believe in nothing and to believe that the universe is just here requires much more faith than it does to accept that a creator made it.

      They say there are no atheists in foxholes.

      It's easy to speak so irreverently when one is young and healthy, but when one lies on their death bed and they consider the awesome reality of death, it's another story.

      The noted French atheist, Voltaire, died a frightening death.

      Let me quote for you the exact record as published, “When Voltaire felt the stroke that he realized must terminate in death, he was overpowered with remorse. He at once sent for the priest, and wanted to be ‘reconciled with the church.’ His infidel flatterers hastened to his chamber to prevent his recantation; but it was only to witness his ignominy and their own. He cursed them to their faces; and, as his distress was increased by their presence, he repeatedly and loudly exclaimed, ‘Begone! It is you that have brought me to my present condition. Leave me, I say; begone! What a wretched glory is this which you have produced to me!’

      “Hoping to allay his anguish by a written recantation, he had it prepared, signed it, and saw it witnessed. But it was all unavailing. For two months he was tortured with such an agony as led him at times to gnash his teeth in impotent rage against God and man. At other times in plaintive accents, he would plead, ‘O, Christ! O, Lord Jesus!’ Then, turning his face, he would cry out, ‘I must die-abandoned of God and of men!’

      “As his end drew near, his condition became so frightful that his infidel associates were afraid to approach his beside. Still they guarded the door, that others might not know how awfully an infidel was compelled to die. Even his nurse repeatedly said, ‘For all the wealth of Europe I would never see another infidel die.’ It was a scene of horror that lies beyond all exaggeration. Such is the well-attested end of the one who had a natural sovereignty of intellect, excellent education, great wealth, and much earthly honor.” (Dying Testimonies of Saved and Unsaved by Rev. S B Shaw, pp. 49-50.)

      March 8, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  11. michel chavaniac

    Personally I'm an ATHEIST therefore all this nonsense about some insane afterlife is moot.

    March 4, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • Charles Mellott

      My friend, God don't need a human to show you he's real! You ask Him yourself! He'll show you! Beware thou. Many have ask Him and the answer can come in many ways with some not being so good, but you be the man and ask Him. He's a God! He for sure don't need us to answer for Him.

      March 6, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • Barry

      I can understand a person having doubts or uncertainty about the existence of God (agnostic), but I can't understand how someone can say that they know that God does not exist (as in the case of an atheist).

      How would one know this? How would one prove this? What science, what logic would lead a person to speak this way about things that cannot be proven?

      Brilliant and well education individuals, such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Divinci, Micalangelo, Albert Einstein, and others all believed in God.

      More importantly the saints (Old Testament and New Testament) believed in the existence of the one living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and they were willing to subject themselves, their family members, and the ones they loved to ostracicm, torture, and cruel death, in order to bear witness to their beilef in this one living God. These were people, who were opposed to lies and were committed to truth.

      I believe because of them and because of my own experience with God.

      As I recall the Scriptures says: "In those days the people shall no longer say, 'We believe because of our forefathers', they will say we believe because we have seen with our own eyes."

      March 8, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  12. Amy k.

    I find this all so interesting. I have not made up my mind yet. I had a great discussion going on Facebook so I moved it to a blog where people can post. Feel free to post Scripture and/or links to support your comments. http://robbelldiscussions.blogspot.com/

    March 4, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
  13. bryan

    Some comments ask why do christians worry so much about what others believe...Really? God instructs us to "go and tell" and to stand for the truth! What if the original christians (The Desciples) after seeing Jesus slaughtered on the cross just gave up? or gave in to the Pharisees and just did'nt stand for Christ? I'll tell you... I would'nt believe in Jesus to this day my friend! We as believers MUST take a defense to this junk gospel very seriouslyl!!! By the way Jesus talked more about hell and the consequences than He did about the rewards of Heaven! Please just read the Bible.

    March 4, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  14. called1

    People have a hard time dealing with the aspects of God that make them uncomfortable. Rob Bell has begun to wonder "Did God really say that sinners go to hell". However that kind of statement should never be taken lightly because the first person to use one was Lucifer, and that didn't lead to good things. All we have to go by is the Word of God. If we stray from that, and fill in the blanks for ourselves, then Jesus becomes a colorful mascot and his death for our sins becomes little more than thoughtful favor.
    We all put our faith in something. I KNOW that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died for the sins of all people, and that if a person realizes that, they can partake in a blissful eternity which was God's intention at creation, just like other people KNOW that all life on the planet arose from inanimate matter and that when we die we become nothing but inanimate matter. I like to think my path provides a little more hope.

    March 4, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  15. Danny

    I think its unfair to label Rob Bell a heretic before the book even comes out does not seem fair or logical to me 🙂
    Other than that if Rob Bell is questioning hell I say go for it, he's a smart well rounded, well educated, authority is scripture if he has something here, and in the Bible you can see oh...he may be right then good for him, but if we read our Bibles and we find out its all a bunch of garbage then guess what you studied and you can be secure in your views as well, as for me I do believe in hell and that the only way out is through Jesus but at the end of the day I don't critize Bell for having quesiton and challenging our beliefs, when our beliefs are challenged we don't need to throw stones but look at the cold hard evidence found in the scriptures

    March 4, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • bryan

      In response to "Danny" Rob is free to ask, but to write a book about it HE is spreading only seeds of doubt to Christians and to those who are close to believing. The devil is very cunning! He wnts us to believe that there is no punishment for sin, just like he said to Adam and Eve in the garden... Come on now!

      March 4, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • Colten

      Danny, your reply sets the standard for how a follower of Christ should respond to any theological book out there. We need to respond to challenges of scripture WITH the scripture, not with fear and hatred. If Rob Bell is wrong, he's wrong because the Bible says so, not what our traditional denominations say. Attacking other people only leads to endless infighting and makes the Christian community that much more repulsive to the unsaved. Good job brother!

      March 7, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • Stephen


      How do you know that Rob Bell doesn't answer the question he is posing about there not being a hell. And by the way i think in the promotional video, what he questions is if ghandi is in hell. If he is questioning if someone is in hell, then maybe he believes in hell. I think everyone here is jumping to conclusions. Rob Bell got what he probably wanted with that teaser trailer. everyone is talking about his book and now wants to read it to see what it says. i really think what he's done is a great publicity stunt.

      March 8, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  16. carol martin

    bidden or unbidden God is present. carl jung

    March 4, 2011 at 12:23 am |
  17. Liz Rhiel

    KS Thinker

    Jesus founded the Catholic Church? Man I hope not, for their sake. They haven't gotten anything right. Baptism isn't sprinkling, in the Bible's original language the word means "to submerge under water". There is nothing about having to worship Mary, she was just a mortal person used by God, yet she seems to be the focus in their prayers. Even though Jesus specifically said to pray in His name. And Jesus's church has priest and deacons, (with very direct instructions for them) not popes, bishops, cardinals, nuns...These are all man made positions. The Bible aslo says that It is Gods word, nothing is to be added or taken away. But the Catholic Church decided somewhere along the line to add their own set of books to the Bible and publish it just for them. And the last time I discussed issues with a devout Catholic, they believed that if they sinned, and didn't make it to confession before they died, they would go to hell. There is nothing in God's Word about confessing to a priest.....you only have to confess your sins to God. And once saved, always saved, as long as you were truly saved. And how controlling is the Catholic Church? You have to remember prayers that they wrote for you. Every situation has a certain prayer, recited. Give me a break. Jesus gave us an outline to follow on how to pray, The Lord's Prayer, he didn't give us a book of prayers to remember. Jesus definately did not found the Catholic Church, the body of Christ has no denomination. The church Christ founded in the church of believers. All those who are saved are in His Church, regardless what denomination they claim, or what building they worship in. However, I do believe that the Catholic Church does have a role in God's plans. It will be the church from which the Anti-Christ comes after the rapture, in an effort to calm the nation. Now before you start slamming me for that comment....first study the Anti-Christ and the 7 years that follow the rapture and ask yourself what makes more sense. As for Bell, he is a well meaning, but mislead individual as far as I can tell. Without reading the book and knowing the whole story, I will reserve my thoughts.

    KSThinker...What a true and wonderful post!

    March 3, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
    • A Broken Leader

      Baptize not in the original language? What language are you reading? hahaha

      March 5, 2011 at 12:16 am |
    • catholicall mylife

      Liz, I'm not sure where in the heck you developed your ignorant view point on Catholicism, but WOW is all that can really be said. I have grown up in the GR area and I haven't heard anything that judgemental and off the mark ever. You should really understand a subject before publically stating an "opinion". Your commentary was not insightful, educated or enlightening. It is that type of spewing that causes hatred and quite the opposite of what a true Christian is about. Shame on you.

      March 7, 2011 at 9:51 am |
    • cdelancey

      I wish they had a "like" button here. Thank you for speaking the truth.

      March 7, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
    • Barry

      The Christian church did not develop into the Catholic Church, until the fourth century, when the Roman Emperor Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus (c. 27 February 272 – 22 May 337) became a Christian and made Christianity the religion of the Roman empire.

      The Christian church began as a Jewish movement. Its founder, Jesus, was a Jew; the twelve Apostles were all Jews; and the author of about half of the New Testament, Paul, was a Jew. Eventually this movement included gentiles and eventually it became virtually entirely gentile.

      The Catholic Church was for all practical purposes the church from the fourth century to the sixteenth century. In the mid 1500's the Catholic Church underwent a major change, when Martin Luther (a Catholic priest) and John Calvin initiated reforms, which brought about the Protestant movement.

      The Protestant movement was largely based on returning to the Bible, as the authority and guide for Christians, as opposed to relying on the Pope.

      Christianity has to a large extent maintained this division, since that day.

      March 8, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  18. John Lussier

    http://isrobbellauniversalist.tumblr.com/ – hhahaha, so true.

    March 3, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
    • David Goodrich

      Provocation as a teaching tool often makes reading into assumptions very easy to do. It also helps sell books and grab attention. 🙂 Hopefully, in doing so, it will help us all to think deeper and act on the important matters of faith (without necessarily having to agree on everything).


      March 4, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
  19. John Lussier

    http://isrobbellauniversalist.tumblr.com/ – this is too funny, and really does answer the question.

    March 3, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
  20. Kim

    As a member of Mars Hill Bible Church, I have actually heard Rob's teaching on love winning. Before casting the first stone, maybe people should actually read the entire book before judging? {just a thought}

    March 3, 2011 at 4:26 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.