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. Dan

    Universalism is not a new thing. Unitarian and Universalist Churches (now joined) are at least 200 years old. And they focus on *gasp* doing good for all people and working for things like eliminating poverty and promoting civil rights. I find this to be much more productive and good for the world at large than arguing about the nature of god and issues that are unprovable.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  2. Jim

    Can't wait to read the book!

    March 1, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  3. LuLz

    Religion is mental illness. People should just read what these Christians are typing and you'll realize this is madness – frothing at the mouth, lock these people up in the loony bin madness!

    March 1, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • B514

      And what's your reasoning to back up your claim that your view of life is correct and Christians are all "crazy"?

      March 1, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • Kannon

      As a christian, you believe that your brand of religion is the one true religion. In a nutshell, this means that you believe you are correct, and that the Greek and Norse pantheons, animalistic totems, jews, islam, etc, are all myth. I share your views, I simply take it one further. Surely you could understand how I might have done that when you already chose not to believe in so many yourself?

      March 1, 2011 at 11:37 am |
  4. ToddMo

    I don't think labeling this man "a heretic" will love him toward what Evangelical Xians believe to be the truth. You can call this teaching heresy, and still love the man as a christian brother, trying to do our best to love him into what has been historically understood as orthodox Xian teaching – i.e. heaven & hell, no Xian universalism. But this witch hunt business labeling him a heretic wins nothing. Not him, not this followers, and not any on-lookers/readers. "They shall know you are My disciples by your LOVE for one another," Jesus said. Not because your theology is perfectly orthodox. Jesus was put to death for heresy (I AM ) by the most orthodox religious people of His day.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • Drewg

      Perfectly expressed Todd. When judgement and condemnation overtake love – all is lost – including any credibility as a Christian. That is the root of the brokenness of the church that alienates and creates disillusion for many, and what Jesus so ardently and passionately speaks against. Keep up the great work Rob Bell.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  5. Ray

    Mr. Bell needs to decide what standard he wants to use for knowledge and learn a little bit of philosophy so he doesn't look so mushy minded to all sides. If you can't trust what the bible says than don't call yourself a "Christian Pastor" and join the chorus of secularists who are at least consistant in their denial of Christianity. You cant read the bible w/the fruit salad approach, as soon believe it is full of error than you have no epistemic basis to trust/rely on the rest of the revelation of the Old/New Testaments. This always comes down to he doesn't "like" what he reads about "hell" because of his preconceived humanistic presuppositions. He will need to come up w/firmer arguments to be taken seriously by theologians, but i doubt he cares to. Wheaton may be a popular college but it sure is no longer a bed of concertvativsm, this is no surprise.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  6. Mark

    In the video he states that God sends us to hell and Jesus saves us from God. It is not God that sends us to hell, YOU send yourself to hell by rejecting God. By the way...Jesus IS God.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  7. Daniel

    May 21, 2011 JUDGMENT DAY

    The Bible GUARANTEES it!!!

    websites to look at...





    March 1, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • Kannon

      Looking forward to it. Can't wait to hear the list of excuses that will be made when May 22nd gets here without doom and damnation aplenty.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • JD

      I actually give these guys credit for putting a firm date on it. Not that I'm not looking forward to the backpedaling on the 22cd...

      March 1, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • ectopic

      I'll get back to you on May 12th.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • ectopic

      Oops May 22nd.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Val

      It is my understanding that the bible is pretty clear that we will not know the day of the end of the world... also, from what I hear, things will get a lot worse right before the "day"... we are not even close!

      March 1, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • Tom C

      It's all speculation. Matthew 24:36-44 says no one knows the day the Lord will come. That all being said, it's still possible that He returns on May 21, 2011, but there is nothing in the bible to support this date without adding thoughts of your own.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  8. B514

    It's funny how all these people make fun of God and the church but the really funny thing is that they have NO evidence all to back up their claims. Tell me, how can you prove that an outer dimensional being doesn't exist? You can't, just like how I can't physically prove he exists. You cannot prove or disprove something outside of our universe. You cannot bound them by the same laws and physics we live by to them. They exist outside of that. That's what makes Him supernatural. He can alter things in our universe just like how if we were able to travel to a 2-D world, we can do the same thing.

    That's why the whole foundation on the church is FAITH.

    And religions don't start war, people do. People are idiots and they will always be idiots. If we didn't have religion in our world, we would fight over something else like color, language anything!

    I've been silent too long but man people, open a book!

    March 1, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  9. RichG

    According to the gospel of Kirk Cameron we all go to hell if we didn't ask God for forgiveness right before we died.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • Mike

      If your going to quote Kirk Cameron, your doing a poor job of it. Your statement is not the complete truth. Kirk and his buddies from "Way of the Master" speak the true Gospel but its more of a "hit n run" teaching. I prefer building a more permanent relationship with those I teach. There is nothing wrong with street preaching, I prefer getting a name and bringing them to church.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  10. Amunaka

    Hmmm...now they tell me ..I've thought I was going straight to hell by the time I was eight ..well at least that's what every body kept telling me .....

    March 1, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  11. Cory

    This is a new trend, to rail against the Immerging Church movement, I don't believe it until I read the full book. There have been a couple people upset about Rob Bell's "mysticism," along with henry nouwen, and also Brennan Manning, author of Ragamuffin Gospel. I think we should read with caution and also understand the Bible is the standard by which all of these should be judged.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  12. Steve

    I don't think this article understands how the Presbyterian church works. I've never heard of a pastor being excommunicated for not holding a certain belief. I haven't researched this issue, but I do know that one thing the denomination prides itself on is allowing room for people with diverse theological views.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • Ray

      Conservative Presbyterian denoms (PCA, OPC, ARP, etc) require church officers (Pastors, Elders, Deacons) to uphold theological and moral standards. Pastors that later seriously depart theologically or morally are disciplined (i.e. forced to step down). You must be thinking of the large mainline PCUSA, these folks no longer uphold the historical confessions/standards that we hammered out in the 16th/17th century, they are Presbyterian in name only. As you might surmise i am a conservative Presbyterian. However, i believe the article stated Bell was from an independent church.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  13. Valerie Campbell

    Whether you believe the Bible is true or not, if you call yourself a Christian you are saying that you believe the Bible is all true. You can't just take the bits and pieces that you like and disregard other parts. This man's beliefs are not in line with the Bible, which clearly states within itself that you should not add or take away from the Bible as it is written. You are pretty much creating your own religion if you do that.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  14. hell is 4 baby heads

    The idea of Hell is for idiots. Satan is a boogeyman created by men to scare other men into behaving according to their rules.

    It's as clear as the horns on my head!

    March 1, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • Anglican

      We will see.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • John Richardson

      @Anglican Maybe we won't. If our minds are extinguished for all time at death, then we by definition WON'T experience the hypothetical truth that all this afterlife talk is simply a fanciful invention. But if there IS an afterlife, then yes, you may indeed find yourself in hell one day with all your fellow believers. And then you will be made to bow down before the might of Ahura Mazda. Or not!

      March 1, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  15. clemsondave

    Agreed, Andy. This doesn't really line up with what I've read of Bell's. He's edgy, but this doesn't fit. I think he's just asking tough questions to get things churning.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  16. John

    Hell is a clever invention to create fear and panic. God is not in favor.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • John Richardson

      Actually, it's a pretty ham-fisted invention, if you ask me! Ok, you didn't ask me, but I'm tellin' ya anyway! It's perhaps the crudest idea ever dreamt up, and I'm sorry to say that that probably goes a long way to explaining why it has been successful as it has been for so long.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  17. Carla Medina

    Sad to fight whether Hell, as some people consider, is the everlasting torture in a lake of fire and brimstone...If you are a REAL Christian, you must believe the kind of FORGIVENESS and amazing GRACE Jesus demonstrated. YES, BISHOP PEARSON IS CORRECT! Nobody can beat God, not even Satan, the personifrication of evil. Try the true Methodist Churches that believe in God's grace that SAVED ALL OF HUMANITY. But since God is also a JUST GOD, all who murder, the ultimate defiance of God's cmmandment not to kill, will very surely experience the ultimate wrath of God in hell BUT NOT FOREVER....Warmongers like Hitler and our own -you know who warmonger, will SURELY experience hell, but not forever...ALL HUMAN BEINGS BELONG TO GOD as demonstrated 2000 years ago by the DIVINE REDEEMER..Satan CANNOT win or God is not God....

    March 1, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Deneen

      How can we believe that God is all powerful, created all as well as Satan, and think that Satan will beat God? All souls belong to God, they are just on loaner form him here on earth.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  18. Mike

    Ok, and JESUS Was beaten, bloody, bruises, spit on, died, etc forrrrr whaaatt? So all that was because the catholics made it up. People Jesus himself spoke about Hell more than he did any other topic. He's soon to return. If you accept him there is no Hell. If you dont then you will find hell more than a real place. It will Be your home. I pray that many are not decieved by these false teachers. I wont even read the book. I have the book that been around for generations. The Good old Holy Bible. Dont be decieved and again i say dont be deceived!!!

    March 1, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Kannon

      Read your bible again. He talks about heaven more than hell, and talks about money more than both combined. His number one subject was actually the Kingdom of God.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  19. Joot

    Bell, McLaren, and their "running buddies" are ignoring basic Biblical teachings on this subject (and others). Bell ignores/denies/disbelieves the numerous sciptures dealing with Heaven and Hell. So be it, but he shouldn't pretend to be, describe himself as, or allow himself to be described as an evangelical Christian.

    Is Bell a heretic? Clearly. No doubt about it. A false teacher? Yes. He needs to camp out in the second and third chapters of 2 Peter to understand God's view of false teachers.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Mike

      Only a Christian can judge another Christian. If this book is indeed what is being reported than I expect his congregation to take the appropriate actions. " For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its fruit." Luke 6:43-44.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  20. RichG

    Heaven and hell is a state of mind. You make those places here on earth and then you die.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Mike

      Your so wrong. Heaven is a place of complete victory and glorious triumph over death. Where Satan will be dragged captive at the chariot wheels of Christ. This is the universal victory for the hearts of all the redeemed.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • Kannon

      Mike, I thought the Jesus of the second testament was a non-violent kind of fellow. Where is it in the bible that Jesus would drag someone he doesn't agree with behind him in a chariot?

      March 1, 2011 at 11:42 am |
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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.