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. Matt

    Denouncing hell is denouncing the exclusivity of Christianity. It bothers Christians, because if hell didn't exist their super special club of "who Jesus loves enough not to damn to eternal suffering" would suddenly not be such an exclusive club. Never underestimate the superiority complex that many Christians have.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • Jeffery

      Matt, it is not exclusive. Jesus said "I came that ALL may have life, and llife more abundantly" He wants everyone, everyone. That is not exclusive, that's universal.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  2. john316

    It is still amazing that this nonsense is discussed in 2011. This is like an argument between UFO believers and the Santa Clause Trilogy enthusiasts....which is better or more relevant....I know the Third world is being brainwashed by these people as we speak....to save them.....I just don't understand how it happens here......I'm actually glad there are people like this man to write more on the subject....somehow ...."Thinking" has to enter the process......there isn't much of that going on.....it's all "my way...or the highway" nonsense......

    March 1, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  3. Davydenko

    Hey HM1968, the Bible was written decades after the alleged events occurred and the authors are either unknown in most cases or people who were NOT there. Try learning your facts before trying to "school" someone else.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • Jeffery

      Untrue, there is no book ever written with the historical authority that the Bible has. Forget about the religious part of it. People like CS Lewis tried to prove it wrong as a book, and in the process became great believers in what it said. The book is unrefutable from a historical standpoint. After you get that far start looking at it.s message. It is unique from every other religion. It is US christians who continue to mess things up so that non-christins don't believe. For that, I apologize.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  4. ppehs

    I don't want to turn this into a racial issue .......but why are all the pictures i see of Jesus and the angels depicted as blue eyed and blond hair (Jesus probably looked more like Bin Laden & Saddam Hussen than we care to believe) I am glad that Mr. Bell, Peason et ,al. are seeing Christianity in a more inclusive light for the enire universe

    March 1, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • Jeffery

      Jesus said "I came that ALL may have life" I think that is universal. But, each person must believe in Jesus' message to receive it.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  5. icedawg

    Hmmmm. There was a preacher (Jesus) once who said, "Matthew 13:41-42 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, 42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Whoever has a problem with the reality of hell also has a problem with Jesus.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  6. Vince Van Der Hyde

    Well, here we go again, another troublemaker. No doubt the 'conservative' bunch will want to bring out the rack and thumbscrew to make him confess, and then burn him at the stake–all to save his immortal soul, of course.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  7. Alberto

    Rob Bell is realistic. In the process, he is affecting the bottom line – cash.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  8. Jeffery

    I haven't read the book. I have watched 20 or so of Bell's NOOMA vidoes. ALL of them excellent. Bell asks questions...Hmm it seems to me another Teacher 2000 years ago asked His listeners questions. Is there a Hell? Absolutely yes, the Lord said so. Traditionalists, Dogmatics, and Orthodoxy are terms to describe stagnant christians. Remember the Words is alive and powerful and living in us through the Spirit. Christians, don't get stuck in what you know. That's what the Pharisees did and look where it got them. I challenge you to read and " Love the Lord with all your heart..." As for Bell, listen to his questions and answer each of them with The WORD. There's nothing to fear here, WE have the absolute soverign Truth.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  9. Kerry Berger

    Heressy as a criminal charge is anachronistic and runs counter to Freedom of Expression. Not only that, it is bogus and leads to divisiveness and prejudice. Those religions that flaunt the charge of heressy are the ones that are least tolerant of differences in belief. Welcome to the 21st Century.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  10. HM1968

    To Chris who reponded to HM1968: You are obviously can't get all your thoughts into one post. I have read a history book, Chris, so please don't sit on your pedestal and act like you are all-knowing. My question to you is the same statement that Drbbt made. Why do you believe a history book that was written by men who were not there but do not believe a bible that is a history book of mankind written by men who were there?? And Chris, this is just a conversation, you are getting too upset and taking my post waaaay to personal... getting worried that you may be wrong about God and Jesus. If you don't believe, then you should be.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  11. blb

    No hell? Then how do you explain the Tea Party?

    March 1, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  12. Jonny

    The haters and fear mongers fear losing their grip on Christianity in America, so any threat they easily go after.
    The want to be the Only Ones with an Opinion about the afterlife.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  13. wolfatl

    with all that is happening in the middle east, WI etc.- I this crap is important?????

    March 1, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  14. joe hardy




    March 1, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  15. blake

    Sadly, yes.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  16. Chris

    Universalism a false doctrine? As a Unitarian Universalist I find that comment offensive.
    The fact is, most of the founders of the United States were either Uniterians or Universalists in their day. Uniterians and Universalists joined together in the early 1960's to become the Uniterian Universalist Association, a recognized and highly respected religion fully in keeping with our American values and traditions.I encourage everyone to look it up.
    I also find it doubly offensive the Christian ministers are debating how to define another religion. Christian ministers don't have the right to re-define Unitarian Universalism to suit their own ends.

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


      Read some history.

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

      Sorry Chris, not true. Show me in some reliable history where you get this idea.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  17. Rick McDaniel

    All religion is either a deliberate lie, or foolish people who listen to fantasy. They would tell everyone how to live their own lives, and then they would do things that the rest would find totally reprehensible.

    In truth, religion fosters ostracism, criticism, and attacks on others. Organized religion is nothing but a scam, designed to part people from their money. (The Catholic Church has been doing that for centuries.)

    All that is needed, to live a good life, and play an acceptable role in society, is ethical conduct, honesty, and integrity. Religion is not required.

    The best path for all, is the old adage.......treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • Jeffery

      the only thing wrong with Christianity is the christians. (I being one of them) but...there is either a God or there is not, you have to decide. If you say "not" then where did all this start? Evolution. I think it is more rational to believe in a God.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • Dan

      So what if all these christians that are living a "lie" as you put it turn out to be right....and all the non christians are cast into hell, what then? Is it so bad to believe in a religion that ultimately teaches love, peace, understanding?

      So back to what if I am right and you are wrong. If im wrong then in your belief I have nothing to worry about. But if you are wrong I feel sorry for you.

      But this Im sure just stems from a bad experience you had with religion. Now you are just playing of stereotypes. But don t fret God still loves you

      March 1, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • Rob L

      I find it interesting that someone who has no use for God or religion lives his life by a teaching from the bible, specificially: Matthew 7:12, "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the law and the prophets." God loves you!

      March 1, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • Gene

      "...all the non christians are cast into hell,...a religion that ultimately teaches love, peace, understanding.?"

      Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

      March 1, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  18. tbubb

    How about everyone learn what the ancient Church taught about Heaven and Hell? It hasn't changed for 2,000 years.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • cmxsmitty

      Yes and people used to swear the earth was flat.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • SurelyUjest

      In doing what you suggest you are asking us to deny what we have learned about the Earth, space and science. I am a believer that Science and Religion are not separate and can easily work together to prove the same point. Let's face it we cannot see heaven, nor can we see hell. The concepts of each were created when men crawled out of caves and started farming and trading, but lightening to many then was sent down by Zues. Wine was created by Bachus and Christian religion was a few nut jobs talking in private having to hide their thoughts. Why should this man have to hide his thoughts because of doctrine conjured up to explain the unexplainable (at the time) and to reward/punish followers? Universalism in the very least shows the Christian God to not only be merciful but loving and all inclusive. Not really a terrible thing, how ever it requires all Christians to be good because it is gods will but their are NO consequences. I for one can live with that beause I never was able to put my hands around punishing folks for eternity for 1 – 2 sins possibly committed out of desperation for survival like stealing, or bearing false witness ( in the middle ages if you were accused of witch craft you were let off the hook if you named a couple other witches to be burned at the stake) so really are we intelligent, self responsible adults or are we "children" that need to be govorned by fear?

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

    This is like adults arguing about the properties of Santa Claus. Such a joke.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:26 am |
  20. JD

    Might as well be arguing about Bigfoot's favorite pizza toppings.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • Kevin

      At least pizza is real!

      March 1, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • ToddMo

      That's the first response that actually made me laugh. Good One.

      March 1, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • josh

      Its Anchovies...Duh...anyways, how did this even make news? who cares?

      March 1, 2011 at 11:35 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.