Firestorm grows over 'Christian heresy' book
March 8th, 2011
12:49 PM ET

Firestorm grows over 'Christian heresy' book

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

The firestorm around Rob Bell has grown considerably in the last week.  Now the leadership of his Mars Hill Bible Church is rushing to his defense, and we're learning more about the fight to publish his controversial new book.

Last week, we reported that conservative Christian blogger Justin Taylor suggested Bell's yet-to-be-released book, "Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived," was heading towards universalism ─ a dirty word in Christian circles that suggests everyone goes to heaven and there is no hell.

Taylor's claim ─ based on a description of the book released by publisher HarperOne and a promotional video ─ ignited a wave of criticism against, and a counter-wave of support for, Bell. Some critics went so far as to label Bell a heretic. Prominent evangelical pastors on both the right and left rushed to condemn or defend the Michigan pastor.

Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called the promotion of the book the "sad equivalent of a theological striptease." Brian McLaren, who has also been branded a heretic in the past, marveled at the fact people would throw around the "h" word "without actually grappling with the issues and questions the books raised."

The controversy even caught the staff at Bell's church off-guard. On Sunday, Brian Mucchi, an assistant pastor, told the church they knew a controversy could come, they just didn't expect it to come so soon, according to a church member who was at the service but did not want to be identified.

Mucchi told congregants at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, the church Bell founded, that the entire leadership team had read the book and was excited about its release. He put up pictures of Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga and told the audience that while those two stars were not trending on Twitter last weekend,  Bell was.

Shane Hipps, Mars Hill Bible Church's teaching pastor, addressed the congregation about the book before he preached on Sunday. "On a personal note, when you get to see a very dear friend spend a year of his life working to create, pouring blood, sweat and tears into something that before it even releases become this incredible phenomenon, it's just extremely thrilling," Hipps said, according to audio of the service posted on YouTube.

Hipps pointed out for context that Bell's unreleased book is outselling the latest release by Pope Benedict XVI on Amazon.com.

"This book will irreparably, irrevocably, irreversible change Rob's life and change a lot of the things in the life of this community. These are good things, but he needs prayer.  And not because he's fragile but because he's a leader, and leaders need prayer," Hipps continued.

"We are not anxious about this at all. Because I promise you when you get to read the book, you will find that it is fresh and liberating ─ but that it rests firmly in the wide screen of Orthodox Christianity and in the history of Christianity it fits perfectly.  You will be very much at ease," he said.

The church has said it will not comment on the book publicly in an official capacity until it is released and did not respond to repeated requests for interviews with its leadership team.

The book was scheduled to be released March 29, but Harper One pushed the release up to March 15 ─ next Tuesday.

“All retailers won’t get it on the same day, but it will finally give his readers a chance to hear what he’s saying,” Mark Tauber, senior vice president and publisher at HarperOne, told CNN.

He said the controversy swirling is unlike anything else he has seen in this category of books. "I'm not sure I’ve ever seen this amount of anticipation," he said.

"Love Wins" is Bell's first book since his break from Zondervan, the Christian publisher based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that published Bell's first four books and also publishes the New International Version of the Bible, one of the most popular translations of the Bible among evangelicals.

Bell's split from Zondervan came in part over this new book. "The break with Zondervan was amicable," Tauber said. "In the end the president of Zondervan made the decision. The proposal came in and they said, 'This proposal doesn’t fit in with our mission.' "

Zondervan would not discuss its relationship with Bell but released a statement:

Zondervan has published four books by Rob Bell, as well as numerous Nooma videos in which Rob was featured. We published these titles because we believed they were consistent with Zondervan’s mission statement and publishing philosophy. We still believe these titles are impactful with their message and positive contribution and intend to continue to publish them.

Tauber said when he got the call that Bell's new book was up for bid, HarperOne jumped at the chance.

“There were at least four or five major publishers that were involved in bidding for this book," he said. When pressed for financial figures of the deal, he said, "We’re talking a six-figure deal for the advance, but I can’t say more than that."

Tauber said HarperOne had been "keeping an eye on him" since Bell's first book, "Velvet Elvis," came in as a proposal. That book went on to sell 500,000 copies. Bell skyrocketed to prominence with the the Nooma series, which were short teachings by Bell, away from the pulpit and with indie film sensibilities.

The high production values and quick releases of the short films made them a hit in evangelical circles.  In them Bell honed his trademark style of asking tough traditional questions about faith and exploring them from angles other than traditional answers.

Bell will speak publicly for the first time since the controversy erupted on March 14 at a forum sponsored by his publisher and moderated by Lisa Miller, an editor at Newsweek magazine.

Bell once told me he doesn't like to engage in what he called "blog kung fu," the back-and-forth debates that percolate across the web. He may not have a choice this time. With the release of the book right around the corner and a long tour schedule to promote it, Bell just may find himself having to hit back.

On March 4 Bell posted this message on his website:

I’m thrilled to let you know I have a new book coming out called "Love Wins." It releases on March 15 and the night before (March 14) I’ll be speaking in New York City. The event will be at 7 p.m. and it will be streamed live at livestream.com/lovewins. I’ll be taking questions.

If the interest before the release is any indication, Bell will have plenty of questions to answer.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Books • Christianity • Church • Michigan • United States

soundoff (313 Responses)
  1. Oldwise1

    Rob Bell is an intellectual lightweight. I've never been impressed.

    March 8, 2011 at 10:17 pm |
  2. James

    Ti 4:9 This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation.
    1Ti 4:10 For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of ALL men, specially of those that believe.
    1Ti 4:11 These things command and teach.

    Jesus is the saviour of all mankind.......we are commanded to teach this. But of course if they taught this it would eliminate all the middlemen who can make a buck with their organization or dogma interpretations. Promotion of fear makes billions annually. No human being is lost nor needs to add his part to the finished work of God's Love. God's love does not fail anyone irregardless of what some men say.

    March 8, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
  3. Harry Teak

    Heritic? lol...Are you kidding me? They're stll using that word? Heritic...lmao

    March 8, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
    • Ceri

      Oh dear.

      March 8, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
  4. bert stenson

    to all conservatives; many of you believe Jesus is your person savior, where is that a biblical idea? Individualistic salvation is not a Christian belief. Maybe you should take a hard look at your own belief by reading scholastic theology

    March 8, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
  5. DrJStrangepork

    Branding someone a "heretic" is awesome!!! Some things never go out of date.

    March 8, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
  6. Spec

    There is no hell. Hell was just made up long ago to scare people into acting properly. We are a bit more mature than that and we can act good for the sake of over all society. Hell has outlived its usefulness.

    March 8, 2011 at 10:02 pm |
  7. B.D.Kuchera

    It's not available yet. No one should comment on any book until they have read it. This is weird that there would be any negative comments. Save it until he's really said anything that leads towards Universalism. And, if he went that way, just close the book, forget about it, get over yourself, read your Bible, and stay as close to Jesus as possible. Hell hath no fury against Him. Rob Bell? Just a dude. And, lighten up.

    March 8, 2011 at 10:02 pm |
  8. JMH

    So many opinions... and so quick to judge? I understand that Religon has mainly remained unchanged for thousands of years so when someone bring something to the table that is not the "status quo" then words like heresy are thrown around. Lets be honest, fear of the unknown is the cornerstone of faith! NO ONE knows exactly what happens when human life ceases. The Bible is great to read and understand, but it takes the readers' thoughts and perception to rationlization and logic to fully grasp for themselves what they are reading. It will take these skills to read other books wheither they agree or not with the content...

    March 8, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
  9. Michael

    O M F G, when will news organizations stop propping up stupid bronze age fairy tales with absolutely no evidence to back it.

    March 8, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
    • Ceri

      And when will bigots like you stop trying to impose their own disbelief on everyone else? For myself, I see evidence all around me, but then my eyes (and my mind) are open.

      March 8, 2011 at 10:12 pm |
    • Brian, Detroit, MI

      Cheri, the evidence you see everyday is called the natural world and that has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with your "god". Science has disproven the existance of a "god" and now the faithful are just grasping at straws.

      March 24, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Scott

      Brian, it's funny that you choose to put your faith in science, which changes constantly because it is frequently proven wrong and must be "modified", but not in the Bible, of which not a single thing has ever been proven wrong. Kind of like choosing between a known liar and somebody who has always spoken the truth...I guess that's the wonder of free will and choice – some people will always make bad choices even when the truth is right in front of them!!! 🙂

      March 25, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • kso

      @Scott, I always love when people pose the counter-argument about science having to always being changed/modified. if you had even an inkling of the idiocy embedded in your field trip around logic, you'd implode from the sheer burn of your realized embarrassment.

      March 29, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  10. glen

    2Ti 4:3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers;
    2Ti 4:4 and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.
    People will be running to hear Rob Bell because he doesn't tell the people what they should hear. The "itching ear" teachers will be in abundance. Nohting surprises me anymore.

    March 8, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
    • Gumby

      You guys just aren't happy unless your religion includes eternal torture, aren't you?

      March 9, 2011 at 6:34 am |
  11. deanna

    I am baffled by such a serious argument ... jesus is my savior and due to that belief i will spend eternity with Him in heaven. I think its hard to hear someone is an atheist when there is so much on the table when it comes to beliefs of faith. i have loved rob bells teachings for years and look forward to reading his book but if it is not in line with biblical teachings ill be very disappointed because bell has done great things for christianity.

    March 8, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
  12. deanna

    I am baffled by such a serious argument ... jesus is my savior and due to that belief i will spend eternity with Him in heaven. i haved loved rob bells teachings for years and look forward to reading his book but if it is not in line with biblical teachings ill be very disappointed because bell has done great things for christianity.

    March 8, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
    • Gumby

      Don't worry. No matter what nonsense anyone comes up with, it can all be justified by the bible. The bible is an amazing book – you can cherry-pick it to make it agree with whatever you're saying.

      March 9, 2011 at 6:31 am |
  13. SuperFed

    "On Sunday, Brian Mucchi, an assistant pastor, told the church they knew a controversy could come, they just didn't expect it to come so soon...."

    That's usually an indication that you're moving into something other than generally accepted theory, doctrine, or practice.

    March 8, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
  14. Sara Schleicher

    Where is the wise man?
    Where is the scholar?
    Where is the philosopher of this age?
    Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

    Rob Bell is going to confuse Christians of weak faith. Don't waste your money on Bell's book. Only one book is needed: the Holy Bible. Come, Holy Spirit, and lead those out of Mars Hill church and into your glorious truth!

    March 8, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
    • Gumby

      Christians: advocating censorship since the year 1.

      March 9, 2011 at 6:29 am |
    • J BRITT

      Knowledge is a dangerous weapon and it appears as though you are afraid of it.

      March 9, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • Rkimm

      Thank you for your comment.
      JBritt, there is only one true knowledge and only one true sourse of truth and that is the Word of God.
      If Rob Bell's book is speaking the truth of the Word of God, then that is great and there is nothing his church or he should hide from, but if he is going away from what the Word of God preaches, then he doesn't speak the truth or have true knowledge.

      March 9, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  15. mjg228

    "The church has said it will not comment on the book publicly in an official capacity until it is released and did not respond to repeated requests for interviews with its leadership team." And that is what Rob's critics should be doing as well. I find it funny that the religious right are scrambling through blogs and Twitter answering the "hell question" when it reality (1) they don't really know what the question is and (2) people have been asking this question for for decades and they've been ignoring it. They are completely caught off guard by this and they have no idea what to do.

    Another thing that also gets me is that those same critics probably won't understand Bell's real position on the matter because they're too stupid/ignorant to comprehend his rhetoric. If you don't use their language and follow their rules you're a heretic. Such a shame.

    March 8, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
    • Brian

      mjg228, I think you nailed it! As a long time member of Mars Hill I have seen Robs words twisted and him dragged through the mud for years. I have a brother who thinks I'm crazy for going to this church. Rob is different and people are afraid of that. I prayed for a year, I begged and pleaded with God that if there was a false spirit at Mars Hill to open my eyes to it. I Have seen nothing but truth there. I am from a conservative background and still consider myself that way. I am also confident in my fellow brothers and sisters at Mars Hill that if something false did come our way, we would see it for what it was. We are not a bunch of mind numbed robots waiting for Rob to give us marching orders. That is not Rob's desire or any one else in a leadership position at Mars Hill. I can't comment on a book I have not read.

      March 10, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
  16. Jeffision

    The media is trying it's very best to whup up a "firestorm" here.

    March 8, 2011 at 9:24 pm |

      I am trying to "WHIP UP" my own little firestorm. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH 😉 – WHIP IT GOOD – HAHAHA!

      March 8, 2011 at 9:38 pm |
  17. RichieP

    So? Why doesn't he just come out and say whether he believes there is a hell? That would settle the controversy. Of course, quelling the controversy, no matter how easy, would also mean fewer book sales. Now we see where his loyalties truly lie.

    March 8, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
    • Skegeeace

      Good point.

      March 8, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
    • Ceri

      RichieP, guess what? Not everyone sees everything in monetary terms as you seem to imply. If he has a message he wants to get across, why would he do anything to reduce the number of people that read that message? Doh!

      March 8, 2011 at 10:01 pm |
    • Whodoyouwantmetobe

      Ceri, controversy is the single best method of selling books. The author is doing everything to prove that RichieP is correct. Hey, mega-church pastors don't live in church-owned parsonages. Mansions, nice cars, expensive suits. Tell me I'm lying.

      April 3, 2011 at 9:20 am |
  18. spikette

    if god is omnipresent and we are all one, cant see him breaking aprts of him off to send some to h"ll

    March 8, 2011 at 9:14 pm |
    • Richard

      Nowhere does scripture and therefore orthodox Christian theology teach that we are all one. Pantheism and even Panentheism do but not Christianity.

      Chrisitanity teaches that we are created in God's image by God, that we naturally reject that truth and live to please ourselves through various sins. God is perfect, righteous, holy, and good and therefore must punish sin and he does so in a place the scriptures call Hell.

      Of course the good news is that Jesus Christ paid the penalty for the sins of all who believe in HIm. If you genuinly trust your life to him (repentance) and trust him as the ransom for the price your sins deserve then you will spend an eternity in heaven with God.

      Those in Christ no longer fear the realities of Hell.

      March 8, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
    • Hakuna matata

      "Those in Christ no longer fear the realities of Hell."
      Neither do atheists or agnostics fear the completely fabricated ideal of a "hell".
      The "realities" of "hell" is that it's all completely made up "out of whole cloth".
      By the same measure, there is no heaven either. No need to try your vicious fearmongering on me. I've been there, had a t-shirt, and took the bible out of my eyes. Each false word in your so-called holy book is like a huge "log" in its own right stuck in the eyes of people who react blindly to fear.
      Don't worry. Your sadistic version of a deity is not supported by any real evidence to date despite thousands of religious scholars roaming over the earth seeking that very evidence.
      No hell, no god, nothing to worry about.
      Hakuna matata.

      March 8, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
    • SolaGrace


      Amen Richard....Amen

      March 8, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
    • aggieboy92

      Read the responses from Hakuna Matata and Richard and tell me which one is spewing venom. Hakuna, you can't have it both ways. you can't make such harsh, prejudicial statements and claim to the victim.

      March 8, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
    • Hakuna matata

      aggieboy92....I am not claiming to be a victim. Maybe your eyes are too filled with those logs again. Try reading my post again.
      And if you don't figure it out, so what? No worries here. Why don't you worry about yourself? You obviously need help.

      March 8, 2011 at 10:44 pm |
    • teachme

      I'm trying to find answers in life and am open to learning more about Christianity. Particularly I've been confused when I read about this new book and it seems to be a bit different than what most Christians tell me the Christian Bible tells us. From what I've ready here I think I'm getting the basica concepts but hope that any misunderstandings can be cleared up for me. Have I got this straight so far?
      1. God is all powerful and all knowing. Nothing in the universe has happened except by His desire and His will.
      2. God created the earth and every living thing on it in His image and likeness. Man was created by God in order to complete Gods ultimate purpose in the universe.
      3. God designed/created man as a sinful animal deserving of death and torment. With some capacity for choice but ultimately restrained by the fact that God knows all and knows the future and designed humans perfectly the way He wanted.
      4. The vast majority of human beings will be punished for all eternity by their Father in Heaven and Creator God. (The road to heaven is narrow but the road to Hell is wide...?)
      5. If humans accept and embrace God and his son/himself Jeses, they will be allowed to live forever praising God in heavan for how great He is and thanking Him for allowing us (his creation) to not be punished and tortured.
      6. If humans do not accept and embrace this generous gift they will be tortured in Hell for all eternity.

      This author seems to write something different than the above? Is he wrong about what the Bible teaches? Am I misunderstanding what the Bible teaches? Thanks in advance for any clarification from Christians who actually know the Bible and its teachings.

      March 24, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  19. burndisco

    and why is this interesting?

    March 8, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
  20. WhoLou

    Don't know about hell ? Clearly none of these men are married to a 45 year old woman in menopause. THAT hell is real ! All your other stuff about "you god(s)" hell is mere chit chat.

    March 8, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
    • spikette

      wow who... this book isnt even about women and still... you got your jab in. too. if this is what your wife has to put up with, no wonder

      March 8, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
    • gaitan01087@yahoo.com

      you certainly are gay!

      March 8, 2011 at 10:01 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.