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. Opinion

    Does this really have anything to do with the Bible? The basis for Christianity. I'm a little confused. Where in the Bible does it say there is no hell and everyone goes to heaven? And the person who described his friend as having created this book giving of his blood, sweat and tears must be an alarmist. Did this person receive paper cuts, work up a sweat running away from others while writing this and cry a lot? Just can't imagine how this author has become so traumatized by writing his speculation and opinions.

    March 10, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
    • Babs

      Yes... that is why so many Christians are worried/concerned (okay, some are acting plain flipping nuts, but anyway)...precisely because the Bible is fraught-over with references to hell. It never says everyone goes to heaven. This is why 'das Christians' have lost de marbles over what de Bell is tolling about. They (we, me) believe he has hijacked the parts of the Bible that speak to love and mercy but obfuscated the parts that speak to punishment. And this is not in keeping with orthodox (little 'o') Christianity.

      March 10, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
  2. Dav eL

    Has there ever been a book written on the subject of religion, that has not been considered heretical by someone or other?

    March 10, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
  3. sand

    interesting that the most hate for the man comes from fellow christians. evidence of an eternal punishment is scant in the Bible, but evidence of eternal bliss with the maker is pretty abundant. besides, most of the imagery that we get about hell is from Dante's Inferno anyways, and everyone knows that's a theological treatise on what eternal punishment will look like...

    March 10, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  4. 4granted

    It's important to keep in mind that the goal of the video was to create interest in (and sell) Rob's new book. Rob is provocative, he always has been. But he raises some interesting questions. 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 month by Moody Publishers. I recommend it. Here’s the amazon page: http://dld.bz/P8sz

    March 10, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  5. mary martha

    p.s. did a brief research on Mars Hill Church. Sounds like a rehash of Jim MCotter's Blitz Movement in the 1970's. I know that one well. I was there. Infighting, excommunications, debasing women. Same on chit, different era. Please someone, educate us here or we are left to our own devices, like Wikipedia.

    March 10, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • Rick

      Mary, a search of Mars Hill Bible Church will give you some info. of the correct church in Grand Rapids, MI. It sounds like you came across Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Or visit marshill.org and listen to one of the sermons from the past 12 weeks for free.

      Grace and Peace

      March 10, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  6. mary martha

    Does Mr. Bell have any formal scholastic training in theology or is he just another surfer trying to teach from his own pulpit? I know nothing of the man. Please someone educate us on his credentials as an authentic theologian. Then, and only then, can we begin an intelligent argument.

    March 10, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • Rick

      Wheaton College, Fuller Theological Seminary, studied under a wonderful man named Ed Dobson at Calvary Undenominational for several years. His first sermon series at Mars Hill Bible Church was out of the book of Leviticus. The climate can be a little rough for surfing in Michigan but many of us give it the old college try anyways. Then is now Mary.

      March 10, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  7. David Johnson

    Look, let's face it. All the gods, and all of the god's demands, are made up. Even believers know it. They are just in denial.

    What puzzles me, is why ancient people made the god of the Book, such a jerk? But, we have another chance! We will give god(s) a much needed makeover! I personally would like to see a goddess or two. Totally hot of course. Mmmmm!

    Our new god(s) will love us unconditionally. He/They will love us, warts and all. We will make it very clear, that they only exist, to cherish humans. Were gonna raise 'em like we want 'em!

    We will be succored in our times of need. And when we die, we go straight to Heaven or a hooter bar, where every night is a Friday!

    Your old Uncle Dave, is telling you straight. Universalism would be great for humanity!

    Together we can build a god we can all be proud of. Yes We Can!


    March 10, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  8. Rick Lannoye

    My hope is that Rev Bell's new book makes a comprehensive presentation of the case against the doctrine of Hell. The arguments are bountiful, especially since the teachings of Jesus, when taken in their context, reveal a God who doesn't get back at people, but who does the opposite–returns only love for hate, good for evil and forgiveness instead of vindictiveness.

    After two decades of research into the doctrine of infinite retribution, it's not only clear that such a ghastly idea completely contradicts the original message and mission of Jesus, but that there are a lot of people in high places who have vested interests in keeping the average Christian bound to the fear that God intends to hurt a lot of people in a really bad way with no relief. Perhaps, the release of Love Wins will, finally, set off a wave of interest in going past the doctrinal smoke screens of Pseudo Evangelicalism to learn what Jesus really said, that God loves all, forgives all and cares to relieve the suffering of all...and calls us to imitate Him.

    Rick Lannoye, author
    Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There Is No Such Place As Hell

    March 10, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  9. Steve (ENGLAND)

    Hey Christians,

    would you agree that we should actually wait for the book to be released and read it before attacking Rob Bell about this book?

    grace and peace


    March 10, 2011 at 6:37 am |
    • James Rayment

      Check out Tim Challies' blog, he has read it.

      March 10, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • davepettengill

      That is what I am doing as well Steve. I have read over lots of blogs talking about Rob Bell's new book but I have not shared how I feel until I actually get a chance to read the book myself. I have read Velvet Elvis and watched almost all of the Nooma videos and I appreciate his teachings. I don't agree with all of his views on scripture but I have appreciated the work that he has done.

      March 10, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
  10. NJA

    GOD is not mocked whatever a man sows he shall reap. Rob Bell is about to reap destruction. I don't think he should be as concerned about us making comments or correcting him. I think he is headed towards MUCH bigger problems. He's just taken on the God almighty creator of the Universe.

    March 10, 2011 at 1:24 am |
    • David Johnson


      You said: "He's just taken on the God almighty creator of the Universe."

      Do not worry, NJA. Like Don Quixote, Rob Bell is only tilting at windmills. LOL.


      March 10, 2011 at 8:28 am |
  11. Cynthia N

    Rob Bell needs to re-examine the concept of Holiness.
    God's ways are past finding out, even by someone like Rob.

    March 9, 2011 at 10:58 pm |
    • David Johnson

      @Cynthia N

      You said: "God's ways are past finding out, even by someone like Rob."

      When believers are challenged, and their arguments have proven inadequate, they always fall back on humans not being able to fathom god. It is a panic room. A safe place where the Christian god can hide.


      March 10, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  12. KritoLucas

    If god really loves his children, he would only make Hell open to the people that really deserve it, like Hitler, the gates of Heaven should be open to all, even the ones who embrace other religions or non-believers. The river of life should allow every one to drink, not the ones 'blessed' by the Father or most loved by him.

    March 9, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • David Johnson


      You said: "The river of life should allow every one to drink..."

      Everyone can. Some only get to drink when the angels upstream, are urinating.


      March 9, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
  13. David

    I am currently stationed in Afghanistan and was also in Iraq....I have all of Rob's videos with me and watch them often as they have had a positive impact in my life.

    Yes, some are calling Rob a heretic, but didn't many also call Christ, the One who spoke the absolute truth, a heretic?

    It is amazing the power that jealousy and envy have when the truth is taught by others and you realize that it wasn't you whom God chose to spread His message.


    March 9, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • David

      Also, has anyone ever wondered if hell is really just the absence of existence? Perhaps the "rivers of fire" are man's concept of hell and that God's real intent with hell is just the absence of an eternity with God. Maybe we would just cease to exist which in and of itself is pure hell when compared to an eternity with God.

      March 10, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  14. CooperStrange.com

    Be careful with the capitalization in your quotes: "it rests firmly in the wide screen of Orthodox Christianity". Rob Bell is in no way affiliated with Orthodox Christianity, but from an Evangelical Protestant viewpoint would certainly be within orthodox Christianity.

    March 9, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  15. Sara Lowe

    I've read excerpts and a book review by an author who received an advance copy of Bell's "Love Wins." Fascinating but deadly. I don't go around websites promoting my company, but I wanted to this time because it's important. My blog post at http://www.faithaudiocenter.com discusses universalism and evil, a subject, sad to say, with which I am familiar.

    March 9, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  16. Skepticz

    Read Yesterdays post By Bernard Schweizer on "Hating God".


    March 9, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  17. Post Prime

    Zondervan and Harper One both reside comfortably in the Rupert Murdoch media empire. So "leaving Zondervan" means what? Marketing strategy?

    March 9, 2011 at 9:02 am |
  18. Reality

    A repeat book promotion by the moderators of this blog in order to increase sales and their take of the profit?////////

    March 9, 2011 at 7:47 am |
  19. fakhredin

    Events of 2011 and 2012: Shaul Mofaz in the spring of 2011 Israeli Prime Minister is – his government 14 to 15 months as it takes – and soldiers Muslim commander of Imam Mahdi – Israel's destruction – the King of Jordan Syria Iraq captured to the summer and fall 2011 – he fights with Turkey – the end of summer 2011 – and his soldiers in the desert between Mecca and Medina are down to earth – at the end of 2011 –
    Jordanian and Western troops – are involved in Egypt – Saudi king dies in its power struggle starts – -45P/Honda-Mrkos comet meteors in 14 to 20 August 2011 to deal with the land – its largest in in East Asia comes down
    26 August 2011 a huge star in the sky East to explode three or seven days to show signs of burns and this is the Imam Mahdi – In the spring of 2011 earthquake in northern Israel can happen – Jesus between the months of May to August 2012 are shown – and Imam Mahdi will help to establish justice in the world

    March 9, 2011 at 6:41 am |
    • Ruby

      Do you speak English at all?

      March 9, 2011 at 7:11 am |
    • Mike

      KritoLucas... the point is, we all deserve Hell. There is not a person alive who can honestly say they have even kept the 10 commandments in all respects, at least if you stick to the Bible's definition of them. The Bible describes God as not only perfectly loving, He is perfectly just. If He created a law but did not enforce it, not only would He be unjust, one could legitimately question how He could be all knowing. His perfect love is not in removing the penalty for sin, but paying the penalty himself.

      As for comparing Rob to Jesus because they were both labeled heretic, don't you think you're elevating Rob a bit higher than even he might elevate himself.

      On the topic of universalism, it's simply illogical. The difference between Christianity and other religions is much greater than just the name we address God by.

      If it's no longer good enough to study the Jesus of the Bible, then why stick to the concept of Jesus when you make something up to worship. There's plenty out there to make up that is much more appealing to the average person than Jesus.

      March 9, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  20. LMNOPlease

    I am not a fan of religion at all...and I was a student of Theology...but watching some of this guy's videos and reading his books did make an impact on me. He seems to be outside of the "traditional" box and more into what I imagine Jesus' ministry looked like according to the way it explains in the Bible. Whether one believes the truthfulness of the Bible or not, I'm sure that Bell's book will at least be mildy insightful, if not entertaining.

    March 9, 2011 at 6:30 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
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.