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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. Wade

    Grown adults should not believe in fairytales. Turn on your brains, people.

    March 12, 2011 at 11:26 am |
  2. Pappawtom

    Jesus said, "Not everyone who says Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of Heaven." Enough said.

    March 12, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  3. savedInMN

    bell's a low-grade false teaching moron, as are the uninformed who follow his heretical blather. God is real, Heaven is real, and so is Hell; the only ones to make it to heaven are those who ask for Jesus Christ forgive their sins, and who repent of them. Freaks.

    March 12, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  4. John

    Hilarious, like a bunch of people arguing over bigfoot or Harry Potter. Let people pretend however they want. Who cares. They're all fools.

    March 12, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  5. sandleto

    Nail him to the cross! Burn him at the stake! God i miss the old times! Maybe I'll just move to a Muslim country!

    March 12, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  6. sandleto

    What? Every one goes to heaven? No hell? Sounds like John Lennon!

    March 12, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  7. John Sullivan

    Witch!!! Witch!!!!

    March 12, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • Joel

      I...I got bettah...

      March 12, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  8. colowww

    Every on goes to heaven? Why not? I guess the bible thumpers want to be the ones to decide who goes up and who goes down. As if any one actually knows for sure one way or another.

    March 12, 2011 at 10:00 am |
  9. e.f.

    The Wise and Foolish Builders
    46 “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? 47 As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. 48 They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. 49 But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.” LUKE 6

    March 12, 2011 at 1:27 am |
    • Joel

      And your smug and self-satisfied "salvation" tell on you; you have built your house without a foundation, but by tryiing to follow rules better than other Christians. You think it is a contest and you are winning. FALSE PROPHET!!!

      March 12, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  10. Arguing about Fairy Tales?

    Seriously? This is considered news? People might as well be arguing whether the witch's house in Hansel and Gretel was made of gingerbread or pound cake.

    March 12, 2011 at 1:02 am |
    • Victorious Secret

      THIS!

      March 12, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  11. e.f.

    Good for Zondervan Publishing to remain faithful and stand in the truth.
    The only words you need know are the Holy Bible's...the only Word you need know is Jesus Christ, the Word, (Logos) Himself. The King of Glory, the LORD and Savior Jesus Christ came to shed His God Blood and die for sinners – to give whosoever would believe on Him, the Resurrection and the Life – new, abundant and eternal life, AND to DESTROY the works of the devil! Universalism asserts that everyone goes to heaven (doctrine of demons!).
    READ the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the King James Version, New American Standard Version, The Message or the New International Version and see how they interlace with eachother, proving the Truth, God's Word.
    John 14:6 – Jesus told him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.
    Read the Bible, people!!! Read the Word of God, ordained of God. Signs of the End of the Age – Matthew 24:11 – Many false prophets will appear and deceive many...2 Peter 2:3 says: In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories.
    Anyone who studies God's Word knows much of what is taught in theological schools run contrary to the Holy Scriptures.
    If you are in Christ :
    1John 2:27 – But you have received the Holy Spirit, and he lives within you, so you don't need anyone to teach you what is true. For the Spirit teaches you everything you need to know, and what he teaches is true–it is not a lie. So just as he has taught you, remain in fellowship with Christ.
    JESUS said: These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world. John 16:33 Read Revelation – it's time!
    Psalm 34:8: O taste and see that the LORD is good; How blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!

    March 12, 2011 at 12:41 am |
    • j.d.

      Good for Zondervan? All Zondervan is proving by not publishing this book is that they are a puppet of mainstream fundamentalist Christianity who is not willing to even consider the idea that the traditional views of the gospel MIGHT be flawed. Don't get me wrong, fundamentalism has its merits and has done its job in it's own era. However, the Bible is open to many interpretations that could find literalism might not be the optimum lens when analyzing the creation narrative in every aspect. I don't think Rob Bell is advocating Universalism through his newest work although I will withhold total judgement until I read it. On the contrary I think Rob is trying to open up the gospel to more people and give it a fresh perspective. Jesus did the same thing by taking an otherwise exclusive message to the Jews and opening it up to all of humanity. God's will is to redeem ALL of creation. Jesus was not an exclusionist, rather sought to include those outside of the religious community of his day. At this point in history the modern view of the gospel and its interpretations of certain doctrine, ie hell, has created such an elitist mentality by establishing "in groups" and "out groups" that it truly borders on making itself God. There is but one Judge and He is Jesus. We ultimately do not know who will be in eternity with God and we know this because of such verses as Matthew 7:21-23. There are going to be a lot of people suprised when God says, "depart from me I never knew you." And it's this fact alone that should make us not to strive to figure out who is going to "make it" and who isn't but rather to live as Jesus lived and let God be God. I applaud Rob Bell for challenging the current accepted doctrinal "truths" and just as in Jesus' day, the people who are upset about this are the "pharisees" of ours. The only real truth that we can KNOW about hell is that we are ALL deserving of it and only by the grace of God some will not inherit that eternity. Let us strive then to help bring the central message of Jesus to the lives of everyone we come into contact with which is, "Love your God with all your heart, strength and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. All the other commandments hinge upon these two." Matt 22:26-40 (PAR)

      March 12, 2011 at 3:08 am |
    • Joel

      Yeah...here's the rub – I think YOU are a false prophet. See how it works in your system, which should be called "SEZYOU"? So go prophesy about prophets all you want – we all get to judge who's false and who's real. And I'm pointing at you e.f.

      March 12, 2011 at 10:41 am |
  12. Kevin

    We Christians easily get caught up in the idea of FAIRNESS. If I accept Christ as my Savior and try to follow His teachings all my life, then why should the bad guys get the same eternal reward!? It rings true to us that there have to be different places for people who made different choices in life. It seems odd, though, how mainstream Christians can at the same time think it's fair that someone who never had a chance to hear of Christ–either because he was born in the wrong place or the wrong time–gets consigned to eternal damnation. Fortunately, the Bible clearly solves these apparent incongruities in the Christian faith–and may carve out a spot for Rob Bell's book: (1) There is more than one heaven [2 Cor. 12:2]; (2) Different people get bodies of different glories in the resurrection [1 Cor. 15:35,39-42]; (3) "Hell" is temporary [Acts 2:27,31]; (4) People in "hell" can accept Christ and be redeemed [1 Peter 3:18-20; 1 Peter 4:6]; (5) Early Christians were baptized on behalf of the dead, allowing those who have passed on to receive the blessings they missed in life [1 Cor. 15:29].

    March 11, 2011 at 11:17 pm |
    • daniel

      to your assertions...1: There are 3 heavens in Hebrew culture. The ground we live on, the "atmosphere" where the fowl live, and everything up until the stars; space; the dwelling place of God. You can't look at one verse out of context and out of culture and make theology based around that.

      2: Those verses in the context of the entire chapter say that there are different kinds of flesh: people, birds, animals, etc, and perishable and imperishable. People may have different flesh, but those verses say that all believers will get a new, imperishable body. It doesn't say anything about them being different from each other.

      3: This is speaking specifically about Jesus. "31 he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ" and says that Jesus didn't go to Hell. How is that even a support for that?

      4: This is talking about the people who were awaiting salvation. All people throughout history are saved by grace through faith in Christ. When he died, he proclaimed to those who had died beforehand that "it is finished". "Prison" refers to Purgatory, or Abraham's Bosom.

      5: CONTEXT! The PAGANS in that time were baptizing on behalf of the dead. That's why is says "they". The whole point of 1 cor 15, the chapter, is to say "How can you not believe there isnt a resurrection? Even the pagans baptize their dead as a representation of the resurrection." He's also warning them not be corrupted by them. Read verse 33.

      The reason many people have bad theology is because they look at single verses out of context, and don't have good hermeneutics. They don't read scripture in light of scripture, but rather in light of what they want the text to read.

      As far as people going from hell to heaven, or no one ever going to hell, I'm pretty sure the parable of the rich man and Lazarus says it pretty clearly. That can't happen. The man WENT TO HELL, then when he realized how sinful he was, Abraham told him that there was a chasm between heaven and hell and that no one could go from one side to the other.

      May 20, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
  13. Jon Elkin

    Another book which established religious authorities no doubt will label as heresy is The Destiny of Israel and the Twilight of Christianity: In Quest of the Meaning and Significance of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. This 1,184 page work of theological scholarship by John Saggio needs to be read by every person who has seriously questioned any of the supposedly-unassailable tenants of established Judeo-Christian religions. The book actually can be read on line at http://www.twilightofreligion.com/index.aspx

    March 11, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
  14. Sabrina

    Well, this article proves what it says in Matthew 7:21-23 is true: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

    March 11, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
    • Justin

      Preach it, Sabrina! God will judge the evildoers, and keep us, the righteous by faith, in heaven. He'll send them to Hell, which is where they deserve to be–down in everlasting pain and punishment, where their skin will be perpetually burned away, where their eyes will melt, where they'll be screaming in isolated agony till the end of time, where– wait... wait... am I talking about other people? Am I talking about other flesh and blood people, confused and hurt and normal people? Am I condemning these people to eternal punishment because I think that somehow I've found an abstract truth and assented to it, when they haven't? That woman on the street with her young daughter– sinners both, atheists both. Am I really brazenly implying that they will roast in hell for all eternity because they don't know some words that I know?

      March 11, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
  15. Ernesto

    Welcome to Hell, we've been here all along. It can't get much worse than this.

    March 11, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
  16. Informed

    I couldn't put this book down ESCAPING ARMAGEDDON. I think it's going to be a best seller!!!!!!!!! http://www.jamesbouvier.com

    March 11, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  17. Avid reader

    Be really informed! Check out all sources http://www.jamesbouvier.com.

    March 11, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  18. mary martha

    Ok it's back. Great! I would need to listen to the sermons you mentioned, Rick to fully understand where Mr. Bell is coming from.

    I am afraid that I have heard so many sermons in my 35 years as an evangelical (until I got off that merry go round when I began my graduate studies in theology) that I am not sure I could stomach more of the same.

    I have to say I APPLAUD him for not thinking with the collective conscience on his book subject. I am intrigued and would like to read his newest book. I do believe Christianity needs more brave thinkers willing to step away from the fundamental rhetoric.

    March 10, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
    • Rick

      Mary Martha,
      I like your style, and it sounds like you're on a highly enjoyable and informational jouney through the many great thinkers that have come before us ... studying who's done this thing we call community well and not so well. Rob is one of those thinkers who challenges us to keep asking what it means to do community and Chirst-following well.

      In regards to "Mars Hill", you are correct that the name is not necessarily a "self governerning autonomous" but the name is used in several mediums and communities. Mars Hill is derived from an ancient meeting hill in Athens where Paul tha apostle spoke to Epicurian and Stoic philosophers. The words Paul spoke in Acts 17 at the Areopagus "Mars Hill", are extremely powerful and quite relevant to today's conversation.

      Blessings Mary Martha

      March 11, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
  19. mary martha

    what coward removed my response to Rick and why?

    March 10, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
  20. mary martha

    Rick, thanks for the information on Rob Bell. Of course the "surfer" reference meaning Calvary Chapel type teachers who have no theological training whatsoever and yet are considered experts on the bible (by their own flock). My point being if I need open heart surgery, I will go to a medically trained heart surgeon. I would not entrust my health to someone with little or no training and yet many people entrust their souls to untrained wannabe theologians. The Blitz movement used the argument that the apostles were not trained. This is how they managed to get so many college kids in their grip.

    So is it safe to assume that all Mars Hill Churches are autonomous and all do not follow the same ethos? Is this the point you are making in differentiating the Michigan Church from the Seattle Church?

    Also, since Mr. Bell has some formal training in theology then he is very well aware of certain basic theological/biblical principles for example: no one knows who authored the gospels, that they were 'assigned" the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, because of the writing styles of the particular book. He would also understand that no trained theologian worth his salt takes the scriptures (including those on "hell") literally. And that he would agree with theologians like Bart Ehrman?

    March 10, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
    • don

      oh martha, you are not going to hell...but your not going to heaven either. we can dig your worm eaten bones up in 100 years, and thats where you will still be.

      March 11, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
    • Ken

      Thanks for being mean spirited Don. I guess YOU are the one who knows what happens after death. Although your obviously wrong about worms eating bones.

      March 12, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • Chris

      Well ken,

      Buzzards have to eat too.......

      March 12, 2011 at 11:16 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.