The Rob Bell controversy and the video that started it all

Sorry, guys—I’ve been out of commission for the last week while writing a paper for my book marketing course at BU.  I’m writing about book trailers, and whether or not they’re effective marketing tools.

One book trailer that definitely impacted book sales is Rob Bell’s trailer for Love Wins (published by HarperOne).  It was released five weeks before the book’s original on-sale date, and when it was, it ignited a national controversy.  Watch it, and you’ll see why.


Gospel Coalition blogger (and vice president of editorial at Crossway) Justin Taylor was one of the first to catch wind of the trailer, and he responded with a post that called Bell a universalist—someone who believes that all humans end up in heaven, and hell is not a physical place.  (What this basically amounts to is an accusation of heresy, a breaking from orthodoxy.)  Within 24 hours, 12,000 people recommended Taylor’s post and “Rob Bell” became one of the top 10 trending topics on Twitter.  As this social media firestorm erupted, prominent evangelicals began weighing in, expressing either anger or disappointment at the theological stance Bell takes … in the trailer!  (Remember, the book has yet to be released at this point.)  “Farewell, Rob Bell,” John Piper tweeted.  And then a counter-wave of support came crashing in from the more liberal-leaning Christians, who applauded Bell for addressing these hard questions.

Some have predicted that the debate over the issue of hell will lead to the next major split in the church (the last one was the Reformation).  HarperOne knew that Love Wins was going to cause a major stir; that’s why they paid Bell a six-figure advance, bidding out five other publishers.  When an influential megachurch pastor comes out and says that hell is empty and that those who reject Jesus will still end up in heaven, because God is love, that’s bound to cause a reaction of epic proportions.

Mark Tauber, senior vice president and publisher at Love Wins by Rob BellHarperOne, told CNN that the controversy is unlike anything else he has seen in the religion category of books.  “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this amount of anticipation,” Tauber said.  The topic of Bell’s book became such a hot one that HarperOne advanced the book’s on-sale date by two weeks, to March 15.

From a marketing perspective, this trailer was genius—its content, its timing, its placement.  It was meant to provoke, and boy did it ever.  It instantly secured Bell national media attention, as major news outlets requested interviews with him, and launched him to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.  So, as a case study for my paper, the Love Wins trailer was a definite success, well-worth the money spent on it.

I have not read the book, though I do plan to eventually, so I am not going to comment on it, but I do see that the trailer alone is enough to cause Christians to question Rob Bell’s doctrinal foundations.  That’s why I don’t think that the bloggers were too hasty in their criticisms (at least not most of them), and the majority commendably read through the book once it was made available to them, responding later in greater and more informed detail, and correcting themselves if they were wrong in their prejudgments.

(If this news is all new to you, check out the chronology of the controversy laid out by The Resurgence.  Also check out Kevin DeYoung’s great article on why we need God’s wrath.)

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2 Responses to The Rob Bell controversy and the video that started it all

  1. Cheshirecat says:

    Not that you hold the same opinion, but I doubt that this issue will lead to a split in the Church. For one, it has been around for a loooooong time (from Origen to Von Balthazar). Also, I doubt enough people follow Rob Bell wholeheartedly that they will cause much of a rift in an already splintered Protestant church.

    I personally think this recent flare up caused by Bell is only a microcosm of a greater issue for Evangelicals. Specifically, Evangelicals have such little affiliation/tie/accountability to the greater Church that they tend to baptize any and every corner of life, sanctifying it and incorporating it into their own Christendom. Now, I certainly fall on the side of Neibuhr’s “Christ of Culture” or “Christ/Culture Paradox” more often than not (as such, I enjoy your site!), but we cannot, as Christians, mottle ourselves in culture, losing our identities. Discipleship under Christ seeks just the opposite: to discover our substance/identity as we stand before the Creator of substance. As Bell exhibits, when we simply redeem anything and everything, and not just that which connects to God’s being (in that, God created all being), we begin to sacrifice our opportunity to solidify our identity at the altar of the public God. Culture often points to God, as it relates to the effect of God’s creative act (namely, us), but culture is not God, nor is it always from God.

    In Bell’s case, his response to the philosophy of utilitarianism (serving the “good”/feel good of the public) affirms something that is half-true. True, God’s love “can” save anything, and everything…yet, how does this resonate with God’s identity as revealed to us? If anything, I believe that Bell’s offering resonates with a culture that shies from intrusion and is satisfied with shallow answers to real problems. Does this sound like the God we have seen?

  2. Marcus says:

    I can see why so many people would condemn Rob Bell based solely on the trailer, but at the same time Rob Bell doesn’t actually say anything heretical. He asks a lot of questions. His first question I think is actually very Biblical: does someone know for sure that Ghandi is in Hell? I think that this is a legitimate question even for people who believe in orthodox justification by faith and Heaven and Hell, such as myself. After all, only God is able to see what men cannot see, the heart, and therefore it is fortunate that only God judges us. Therefore it is reasonable to say that whoever left the note on the painting was actually overstepping not only their ability to judge (in not having 100% knowledge of Ghandi’s heart) but also their authority to judge. Even then, Bell doesn’t judge this person’s conclusion (though by the tone of his questions, this judgment is implied).

    I think there was such a negative response because of the implied answers to all of Bell’s questions. His tone of voice, his background stories, his examples of what “millions of people” have been taught about God, and his note-able omission of how well-respected theologians understand the sorting of the sheep and the goats (i.e. C.S. Lewis’s dichotomy: either we say to God, “Your will be done,” or God says to us, “alright, your will be done,”) all leave the viewer with the impression that the answers to these questions will be heterodox.

    I guess one will simply have to read the book. But I’m not going to. I’ll let you tell me how it is. 🙂

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