What Ever Happened to Rob Bell, the Pastor Who Questioned the Gates of Hell?

Pastor Rob Bell from “The Rob Bell Show.” Photo courtesy of Harpo Studios Inc / RNS.

Rob Bell was once the evangelical It Boy, the hipster pastor with the thick-rimmed glasses and the skinny jeans whose best-selling theology was captured in books with names such as “Velvet Elvis” and “Sex God.”

By 2006, the Chicago Sun-Times wondered aloud whether the Michigan megachurch pastor could be the next Billy Graham.

And then he went to hell.

In 2011, his book “Love Wins” pushed the evangelical envelope on the nature of heaven, hell, and salvation. Many dismissed him as a modern-day heretic, unwilling to embrace traditional evangelicals beliefs about the hereafter.

Does Pope Francis Endorse Heresy? No, But He Does Raise Questions

RNS photo courtesy Graphic News.

RNS photo courtesy Graphic News.

Is Pope Francis endorsing heresy?

It might look that way from the eye-catching headlines this week that made it appear everyone was bound for heaven — “even atheists!” — thanks to Jesus’ death on the cross.

The passage that prompted the reports came from Francis’ brief homily at the informal morning Mass that he celebrates in the chapel at the Vatican guesthouse.

Speaking on Wednesday, Francis said that as human beings created in the image of God, everyone has a “duty to do good.”

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists,” he said, answering his own query. “Everyone! And this blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the blood of Christ has redeemed us all!”

Cue the jaw dropping and head scratching. Atheists were pleasantly surprised, conservative Catholics were dazed and confused, and the pope’s comments raced around the Internet; for a while they were the second-most shared piece on Reddit.

So was Francis preaching a form of “universalism?" That is the unorthodox teaching that says, essentially, that all faiths are equal and all are going to heaven, especially if you are nice to people here on earth. It’s also a heresy that Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, spent a career quashing every time he thought he thought he spied a hint of it in some theologian’s writings.