From a Catholic perspective, that's easy to say. The Catechism lays it out really clearly in CCC 1035:
1035 The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, "eternal fire." The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.So hell exists, and it's eternal. Those who enter hell enter eternal separate from God, and since God is the only Good, separation from God is the worst experience imaginable. To the extent that Bell says anything contrary to CCC 1035, he's preaching something that's both false, and contrary to clear Church teaching. We have a name for that: "Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same" (see CCC 2089). So Bell promotes heresy, Q.E.D.
But what can you say about Rob Bell from a Protestant perspective? This was hammered home to me in a very real way a few weeks ago, when a group of Evangelicals and Calvinists at a party I was at started arguing about Bell, and John MacArthur's response to him (these are the sort of "parties" I go to -- I can't complain). A few things became clear:
- Everyone likes the axiom, “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” None of the Protestants could define which things were objectively essential and which were objectively non-essential. As one of the women at the party pointed out, if you quiz 150 "born-again" Evangelical Christians (of which she readily included herself) on this question, you'll get varying answers as to which doctrines are and aren't fundamental. I added that if you quiz two Evangelicals, you'll likely get different answers.
- If there's no way of knowing if Hell is even a fundamental doctrine (is there any logical reason one has to believe in Hell to go to Heaven?), how do we know whether we should even be concerned with what Bell says on it? After all, if it's a non-essential, he's got liberty to explore, which is what he seems to be wanting to do.
- Bell teaches something that's contrary to the interpretation of Scripture taken by most or all of the people at the party. But who's to say that their view is right, and Bell's is wrong? Sure, it may seem obvious to us that Matthew 18:8 teaches what Bell denies, but it seems just as obvious to me that James 2:24 teaches what Luther denies. "Seems obvious to me" is obviously not the standard for determining orthodoxy, or which doctrines are fundamental.
- Bell's teaching is also contrary to the historical and traditional beliefs of the Church. But so are a whole slew of beliefs that every Protestant at the party held. It's true that if you hold this view as authoritative (as Catholics do), Bell is a heretic. But so are Luther and Calvin.
Clearly, Protestants can say "Bell's view on Hell disagree with my own, and I think he's wrong, and I think he's wrong on a very important doctrine for Christians to hold." But is there any principled basis for Protestants to go beyond that, to start speaking of Bell's "heresy" and Christian "orthodoxy"?
Brantly Millegan made this same point on his blog, noting that not only is it impossible for Evangelicals to hammer down what "heresy" and "orthodoxy" are objectively, there's also no one in a position of authority to denounce Bell as a heretic. That is, Bell is the pastor of his church, Mars Hill. He's as high as the authority structure goes. So Matthew 18:17-18 doesn't work here (a sure sign that we're not dealing with a Biblical system of Church governance). For that matter, John MacArthur is the highest level of authority in his church, Grace Community Church. So when the two men agree, because they've got a system of church authority that stops with them, it becomes impossible to settle theological disputes objectively, short of one side simply saying "you know what, you're right!"