RALEIGH, N.C. — What does hell mean to you? Is it an endless nightmare for sinners and unsaved souls, as mainstream Christianity has taught for centuries? Or is hell here on Earth, in the distractions, addictions and emptiness of daily life?
Those ideas are receiving fresh scrutiny from some believers after a prominent evangelical pastor questioned the traditional idea of hell in his new book, Love Wins.
At the heart of Rob Bell's position is that God's love can triumph over every obstacle, including sins that Christians have long believed would consign them to anguish in the afterlife. But that notion is appalling to many people, Bell argues, and is minimized even by those who uphold its truth.
"The book is saying we need to take hell more seriously," Bell told the Associated Press, "because the people who warn about hell when you die don't seem to talk about it very much."
Even before Bell's book was published this month, religious leaders and their followers were branding it heresy, hailing it as a breakthrough or landing somewhere in the middle. Thousands have weighed in on Twitter, Facebook, blogs or outside their places of worship.
Bell had "better go back and read his Bible again! He's all messed up!" wrote Ruth Ward of New Albany, Ind., on Facebook. "Satan is having a field day."
James Turner, a 49-year-old Chicago laborer, says his concept of hell hasn't changed much since he attended church as a boy. For him, hell "is a place where if you don't accept Jesus, or you reject Jesus, it is a place of torment," he said, puffing on a cigarette Sunday outside the Chicagoland Community Church on the city's North Side, where he has attended services for about 10 years.
For some readers, the book has been a breath of fresh air and a chance to discuss ideas that have long been taboo in evangelical circles.
When Chad Holtz posted a Facebook message supporting Bell's position, he was dismissed from his job as pastor at a United Methodist church in Henderson, N.C. Holtz's posts about the experience on his website drew a flood of responses, including from people who said they were afraid to tell relatives that they did not believe in the notion that God punishes sinners forever in hell.
Bell's message is reaching a wide audience: On Friday, Love Wins was the fourth-best-selling book overall on Amazon.com, and the best-selling book in the religion category.
The Rev. Erik DiVietro, pastor of Bedford Road Baptist Church in Merrimack, N.H., said he felt the need to respond to Bell's book after being repeatedly asked about it by friends, former students and church members. He disagrees with Bell on several points, but said Christians miss out if they don't try to engage the ideas.
"Christianity is a conversation," he said. "So as we're journeying with these ancient writings, we need to be asking questions. These are good questions, and they need to be part of the dialogue."
Brandy Fenderson, a 34-year-old teacher and member of St. Ann's Episcopal Church in Nashville, said Bell's book reminded her of the importance of thinking critically about one's faith.
"I remember thinking I do believe there's a balance between intellect and faith. … I've argued (with friends) that intellect is divine, given to us by God, and we're not supposed to shut it down."
She believes the idea of a hell where sinners are punished is more of a human construction.
"I don't think there's a burning place with pitchforks," she said. "I guess my idea is basically that there's right and wrong, and hell was invented to keep people from doing wrong. … It was created more by the church, to guide people in the right way."
The book has given Bell a voice far beyond his 10,000-member Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. The church has grown significantly under his leadership.