Preacher questions existence of hell

Christian evangelicals hear it all the time from people outside the faith. They are unfazed when others accuse them of being judgmental and misguided, anti-science and anti-gay. They are accustomed to having atheists scoff at the threat of hell.

But they don't expect such criticisms from one of their own. So when mega-church pastor Rob Bell, a Christian celebrity with a considerable amount of influence, called some core beliefs into question, the result was an online civil war for souls.

Bell is author of five books and founder of the Grandville, Mich.-based, 10,000-member church Mars Hill. It is his newest book, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, that has caused the uproar. In it he questions the existence of hell itself. At least the literal one.

If God is love, what is he so mad about? If Jesus came to save everyone, why the big fail? Bell puts these biblical interpretations on trial and asks readers to draw their own conclusions.

Critics say by giving individual believers the power to redefine God according to what pleases them alone, he is diminishing the role of Christ and undermining the church he claims to represent.

"Rob Bell is confused and admits his inability to understand heaven and hell," said Gary Baldus, pastor of the nondenominational New Walk Church in Zephyrhills, who is concerned Love Wins may confuse believers in his congregation.

Other books debating eternal suffering have emerged without a public controversy. Not Love Wins. Even before the March 15 hardcover release date, believers nationwide were firing back against Bell's claims that belief in a lake-of-fire type hell is toxic.

Bloggers and tweeters labeled Bell a heretic. Pastors went on YouTube to condemn him. A North Carolina Methodist minister was fired for openly praising the book.

It wasn't the content of Love Wins that bothered evangelicals so much as who was writing it.

Bell is a 40-year-old preacher with a collection of vintage tees and a knack for making contentious sermons sound like freestyle poetry. His first book, Velvet Elvis, an appeal to people disillusioned by religious hypocrisy, sold half a million copies. Follow-ups, Sex God and Drops Like Stars, inspired young pastors to emulate Bell's defiant cool.

Now, he keeps insisting that Ghandi, a Hindu, might show up in heaven. He says Jesus spoke metaphorically when he used the word hell. It was a reference to the Valley of Gehenna in Jerusalem where people burnt trash, he suggests.

Approximately 30 to 35 percent of Americans are evangelicals, according to the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College. Traditionally, evangelicals affirm that heaven is reserved for followers of Christ alone. Bell, critics say, is trying to define the Gospel.

"Love Wins doesn't say anything theological liberals haven't already said, what's new about it is he (Rob Bell) is my friend, it's someone I know clearly stepping outside of the evangelical world," said Mike Wittmer, professor at Grand Rapids Theology Seminary in Michigan and author of Christ Alone, a book written in response to Love Wins. "It tells the outside world, you were right."

The son of a federal judge, Bell got his masters of divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.. When he founded Mars Hill in 1999, he preached the predictable doctrine. He invited people to say the prewritten prayer that would get them into heaven. He gained a large local following.

Then he started reading books on the emergent church movement, a fresh approach to Christianity often associated with author and activist Brian Mclaren. The philosophy is to focus less on evangelizing and more on doing good works in the here and now, to put less stock in stories of old and more in the central message of Christ's unconditional love.

Rather than take time off from preaching to explore his personal spiritual questions, Bell brought his inner debates to the pulpit.

Slowly Bell's sermons started to include open-ended questions. "Why blame the dark for being dark?" he asked. "When people use the word hell, what do they mean?" People downloaded the sermons online and bought the DVDs because Bell, like them, didn't seem to have it all figured out.

"Knowing there are people like Bell gives me hope," said Anna Hull of Loganville, Ga., an avid Bell reader.

In television interviews, Bell hesitates to use words like right and wrong. He never definitively answers the questions he raises. What he writes about are possible truths, not whole truths, he says.

He is a religious leader, but he isn't quite sure what happens when we die. He stands firm on two issues. Heaven is a real place and everyone is welcome.

Bell believes hell is evident in pain and suffering, in terrorist attacks, drug addiction and child abuse. It is a state of being, rather than a place. What happens after a man's last breath is all speculation, he told Good Morning America in March.

Bell did not return requests for comment but has told media outlets that he is not, as some are quick to label him as, a Universalist. Universalists believe all people, regardless of beliefs or actions, are reconciled with God postmortem.

Bell teaches that God's grace extends beyond religious and cultural boundaries, that salvation comes from accepting said grace, but one can choose to reject it here and he suspects, in the next life.

He rejects the notion that people only do good if threatened with punishment. Sinners create their own personal hell, he clarifies, and adds that the Earth will be remade as heaven when Jesus returns.

It's a message Bell's Christian fans embrace. For many, hell always seemed too harsh. They shuddered to think that friends of other faiths, doctors and school teachers, were doomed to burn. Is God just or vindictive, they wondered in silence.

When Bell said it out loud, fellow doubters emerged.

"I wouldn't wish hell on anyone," and "I am ready to be fully out about what I believe now" are among posts on the Love Wins Facebook page.

Joon Park, associate pastor at New Light Church in Tampa, dedicated a podcast to the Bell controversy. He stands out as a pastor who appreciates Love Wins.

"Bell did a really great job of raising the discussion," Park said. "He is a lot more forgiving in his teachings (about hell) but that makes the Christian message more accessible to people."

Park agrees attendance rates rise faster at nondenominational churches like Mars Hill because people feel free to speak up and ask questions.

When Love Wins debuted on the New York Times bestseller list, believers showed up at book-signing events.

"It's like a perfect storm, the culture is ready for it and the established orthodox church is losing power in our country," said Philip Gulley, author of The Evolution of Faith, How God is Creating a Better Christianity.

Gulley and others, who do accept the term Universalist, see Bell as an ally.

"I believe he is calling people to return to the Jesus vision of Christianity," Gulley said.

Not my Jesus, Wittmer argued in a phone conversation with Bell prior to Love Win's release.

"We did not, obviously, come to an agreement," Wittmer said about the talk.

In Christ Alone, Wittmer warns that "Rob Bell said so" might not cut it on judgment day.

"If people come to the conclusion that you don't need to be saved, it puts many at an eternal risk," Wittmer said. "That's partly what's so disturbing (about Love Wins), Rob doesn't seem to have an awareness of how much responsibility he has."

Bell is quick to point out that he is just a man. He feeds his kids, takes vacations, pays the mortgage and goes to work. He doubts. He fears. He seeks God.

Seeks, not hears. Loves, not owns. Embraces, not defines.

The Bible is open for interpretation, he preaches as church leaders tallying up converts on Sundays pray for his soul.

Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or swhitman@sptimes.com.

Preacher questions existence of hell 06/04/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 4, 2011 5:30am]

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