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.”
Even before Rob 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 “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.”
Hell is also for those “who are ruthless and brutally hurt people,” he said.
“I hope that smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee ain’t going to get me down there,” he said, puffing on a cigarette Sunday outside the Chicagoland Community Church on the city’s North Side, where he’s 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.
Carol Buikema, who attends Chicago’s Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, said she recently read a fellow congregant’s Facebook post about Bell’s book, and it prompted her to question her own beliefs about hell.
“It does pose more questions than answers for me,” Buikema, 64, said Sunday.
Believing in Jesus is a basic tenet of Christianity and “if you don’t believe in Jesus, you won’t go to heaven,” she said. “The more I live life, I don’t know if I totally believe that. I’ve always believed that God is not a God of vengeance. He is a loving God. How would you equate the idea of a loving God with going to 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, Tenn., 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.”
Still, she added, “actions have consequences, and you suffer when you do wrong. That can end up being what, quote, unquote, is hell.”
At the heart of 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.”
The debate is not entirely new. There’s no broad agreement within Christianity about what happens to people after they die.
Some mainline Protestant churches started moving away from the familiar concept of hell as long ago as the 19th century. The Unitarian Universalist Association, which is not a formally Christian denomination but has roots in Christian churches, contains in its very name the concept that Bell’s critics accuse him of endorsing: universalism, the notion that every soul will eventually be united with God in paradise.
Some important denominations and theologians moved quickly to criticize Bell’s book. A forum was held last week at the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville in which Christian writers and thinkers laid out their problems with Bell’s thinking.
Some Protestant luminaries have also joined the criticism. Ben Witherington, one of the most influential evangelical theologians, is using his blog to take on Bell’s book chapter by chapter.
That’s partly a sign of how influential Bell is in evangelical circles. His 10,000-member Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., has grown significantly under his leadership, and Bell’s artfully made online videos and breezily written books have been popular among younger evangelicals.
“Atheists are not going to be impressed by this book. Skeptics are not going to be impressed by this book,” said Christian blogger Justin Taylor at the Southern Baptist forum. “The people who are going to be impressed by this book are disaffected evangelicals.”
Cameron Dawn, who described herself as a “good and faithful Roman Catholic,” said she has never thought of hell as a specific place.
Instead, the 52-year-old New York City woman believes hell is the personal problems people endure until they accept God and Christ into their lives, such as addiction, gluttony or taking advantage of others.
“You need inner strength to overcome these things and to see all the beauty life has to offer, and that’s what God gives you,” Dawn said Sunday at the Church of St. Veronica in Howell, N.J.
“Without that inner strength, you will miss out on the wonderful things God has created and that life has to offer you. That is hell on earth, but it’s a prison to which you hold the key, and you can use it any time you want.”
John Taylor, 45, who was attending services Sunday at the Church of Grace and Peace in Toms River, N.J., said he has no doubt there is some version of hell awaiting evildoers.
“I do believe that if you lead a sinful life on earth, you will pay for it in your next life. And that applies to anyone, whether you’re Catholic, Jew, Hindu, whatever. People who disrespect God, disrespect their fellow man — they go to hell.”
Associated Press writers Lindsey Tanner in Chicago, Bruce Shipkowski in New Jersey and Travis Loller in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press