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Pastor's book heats up debate over heaven, hell

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Is Mahatma Gandhi in hell?

That's the question that helped start one of the year's biggest controversies in the evangelical Christian world.

It started in 2007, when the Mars Hill Bible Church -- a 10,000-member evangelical megachurch in Grandville, Mich. -- put on an art exhibit about the search for peace in a broken world.

Included in the exhibit was a quotation from Gandhi. A visitor to the exhibition stuck a note next to it. "Reality check," it said. "He's in hell."

When Mars Hill pastor Rob Bell saw the note, he asked himself: "Really? Gandhi's in hell? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt?"

Bell used the incident at the beginning of his controversial bestseller, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

Released in March, the book ignited a firestorm of criticism. Bell was accused of watering down the Bible and undermining the faith. He was called a heretic and a universalist -- the belief that everyone goes to heaven, no matter who they are or what religion they believe in.

Among the most severe critics was Albert Mohler Jr., president of the influential Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ken.

Mohler charged Bell with using his book to "unravel the Bible's message and to cast doubt on its teachings... tragically, his message will confuse many believers as well as countless unbelievers."

Popular blogger Justin Taylor of the Gospel Coalition, a network of churches that aims to promote "gospel-centred ministry," wrote that Bell's views are "dangerous and contrary to the word of God... if Bell doesn't believe in eternal punishment, then he doesn't think sin is an offence against a holy God."

But others welcomed Bell's fresh thinking about the subject of eternal destiny.

"In Love Wins, Rob Bell tackles the old heaven-and-hell question and offers a courageous alternative answer," said Brian McLaren, author of A New Kind of Christianity.

"Love Wins is, to my eye, a love note to and about Jesus the Christ," said Religion News Service reporter Kathleen Falsani. "God put Bell here to tell people -- by any and all means necessary -- how much God loves them. And that there is nothing they can do to make God love them more or less. That is the 'Good News' of Jesus."

Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, called Love Wins "a great book, well within the bounds of orthodox Christianity and passionate about Jesus."

Bell, he added, is calling Christians away from "a stingy orthodoxy to a generous orthodoxy... there are stingy people who just want to consign many others to hell and only a few to heaven and take delight in the idea. But Rob Bell allows for a lot of mystery in how Jesus reaches people."

What did Bell say to generate such passionate debate? In a nutshell, he challenges the traditional notion that although God has created billions of people over thousands of years, only Christians get to go to heaven. All the rest suffer eternally in hell.

"A staggering number of people have been taught that a few select Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better," he writes in the book.

How, he asks, could that possibly be good news? And why would God diligently and arduously seek to win people to faith while alive, only to condemn them to eternal punishment and torment one second after they died?

This belief, he says, "is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus' message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear."

For Bell, "the centre of the Christian tradition since the first church has been the insistence that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins."

For non-Christians, this debate is irrelevant. But for many Christians, it strikes at the foundation of faith. What if, as Bell writes, "the story of heaven and hell we have been taught is not, in fact, what the Bible teaches? What if what Jesus meant by 'heaven,' 'hell,' and 'salvation' are very different from how we have come to understand them?"

What makes Love Wins doubly challenging for some evangelicals is that Bell is not an atheist, or even a liberal -- he's one of the most influential evangelical leaders in North America today.

As for the controversy, Bell admits to growing weary of all the criticism.

"When you give your life to trying to communicate the love of God that Jesus came to give us, to a world that I desperately believe needs to hear good news, and (have) a number of people say you are a threat and anathema to that message, that just simply hurts at a really basic human heart level," he said in an interview.

All he wanted to do is share a simple message: "God's love never quits."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 29, 2011 J16

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