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April 4, 2011

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Helluva controversy about Hell

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 American evangelical pastor questioned the traditional idea of hell in his new book, "Love Wins."

Even before Rob Bell's book was published last 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!" writes Ruth Ward of New Albany, Indiana, 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 says.

"I hope that smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee ain't going to get me down there," he says, puffing on a cigarette 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, he was dismissed as pastor at a United Methodist church in Henderson, North Carolina. 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 that God punishes sinners forever in hell.

Carol Buikema, who attends Chicago's Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, says 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," says Buikema, 64.

Believing in Jesus is a basic tenet of Christianity and "if you don't believe in Jesus, you won't go to heaven," she says. "The more I live, 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 a loving God with going to hell?"

Bell's message reaches a wide audience: On March 25, "Love Wins" was the fourth-best-selling book overall on, and the best seller in the religion category.

The Rev Erik DiVietro, pastor of Bedford Road Baptist Church in Merrimack, New Hampshire, says 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 says Christians miss out if they don't address the ideas.

"Christianity is a conversation," he says. "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, Tennessee, says Bell's book reminds 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 a hell where sinners are punished is more of a human construction. "I don't think there's a burning place with pitchforks," she says. "I think basically 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."


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