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Heaven vs. hell debate causes firestorm for pastor

Evangelical megachurch pastor Rob Bell told a Nashville audience he did not anticipate the firestorm he would stir with his book that questions the traditional Christian belief that a select number of believers will spend eternity in heaven while everyone else is tormented in hell.
Rev. Chad Holtz poses for a photo after being fired as pastor from a church in Henderson, N.C., after posting on his Facebook page a defence of a book by pastor Rob Bell, in which Bell challenges millions of Christians' understanding of the afterlife. (Sara D. Davis/Associated Press)

Evangelical megachurch pastor Rob Bell told a Nashville audience he did not anticipate the firestorm he would stir with his book that questions the traditional Christian belief that a select number of believers will spend eternity in heaven while everyone else is tormented in hell.

Bell said that he not only didn't set out to be controversial, he had no idea his bestseller, Love Wins, would bring condemnation from people like Southern Baptist Seminary President Albert Mohler, who claims Bell is leading people astray.

"The last couple of weeks have been the most painful in my life," the Michigan pastor told a crowd of about 1,600 at Belmont University in Nashville Tuesday after an audience member asked him about the criticism he has faced.

"It has taken me to a place of profound brokenness," he said.

But he said that with God's help he has been able to learn and grow from the experience.

Even before the book was published last month, religious leaders and their followers were branding it heresy, hailing it as a breakthrough or saying it was somewhere in between. Thousands have commented good and bad on Twitter, Facebook, blogs and in churches.

Bell said he wrote the book because the Christian message that God is love seems to have gotten lost.

"I kept meeting religious people who were incredibly dogmatic about heaven and hell when you die but didn't seem to care about the fact that 800,000,000 people will go to bed hungry tonight," he told the crowd.

He said that what he called "evacuation theology," or the idea that "Jesus is your ticket to somewhere else," is dangerous because it can cause people to miss Christ's message about how to live in such harmony with God that you are creating a heaven on Earth.

"Jesus taught his disciples to pray, not 'God, beam me up,' but 'Thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven,"' Bell said.

He says hell is something freely chosen that already exists on Earth.