Literal hell is a gruesome place, a worm-infested trash heap where children are sacrificed to the flames, according to the Bible, and for those who don't accept salvation or who sin against God, it's forever.
But now, Rob Bell, a young, charismatic pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., suggests that hell doesn't mean eternal damnation. In other words, sinners would get a second chance to weasel their way into God's good graces.
As the last day of Passover and Easter coincide on Sunday, Bell's new book, "Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived," has ignited a firestorm in the evangelical world among those who believe that the hell of a wrathful God is the foundation of Christian faith.
"Nothing in the New Testament would suggest that hell is a place where people get more chances," said Scot McKnight, a professor of religion at North Park University in Chicago.
McKnight, a theologian, has written nine times on the topic in his blog, Jesus Creed, since the book was published last month, and each blog post has elicited 15,000 page views a day.
Bell has been accused of being a "universalist." Some critics have been downright vicious, calling the author and popular, 40-year-old preacher "a tool of Satan" and a "heretic."
"For them, it is so unfaithful to the Bible and the Christian tradition that it violates the truths of the Gospel," said McKnight, who writes about hell in "One Life."
"This is very big," he said. "Rob Bell has entered into the very deepest and most sacred themes of Christianity and called into question the way Christians have framed everything they believe in."
"Rob has challenged this the most by suggesting that hell is not eternal," he said. "He combined the doctrine of hell and purgatory and maybe everyone would go to heaven. It's temporary and people can continue to have the opportunity to have freedom."
Bell argues in his book, "Would a loving God send people to eternal torment forever?"
He also suggested that the pearly gates of heaven might be open to Jews, Muslims and Buddhists.
"Will only a few select people make it to heaven and will the rest burn in hell forever?" he asks. "And if that is the case, how do you become of these people? Is it what you believe or say or something happens in your heart or you are initiated and baptized. What is God like, because millions and millions of people are taught that God sends you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. ... Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of a God do we need to be rescued from? How can God ever be trusted?"
Bell was in London on a lecture tour this week and was unavailable for comment. But The Christian Post quoted him as saying it was, "tough" being misunderstood, misread and "accused of all sorts of devious things," and he asked for more civil discourse on the book's topic.
Hell is described by Jesus in the New Testament as "Gehenna," a valley south of Jerusalem -- a destination of the wicked and a place where apostate Israelites sacrificed their children.
"Hell is a place of fire and a place of darkness and a place of destruction," according to McKnight. "Clearly, not all three are true. You can't have raging fires in a dark place, so these are images of pain and exclusion and diminishment. They are metaphoric images of the negative consequences of not turning to God. They are designed to warn people of living in sin and living apart from God.
"If everyone saved, then it's not the same," he said.
Without Hell, Will People Behave Morally?
And then there is the question of morality. With another chance, will people behave? The foundation of morality is consequences. In parenting, education and jobs -- "there are a lot of things in life, where you get only one chance," said McKnight.
Trevin Wax, 30, another rising evangelical, argued that Bell's "judgmentless" God is no god at all.
"People who are upset with God for allowing suffering are the same people who are upset that God judges," said Wax, author of another new book, "Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope."
"You can't have it both ways," said Wax, editor of LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, Tenn., and a former associate Baptist pastor. "The God who purges evil has to declare something right and wrong. Judgment and justice are two sides of the same coin."
"What kind of 'love' is this?" he asked. "A god who is never angered at sin and who lets evil go by unpunished is not worthy of worship."
Bell writes that because God is merciful, those who don't believe in Christ will find their way to him in the end. All are saved except those who outright reject God's love.
That, said Wax, is contrary to 2,000 years of Christian teaching and is "biblically unsustainable."
The heaven-hell discussion is the "bird in the eco-system," said Wax, quoting another traditional Christian preacher, Tim Keller. "If it goes extinct, it throws off everything. People say you can have a disagreement on eternal punishment and everything else is OK. You really can't. The doctrine of hell ties into the magnitude of what sin and idolatry is, and if you take away eternal punishment, it diminishes God in the process."
"I don't remember a debate of this magnitude in the last 10 years," said Wax. "Maybe it's because Rob Bell is so popular a teacher and his videos are so enormously successful and he is pastor of a growing well-known church."
Another traditionalist said Bell's new rejection of a fire and brimstone god is actually prophesied in scripture.
Phil Hotsenpiller, pastor of the Friends Church in Yorba Linda, Calif., cited scripture that predicts "many false prophets" who will "depart from the faith."
Prior to the return of Christ, Hotsenpiller quoted 2 Timothy 4:2, 4: "the time will come will they will not endure sound doctrine but according to their own desires because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers and they will turn their ears aways from the truth, and be turned aside to fables."
Hotsenpiller, author of the graphic novel, "Armageddon Now," runs workshops on the apocalypse, which is described in Revelations.
He said that "spiritual disruptions" like Bell's reinterpretation of the Bible may be responsible for the unusual amount of global activity -- earthquakes, the financial crisis and nations aligning for mass destruction.
"I think he has departed and everyone knows it," said Hotsenpiller. "Everyone who I have talked to within Christianity -- and not the most conservative -- say Rob Bell has gone off the deep end.
"He is such a vocal mouthpiece," he said. "What if Billy Graham said there was no hell?"