March 6, 2011— -- With sermons attended by more than 10,000 parishioners, a podcast hitting 50,000 downloads and video views in the millions, Rob Bell has carved out a unique niche in the world of evangelical preaching, and has even been named one of the Top 10 most influential evangelicals by ChurchReport.com.
But now Bell, 40, is poised to create a major controversy as he challenges widely perceived notions of the afterlife, and looks to put the concept of hell on trial.
Dubbed "a singular rock star in the church world," Bell is preaching a message that has evangelicals across the country up in arms: that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering.
The founding pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., Bell is about to publish his latest book, "Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived."
In the book he delivers an optimistic message about the afterlife, challenging the Christian notion of hell while asking the questions, as he also does in his promotional videos: "Will only a few select people make it to heaven? And will billions and billions burn forever in hell?"
No, posits Bell -- eternal life doesn't start when we die; it starts right now.
But other members of the evangelical community are calling his notions heresy.
"If indeed Rob Bell denies the existence of hell, this is a betrayal of biblical truth that has severe spiritual and evangelistic consequences," R. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told "Good Morning America."
And debate about Bell's controversial ideas have caused an uproar on the Internet, blogosphere and on Twitter, where many are decrying what he preaches, while other stand behind him.
"There's nothing loving about preaching a false gospel," tweeted @HarrisJosh.
@CindyCook12345 posted "Rob Bell, so glad u took off ur sheeps clothing."
But Bell does have some notable backers within the religious community, including Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, president of the Union Theological Seminary.
"I think the people who are going after Rob Bell as controversial are themselves closer to heresy than [he] is," Jones said.
"Jesus' message was that the love of God is stronger than anything we can do -- and the forgiveness of God is stronger -- so why would that God be torturing people in some made up hell?" she said.
Still, many evangelicals and theologians maintain that the notion of a Hell existing is well-defined in scripture, pointing out that the word appears in King James' Bible 54 times.
"Jesus was himself very, very clear about the reality and threat of hell," Mohler said.
But with his popularity, Bell's positive message is capturing the hearts and minds of the thousands who have a more positive take on the afterlife. And there are plenty -- a recent Pew survey found that only 59 percent of Americans believe in the concept of Hell.
And some, like Jones, said they don't see anything new in what Bell is preaching.
Bell has declined public comment on the book, but its publisher has moved up its scheduled release date to March 15 from March 26, now that it has stirred up this ancient debate.