After its release in 2011, Rob Bell's book "Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, And The Fate Of Every Person Who Ever Lived" made huge waves in the evangelical community.
Bell questioned the existence of hell and eternal damnation, claimed Jesus Christ is bigger than any one religion and pondered if the road to salvation might be wider than what contemporary Christianity preaches. So it's no surprise that as the book moves into its paperback release, it continues to generate fierce controversy, even playing a central role in conservative Christian discussions of the shooting in Aurora, Colo.
Although he was loath to write Bell's name, evangelical pundit Jerry Newcombe was clear about his disdain for Bell in a recent column for Religion Today. Published the day of the Aurora attack, Newcombe blamed the violence at the theater on his perception that Americans don't believe in eternal damnation as much as they used to. He asked, "Wow, what the heck happened to hell?"
Later that day, during an appearance on conservative Christian radio show AFA Today, Newcombe stated that Christian victims of the theater shooting were in heaven, while those who had rejected Christ were "going to a terrible place."
Bell isn't shocked at the negative reception "Love Wins" has had among some Christian communities. And in fact, some evagelicals' confident claims about who's getting into heaven or hell are exactly the reason why he wrote his book in the first place.
In an interview with The Huffington Post before a Tuesday speaking event at the Viper Room in West Hollywood, Calif., Bell said reactions like Newcombe's are "just sad."
"In a moment of horrific hell-on-earth suffering, to throw around grand judgments about people burning forever in hell is offensive," said Bell. "This is why a lot of people in our culture want nothing to do with the Christian faith and have no interest in church."
By now, Bell is used to confrontation over "Love Wins." The former megachurch pastor has been attacked in combative television interviews, accused of heresy and universalism by other prominent Christian leaders and has received not a few angry letters from readers who feel Bell is toying with a dangerous message.
In the eyes of his critics, Bell's stock fell even lower when he gave up his role at Mars Hill, his 7,000-member church in Grandville, Mich., to move to Los Angeles to share the message of God's love with a "broader audience" -- a strategy that hasn't included starting a new church.
But Bell isn't sweating the second-guessing out in Southern California. He had no comment when asked about criticisms that he had "gone Hollywood" when he sold an ABC pilot (it wasn't picked up). Instead, he offered up this hopeful description about his new home: "To live in an area where innovation and creativity are normal and expected is quite extraordinary."
Gone are the ascetic shaved brown hair and thick, black-rimmed glasses. His hair is now close-cropped on the sides, longer and sandy blonde on top. Bell's skin is tanned and his jawline appears more chiseled. His new hobbies include surfing and eating Wahoo's fish tacos. Bell is also thrilled to be able to slip into a local church unnoticed and enjoy another pastor's sermon, as well as to indulge in what he hasn't been able to experience in 13 years: a two-day weekend.
He demurred when asked to describe another soon-to-launch project with "Lost" co-creator Carlton Cuse, but hinted excitedly at what needs it could fulfill.
"You'll love it. Okay, so tell me your three favorite funny, intelligent, subversive, smart, spiritually themed shows," he said, grinning. "No wait, tell me your two favorite interesting, unexpected shows that deal with people's spiritual lives. No wait -- see, you can't do it, right?"
Bell was just as eager to talk about his upcoming book, titled, "What We Talk About When We Talk About God."
The book is intended to address the question of "specifically, how did Jesus see the world, and what does it mean for today?" Bell said. "I think there's some really powerful stuff there."
"It has taken more out of me than anything I've ever made," Bell continued. "It's just unbelievable."
On stage at the Viper Room, he addressed a crowd that was primarily young, white Christians in hip clothing and sheer summer dresses, who received him warmly and laughed at his many jokes throughout the hour-long speaking event.
"I just want to thank the Viper Room for moving the stripper pole," he deadpanned. "If you don't laugh, you're in trouble," Bell warned repeatedly.
While taking questions from the audience, one listener challenged him on the topic of the church's acceptance of gay members, given the event's location in West Hollywood. "Some people are gay, and you're our brothers and you're our sisters, and we love you. We love you," Bell said to the loudest applause of the night. He continued, "[Gay people] are passionate disciples of Jesus just like I'm trying to be, so let's all get together and try to do something about the truly big problems in our world."
John Lubke, a 23-year-old youth pastor from nearby Newbury Park, asked for advice for those stepping down from professional ministry.
Bell answered by decrying the "absolutely tragic" division between "normal" people and those called to ministry.
"My answer is, you're not [stepping down]," assured Bell. "You're just going to get a paycheck from a different place. So if you are wired to take care of people, you'll probably end up doing that wherever you are -- and Starbucks will have better benefits."
Ryan Chaddick, a 28-year-old student at Claremont University, told HuffPost that he counts Bell as an inspiration and called him one of the "driving forces" behind his decision to go into ministry. After the event, Chaddick said simply, "When you remove the fear of burning for eternity, you can actually begin to experience life and love."
Browse the slideshow for the most controversial quotes in Love Wins.
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