Rob Bell

(RNS) Rob Bell is a heretic.

And so are you.

That's the good news.

It's also part of the message of Bell's new book, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

Bell, 40, pastor of 10,000-member Mars Hill church in Grandville, Mich., reexamines Christianity's traditional understanding of life, salvation and what happens after we die.

The book, which hits stores this week, has already drawn the ire of critics -- many of whom had not yet read it-- who nonetheless lit up the Twitterverse and the blogosphere with condemnations of Bell and his theology.

They called him a Universalist. A wolf in sheep's clothing. A false prophet. A radical. Dangerous. More than a few labeled Bell, one of the most influential voices in evangelical Christianity today, a heretic.

For more than half of my life, I have been blessed to know and call Bell friend. I met Rob and the woman who would one day become his wife when we were freshmen at Wheaton College in 1988.

There are few people for whom I have more respect and admiration than Rob Bell, and fewer still that I trust more spiritually, as a pastor, as a humble follower, listener to and lover of God.

I wasn't remotely surprised that my friend has been able to weather the intense media (and ecclesial) firestorm with characteristic grace and great humor.

While "heretic" is not a label that Bell revels in, it's not one that is altogether wrong, either.

The word's roots are in the Greek word 'hairetikos,' which means `able to choose,"' Bell explained.

"Everybody is forced to believe or think or subscribe to a particular thing, but there are those who are able to choose -- how awesome is that?" Bell said, laughing.

Having been created by God with free will, we are all able to choose and make decisions for ourselves, including whether to accept the love of Jesus Christ and walk in the light of that love.

Essentially, we're all heretics because we all have the ability to choose.

Bell didn't write Love Wins for his detractors.

"I wrote it for people who are thirsty," he said. Rather than undermine the singular power of Jesus' story, Love Wins is, to my eye, a love note to and about Jesus the Christ.

An image Bell returns to time and again in Love Wins is that of Jesus being the rock that gives water, an image from Hebrew scripture where Moses, leading the Israelites through the desert, called on God to give them water. God told Moses to take his staff and smack a rock with it.

The rock cracked open and water spilled out. A cranky bunch of people wandering in the desert slaked their thirst.

Jesus, Bell says in Love Wins was that rock. Even when he wasn't called by that name or when people don't recognize him, Jesus is always the one who brings grace and salvation.

"I'm interested in painting the most beautifully compelling pictures and images and metaphors and stories and explanations possible that will put Jesus in language for a world that desperately needs to hear it," Bell said.

Bell said he is happy to discuss theology with anyone, but defending his faith, or convincing people of his validity isn't his calling.

"That is precious energy that could be spent doing the thing that I am here to do. ... I don't have any anger, I don't have any bitterness, I don't have some grudge of any sort. And I'm not at all closed to such things, but it isn't what gets me up in the morning and it isn't why God put me here."

God put Bell here to tell people -- by any and all means necessary -- how much God loves them.

And that there is nothing they can do to make God love them more or less.

That is the "Good News" of Jesus.

But for too many people, what they've been told is the good news is actually an ugly truth. They hear that God is full of grace and unconditional love, a God of endless second chances, infinitely patient. But then they hear that God's grace, love and patience expire at death. "Too late," they're told. "You had your chance."

That kind of schizophrenic idea of God is simply untenable, Bell says.

"It's psychologically unbearable. No psyche can handle that. It's devastating," he said.

It's also toxic and a lie.

"If we have the freedom to choose these things now, that Jesus came to offer us and show us, then I assume that when you die, you can continue to choose these realities because love cannot co-opt the human heart's ability to decide," Bell said.

"But after you die, we are firmly in the realm of speculation."

Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived is available in the Beliefnet Online Shopping Mall.

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