Just a day before the release of his controversial book on hell, Michigan pastor Rob Bell denied that he was a universalist.
Answering the straightforward question "are you a universalist?" posed by Newsweek's Lisa Miller Monday night, Bell said, "No."
"No, if by universalist we mean there's a giant cosmic arm that swoops everybody in at some point whether you want to be there or not," he elaborated.
"That violates the laws of love and love is about freedom, it's about choice, it's about do you want to be there? Because that's what would make it heaven."
Bell was at the New York Society for Ethical Culture to talk about his now newly released book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The event drew hundreds to the venue and more than 6,000 people on the Internet.
Admitting he wasn't a theologian, he didn't offer any theological arguments on the always curious subjects of heaven and hell and the exclusivity of Jesus Christ. Rather, he said he was just "one more voice" in an ongoing conversation about things that matter most.
"I never set out to be controversial," he said, alluding to the firestorm that erupted even weeks before his book's release. Bell, who has been no stranger to controversy over his teachings, has been accused of being a universalist – or believing that all people will be saved and enter heaven regardless of whether they accepted Jesus – and moving far away from traditional Christianity.
"I don't think that God honors it when people set out to be shocking, or dangerous or provocative," said the popular author and pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville.
"My interest is in what's true and where is the life and where is the heart and what inspires. And if that happens to stir up a few things, that's something I accept."
When pressed several times on whether he believes there is a hell, Bell only spoke of a hell on earth and provided no indication that he believes in an eternal place of punishment.
"Is there hell? If not, does that take anything away from the cross?" one participant posed to him Monday.
"I actually think there is hell because we see hell every day," Bell answered.
At an earlier point in the discussion, he described hell this way: "Greed, injustice rape, abuse, we see hell on earth all around us all the time ... And we actually see lots of people choosing hell. We see oppression, we see tyranny, we see dictators using their power to eliminate the opposition, literally."
"The essence of grace is Jesus saying 'left to your own, we are all in deep trouble; we have made a mess of this place; we are all sinners; no one has clean hands.' The essence of his gospel was 'trust me, I'll take care of it."
He admitted that Jesus was "unbelievably exclusive," pointing to famous statements like "I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but through me."
But Bell pointed out, "He's also fantastically inclusive," pointing to other statements Jesus made such as "I, if I am lifted up, ... will draw all people to myself" and there will be a "renewal of all things" (emphasis added).
"He's like inexclusive," he said, realizing he made up the word.
"I think what happens is, especially for followers of Jesus, is there are sort of his exclusive claims that are often at the expense of the other things that he says ... be careful because I'm doing something for everybody," Bell explained. "How exactly that pans out, that's God's job."
Seeking a clear answer, Dr. Ronald C. Walborn, dean of Alliance Theological Seminary in New York, probed the author again on his beliefs of an eternal hell.
"Do you believe, first of all, that hell is a real place or just on earth? And if we do de-emphasize the doctrine of hell, what does that do to the motivation for Christian mission?" he asked.
Again, Bell talked about the hell people create for themselves on earth.
"It's crucial that ... we come face to face with the power of our choices. We can choose the way of compassion, of forgiveness, of generosity or we can choose other paths and those have real consequences in the world," the author responded.
The Great Commission, he added, is about announcing the good news and proclaiming God's love and "rescue effort."
"At our church, we talk about the good news is better than that, that there is a story ... and Jesus invites us into the story and to share that story with others. The real challenge for Christians when it comes to witnessing, evangelism is 'do you actually think this is a great story?'"
The Michigan pastor expressed his struggle with the concept that only a select few would make it to heaven and that billions of people would burn forever in hell.
The fundamental way most people were told about Jesus, he noted, was "God loves you, God has a wonderful plan for your life, He loves you so much that he sent Jesus because God wants a relationship with you. All you have to do is accept, trust, believe."
"If tonight, you reject what I'm saying to you and you were hit by a car on the way home, God would have no choice but to punish you eternally with torment and fire in hell. God would, in that split second, become a totally different being," he said.
"If there was an earthly father who was like that – this one moment, this the next – we would call the authorities, correct?"
"My experience as a pastor is lots of people have really toxic, dangerous, psychologically devastating images of God in their head, images of a God who's not good."
"In some sense, God being good is such a fresh, radical, new idea."
Christians, he suggested, need to return to sharing about God's love.
He asserted, "I believe there are moments when we have to return to our roots and we have to acknowledge that perhaps in some ways we've lost the plot along the way and that we need to return to the simplicity of God is love and God sent Jesus to show us this love that we might know this love, that we might extend this love to others."
But "can God be both loving and just?" one audience member asked.
"Yes," Bell responded.
"There has been this human longing and desire for God to fix the world essentially. ... There has been this longing for justice, for a day [with] God saying 'if you want to do that, out.'"
"You also have this side by side [with] God's endless affirmation; God wants everybody to be saved," he said, citing Psalm 22.
"So you have the possibility of every single person being rescued – you have this longing. And then you have this longing for justice. And they sit side by side. And if you get rid of that tension, the modern mind loves 'it's either this or [that],' ... the Hebrew mind is okay with these things being true."
In Revelation, the last book in the Bible, it describes a restored city, heaven and earth coming together and the dwelling of God being with the people. And there are people who aren't in it, Bell noted.
Yet, "there's this beautiful thing, it's almost like the writer [saying] ... wink wink, there's a gate in the city and it never shuts."
"It just doesn't get resolved. It sits there. I think it's important that we let it sit there side by side."
Overall, there is a longing for a better world, Bell pointed out, a place with no tsunamis.
"This longing for a better world ... is a human ache that has been with us since the beginning. Please tell me there's some rebirth, some rescue, something that breaks this thing we're in," he said. "Something is profoundly wrong and we are desperate for justice, for restoration, for somebody somewhere to do something about this."
As for heaven, he warned against turning speculation about heaven and the afterlife into dogma.
"I think it's very important for people of faith to yes, I believe in heaven; yes, I believe it's real; yes, I believe that it's somehow intermingled with this reality and yet separate in some sense in this reality. How exactly all of that works out, I don't know."
"What I find really fascinating is Jesus turns the whole discussion upside down because he comes from a very first century Jewish worldview and he keeps insisting [that] actually God is interested in restoring and renewing this world," he highlighted. "He speaks of it as sort of a real place and yet it's always heaven and earth becoming one. As opposed to how do we get there, his interest is how do we bring there here?"
In the end, Bell acknowledged that he stumbled and wandered in his attempt to answer questions.
"I'm not very smart but I do know that there is good news."
New York City was Bell's first stop in the Love Wins book tour. He is scheduled to visit eight more cities through April.