Is hell real? it's a question that has vexed the Christian church for two millennia. Who gets saved, and, come to think of it, what does it mean to be "saved" in the first place?
Rob Bell thinks he knows or, more precisely, he thinks we can't know, because the biblical discussion of salvation (as with so much else) is contradictory. Some passages say only those who explicitly acknowledge Jesus as Lord will find eternal peace. Others claim that, in Jesus' own words, "the gates of Hell shall not prevail" and Jesus' sacrifice means universal salvation.
Interesting stuff, to be sure, but hardly notable in the world of theology except that Bell, the man raising these issues, is an Evangelical pastor with a huge and growing young following. Bell, 40, is the founder of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.; a master of social media; and the author of a current best-selling book, Love Wins. Wielding music, videos and a Starbucks sensibility, Bell is at the forefront of a rethinking of Christianity in America. Traditionalists don't like what they're seeing, for Bell's questions cut to the heart of a faith that requires what the poet Coleridge called a "willing suspension of disbelief."
Bell argues for mystery, not certitude. "In the book, I write about how some have believed that all will be reconciled," he told TIME, "and while I long for that as I think everybody should long for it, I don't take a position of certainty because, of course, I don't know how it all turns out." In the meantime, and it could be a while, lots of us will be watching to see how Bell's story unfolds.
Meacham is the executive editor at Random House