Evangelical megachurch pastor Rob Bell says he was caught off guard by the condemnation his new book has received from leaders in the Christian community.
Standing before an audience of about 1,600 at Nashville's Belmont University, Bell said the last several weeks had been the "most painful" of his life.
"It has taken me to a place of profound brokenness," said Bell, who pastors the 10,000-member Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, released March 29, challenges the traditional Christian belief that few will enter Heaven.
"Will only a few select people make it into Heaven and will billions of people burn forever in Hell?" Bell asks in a promotional video of his book, recently released by publisher HarperOne. "And if that's the case, how do you become one of the few?" Watch the video here.
Bell insists it was never his intent to stir controversy, but to bring focus back to a message he suggests has got lost in dogma -- the love of God.
"I kept meeting religious people who were incredibly dogmatic about heaven and hell when you die but didn't seem to care about the fact that 8 million people will go to bed hungry tonight," Bell explained.
Bell denies charges that his book promotes a universalist theology - the belief that everyone, regardless of belief, will be saved by God.
"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 told The Christian Post.
"That violates the laws of love and love is about freedom," he explained. "It's about choice; it's about do you want to be there? Because that's what would make it heaven."
According to the Associated Press, Bell says hell is something freely chosen that already exists on earth.
"Apparently this is a pastor who has written a book who has grown uncomfortable contending for the faith," CBN chaplain and Regent University theology professor Joel Palser said. "He is no longer able to defend what the Bible says and has endeavored to make that more palatable to modern culture."
"It may be trendy and it might sell a lot of books, but in fact Jesus speaks very clearly about heaven and hell," Palser added.