Who's in Hell? Pastors' Criticism of Eternal Torment for Some Sparks Fierce Debate

A Methodist pastor who voiced support for a book questioning the view of hell as a place of eternal damnation is "shocked" by his church's decision to fire him. Chad Holtz, who served as pastor of the United Methodist church in rural North Carolina, said he hoped his personal belief posted on Facebook would engage -- not anger -- members of his congregation.

Holtz was dismissed this month as pastor of Marrow's Chapel in Henderson after he wrote a note on his Facebook page supporting a new book by Rob Bell, a prominent young evangelical pastor and critic of the traditional view of hell as a place of torment for billions of damned souls.

Holtz said church members complained to a pastor-parish relations committee that his views did not reflect the views of the congregation.

"They felt that what their pastor was writing publicly was not reflective of what they think," Holtz said in an interview. "I was quite shocked, and also disappointed that no one came to me personally to talk about why they were upset. It’s OK to disagree."

The debate over Bell's new book "Love Wins" has quickly spread across the evangelical precincts of the Internet, in part because of an eye-catching promotional video posted on YouTube.

Bell, the pastor of the 10,000-member Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., criticizes the belief that a select number of Christians will spend eternity in the bliss of heaven while everyone else is tormented forever in hell.

"This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus' message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear," Bell writes in his book.

Holtz, 36, who has served as pastor of Marrow's Chapel for almost four years, said he took to Facebook on March 2 to share his "personal journey" with the notion of hell as a place of torment.

He told FoxNews.com that he wrote about the four things he "lost" when he "lost the idea of hell."

"I lost the idol of belief; I lost a very powerful and useful motivator -- fear; I lost the right to hate my enemy and I lost my place in a tribe," he said.

He said he had hoped his personal experience might engage members of his 80-person congregation, but instead the posting angered congregants who complained that it did not represent their views.

"The people at my church are good, decent people," he told FoxNews.com. "They’re simply feeling a little threatened by a pastor who is asking questions that they don’t want to ask right now. I hope some seeds are planted and that God will bring some good about it."

Making his new belief public was both liberating and a little frightening for Holtz, even though his doubts about traditional doctrines on damnation began long before he heard about Rob Bell's book.

A married Navy veteran with five children, Holtz spent years trying to reconcile his belief that Jesus Christ's death on the cross redeemed the entire world with the idea that millions of people — including millions who had never even heard of Jesus — were suffering forever in hell.

"We do these somersaults to justify the monster god we believe in," he said. "But confronting my own sinfulness, that's when things started to topple for me. Am I really going to be saved just because I believe something, when all these good people in the world aren't?"

Gray Southern, United Methodist district superintendent for the part of North Carolina that includes Henderson, declined to discuss Holtz's departure in detail, but said there was more to it than the online post about Rob Bell's book.

"That's between the church and him," Southern said.

Church members had also been unhappy with Internet posts about subjects like gay marriage and the mix of religion and patriotism, Holtz said, and the hell post was probably the "last straw." Holtz and his family plan to move back to Tennessee, where he'll start a job and maybe plant a church.

"So long as we believe there's a dividing point in eternity, we're going to think in terms of us and them," he said. "But when you believe God has saved everyone, the point is, you're saved. Live like it."

FoxNews.com's Cristina Corbin and the Associated Press contributed to this report