ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In this last week of 2011, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED - along with other NPR programs - will be highlighting people, ideas and businesses that had a good year.
And 2011 was a good year for Hell. Satan's domain has received a lot of press, from Hollywood to doomsday prophets to New York Times best-sellers. In fact, this year has seen an incendiary debate about the existence and contents of Hell.
NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty takes a hot seat.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: The year began with an epic battle between a priest and Satan.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE RITE")
ANTHONY HOPKINS: (as Father Lucas Trevant ) It is God who commands you your name. Your name - give me your name!
(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAM)
HAGERTY: That's Anthony Hopkins, playing a priest possessed by a major demon, in the movie "The Rite." The Hollywood glimpse of the underworld came and went without much notice by moviegoers. But then, another form of Hell on Earth grabbed the headlines. Judgment Day would soon be upon us.
HAROLD CAMPING: Oh, it will be a horror story beyond measure.
HAGERTY: Harold Camping, the doomsday prophet and founder of Family Radio, read between the lines of the Bible and proclaimed that on May 21st, an earthquake would convulse the entire world, time zone by time zone. Christian believers would fly up into the air to meet Jesus. As for those left behind....
CAMPING: There will be weeping and wailing because everybody will realize, this is it; Judgment Day has come.
HAGERTY: When the day came and went without event, Camping and his followers - some of whom had given up jobs and family to spread the word - had one simple question.
CAMPING: What in the world happened?
HAGERTY: Camping argued that a spiritual judgment had occurred. He had a stroke a few weeks later, and his prediction that the Earth would be destroyed in October also failed.
But if Hell did not make a physical appearance on Earth, it made a huge splash in the book industry, jump-started by this promotional video from one of the nation's most influential evangelicals.
(SOUNDBITE OF A PROMOTIONAL VIDEO)
THE REV. ROB BELL: Will only a few select people make it to Heaven? And will billions and billions of people burn forever in Hell?
HAGERTY: Rob Bell - whose hip, riveting preaching style drew thousands to his church and brought him worldwide fame - wrote a book that takes aim at this fundamental evangelical belief. He says he began thinking about Hell when his church put on an art show about peacemaking, and one of the pieces featured Mahatma Gandhi.
BELL: And somebody had attached to the piece with Gandhi, this handwritten note that said: Reality check, he's in Hell. And it was such a - like, really? That's the Gospel of Jesus? That's the good news?
HAGERTY: Bell's book, "Love Wins," argues that God's grace and love mean that many people - maybe all people - will spend eternity with God in Heaven, not just Christians.
BELL: Buddhists, Hindus, people of Jewish faith - do I think there will be all sorts of people reconciled to God, present in Heaven however and whatever that is? Of course. The thing I think you'll hear the most in Heaven is: Wow, that's awesome.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HAGERTY: Bell did not argue that Hell does not exist. He said people can choose to be in Hell by definitively rejecting God's grace. But he says that God is tireless in trying to win every person over. And eventually, love wins.
This popular message sent Bell's book soaring to the top of the New York Times' best-seller list. Then came the blow-back, and it was hotter than you know what.
THE REV. FRANKLIN GRAHAM: Well, first of all, I believe the man is a false teacher. I believe he's a heretic because the Bible's very...
THE REV. JOHN MACARTHUR: My heart goes out to him because he is really deceived.
MARTIN BASHIR: So here comes Rob Bell, he's made a Christian gospel for you. And it's perfectly palatable; it's much easier to swallow. That's what you've done, haven't you?
BELL: No, I haven't. And there's actually an entire chapter in the book on Hell. And there's an...
HAGERTY: That's evangelist Franklin Graham, pastor and author John MacArthur, and MSNBC host Martin Bashir.
Bell's book spawned a bevy of new books on Hell, pro and con. Among the authors was a friend and pastor, Francis Chan. When he got Bell's book, he was secretly hopeful.
THE REV. FRANCIS CHAN: 'Cause I thought, maybe he's right and I no longer have to worry about this place. I no longer have to warn people about this place. I want to believe what Rob Bell believes.
HAGERTY: But when Chan studied the Bible - and particularly, Jesus' teachings - he concluded there is a place of torment called Hell. He wrote his book, "Erasing Hell," to counter Bell's kinder, gentler message. What happens if Bell is wrong, Chan worries, and people become complacent about their eternal destiny?
CHAN: If you were going to jump out of a plane and someone threw a backpack on you and - say trust me, it's a parachute. And I've opened it up; I go, no, it's just a backpack; it's not going to work. And so in the same way, if there's this belief that, well, you know, God's going to let us all go. And I'm going, no. I've looked. I've looked into the Scriptures, and that is not what I see.
HAGERTY: For his part, Rob Bell says that this turn-or-burn mantra distorts Christianity, and drives people away from the faith.
BELL: What harms people is when a pastor gets up at a funeral and says hi, everybody, we're here today because Uncle Bob died. And I want you to know for sure that Uncle Bob is burning in Hell forever. That hurts people.
HAGERTY: So, why is 2011 the year for Hell? It's not as if this is a new concept. What's happened, says Lauren Winner at Duke Divinity School, is that Bell's book exposed a debate among evangelicals that that's been percolating underground for years. She says younger Christians, in particular, are squeamish about the idea that their non-Christians friends and family will burn.
PROFESSOR LAUREN WINNER: If you live next door to a Muslim, and you work in a cubicle next to a Wiccan, you may be a very devout, conservative Christian, but you may also be very uncomfortable imagining that those people are not going to be with you eternally.
HAGERTY: In the end, Rob Bell says, Hell remains a mystery.
BELL: It's speculation - like, nobody died and came back with video footage.
HAGERTY: Speculation that's sparked one of the most contentious debates of 2011.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.