Some people know Hell is real: They’ve been there.

Tours offered to cruise ship passengers visiting George Town, Grand Cayman, often stop in Hell, a small town so named because of rock formations that resemble old paintings of the underworld.

Visitors can use a small post office to mail postcards from Hell or pop into gift shops selling T-shirts claiming “I’d rather be in Hell than at work.”

Vacationing in the Cayman Island’s version of Hell might be funny.

Contemplating an afterlife spent punished in the flames of an eternal hell? That idea prompts some serious questions and discussion, pastors say.

“This,” the Rev. Ronnie L. Williams, of Baton Rouge, said, “is one question I get all the time: ‘How can I be sure I’m not going to hell?’”

Williams, pastor of the Power in The Word, World Ministries, 2610 Wooddale Blvd., Suite B, answers such queries in typical evangelical fashion, citing such Bible verses as John 3:16, Romans 10:9, Luke 16:19-31 and John 14:6.

To escape hell, Williams said, someone must place faith in Jesus, confessing Christ’s lordship and believing in the savior’s resurrection.

“I don’t like to give my opinion,” Williams said. “I’m just revealing what the word of God says. This is ‘thus sayeth the Lord.’ This is not what Ronnie Williams said.”

But a book this year from another nondenominational pastor, one with a different view than many of his evangelical colleagues, is stirring discussions of hell and a re-examination of who winds up there.

The Rev. Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich., challenges traditional evangelical conceptions of the afterlife in his book “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”

Since the publication of Bell’s best seller earlier this year, other preachers have responded with books of their own, rebuttals of sorts that demonstrate, at the least, people still have plenty of interest in the topic.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, in a report based on data from a variety of scientific surveys — its own as well as those done by Gallup and others — estimates three-fourths of Americans believe in both life after death and heaven, while nearly 60 percent believe in hell.

Americans also have some ideas about who belongs in hell.

Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) agree Osama bin Laden will be “eternally punished for his sins in hell,” according a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service a few days after the al-Qaida founder’s death.

That poll, conducted May 5 through May 8, was based on telephone interviews with 1,007 adults and reports a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

But Bell and others question the value of speculating about who is in hell — and, Bell’s book, in many ways, is a reaction to such speculation.

The megachurch pastor tells in his opening chapter, as well as in an associated video, how he was struck by a note he saw attached anonymously to an artwork displayed during a show at his church.

The artwork featured a quote from Gandhi. And the note, added later, said, “Reality check: he’s in hell.”

“Gandhi’s in hell?” Bell asked. “Somebody knows this for sure?”

“A lot of people, the conception they were handed of the Christian faith is that you go around making judgments: So-and-so we know for sure is burning forever in the place,” Bell told the PBS program “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.” “You don’t know that. That’s speculation.”

Bell questions how a gospel that presents Jesus as rescuing only a select group from the wrath of God can be considered good news and how such a God could be viewed as loving and trustworthy.

Instead, Bell focuses on Scriptures where Jesus talks about the persistent love of God.

“And Jesus tells stories in which the key character doesn’t give up on, on whatever is lost,” Bell told “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.” “And I think we should take that seriously. I don’t know what God has in mind, but I do know that this story that Jesus tells causes us to pause before we make any of those sorts of judgments. Be very careful because God may be up to something way, way bigger than you’ve ever been able to comprehend.”

For such thinking, Bell has been criticized by many evangelicals with some calling him a heretic or universalist.

The Rev. Steve Crump, pastor of the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, a Unitarian Universalist Association congregation, defines universalism as “a theological idea that expresses that all people eventually — all sons and daughters — would be united in God’s love.

“The universalist would say there is no hell anyway . . . or if there is a hell, God wouldn’t send anyone to hell,” he said.

Bell “sounds almost like a universalist to me,” said Crump, noting how it’s not surprising to hear such thinking in Christian circles these days.

“Universalism has gone mainstream,” Crump said. “We see virtually no talk about hell and damnation from the mainline Protestants. I daresay Joel Osteen doesn’t talk much about it either.”

The Rev. Tommie Gibson, pastor of Donaldson Chapel Baptist Church, 2501 Gracie St. in Baton Rouge, agrees that preaching on hell has been in decline.

“It’s definitely not preached like it was preached in the two great revivals earlier in American history in the 19th and 18th centuries,” he said.

Gibson attributes that trend to such factors as increasing ecumenicalism and historical scholarship challenging the authority of Scriptures.

The Rev. Francis Chan, pastor of Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, Calif., and author of the popular evangelical book, “Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God,” is among the pastors to write a book in response to “Love Wins.”

In an interview with Christianity Today, Chan tells of how Bell’s book prompted him to study again what the Scriptures say about hell. The result: “Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity and the Things We Made Up.”

In a video promoting his book, he warns against the arrogance of measuring God’s actions against human reason and asks: “Do you even consider the possibility that maybe the creator’s sense of justice is more developed than yours?”

Chan points out that the Scriptures are full of stories where God acts in ways that the pastor would not, and Chan quotes Isaiah 55:8, “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord.”

Gibson said he humbly preaches a traditional doctrine to his congregation of 500 members.

“In the end times, the righteous will be saved and the unrighteous will not be saved,” Gibson said. “The unrighteous will be in a place separate from God, and that is hell.

“The particulars, I don’t have all the answers to,” he said. “As Billy Graham says, some of those questions are for management. I’m in sales.”

Religion News Service contributed to this report

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