When Chad Holtz said no to hell, he never imagined the hell on earth that would follow.
The Cleveland, Tenn., resident recently left a North Carolina United Methodist student pastorate after a firestorm erupted when he eschewed a traditional view of hell in a Facebook post. He said he has been besieged with a nonstop barrage of phone calls, emails, requests for television appearances, ideas for books and even offers of jobs.
"It's been all over the place," said Holtz, 36. "It's been nuts."
The Duke Divinity School student was in his fourth year as pastor of Marrow's Chapel United Methodist Church in Henderson, N.C., when he posted an opinion contrary to one that says hell is a place of eternal damnation for condemned souls.
Some members of his church "took exception," Holtz said. "There was a general feeling based on other things that perhaps the image I was projecting for this particular local church was not the one they wanted to see portrayed."
Contrary to media reports that he was fired, the Lee College graduate said he and the church agreed he'd "maybe be better off moving forward."
North Carolina (regional) Annual Conference Bishop Al Gwinn told the United Methodist News Service that the body did not fire or dismiss Holtz.
The pastor said he and his family loved the people at Marrow's Chapel and that more people wanted him to stay than to leave. His last service there was March 20.
"There were a lot of tears, a lot of hugs, a lot of we'll-miss-yous," Holtz said. "It ended graciously as things like that should. There was no animosity."
The husband and father of five - two recently adopted from Ethiopia - said he already had planned to leave Marrow's Chapel in June after his graduation from seminary.
"We missed home," he said. "We wanted to come home to Cleveland. I wanted to take time to devote to my wife and my kids."
Holtz said he wants to remain a United Methodist and hopes one day to seek a position in the Holston (regional) Annual Conference, which includes Cleveland and Chattanooga.
HELL ON EARTH
Holtz said Christians should concentrate more "on how we live now" than have an "obsession about what happens after we die." It should be a "life full, a life robust," a life of peace and humility - "all the things the Bible talks about incessantly," he said.
Humans often "create their own hell on earth," Holtz said, by making sinful choices, living a life that seems "less and less human" and choosing to "deface the image of God."
"We're not living into the purposes God created us for," he said.
As far as heaven, he said, he doesn't anticipate seeing angels playing harps on clouds, either.
"I do believe [God] is drawing all things to himself [and] to Christ," Holtz said. "If you call that heaven, great. I don't know what heaven will look like. I do believe God is taking us - all of creation - somewhere. And you can trust that it's somewhere good because we have a good God."
Holtz also has posted blogs on the church's need to take a more affirming stance on homosexuals and one that declared reciting the Pledge of Allegiance during a worship service was "missing the point."
The issues come down to "how we perceive faith [and] why we are Christians," Holtz said. "I just disagreed."
The Rev. Mark Flynn, senior pastor of Christ United Methodist Church, said people who hold similar views to Holtz, rely on God's compassion and grace and believe he wouldn't send anyone to hell. But, Flynn said, that conclusion misses the point.
"If grace is offered and we don't receive it, of course there's a hell," he said. "If we continually reject God, we choose hell. It's not because God is mean-spirited or anything like that. It's because we keep [refusing] God's grace poured out for us."
The Rev. J.N. Howard, pastor of Signal Mountain United Methodist Church, said convictions similar to Holtz's have been posited in every generation since the time of Jesus.
"Basically, from a Methodist perspective, hell is eternal separation from God," he said.
Beyond that, Howard said, "you can get into all kinds of questions in detail ... and there is always a lot of room for interpretation."
The Book of Discipline, the United Methodist denomination's law book, does not contain any specific statement on heaven or hell.
However, the Evangelical United Brethren Church, a denomination that merged with Methodists in 1968, states in its Confession of Faith: "We believe in the resurrection of the dead; the righteous to life eternal and the wicked to endless condemnation."
The Confession is part of the United Methodists' doctrinal standards and cannot be altered even by the church's top lawmaking body.
Holtz and his family returned this week to Cleveland, where his wife was born and raised and where he once served as a lay associate pastor at Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church.
For now, the native of Pittsburgh, Pa., says he'll pray about his future and "see where God leads."
He said he's been offered opportunities all over the country. But he says he'd prefer to live out the reason he went to seminary.
"I love being a Methodist," he said. "When the dust settles, I hope when I come knocking, they'll say please come on in."