A provocative new documentary on hell by Christian filmmaker Kevin Miller blazes into several big-city theaters across the country this week. Aptly titled Hellbound?, the film features interviews with an eclectic group of authors, theologians, pastors, musicians, and social commentators on the existence of hell and who, if anyone, goes there. Set in the context of 9/11, Hellbound? engages the traditional Christian understanding of hell but then goes on to explore the controversial concept of Christian universalism, or the idea that no one lands in hell for eternity.

In doing so, Hellbound? throws the gates of hell wide-open, so to speak, for a contemporary re-casting of the Christian concept of the fiery underworld of eternal torment most of us grew up with. It's a tour de force of a movie that grabs you from the very first interview with Margie and Jonathan Phelps from Westboro Baptist Church right up until the final words of quiet conviction from theologian Robin Parry of The Evangelical Universalist. With those two as bookends to the compelling theological discussion inside, Hellbound? is sure to ignite a firestorm of criticism, outrage, relief, and kudos from around the Christian landscape.

We caught up with Miller at the beginning of his nationwide tour to find out why he chose to make a film about hell, what was most challenging about this project, and his ultimate hopes for the film. Part 1 of our interview follows; we'll post Part 2 tomorrow.

KevinMillerWhat inspired (possessed?) you to make a documentary about hell?

I've struggled with the concept of hell ever since I first became a Christian at Bible camp when I was 9 years old. My clearest memory from that summer is looking at my family out in the garden one beautiful evening and being hit with the sinking realization that if they didn't pray the "sinner's prayer" like I had, they would go to hell. It was doubly awful, because I knew they secretly ridiculed our evangelical neighbors, so there was no way I was going to admit I was now one of them. So I kept silent and did the only thing I could: I prayed for their salvation.

Richard Dawkins says teaching kids about religion is a form of spiritual terrorism. In some cases, I have to agree with him. The thing is, I don't believe my camp counselor meant to terrorize me. Exactly the opposite! I don't even recall him talking about hell, but I certainly got the message. It's like a virus of fear slipped in with the Good News and eventually threatened to overwhelm the host, because even though I didn't think about hell that much growing up, the fear was always there. Was I good enough? Had I prayed enough? Was I really a Christian, or did I have a false conversion? If I was a Christian, why was I constantly sinning? Had I unwittingly committed the "unpardonable sin"? And if God loved me, why was hell even an option? Something right at the core of Christianity didn't make sense, but like most evangelicals, I didn't realize there was another way to look at things. I figured rejecting the "hell story" meant rejecting Christianity, so I hung on as best I could and tried to make things work.