Progressive Christian Channel
To Hell and Back: Q&A with Filmmaker Kevin Miller, Part 1
The problem is, if there's no safe place to process these thoughts, you end up pushing them down until you either explode or walk away from Christianity altogether. I exploded. After years of trying to tamp things down—going to Bible college, serving as a youth pastor, and going on missions—I finally said to hell with it all and gave in to every temptation I'd kept myself from (or at least been a little bit more circumspect about indulging). If I was hell-bound, then so be it.
That decision was followed by several years of misery and internal torment as I floated between worlds. I wasn't ready to renounce my belief in God, but I didn't see how I could measure up to God's standards either. I just didn't see any way out of my situation, and I had no one to guide me.
That began to change during a reunion with some old Bible college friends in the summer of 1995. I felt like the prodigal son coming home. Here they were all keeping the faith, and I was a mess. Then during a church service that weekend, something remarkable happened. The pastor's message was pretty simple. At one point he just started repeating the phrase "God loves you. God loves you," and I felt like he was speaking directly to me. I don't cry typically. But that Sunday I just fell apart. You can interpret that experience any way you want, but if I can look back to one moment in my life that might fall under the category of "supernatural" intervention, that would be it. Because everything was different afterward. No more holding back or trying to hide the way I was living. I had truly come to the end of myself, but I sensed God was okay with that, that God had been waiting a long time for me to come to that realization, and now we were finally ready to begin walking forward together.
That moment was the beginning of a decades-long deconstruction of everything I'd been taught and an attempt to reconstruct Christianity not in my image but in a way that at least makes sense internally. Naturally, I began to reconsider my beliefs about everything—God, the Bible, the atonement, etc.—at first in a rather unsophisticated way but then in a more systematic fashion as I worked in Christian publishing, went to seminary, and so on.
The moment hell really came into focus for me was the fall of 2008. I was working as a screenwriter, but suddenly all of my jobs fell through. It just happened that my personal crisis coincided perfectly with the global financial meltdown. So it was a tough time. As I cast about for other work, my friend Brad Jersak asked if I'd be willing to edit his new book, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell and the New Jerusalem. The timing couldn't have been better.
Brad's approach to the subject of hell was simple: If we're going to be biblical about hell, let's really be biblical. In other words, rather than read the text selectively to support what we already believe, let's listen to everything the Bible has to say about post-mortem punishment. That means examining all of the words typically translated as hell (sheol, Gehenna, Tartarus, Hades), all of the images of judgment (the lake of fire, outer darkness, etc.), and various interpretive traditions throughout Christian history.
The key thing I took away from that experience is the realization that the Bible is absolutely polyphonic on this issue. Contrary to popular belief, there is no single theology of hell or the afterlife presented in the text. Instead, some voices cry out for divine wrath and punishment. Others beg for mercy. Some seem to indicate that the wicked will suffer for eternity. Others imply the wicked will be utterly destroyed. And still other voices hold out hope that all people will ultimately be reconciled to God. What are we to make of this? I think many Christians—particularly evangelicals—go to the Bible expecting to find a series of objective statements that will settle the matter decisively. Instead we find a lively conversation where competing viewpoints aren't just maintained, they're encouraged. This conversation has continued throughout the history of the church, so I took this permission to continue the conversation today, making sure not to shut down dissenting voices.
Deborah Arca joined the Patheos team in 2009, after more than ten years of managing programs for the Program in Christian Spirituality at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. Deborah has also been a youth minister, a director of music/theatre programs for children, and a music minister.