Progressive Christian Channel
To Hell and Back: Q&A with Filmmaker Kevin Miller, Part 1
I knew right away I wanted to make a film on this topic, because I suspected most Christians (and non-Christians) were as ignorant as I was before I started on Brad's book. We've all heard the "hell story," and we all assume there is really only one way of looking at it—at least if you want to call yourself an orthodox Christian. I was eager to explore alternate ways of reading the text to see if you really could maintain an alternate view, such as universalism, and still regard yourself as a thoroughly biblical and Christ-centered person. This conversation has been going on in seminaries, in books, and on the internet for decades, but I thought a feature-length documentary would help to bring it into the mainstream.
It wasn't until January 2011 that I finally found myself in a position to think seriously about making the film. I was about to turn 40, and after years of working as a screenwriter-for-hire, I decided it was finally time to strike out on my own. Call it a mid-life crisis. So I literally started doing one thing each day to make the film a reality. That led to two things per day and more until I found myself working on it full time—booking interviews, budgeting, etc.—all without a single dollar behind the project.
About two months into this process, Rob Bell came out with his book Love Wins. Within weeks, hell was literally on the cover of TIME magazine. So if I had any doubts about the timeliness of the topic, they were quickly erased. It was a real gift to me, because it showed me everyone who had a dog in this fight.
Hellbound? opens and closes with scenes from 9/11—why did you choose this event as the framing context for your film?
When we're talking about hell, what we're really talking about is justice. Everyone recognizes that we live in a world full of evil, pain, and suffering, made worse by the fact that we are powerless to undo much of the destruction we cause. We can repair damaged property, but we can't bring people back to life. And even though we can soothe psychological and emotional wounds caused by traumatic events, we can't ever bring people to full healing. So it's only natural to cry out for supernatural intervention. If we can't make things right, maybe God can. And if God is good, he has to make things right. But what does that look like? How is God's justice like our justice? How is it different?
So I knew it was important to approach this study from the perspective of someone who has been victimized by evil. Otherwise we can be pretty glib, engaging in all sorts of abstract theological discussions that have little to do with the real world.
I also believe every film should be united around a strong visual and thematic metaphor that we can return to repeatedly, first looking at it one way but then shifting our point of view as we progress through our argument.
When you put all of this together, 9/11 becomes a natural choice because it was a generation-defining event. It also provides us with arresting, evocative imagery that puts all of these issues on the table. All of us feel victimized by that event in some way or another, even today. And if our theology of hell can't help us make sense of that situation, it can't help us anywhere.
What do you think will surprise people most about your film?
It all depends on who you're talking about. I think your average evangelical viewer will be surprised to learn that some of the people who helped canonize the Bible and write the creeds did not share their view of hell—or a great many other things, for that matter. And yet they are revered as fathers and mothers of the church. In fact, some of them, such as Gregory of Nyssa, believed that all people would be ultimately reconciled to God. This should create some cognitive dissonance for conservative evangelicals, because they tend to portray themselves as the only ones who are faithful to the Bible, and that anyone who disagrees with their interpretation is going to hell. They write off Universalists and similar folks as sentimentalists, people who have no respect for the authority of Scripture and so on. But how do they handle the fact that some of the people who helped compile the Bible they love so much would find such a view utterly foreign? Are they going to lob the same accusations at them? Hopefully it will spur such viewers to rethink the certainty of their position.
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.