New “Hellbound?” Movie explores, Challenges Christian Doctrine of Hell

I first heard about the movie “Hellbound?” (coming out this fall) at Wild Goose Festival. They were offering an advance screening of the movie, and although I was just passing by the tent at the time, the subject matter stopped me where I was. A thoughtful, well-researched, accessible discussion about the history, purpose and prospects of hell in Christian theology?

I’m in!

The film opens with reflections on September 11th, including a ten-year anniversary memorial event at the site. And as would be expected, the infamous picketers from Westboro Baptist Church were there, complete with signs bearing slogans like “Thank God for 9/11″ an, of course, “God Hates Fags.” The movie progresses to, let’s say, more educated points of view, focusing more on the front end on those who advocate for a real hell that is populated with innumerable souls experiencing eternal conscious torment.

But then the movie breaks off from the oft-quoted pro-hell camp and considers the social and historical backdrop for hell, as well as extensive screen time for the doubters and skeptics about the reality of such a place. Folks offering counters to the “traditional” evangelical view of hell include Brian McLaren, Frank Schaeffer and an Eastern Orthodox priest, all offering fascinating tidbits meant to expand our understanding of where this modern-day understanding of hell even came from, let alone whether we claim a God who would send people there.

A few of the more compelling points I took away from the movie:

  • There are three broad camps when it comes to hell. There are the Universalists (everyone will be saved in the end), the Annihilationists (only some will be saved; the rest will cease to exist after death) and “Eternal Torment” adherents (only some will be saved; the rest suffer eternally and consciously in hell). The film lists an equal number of scriptures used to support all three views, which then sets up Frank Schaeffer to drive home a great point. If we can use the Bible to support multiple views, he says, then we can’t simply rely on what it says for an ultimate answer. Instead, we have to look at the entirety of Judeo-Christian history, including – but not limited to – our ongoing relationship with scripture, and derive from that broader context what we believe to be true.
  • I was intrigued to learn that Gregory of Nyssa, the final “editor” of the Nicene Creed (which is largely the basis from which modern evangelical theology comes) was not a personal advocate for the Eternal Torment model. For Gregory, according to the movie, the prospect of a radically merciful God left open the possibility that both necessary judgment and ultimate, universal reconciliation with God might coexist.
  • I also appreciated that the movie points folks to Origen for a more in-depth study of the roots of Christian Universalism, and to St. Augustine for a better understanding of selective or conditional salvation.
  • It surprised me to learn that both Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism (again, according to this film), leave space for the possibility of universal salvation. It didn’t go so far as to try and pigeonhole each Christian denomination’s doctrine (or lack of) on hell, but it did suggest that those wrestling with the idea of universalism were not as alone as they might think.
  • Most chilling of all for me was an idea offered by Mark Driscoll, who is largely considered to be one of the most prominent voices in evangelical Christianity today. He not only advocates for the concept of eternal torment and real, conscious suffering for the unsaved; he believes that some people are born as God’s chosen, bound for salvation as God’s beloved elect. As for those not favored by God? Well, they’re just out of luck, period.

There were a few clear weaknesses in the film, none of which were so profound as to compromise its overall value. But I was disappointed that nearly everyone interviewed was a white male. One of the only women appearing on screen with a speaking part was a representative of Westboro Baptist; hardly a fair cross-section. Also, there was a noticeable absence of voices along the lines of John Caputo and Peter Rollins, who are exploring along the edges of postmodern Christianity, as well as scholars like Brandon Scott, Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan who are committed to a study of the “historical Jesus.” Most speakers expressed what I would consider a “higher Christology,” and refer to God n all cases as a “He.”

On the whole, “Hellbound?” is a thoughtful, important look at a debate that has boiled over following the publication of Rob Bell’s book, “Love Wins,” also referenced throughout the film. I’d venture to say that the creators of the movie lean toward Universalism themselves, given the face time afforded those of this view, but voices from across the spectrum certainly have their say as well.

The only “gotcha” bit of journalism came toward the end, when writer/director, producer Kevin Miller is debating with the Westboro Baptist folks about how God can have both “perfect love” as they claimed, which is far beyond the human capacity to love, while also pre-ordaining that some people were doomed to hell from birth.

“How many children do you have?” Miller asks one man from the Westboro church.

“Four,” the man replies.

“And how many of them do you love?” says Miller. His follow-up is met with awkward silence, which is rare with a Westboro spokesperson. He saw the writing on the wall, as it were, and knew better than to try and actually answer the question. But left unsaid here is the thrust of the movie that is asserted by several others throughout:

Why would a Creator give life to something, bound both to temporal sin and to eternal suffering for that temporal sin? Can such a God be considered loving while also leaving those beloved to suffer conscious torment forever? Ot has hell become the church’s ultimate sales pitch, the trump card that lends it authority over its faithful, without which it would be rendered largely impotent in its efforts to coerce people into adherence to its doctrine?

Meanwhile, the politics of hell and the debate that surrounds it, rages on.

Fore more about the movie, and to see a promotional trailer, visit: www.hellboundthemovie.com

 

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • http://twitter.com/SimonTheTam Simon (Young) Tam

    The film sounds interesting. Are there any books that you’d recommend that could complement it to do some further research/study?

    • http://www.facebook.com/christiandpiatt Christian Piatt

      Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” is a very accessible place to start.

      • Julian

        Rob Bell completely neglects any study of God’s holiness. How does a holy God deal with sin?

        • Tony

          The Cross.

      • http://twitter.com/SimonTheTam Simon (Young) Tam

        Hi, I’ve got it on the shelf – thanks!

    • http://aredemptionofhope.blogspot.com Ally C

      If i may, Sharon Baker’s Razing Hell is also a good source for further study.

    • Greg D

      Raising Hell by Julie Ferwerda is good.

      • http://twitter.com/SimonTheTam Simon (Young) Tam

        Looks like there are two books of similar name, thanks for sharing!

  • Bundesbedenkenträger

    You might also be interested in Derek Flood’s blog (www.rebelgod.com). He addresses not hell, but penal substitution, which is also connected to the question of God’s love.

  • Frank Schaeffer

    Hi C: thanks for this really terrific and accurate review. I’m grateful you mentioned me in the context of such good company. Best, Frank

    • http://www.facebook.com/christiandpiatt Christian Piatt

      Wow! I’m honored to have you comment on my page!

    • Scaramouche

      I too converted from Dispensational dogma/theology to the Orthodox Christian faith. Thanks for your work and never mind the ignorant criticisms. I am also a fan of Greg L. Bahnsen, ‘Theonomy in Christian Ethics’. Blessings, my friend.

  • http://twitter.com/BenHoward87 Ben Howard

    Christian (and Frank if youre still around), I would be curious about your thoughts on the films presentation of annihilationism. They present the scriptures, but seem to leave out any annihilationist view points.

    • Robin

      I was at a Q&A session with a Jewish Rabbi for my son’s confirmation class. Someone asked what do Jews believe happens when you die. The Rabbi gave an answer that sounded similar to annihilationism. He said for the most part Jews focus are the present since that don’t know exactly what happens when you die. And if you are really bad God, will erase your existence.

  • http://twitter.com/WBCJon Jonathan Phelps

    Editing (cutting and pasting) is a tool for purposes of making a false point with false premises. The man from Westboro, who is the one writing this comment, actually answered the fool’s question about how many of my children I loved, as follows: The two are not comparable (human fathers and their children and God and those humans he has created); because God, as taught by the Bible, has created children of light and of the day and children of darkness and the night (e.g. 1Thessalonians 5:5 “Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness.”), and Children of God (Galatians 3:26: “For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.”) and Children of the Devil (Satan) (John 8:44 “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.”) Proverbs 16:4: “The LORD hath made all things for himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil.” That dichotomy of how God creates and disposes of his creation of humans runs throughout the Bible. Thus heaven and hell. This charlatan framing simplistic, Bible-ignorant questions does change the reality. This fraud is typical of an age of apostacy where people are some dumbed-down about the things of God, you will believe anything because it comports with your black, dark heart. It is that age spoken of by Paul in 2Timothy 3:13: “But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived.”

    • Greg D

      Ah, always refreshing to hear the noise of a clanging bell.

      • Quinn

        Or simply to dismiss someone you disagree with. (I don’t necessarily disagree, but I cannot dismiss him outright).

        • Charles

          I can dismiss the entire Phelps family based on their hate and obnoxiousness.

          • Mary

            I agree. This is a “church” who states that God is solely about hate. No love involved whatsoever. Their webpage is beyond offensive, it is Hitler-like sewage that made me want to hurl. Just looking at it I felt like I was in the presence of pure evil. I haven’t seen this movie so maybe it is a little unfair to judge, but I feel like it is a mistake to give these guys so much attention. They are in no way representative of most Christians, in fact they are not Christians at all. They are just bitter angry people who blame everyone else for their problems.

    • SIA

      So are you suggesting that God would create some people for the sole purpose of damning them to hell…just because? That certainly doesn’t sound very benevolent to me.
      You bible-thumpers love to go on about how morality is absolute and immutable when in fact your morals are more arbitrary than practically anyone else’s. “Do it because the big guy says so.” I’m sorry, but if the “big guy” considers himself exempt from the golden rule just because he is in a position of power, he is a tyrant and a bully who doesn’t deserve humanity’s attention, much less its worship.

  • http://charityjilldenmark.wordpress.com/ Charity Jill Denmark

    I was going to drive an hour to go see this tonight, but me & Husband decided we were too tired. Excited to see Greg Boyd involved in something like this, his sermons on hell are excellent, but I don’t think I could handle the Driscoll-induced anxiety. Sounds like a great rental, someday, hopefully – thanks for the review, it was helpful.

  • Greg D

    As one who wrestles with understanding the nature of hell (or even it’s existence), I am looking forward to seeing this film. I’m particular interested in hearing Gregory Boyd’s view as he usually has a lot of scholarly insight into this and many other topics.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rebecca.trotter.18 Rebecca Trotter

    I’ve been looking for a church, so I’ve been reading a good number of “What we believe” statements. I am truly shocked at how many churches specifically list the teaching unbelievers are headed to “eternal, concious torment”. Perhaps Bell’s book has motivated more churches to get specific about the fact that they believe they are worshipping a God who will leave billions of people to suffer eternal, concious torment.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Macaghobhain Samuel Smith

    Latter-day Saints are very nearly universalists. In their teaching, only those who blaspheme the Holy Ghost will remain in hell (and Cain is the only person who has been identified in scripture as having committed this “unpardonable sin.”) All others will be raised to a state that is better than this world, though not all will become “joint-heirs with Christ” and receive “all that the father hath.”

  • Frank

    All this discussion does nothing to change the fact of a real hell that people choose to go to when they reject Christ.

  • http://twitter.com/elizawoodproduc elizawood

    For continued reading, here’s an interview I did with the Director of ‘Hellbound’! http://progressplanet.com/eliza-wood/hellbound-movie/

  • http://2012prophecy.net DM I.M.Cango

    What’s so hard to understand. God loves you more than you will ever know- with Everlasting Infinite Love! And if you don’t believe that he will torture you forever. Yep, you can’t fix stupid can you.

    • theno1katzman

      but to think the murderers let into heaven after killing so many innocent people? Seriously? they need punishment. God is merciful and he is a righteous Judge. What do we consult if we don’t understand the Bible? We consult God himself. And who can consult God? People who are saved can understand God. More likely the younger the better because the more like a child before God the better. Many self proclaimed experts in theology are very stubborn, unsaved individuals who won’t humble themselves before God. IT is incredibly stupid to think you are going to go to heaven if you don’t believe in God though. You either are going to hell or you are going nowhere, just when you die, that’s it for you.

  • Scaramouche

    To the author of this article: Frank NEVER mentioned Judeo-Christianity, this is a concept of the apostate and heretical Dispensational/Pentecostal/Baptist mondernist cult.


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