Who would you like to see bound to Hell to suffer eternal conscious torment?
Okay, it’s a petty question, but we’ve all thought about our enemies suffering eternally in hell. There’s a particular, albeit vulgar, satisfaction in imagining certain people who have wronged us suffering the horrors of hell. Something in us yearns for justice and, for many, hell is God’s ultimate justice machine. But for many others, the idea of infinite suffering for finite sins isn’t about justice; it’s about revenge. This quest for justice that is frequently tangled with revenge seems to be part of human nature, but is it part of God’s nature?
That’s one of the main questions behind Hellbound?, the thought-provoking documentary by Kevin Miller. Subscribers to Pathoes’ Teaching Nonviolent Atonement blog will be able to talk with Kevin about his documentary this Thursday, October 31st at 11:00 central. A discussion about hell on Halloween! What could be better?
You should see Hellbound? as soon as possible. You can watch it on Netflix, but I highly recommend purchasing the DVD for the exclusive interviews and Kevin’s commentary about the filming. It’s an amazing documentary that, from beginning to end, captured my attention. Kevin did a wonderful job directing, producing, and starring in the documentary. I was pleased that he included all sides of the debate. Throughout the documentary I felt like I was sitting there with Kevin, interviewing some of the most prominent and influential Christian authors, bloggers, and personalities of today about hell and the character of God. Watching Hellbound? was like being in theological nerd heaven. Here I was, face to face with Brian McLaren, Frank Schaeffer, Justin Taylor, Greg Boyd, Mark Driscoll, Kevin DeYoung, Sharon Baker, Brad Jersak, and (most influential for me!) Michael Hardin. (I highly recommend Michael’s book The Jesus Driven Life. In fact, I wrote a review of it here.)
In Kevin’s commentary, he reflects on the question of justice.
I’ve been accused here of anthropomorphizing God, of somehow trying to make God conform to my view of justice. But really, I’m doing exactly the opposite. I’m saying that the traditional doctrine of hell, which deals with evil by either exterminating or excluding permanently people who commit acts of evil – that sounds suspiciously all too human to me. And so really, the question I’m trying to raise is to say, ‘Is there a better way?’ Because I would expect that if the Bible actually contains revelation, it would reveal something that we couldn’t have come up with on our own in our drive to survive and to conquer our enemies.
Many assume that Christian tradition has only taught one view of hell – a view that claims God’s justice requires evil people to be eternally punished in hell. This view is put forth in Hellbound? by mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll. After he explains the “classic view of hell,” he attempts to debunk universalism. He states that universalists believe eventually everyone will be saved. Then he states, “That position has consistently been held as heretical by the church for 2,000 years.” Driscoll is right that universalists believe everyone will eventually be saved, but wrong about the 2,000 years of church history.
People are often surprised to learn that the pre-reformation Christian tradition never took an official stance on hell. In fact, throughout Christian history faithful Christians have interpreted the Bible differently on this topic. For example, let’s take a look at two of the most influential Christian theologians of all time, who both happened to live during the fourth century. On the one hand, there’s St. Augustine (354-430), who is considered by many to be the preeminent Teacher of the Church. Like Driscoll, Augustine thought that scripture made it abundantly clear that some would spend eternity with God, while others would be sent to hell, a “punishment which will be eternal” (City of God XXI, 24). On the other hand, there’s St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-395), who is considered by many to be the “Father of [the early Church] Fathers.” If Gregory was anything, he was an orthodox teacher of the Christian faith. Gregory believed in the universal restitution of all things, including evil men and even evil spirits. He stated that “The annihilation of evil, the restitution of all things, and the final restoration of evil men and evil spirits to the blessedness of union with God, so that He may be ‘all in all,’ embracing all things with a sense of reason.”
Faithful Christians have been arguing about hell from the beginning and Kevin provides all sides of the continuing argument in Hellbound?. But the question is, “Why should we care?”
Part of Kevin’s genius in Hellbound? is how he answers that question. Kevin loops images of 9/11 throughout the movie. Most of our discussions about hell are abstract notions about a judgment that will happen in the distant future. But what if we thought about hell differently? What if hell wasn’t primarily about what happens then, but about what happens now? By providing images of 9/11, Kevin is reminding us of the hells that we humans are creating on earth. Current US military drone attacks are another example of hell on earth. The genocide in Rwanda was an example of hell on earth. The Holocaust was hell on earth. Once we recognize that discussions about hell are primarily about what is happening now, we must ask a theological question: Where do we find God in these hells on earth?
Look at the cross. Jesus, the God-Man, was judged and sentenced by humans to the place of suffering, the place of hell on earth. So, when it comes to hell, where do we find God? Perhaps we could ask the question like this: Where was God on 9/11? Where is God during the US drone attacks? Where was God during the Rwandan genocide? Where was God during the Holocaust? Where was God as the Roman Empire waged peace (Pax Romana) through the violence of the cross?
The answer is always the same: Jesus reveals that God identifies and suffers with the victims of hell on earth. This is why our discussion about hell matters: When our search for justice leads to violence, we send one another to these hells on earth. Jesus reveals that in these violent judgments we send God to hell, too.
But the point is to stop making one another (and God!) go through hell. The only way Christians can stop making others go through hell is by following Jesus, who, while on the cross of hell, prayed for forgiveness instead of vengeance (Luke 23:34) and in the resurrection offered peace instead of seeking revenge (John 20:21).
At the center of the Christian faith is the simple claim that ends Hellbound?. Michael Hardin quotes 1 John 1:5, “This is the message we have heard from him [Jesus] and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” The darkness, the violent judgments, the sending of others to hell – that’s all human. The hope is that we can take responsibility for our own darkness and live a different way. Jesus called that way the Kingdom of God. He insisted that “the Kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). Heaven and hell are realities that we live into now – on earth. Jesus leaves the choice up to us: We can continue to banish one another and God into hells on earth, or we can participate in the Kingdom of God that is already among us on earth.
What choice will you make? Watch Hellbound?, join us for our conversation this Thursday, and decide for yourself.
(Adam Ericksen blogs with Suzanne Ross at the Raven Foundation, where they use the insights of mimetic theory to “Make religion reasonable, violence unthinkable and peace a possibility.” Follow Adam on Twitter.)