Anyone who thinks filmmaking is glamorous should try making a documentary sometime. Better yet, try promoting one.
For a high profile film like The Hobbit, promotion means having Peter Jackson premiere an exclusive clip to hundreds of adoring fans at Comic-Con and then flying back home to New Zealand in his private jet. For a low budget documentary like Hellbound?, it looks more like some poor schmuck (usually me) standing outside a big, black tent at a dusty, blazing hot Christian music festival handing out swag and asking—begging—people to come inside and watch our trailer.
I shouldn’t complain. As we’ve travelled to various festivals across the country, I have met literally thousands of potential viewers—something I doubt Peter Jackson ever gets to do. It’s been a fascinating, educational journey, and I’ve made plenty of new friends. But at times it’s also been frustrating. You’d think talking to Christians about hell would be a slam-dunk. But my experience has shown me it’s anything but.
Here’s a typical exchange that occurs when an unwary soul passes by our booth:
Me: “Hi there. Have you seen the trailer for our new movie?”
Unwary soul: “No, what’s it about?”
Me: “It’s a feature-length documentary that looks at the debate Christians are having about hell.”
Unwary soul (a little warier now): “Debate? What debate?”
Inside I want to scream: Haven’t you heard of Rob Bell? Don’t you know he put hell on the cover of TIME magazine last year? Have you not read Love Wins, one of the several books or some of the thousands of blog posts and news articles written about it?
Instead of screaming, I convey the same information in calm, measured tones, hoping for that glint of recognition in their eyes. But it rarely comes. Instead I get something like, “Well, I don’t know what there is to debate. The Bible is clear. There’s a hell, and you don’t want to end up there.”
At this point I typically clench my teeth like Tom Cruise doing a close-up. Then I say something like, “If the Bible is so clear, why do so many Christians disagree on how we should interpret it?”
Confused look, often followed by, “I don’t know. I just go with the plain reading of the text.”
“Oh really?” I respond. Deep breath. “Let’s assume you believe in the ‘traditional’ view of hell as a place of eternal torment for the wicked. How do people get there—is it a fate we choose or does God choose it for us? If God chooses, how do you reconcile that with his goodness? If we choose, what ultimately qualifies us for hell—wrong beliefs or wrong behavior? If it’s wrong beliefs, what’s the cut-off point? How wrong do our beliefs have to be before we are beyond redemption? And if it’s wrong behavior, at what point have we committed the ‘unpardonable sin’? Finally, if we are so unfortunate as to end up in hell, will the torments we experience be active or passive? That is, does God actively torture us or will our torment be the result of God withdrawing his goodness?”
By now the poor soul is wondering if he or she has unwittingly died and is now in hell.
So as to remove any doubt, I crank up the heat and say, “No matter how you answer these questions, you’re making a judgment call. So even if you want to stick with the ‘traditional view’—which isn’t as traditional as you might think, by the way—you’re not going with the ‘plain reading’ of the text at all. You’re interpreting it—prioritizing some texts over others, taking some things literally, others figuratively and so on.”
If you listen carefully at this point, you can hear weeping and gnashing of teeth. But that never stops me.
“Furthermore, if you’re as avid a Bible reader as you seem to be, surely you realize the Bible contains three sets of texts: those that seem to teach eternal torment, those that appear to teach annihilation and those that suggest all people will ultimately be reconciled to God. So even if you prioritize one set of texts, you still have to interpret the other two in a way that neither negates them nor explains them away. Of course, you’ll also need to explain why someone who disagrees with you would go to hell for rejecting what appears to be an entirely subjective decision.”
Now they realize they’re not only in hell, they’re face-to-face with the devil!
I may be exaggerating things a tiny bit, but experience has shown me that too many Christians have a strong emotional investment in a doctrine of hell they’re unable to articulate, much less defend against rival interpretations. Worse, they’re not even aware such interpretations exist. And then they treat their subjective, ill-informed beliefs about hell as the litmus test for orthodoxy.
For example, another common question I get after someone watches our teaser trailer is, “Interesting. How does it end?”
This also makes me want to scream. Does anyone ask Peter Jackson how The Hobbitends? Of course not! Why watch the film if you already know the ending?
To be a bit more charitable, I realize what people really want to know is, “What’s yourposition on hell?” Of course, I’m far too cagey to give a direct answer. Instead, I say, “We’re taking a critical look at multiple views on hell in order to provoke informed discussion. I’m not interested in telling viewers what to think. My goal is to help them learn how to think about hell and other contentious theological issues.”
That usually satisfies, but I still get my share of suspicious looks, because deep down what they really want to know is, “Are you one of ‘us’ or one of ‘them’?”
At such moments I wish I could abscond in my own private jet. But Peter Jackson I am not—at least not yet.