Hell is far from an abstract theological discussion

A couple of years ago you would have had a hard time convincing me to head out to the theater to watch a documentary featuring a number of Muslim leaders debating the finer points of Islamic theology. It’s not that I don’t care about Islam or that I wouldn’t find it interesting. It’s just that I’m not a Muslim. It’s hard enough keeping track of Christianity’s many in-house disputes, never mind those going on in other religions. So while I would appreciate the educational opportunity, I’d have a difficult time seeing it as anything more than an abstract theological discussion. How could it possibly be relevant to my life?

These days I see things quite differently. I may not be a Muslim, but I live in a world where Muslims make up 1/6 of the world’s population. And as we are currently witnessing in Libya, Egypt, Sudan and elsewhere, what Muslims believe is hardly an abstract or irrelevant phenomenon. The consequences of their beliefs are all too real. In fact, if we non-Muslims had known better, the violence we are seeing right now—not to mention over the last few decades or centuries—could have largely been avoided. Lives are literally being lost as a direct result of our ignorance.

Which brings me to my upcoming movie Hellbound?, a feature-length documentary that looks at the debate Christians are having about hell. At first glance, I’m sure it’s quite easy for many people—including many Christians—to write off the film the same way I would have written off the hypothetical Muslim documentary two years ago. If you’re not on the front lines of this fight, which is occurring mainly amongst Protestant evangelicals, how could it possibly be relevant to you?

The answer to that question is quite simple: If you live in this world, you live alongside millions of evangelical Christians who believe that one day their God will dispatch everyone who doesn’t share their beliefs to a place of eternal, fiery torment. Think about that for a moment.

As individuals, these people do not normally resemble the wrathful, violent God in which they believe. Paradoxically, the majority of them are quite kind, loving and generous. I should know; I became a Christian largely because of the love shown to me by such folks when I was a child. I spent decades living within that subculture, and many of my current friends would self-identify as evangelicals. But as Brian McLaren says in his excellent new book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?, the standard evangelical approach to non-Christians is clear: “be nice to them when necessary in order to convert them to Christianity; otherwise see them as spiritual competitors and potential enemies.”

Add to this spiritual competitiveness the fact that they represent some of the wealthiest and most politically powerful people in the nation. Their money, their votes and their theology play a key role in shaping America’s policies both at home and abroad. Like the NRA, they are such a powerful group that anyone running for office must genuflect before them if they are to have any hope of survival. Whether you realize it or not, these people and their beliefs about hell, the Second Coming of Christ and so on are having a huge effect on your life. So I don’t think it’s a stretch to say you ignore them—and their theological disputes—at your peril.

The good news is; the “Infernalists,” as I call those who believe in a hell of eternal torment, aren’t the only game in town—nor have they ever been. As I document in my film, a growing number of Christians from across the theological spectrum are waking up to the excesses of their hell-bound brethren and re-discovering streams within their tradition that lead to an entirely different view of God and our post-mortem fate. They realize that a God who commands us to love our enemies but who then promises to vanquish his enemies in hell isn’t merely a paradox; it’s an outright contradiction. And as A. W. Tozer (who, ironically, was himself an Infernalist) observed, the consequences of this view are far from abstract:

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God…

We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God. This is true not only of the individual Christian, but of the company of Christians that composes the Church. Always the most revealing thing about the Church is her idea of God.

Not surprisingly, the Infernalists portray those who challenge their beliefs as heretics. Worse, they’ve convinced their followers that to reject the fire and brimstone view of hell is to reject Christianity. However, more and more Christians are starting to conclude that rejecting such a view of hell—and the violence that goes along with worshiping a wrathful God—isn’t to reject Christianity at all. In fact, it may be the only way to truly embrace the teachings of Christ. More importantly, it might just save the world.

About Kevin Miller

Kevin Miller is an award-winning screenwriter, director and producer who has applied his craft to numerous documentaries, feature films and shorts. Recent projects include "The Chicken Manure Incident," "Hellbound?," "Drop Gun," "No Saints for Sinners," "spOILed," "Sex+Money," "With God On Our Side," "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," "After..." and the upcoming biopic "The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton." In addition to his work in film, Kevin has written, co-written and edited over 45 books. He lives in Kimberley, BC, Canada with his wife and four children.

  • http://nopartyline.blogspot.com Brian Meadows

    Throwing out such a view and the vicious tribal idol giving rise to it WILL save both Christianity and the world as well!!

    • Toryshane

      You do a greater injustice than the “infernalists”, a term I completely agree with. They condemn a person to torment after death. Your words, and the words of so many others, words like vicious tribal idol to describe GOD does little more than torment the living.

      I can promise you that if you want the world to be a better place, if you want Evangelicals to stop being so focused on Hell fire then perhaps you should do less to feed their flames.

  • Tanya

    Great point, will the film be coming to San Francisco at any point?

    • Kevin Miller

      Yes. We are working on it!

  • Rosaleee

    Jesus was a Jew. In fact, his gadding about the countryside as an itinerant teacher was a very common practice for a certain sector of lay rabbis unattached to temples.

    Judaism itself has very little to say about the afterlife, and instead focuses on life “in this world,” in the present moment.

    (For more on this, see: http://www.religionfacts.com/judaism/beliefs/afterlife.htm )

    Because he was a Jew and drew upon rabbinical teachings for his message, it is highly unlikely that, despite the Gospel quotes attributed to him on hell, Jesus had anything whatever to say on the subject of hell.

    Indeed, based on studies of countless original texts and of texts that were excluded from the Bible, some theologians have argued that Jesus’ never claimed to be the Messiah nor that belief in him as such was the “One Way” to salvation from hell. Rather, they argue that that message was tacked on by the early church leaders as a way of persuading followers to associate themselves with the so-called “one true church” (AKA what was developing into the Catholic hierarchy).

    The vast majority of Jesus’s teachings were about love and compassion toward everyone, including one’s enemies. If Jesus advised mere mortals to “love your enemies,” how could God do anything less?

  • gibbin

    that said, christ spoke more about hell than anyone else in the bible… it is a very real place.

    • Kevin Miller

      Actually, he talked about Gehenna, not our modern conception of hell.

      • John

        Or a place where both body and soul are destroyed. Better to enter the kingdom with one eye than wit two eyes enter Gehenna. Revelation talks of a lake of fire. How is this different than the modern concept of hell?

        • Frank

          It isn’t! People are just trying to rewrite scripture and form a different religion.

          • Toryshane

            It is all semantics. Spending an eternity in Hell being burnt alive is not that different from spending ten thousand years in Hell having your sin burned away. The greatest torment of Hell was never the flames anyway. This was the way to get a persons attention because we all know that flames hurt. The real torment was the separation from GOD.

          • Joe

            No Frank, it might mean that do not have nor should you take everything literally in the bible, and no, it is not a perfect document.
            However, even if you have to take it literally, there is still no proof of a place of unending torment for all “lost” souls.
            The very concept of ECT is offensive, obscene, absurd, and hateful X infinity. Oh, and God is love too?

        • D

          Destroyed, not tortured for eternity. As for the lake of fire, Death and Hades (often translated as Hell) are thrown into the lake of fire, it’s referred to as the ‘second death’, which doesn’t sound like eternal punishment, and nowhere does it say the people thrown in are left there forever (never mind forever and ever) except those who take the mark of the beast*. You’d think, given that it’s specified Satan and his allies will be punished day and night forever and ever, the same would be specified for the people thrown in.

          You might also want to consider the Biblical references to cleansing fire, holy fire, being salted as fire, God and the Holy Spirit as fire (particularly considering the allegorical and metaphorical content of Revelation), and the fire that destroys, not the fire that tortures for eternity. Most Scriptures point to Annihilationism, not Infernalism, and there are more that point to Universalism than Infernalism, ironically considering that the loudest proponents of Infernalism are generally hardcore Biblical literalists.

          *There are Universalist explanations of this verse, some that say only the smoke lasts forever, not the torment, and some that say ‘forever and ever’ has been translated wrongly.

    • petethexman

      Um, did you read the last few paragraphs??? How attributions about hell were appended to Jesus, even though he likely didn’t say them???

  • gibbin

    who ever wrote revelation mentioned it as well…” likely didn’t say them”…some think he didn’t say the great commission as well—or the lady caught in adultery. if the holy ghost wrote revelation then SOMEONE mentioned hell a few times… the greek suggests that the smoke goes for ever and ever, but not forever and ever AND ever.. will all the dross simply burn away til even satan is restored at the end? i hope so. but when the books are opened and all the dead judged, there is a heaven and a hell, right? and then hell herself is cast into the lake-along with death and all that… “some theologians have argued that Jesus’ never claimed to be the Messiah nor that belief in him as such was the “One Way” to salvation from hell. ” some theologians also argue that he was just a good teacher….but others’ll tell you, he is the word made flesh— maybe best to ask HIM about hell and such…

  • Keith Bender

    Wouldn’t that One Eye be a directive regarding seeking the Kingdom of Heaven which is inside of us? The Pineal Gland type of thing activated by meditation. Didn’t Jesus say something about being about the Spirit and not the Letter? Does “thou shalt not kill” only apply to those we like and are like us? Why does the Bible mention the Old Testament as Allegorical and that Jesus talked in Parables on purpose because he stated some don’t hear nor see because they are not ready to. Why is the story of Jesus similar to other Born of a Virgin Teachings? Why do we condone Killing ? Yet claim to be a follower of Him? Literal meanings Literally Kill. Thank you for what you have chosen to say. The act of claiming to be a Christian yet not follow what he teaches sure sounds like hypocritical self serving quasi crowd control for long term employment. Search for the KINGDOM within First….. . Why did it take me 56 years to hear those words and see for myself that the process of meditation is just as plausible an understanding as those who DIVIDE and SEPARATE in JUDGMENT which is nearly an exact No No example of what SIN means back when SIN was a God or Lord of WISDOM for ABRAHAM ?

  • Howard Gladman

    What an utter exercise in futility.

  • Rick White

    Jesus never existed, there simply is no evidence. but it is hard to talk to Christians about the condition of the world if one is not superstitious. example; you get a piece of mail stating you owe the state of new york $123 for driving through ‘easypass’ toll booth but the state didn’t provide proof, you’d fight it it all the way to scotus if you could afford it. why, because there is no evidence that it occurred. but for religion, you say nothing. and christians kill folk for not believing, which is the only true evidence for it, which is groundless. listen, the planet is melting and it’s melting because of how we do business, and the church is part of that business. the truth of the matter is nothing has ever been broken as proof of anything ever, in all of human history. scaring someone into believing wont work, never has. it is things like this that have led us to a melting planet. and now you have many ‘believers’ who want to deregulate banks even further! sad

    • D

      Really? Josephus. There are plenty of others as well. Surely the fact that a religion formed based on this man shows that logically, he had to have existed. You think someone would just make up a man then die defending their belief in said imaginary man? The question of whether he was divine or human, and whether he still exists in any form now is debatable, the fact that he existed isn’t.

    • Toryshane

      To use your own analogy. If you got a ticket for $123 for a traffic infraction then there is evidence that it occurred. The evidence may be wrong, or it may be fabricated or misinterpreted.

      There is less historical evidence to support that existence of my Great, Great, Great, grandfather. he had no birth certificate, left behind no writings, interacted primarily with his own family and immediate community, none of whom left behind writings. There are no photographs because photography did not exist and yet I do exist and my existence is more than sufficient evidence to support his existence.

      I could do one better. My cousin was adopted as a refugee when she was an infant. She had no name, no record of her existing and yet I see her every year at Christmas. A thousand years from today the person she was when she was born will have no historical evidence to support her existence, She is a daughter that will have been erased from history. Only the evidence of who she was when someone found her and adopted her will confirm her existence. I know that she exists and because I know that she exists I know that her parents unknown with no evidence to support them, also exist or existed at some point in time.