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.