“HELLBOUND?” takes out the trash

Right off the bat let me confess that what I find irresistibly appealing about Kevin Miller’s new documentary Hellbound? is that I was supposed to be in it. At the time Miller was planning his movie my blog posts on hell were hotter than Satan’s sauna. But, alas, by the time my scheduled shoot came around Miller thought that he already had enough footage for his movie, a shocking miscalculation that I can’t help but believe doomed Hellbound? to be half as good as it might have been otherwise.

Stupid Kevin Miller. What does he know about making documentaries, anyway?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. [Btw: joke. All the above—except the part about me being in this movie, which is true—is a joke, with the funny and the chuckling.]

The bottom line on Hellbound? is that it’s a smorgasbord of astute authors, interesting intellectuals, thoughtful theologians and rabid white trash talking about hell. (The movie’s opening sequence features a clutch of Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church members at the site of 9-11, vociferously screaming, Thank God for September 11! Whoo-hoo! and jauntily waving their trademark colorful signs proclaiming GOD’S WRATH = 9-11 and THANK GOD FOR 9-11 and FIRE FIGHTERS IN HELL and SOLDIERS DIE FOR FAG MARRIAGE and so on. Subsequently throughout Hellbound? we are subjected to watching Kevin try to reason with Shirley Lynn Phelps-Roper, the leader of the protesting Westboronians [that’s Kevin doing that in the picture above], which is like watching a dance instructor trying to teach a Tasmanian devil how to waltz.)

Hellbound? teaches us that generally speaking there are two views of hell: that hell is real and that hell is not. Joining the Westboronians in defending the reality of hell are the likes of bloggers Kevin DeYoung and Justin Taylor, each of whom at the time of the movie’s filming were making online waves by roundly criticizing Rob Bell’s then-just-released sensation Love Wins, and, most notably, the poster boy for the Christ Was a Manly-Man movement, Mark Driscoll, the only Christian in the world scarier than Shirley Lynn Phelps-Roper.

Making the case for hell not being real are a wide array of thoughtful and articulate people, the stand-outs of which include the brilliant and infectiously effervescent Greg Boyd, the ubiquitous Brian McLaren, Robin Parry, the charming chap who in some real ways steals the movie, and to my mind most especially the bracingly articulate Frank Schaeffer, whom I think delivers one of this movie’s key money quotes:

Evangelicalism is to America what the Pharisees were in ancient Israel. These guys wreak vengeance on the people who bring the good news of a loving God who cares less about theology than the content of your character. Because in essence that message puts the gatekeepers out of a job.

Adding flavor to the nay-sayers of hell are members of heavy/death/black/ulto-destructo metal bands such as Gwar, Mayhem, Deicide, and Morbid Angel, fellows who, come Halloween, must greatly enjoy dressing up as insurance salesmen and high school math teachers. (Reasoning against hell is also Chad Holtz, who since the filming of the movie has changed his mind on the matter, and now believes in hell again. Awwwkward!)

Hellbound? is a vitally important movie. More Christians than you can shake a trident at are convinced that to believe in a literal hell is more Christian than to not. They believe that hell as a place of eternal torment is clearly biblical, and something in which Christians have always believed. But that is not the case. They are 100% entirely wrong about that.

As the experts interviewed in Hellbound? make so abundantly clear, there is equal scriptural support for the three radically differing Christian models of hell, which are known as Eternal Torment,  Annihilationism, and Universalism.

The theory of Eternal Torment posits that upon death Christians go to heaven, and all non-Christians go to hell.

Annihilationism teaches that upon dying lucky Christians go to heaven, while everyone else is instantly vaporized into nothingness.

Universalism teaches that after death literally everyone is eventually reconciled, redeemed, and ushered into heaven.

Here is a screen-save from Hellbound? showing the texts from the Bible that have traditionally been used to support each of those theories on hell:


At different times in history each of these theories of hell has enjoyed prominence over the other two. Today, of course, the theory of Eternal Damnation reigns supreme.

Isn’t it interesting that the theory of Eternal Damnation is also the theory that, by far, lends itself to making the most money? Why? Because it’s the only one that engenders profound fear of the afterlife. If you want people to pay money to support your institution, you can’t beat building that institution upon the belief that not supporting it condemns people to eternal torture.


If you are a Christian who harbors the idea that a literal hell is incompatible with an all-loving and all-powerful God, and would like ironclad evidence and testimony from a wide variety of sources and experts in support of that idea, then you must see Hellbound?. You will come away from the movie knowing two things: that your instincts about hell are not just morally but biblically right, and that the day is dawning when more Christians than not will agree with you.


[UPDATE: Hellbound? is now available for streaming on Netflix.]

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Looking forward to it!

  • Where can I watch this film?

  • charles

    with all the suffering around us, I almost have to agree that hell is indeed real, and we are living it right now.

    I would love to see the apologetic those folks might have to say about that….

    I think they need a serious dosage of Albert Schweitzer vs Josh McDowell….

  • FishFinger

    The movie’s website seems to be marketing it differently then you. The creator claims to be neutral on the topic, wanting to fairly examine all of the views and the reasons why people hold so firmly to one or the other.

    I wish I could see it, but it doesn’t seem to be screened anywhere on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Oh well.

  • Please can you make the book for the Nook?

  • jeannie

    Guess I’ll have to wait until it comes on Netflix or something.

  • The line about the dance instructor and the shark…comedy gold. I was brought up being

    taught hell #2, then attended churches that liked hell #1. I’m now in #3 camp. I think God loving the world means he literally wants all of us to “make it” whatever or wherever that is, but its better than what we got now.

  • Jill H

    Looking forward to seeing it. Intriguing review, John.

    If I ever find a valid reason to agree with hellfire doctrine, I’ll be sure get really worried about my future prospects.

  • Happy you reviewed it; sorry you weren’t in it. BTW, your review’s money quote was the following description: “most notably the poster boy for the Christ Had Balls Like Boulders movement, Mark Driscoll, the only Christian in the world scarier than Shirley Lynn Phelps-Roper.” Call me a bad Christian or whatever for thinking it but he gives me hives.

  • My husband and I saw “Hellbound?” on Saturday night and were privileged to participate in a Q&A sesson with Kevin Miller along with Sharon Baker and Jaime Clark-Soles, who are featured in the documentary. It was a fair and thought provoking film. IF it at least results in getting people to allow themselves to ask questions about Hell, then it will have succeeded. A person’s visceral reaction to the mere discussion that there may not be a Hell ( or if there is a Hell, it may be redemptive, not retributive) often says a lot about them.

  • Hi, Carol. Thanks for asking. I think maybe you missed where, in the opening of this post, I do mention/link to the Nook edition of Hell NO! It’s here:


  • Elizabeth

    Yes, my main gripe with John is the lack of neutrality in his marketing. http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=troll

  • jo

    my question would be for those in the Universalism category – what happens to the people that don’t want to be redeemed? Does this assume that every single person will at some point want to be redeemed? I’d love to believe that everyone will but I’m not 100% sure that is the case, people can be quite stubborn, I’d imagine that their are some that purposefully choose to be left out. And, if not everyone chooses to be redeemed, what happens to them?


  • I would think it depends on what one considers redemption to be. It would also depend on god’s plan for thst individual. As non of us are divine, I’ll just leave it to the one far better qualified thn us earthbound folk

  • Elizabeth

    You and me both, chica. Did you see my Facebook share today? Tons of linkage on the current Harvard controversy about whether Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife. I’m so writing a blog post on whores.

  • Elizabeth

    I had brief forays into Universalism. Giving all religious traditions equal weight preserved the intellectual rigor of none. We may as well have been standing around a campfire singing Kumbaya. I can’t believe that God would send someone to heaven (or hell, if you believe in that sort of thing) if they didn’t want to go, though.

  • I don’t know that can say I am totally a universalist but I lean that way so I will take a stab at this. There are 2 issues with the question. The first issue is that of the free will argument, that somehow our free will will out trump the perfect will of The Father. The second issue can be stated for all of the camps. We cannot possibly know the true heart longings of every single person no matter how stubborn they might seem.

    Case in point, me. I was a pretty stubborn angry agnostic for 10 years who had no need of God because all I could see is how God failed and how believing in him was a waste of time. Now, and for over 2 years, I’m a Christian, I’m active in my church, I write extensively on the subject. Deep down even in my most angry times I was desperately yearning for the father heart of God. Once I figure that out I was able to see my way back. This also seems to show, at least in the way I interpret it, how God’s perfect will trumps mine. God is a relentless lover who will chase after us until we give up the fight. Is it possible that some will always resist? I suppose so but I think the important thing is the door will always be open and God, like the father in the Prodigal Son, is always waiting to embrace even his most wayward children.

  • Jill H

    Mike, lovelovelove this.

  • jo

    Mike – that was very beautifully written! I was half scared to toss the question out there because I figured I’d be eaten alive! 🙂 Thanks for the kind responses thus far.

    Elizabeth – my mention of “redemption” was from John Shore’s post where it appeared to me that he was saying that there is a belief that at some point everyone will be redeemed. I hadn’t heard that before and was curious. I just really wonder about those who just don’t want to be redeemed. I have a friend who was a christian but through much pain has let that go and would fall in the category as “not wanting redemption” though I completely agree with Mike, I feel deep down that she longs for God but the hurt is too much at this time. My curiosity was just that, does this belief that Love Wins mean that people don’t have the option for anything other than Love Winning? If not, what happens? I’ve no agenda one way or the other, just an honest question. Thanks for the peaceful responses.

  • jo

    Oops, I addressed Elizabeth when I meant sdparris – sorry about that!

  • David W. Reynolds

    “God is a relentless lover”. That must be the most perfect quote of the week, and it’s only Monday.

  • “Evangelicalism is to America what the Pharisees were in ancient Israel..”

    This seems an unfair characterization to me. Sure, there is a vocal stream of American evangelicalism that fits this description, but if one embraces a wider and more irenic definition of evangelical, then Schaeffer’s statement certainly doesn’t hold true. For example, one of the most prominent universalists today is Robin Parry, also known as the “Evangelical Universalist.”

    As one who self-identifies as evangelical and recognizes that annihilationism and universalism are both tenable alternatives to ECT, it saddens me to read/hear the sort of divisive polemic that Schaeffer is engaging in.

  • Jill H

    No, I did not! Apparently I’m a slacker 😉 I’ve been dying to read more though…

    And BTW, whores are THE best religious blog subject of all time. Can’t wait…

  • Within the context of the full quote it’s clear that Shaeffer is talking about conservative/right-wing evangelism. (But I really should go make that clear in the post: thanks.)

  • Elizabeth

    No problem, Jo. sdparris could answer your questions more eloquently. I haven’t read Love Wins. I know many people who were badly hurt by their childhood Christian upbringings. My modus operandi is to be honest about my own flaws and sins and completely accept them at whatever stage of the spiritual journey they’re in. Walk the Christian walk, and let God do the work of converting them. It’s much more important they trust you as a friend.

  • Jill H

    And Jo, while Elizabeth’s got it in one, I feel the urge (and risk the heresy) to add that while I do believe we’re all made of the same basic elements–hard-wired to give and accept love, to have a spiritual aspect to our lives, etc–we may not all get there through the same channels.

    I’m hard pressed to believe that the human conceptualization of God, salvation, redemption, and the like are the only things God has up s/his sleeve. Part of the imperfection of humanity is the tunnel vision through which we view S/Him.

    We’re looking into the ocean with a 17th century telescope and hoping to catch all the mysteries hidden below.

  • I’ve come to similar conclusions Jill. I think of the psalmist who admitted that God and all done by God were obviously beyond our grasp. All we can do is wonder, which can be so beautiful.

    However when we decide to stop the art of wonder at the works of God and try to determine exactly what has been going on is where we often have problems….and of course limit ourselves to the seeing the potential God just may have going

  • I have been giving a lot of serious thought to the possibility that this existence is indeed purgatory in the literal sense of the word.

  • Jill H

    This, exactly.

  • Elizabeth

    Oh, you want to raise the heresy bar, do you? Sometimes I don’t even believe Jesus was created incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and made man—the Nicene Creed. I settle for believing in the Son of God as a metaphor. In the middle of a bad night, I accept the English translation of John 1:1, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God,” as literally true. I read and trust my omnipotent God is capable of writing a book.

  • Ooooo! Heresy bar raising! I like how you think.

  • But if you accept that that means a post-death opportunity for redemption, we’re talking about people with now perfect knowledge of God’s nature and plans, and no mental illnes, and a clear choice between utopia and endless torture/annihilation. At that point, how much of a bastard would God have to be for someone to stand on principle and choose to reject redemption? I figure that bastard bar is only reached by sending people to eternal torture, so, in that case, universalism solves its own problem.

  • There are times when a genuine attempt to view all sides equally results in a portrayal where one view seems clearly superior to the others. Because they aren’t equal. There isn’t necessarily a discrepency between the film’s marketing and John’s review.

  • Jill H

    This is where it is such a head trip to never have been indoctrinated by mainline Christian beliefs. I genuinely don’t even know the Nicene Creed. Heard of it. I’ve studied the Book inside and out but not that apparently. I must be a heretic… !

    And I’m always thinking that my God is capable of SO much more than I am consciously prepared to understand today. Tomorrow… might be different. 😉

  • Jill H

    This wouldn’t shock me, in fact, it could be validating.

  • font

    hell is there according to God’s word. and hell bound, well John, you are the pied piper. you aren’t a liberal Christian you are a cult leader. Every important essential Christian doctrine you deny.

  • Hell is there according to the way that you are reading God’s word. It’s not necessarily how you choose to read it Font as there are many factors that go into your interpretation but it’s not necessarily essential doctrine either. Also belief in hell isn’t essential to salvation, only faith in Jesus is required for that so even if hell is real it would be wrong to assume that John, or anyone else for that matter is heading there.

  • Followers: Sense your mission. Execute.

    bwhahahahahahahahahahahahahah …

  • Christine I think that there are different ways of viewing redemption, i.e. what are we being redeemed from? Many, myself included, see that we’re not being saved from a future hell, we’re being saved from the brokenness within ourselves and which overruns this present world. Thus the choice isn’t so much between heaven and hell but whether someone wants to be restored or if one feels that they don’t need to be fixed. There is a great deal of pride at stake here so many may choose brokenness over redemption, at least for awhile.

  • Elizabeth

    Do we get to vote on the Kool-Aid flavor? Tropical punch.

  • Diana A.


  • It’s fine for you to joke about having such choices, Elizabeth. But don’t too often make such jests, lest it lead you, even for a moment, to think how nice it would be if you did, in fact, have any such personal choices to make here in our collective.

  • Elizabeth

    Praise Jesus. I’ve been trying to jettison my free will forever. Strawberry Kiwi it is. [presses submit without thinking it’s suggestive]

  • Jill H

    If you’re the pied piper, are we rats?

    And are you wearing fancy man tights? ME-ow!

  • Elizabeth

    It’s named for the first ecumenical council in Nicaea. If you were raised Anglican, Episcopalian, Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, or Protestant, you can recite it in your sleep. And probably have.

  • Christy

    But only mainline Protestant, not Evangelical.

  • Lymis

    What is it with extremist Christians and punctuation, grammar, and spelling?

    Yoda did better than this, and he was a Muppet.

  • Christy

    Just saw our fill of man-tights and (cough) cod pieces at our local Renaissance Festival. Yowzers.

  • Lymis

    “Does this assume that every single person will at some point want to be redeemed?”

    In all seriousness, what did you think the point of the parable of the Prodigal Son was. Eat more beef?

    Even if there is a literal hell, nobody and nothing can exist in any form without a connection to God, or else things could exist without God. And if someone is connected to God, the possibility of redemption exists. With all eternity to work with, how could there not be?

    Can you possibly be seriously considering the possibility that there exists a literal hell of eternal torment and there could possibly be someone who wouldn’t eventually see turning to God as a better choice?

  • Elizabeth

    Ms. Christy: yes. Some other Protestant denominations only say it on special occasions.

  • Lymis!!

  • Jill H

    Funny enough, me too! lol

  • Jill H

    YEAH Chris! Best Mulder avatar ever!

  • Christy

    In my evolution from far right to whatever I am now I made a pit stop with the Presbyterian Church USA who used the version from 381. This is the first place I heard the Nicene Creed after the rest of my life spent with the Baptists and a short stint in military non-denominational chapels. I omitted to say the part about the “one holy catholic and apostolic Church” – even after the senior pastor’s explanation of what that did and did not mean – for quite sometime as this was a stumbling block I was still working through. The evangelical denominations with which I am familiar (admittedly not all of them) do not repeat the Nicene Creed (even on special occasions) for, in my personal experience, they are loathe to do anything remotely bearing even the whiff of Catholicism. In my circumstance, these churches had written their own belief statements and, on occasion, those were made known to the congregation.

  • Drew Meyer

    Being raised fundamentalist, the question of hell was settled for me. I was “priveledged” to see both the “distant thunder” series of films and also “The Burnhing Hell” as a young child. They did their job: they scared the hell out of me and I ran for the altar.

    Now I just don’t know…..there are so many scriptures which seem to say one thing or the other. So I just say that I am not willing to condemn anyone to the eternal toaster, that is God’s job. As for those I care about, I rest in the fact that God has perfect love and justice-if there is any way that He/She/It can reconcile the two for someone-it will be done. I would just like to be in heaven right away, the thought of soul sleep or other unconscious states leaves me cold. (No pun intended.)

  • Lymis

    Followers, John? Really? Please.

    It’s minions.

  • Lymis

    There’s some sort of joke in here about Limbo and raising and lowering the heresy bar, but I haven’t had my coffee yet.

  • Jill H

    🙂 !

  • It’s so frustrating (though understandable) that the movie has such a limited release. I hope it makes it to DVD/Netflix soon!

  • Christy

    There’s a “Demand the Movie” button on the header of the film’s homepage where you can request it or show interest based on zip code.

  • Ah, cool. I demanded it…but living in a small town in the middle of nowhere means I’m just going to have to be patient.

  • Christy

    It seems an interesting thing a church or collective of churches might sponsor and then integrate into a discussion or adult education program.

  • chera

    “Rabid white trash talking about hell”


  • I’ve been told the Phelps family was unhappy with that comment once they found someone to read it to them.

  • Jill H


  • Larry

    I think Yoda was a Jedi.

    I REALLY appreciate that fatal three way screen shot of scriptural support for the three views on hell….

    and yet your last paragraph concluded by alluding that there is only one biblical view of hell is right…I think some may lose the connection between those two pieces.

  • textjunkie

    I always like C.S. Lewis’ views in The Great Divorce, though I lean more toward universalism as I get older.

  • Bekah

    I’ve wondered if the widely accepted understanding of John 14:6 as proof that only one expression of faith leads to salvation is flawed. What if Jesus is the only way to God because he MADE the only way? What if a Muslim who falls on his knees, weeps in repentance, and begs Allah (“God”) for forgiveness is offered that forgiveness because Jesus’ death on the cross made it possible? Granted, that doesn’t really jive with Matthew 7:13-14 (few find the narrow gate), but then, I can’t reconcile that passage with 2 Peter 3:9 or 1 Timothy 2:4 (God wants everyone to be saved). It just seems silly to think that repentance rests on the speaking of a name that half the world has never heard.

  • Jill H

    Right Bekah, I feel similarly on John 14:6. As far as Mt. 7, I find the context of Jesus’ words compelling. Verse 11 about how much more the Father will give to those who ask, and of course 12: do unto others. It tells me about a God of Love more than of a God of Labels. To me, it becomes a question of, ‘is Love in the big sense still Love in another language, another religion?’ Again, if He’s loving us all big time, I can’t imagine that matters. Human beings make divisions matter, but do they to God?

  • Kate

    One of my former vicars told me that the most important word in the Nicene Creed is the first one: “We”. The Creed is a statement of what we, as the community of Christ, the Church throughout time and space, believes. It is OK for me, or for you or anyone else, as an individual to have issues with any of the statements made therein. We all struggle to believe different things, but we stand together and affirm that this is the faith of the Church.

  • Kate

    Jo, I still turn to C. S. Lewis’ book, “The Last Battle” (final book in the Narnia series) for a simple / simplistic explanation of free will and redemption. There are those who end up in Aslan’s Country, but who still choose to believe that they are in the small, dark stable. They are so caught up with their own narrow, self-serving view of the world that they cannot see what is in front of them. It may be that there will be those who, when they arrive on the other side of the doorway that is death, will stubbornly refuse to fully comprehend where they are. But as a Universalist, I do believe we will all end up in the same place, with the rest of eternity for the love of God to work on us, to open our eyes and our hearts…

  • Here’s a thing I made about John 14:6

  • Jill H

    How could I forget so soon! Most excellent.

    …and ya gotta love the moose.

  • Michelle M

    I had the pleasure of seeing this film last night. It was intensely thoughtful and extremely well made. I hope that The History Channel or SOMEBODY picks it up for national airplay! I already knew that I had left literalism behind, and this movie helped solidify that I am a redemptive universalist. I even dragged my 17 year old daughter along, and she was riveted.

    Also, it was not lost on me that the people who hold fast to literalism, as a whole, are rude, controlling, and condescending. I’ve noticed in my own life and it was clear in the

    movie. Not everyone is as extreme as Westboro.

  • Michelle M

    (Sorry, trying to type on my Nook) . . . Of course, not every literalist is like this. I’ve also come to believe that the people of Westboro are mentally ill. I’m not saying that as a joke; I really think they are a group of untreated people. Their narcissism and twisted thinking are on par with the Taliban.

  • One thing I notice on the image which compares the three theories is that the bulk of the Torment and Annihilation passages come from the gospels which were written much later than the letters.

    While, almost half the universalist passages come from the letters of Paul which were written in the 50’s just 20 years after the Resurrection.

    The Eternal Torment is mainly found in the Gospel of Matthew which was written in the 80’s.

    And Annihilationism is found mostly in the gospel of John which was written in the 90’s.

    So my point…I wonder as the church began to grow and the freedom of the “Kingdom of God” began to spread…did the idea of annihilationism and eternal torment become more popular because the authorities wanted more control over the burgeoning church?

  • I think my dad, Ole Olesen, who also happens to be a pastor, would be a WONDERFUL clergy person to include. If you have questions about his point of view feel free to contact him. Or if he’s not readily replying via facebook feel free to contact me.

  • Yes indeed, I would love to participate – if I lived anywhere close to the screening. Mission Bay unfortunately, is a long way from northern Idaho. Are you coming to Lewiston? Moscow? Pullman, WA?

  • Hi Heather and Ole. I’m not sure where all HELLBOUND has been booked. I do know that sort of information is being updated as warranted at the site below. http://www.hellboundthemovie.com/