I first heard about the movie “Hellbound?” (coming out this fall) at Wild Goose Festival. They were offering an advance screening of the movie, and although I was just passing by the tent at the time, the subject matter stopped me where I was. A thoughtful, well-researched, accessible discussion about the history, purpose and prospects of hell in Christian theology?
The film opens with reflections on September 11th, including a ten-year anniversary memorial event at the site. And as would be expected, the infamous picketers from Westboro Baptist Church were there, complete with signs bearing slogans like “Thank God for 9/11” an, of course, “God Hates Fags.” The movie progresses to, let’s say, more educated points of view, focusing more on the front end on those who advocate for a real hell that is populated with innumerable souls experiencing eternal conscious torment.
But then the movie breaks off from the oft-quoted pro-hell camp and considers the social and historical backdrop for hell, as well as extensive screen time for the doubters and skeptics about the reality of such a place. Folks offering counters to the “traditional” evangelical view of hell include Brian McLaren, Frank Schaeffer and an Eastern Orthodox priest, all offering fascinating tidbits meant to expand our understanding of where this modern-day understanding of hell even came from, let alone whether we claim a God who would send people there.
A few of the more compelling points I took away from the movie:
- There are three broad camps when it comes to hell. There are the Universalists (everyone will be saved in the end), the Annihilationists (only some will be saved; the rest will cease to exist after death) and “Eternal Torment” adherents (only some will be saved; the rest suffer eternally and consciously in hell). The film lists an equal number of scriptures used to support all three views, which then sets up Frank Schaeffer to drive home a great point. If we can use the Bible to support multiple views, he says, then we can’t simply rely on what it says for an ultimate answer. Instead, we have to look at the entirety of Judeo-Christian history, including – but not limited to – our ongoing relationship with scripture, and derive from that broader context what we believe to be true.
- I was intrigued to learn that Gregory of Nyssa, the final “editor” of the Nicene Creed (which is largely the basis from which modern evangelical theology comes) was not a personal advocate for the Eternal Torment model. For Gregory, according to the movie, the prospect of a radically merciful God left open the possibility that both necessary judgment and ultimate, universal reconciliation with God might coexist.
- I also appreciated that the movie points folks to Origen for a more in-depth study of the roots of Christian Universalism, and to St. Augustine for a better understanding of selective or conditional salvation.
- It surprised me to learn that both Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism (again, according to this film), leave space for the possibility of universal salvation. It didn’t go so far as to try and pigeonhole each Christian denomination’s doctrine (or lack of) on hell, but it did suggest that those wrestling with the idea of universalism were not as alone as they might think.
- Most chilling of all for me was an idea offered by Mark Driscoll, who is largely considered to be one of the most prominent voices in evangelical Christianity today. He not only advocates for the concept of eternal torment and real, conscious suffering for the unsaved; he believes that some people are born as God’s chosen, bound for salvation as God’s beloved elect. As for those not favored by God? Well, they’re just out of luck, period.
There were a few clear weaknesses in the film, none of which were so profound as to compromise its overall value. But I was disappointed that nearly everyone interviewed was a white male. One of the only women appearing on screen with a speaking part was a representative of Westboro Baptist; hardly a fair cross-section. Also, there was a noticeable absence of voices along the lines of John Caputo and Peter Rollins, who are exploring along the edges of postmodern Christianity, as well as scholars like Brandon Scott, Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan who are committed to a study of the “historical Jesus.” Most speakers expressed what I would consider a “higher Christology,” and refer to God n all cases as a “He.”
On the whole, “Hellbound?” is a thoughtful, important look at a debate that has boiled over following the publication of Rob Bell’s book, “Love Wins,” also referenced throughout the film. I’d venture to say that the creators of the movie lean toward Universalism themselves, given the face time afforded those of this view, but voices from across the spectrum certainly have their say as well.
The only “gotcha” bit of journalism came toward the end, when writer/director, producer Kevin Miller is debating with the Westboro Baptist folks about how God can have both “perfect love” as they claimed, which is far beyond the human capacity to love, while also pre-ordaining that some people were doomed to hell from birth.
“How many children do you have?” Miller asks one man from the Westboro church.
“Four,” the man replies.
“And how many of them do you love?” says Miller. His follow-up is met with awkward silence, which is rare with a Westboro spokesperson. He saw the writing on the wall, as it were, and knew better than to try and actually answer the question. But left unsaid here is the thrust of the movie that is asserted by several others throughout:
Why would a Creator give life to something, bound both to temporal sin and to eternal suffering for that temporal sin? Can such a God be considered loving while also leaving those beloved to suffer conscious torment forever? Ot has hell become the church’s ultimate sales pitch, the trump card that lends it authority over its faithful, without which it would be rendered largely impotent in its efforts to coerce people into adherence to its doctrine?
Meanwhile, the politics of hell and the debate that surrounds it, rages on.
Fore more about the movie, and to see a promotional trailer, visit: www.hellboundthemovie.com