Hellbound? September 21, 2012

I am grateful to Patheos for the privilege of viewing a screening of the new movie Hellbound? before its official opening. This movie is a powerful exploration of the doctrine of hell from a Christian perspective that does one basic thing that all Christians ought to do, namely not simply assume that the view which is articulated most bluntly by Westboro Baptist Church is the right one.

The movie in fact begins with conversations with members of Westboro Baptist Church – seen holding their signs and singing their songs, as we are all familiar with, but also heard articulating their viewpoint in their own words. The movie is worth watching for that alone – for the insight into how some Christians have come to love the notion that others are going to hell, that they alone are right and everyone else is wrong – and that such rightness and wrongness is what matters to their God so much so that he will inflict agony upon those who were wrong forever, without end.

This movie calls on Christians not to rush to embrace another options (Robin Parry appears in the movie and explicitly advises not doing so) but to think about the matter deeply, including serious thought about the assumptions about the Bible, about ourselves, about all sorts of interconnected things which depend on a doctrine of hell and upon which such a doctrine depends.

The movie looks at social aspects of the idea of hell, but also approaches the matter theologically, historically, and exegetically. There is discussion of the root of Jesus’ references to Gehenna in scripture, such as Jeremiah’s references to the Valley of Hinnom. Brian McLaren suggests that Jesus was referring, much as Jeremiah was, to devastation that was going to come upon the living – weeping and gnashing of teeth – as a result of the course the nation was on, reaching a climax in AD 70. The fact that the doctrine of hell, far from being there throughout Scripture, comes into Judaism late from external influences, is also presented.

A range of Christians from a range of traditions appear in the movie, in addition to those I have mentioned so far. Frank Schaeffer, Rob Bell, Chad Holtz, Jaime Clark-Soles, Sharon Baker, and many more.

The movie is full of interesting and thought-provoking material, which works together to challenge the assumption that so many have that the doctrine of hell, and of that understood as eternal conscious torment, is, has always been, and must always be part and parcel of Christianity and its default position. One important point that is made is that there are texts in the Bible which sound like they depict eternal torment – and there are also texts which sound universalist, and ones that sound annihilationist. Those who espouse the view of hell as eternal torment take the first set of texts, treat them as normative, and force all other texts into the resulting framework. For those who do that to then castigate those who do the very same thing, but starting with a different group of texts and thus producing a different result, is ironic and hypocritical.

I hope that Christians – as individuals and as whole church communities – will watch this movie. Feel free to go in expecting not to be persuaded. But watch it. It is those who are probably least inclined to watch such a movie who need to see it most urgently. As the movie emphasizes, if your viewpoint cannot withstand a close examination and encounter with alternative viewpoints, then you should not be treating it as though it is the obvious truth. If the notion of hell troubles you, or if it is part of a set of bedrock assumptions that you never question,Hellbound? will offer you perspectives that you need to hear, from a variety of Christian theological, biblical, social, ecclesiastical, and other perspectives.

The movie has its premiere opening tonight, and would be a great one for a church outing from a Bible study group or youth or adult Sunday school class. I highly recommend it!

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