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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  • For those who think that rejecting the traditional idea of hell requires rejecting a high view of Scripture, let me say that my very high view of Scripture led me to a belief that everyone is going to heaven. That is, I hold to biblical case for everyone going to heaven. Again, it is because of the Bible that I believe this – not in spite of it.

  • Kaz

    Thanks for alerting us to this movie, James. Readers who are interested in this may also be interested in another movie that is scheduled to be released in 2012, entitled “Hell and Mr. Fudge”, which is based on the true story of the man who wrote what some would call the modern day magnum opus in support of “Conditional Immortality” over against the traditional doctrine of eternal torment. You can see a preview and read about the movie, here:


    FYI, a new edition of Fudge’s important book, The Fire That Consumes, has been published:


    A reprint of the original edition is also still available:


    • Thanks for mentioning all of this – Fudge’s book is an important one, and I had forgotten that a movie was in the works about him, and didn’t know that there is a new edition. I second Kaz’s recommendation!

      • Kaz

        I’ve never seen a movie about Hell, yet this year two are scheduled to be released! What are the odds?

        BTW, the preface to the 3rd edition of Fudge’s book is written by Richard Bauckham, which may cause some fundamentalists to be more open to Fudge’s arguments.

        • Although it does not have a preface written by Richard Bauckham (or by “James McGrath or by any other luminaries), and although you will not have to pay to read it, here is the book “The Biblical Case for Everyone Going to Heaven”: http://bit.ly/fD6Ugg

          • Kaz

            Thanks for the reference, Mike. Does the book speak to the question about how one can harmonize free will with universal salvation?

          • Not directly. I think the free will issue is overblown.

            If we can have free will on earth without memory of a conscious decision to be here, what’s strange about having a free will in heaven without a conscience decision to be there?

            The book does deal with the origin of evil and the justice of letting bad people into heaven – a category into which all of us fall.

            The book contains an overview such that you do not have to read every page to understand the thesis of the book.

          • Kaz

            Well, I don’t believe that we humans made a conscious decision to be on earth, but that’s a separate subject. My concern is more basic: How can free will be real if God will ultimately override the deliberate choice some have made to reject Him?

          • God’s judgments will be exceedingly fine. He will deal with each of us according to all the nuances of how we responded, or didn’t, to the knowledge of Him we had made available to us.

            Sadly, there are a lot of people who “made a decision to accept God” who are rejecting Him regularly in the decisions of daily life. Conversely, just because someone doesn’t like the 700 Club or Calvin’s Institutes does not necessarily mean they are rejecting God.

          • Kaz

            I’m not sure how that answers my question, Mike. If it’s true that all will ultimately go to heaven, then universal salvation is true. If universal salvation is true, then God will either have to override the conscious decision some have made to reject Him, or He’ll have to grant salvation to those who reject Him, right?
            If you’d rather not go into it that’s fine; I’m really just trying to understand your position.

          • God gives us plenty of rope (that’s obvious if you take a look at what a mess the world is in), but not enough to hang ourselves eternally.

          • Sisterlisa

            Maybe you need to consider what kind of god you serve if he tortures his own kids for ever. I can choose to not believe in that god because I know My God is Living and won’t treat me that way no matter how much I might misunderstand him and the book his kids wrote about him.

          • Kaz

            Hi Lisa, what makes you think that I believe God tortures humans forever? I reject the doctrine of eternal torment for both biblical and philosophical reasons.

            What I was trying to understand vis a vis Mike’s view is how humans can exercise the free choice to reject God yet God grant such individuals eternal salvation anyway. As far as I can see, universal salvation would logically necessitate that one of the following is true: (1) People don’t really have the freedom to reject God, or (2) God will grant eternal salvation to those who make the free choice to reject Him.

          • Kaz

            Hi Lisa: For some reason comments I posted previously are not showing up, so I thought that I’d clarify (again), that I reject the doctrine of eternal torment for biblical and philosophical reasons.

          • Hi Kaz. There are no comments by you that have been caught in the spam folder or anything like that. I am not sure where they have gone missing to, but I am sorry to hear that they have!

          • Kaz

            My computer is haunted. I posted a message, and it showed up. Then the bottom of my screen indicated that a new message had been posted, so I clicked refresh, and not only didn’t see a new message, but the one I just submitted was gone! So I posted another, and now they both appear.

  • Frank Schaeffer

    Hi J: thanks for the good review of a film I really like too. Thanks also for the mention. Best, Frank

  • Gary

    I only bring this up on an old post, since this Sunday I heard my Sunday school teacher, when teaching from Matt, “narrow gate” stuff, say some pastors are teaching the wrong concept, that there is no hell. I didn’t speak up, but probably should have. Maybe I’ve got it wrong, but sheol is OT Hebrew, death state, grave, not necessarily a specific place. Same for Hades in NT, just in Greek. Even the very fact that Hades in Greek was mythological, seems to hint at more a state, than a real place. Then the fire pit, Gehenna, is a constantly burning rubbish pit outside Jerusalem. This clearly, at least to me, seems to indicate symbolism, not an actual place. But the KJV translates everything as hell, which seems to add to people’s confusion. The actual scripture in Matt discussed Sunday didn’t actual use the word “hell”, but destruction (NIV). I did mention that, but no one seemed to see any significance to it.

    The whole, burning-for- eternity- thing seems to me to be counter-intuitive on two counts. 1) You can either say, the punishment goes on forever, or you can say the “state of separation” from God continues forever, i.e. the “nothingness”. Example, if you were to die by fire, you burn for 10 minutes. Once dead, your state of “deadness” goes on forever…not the suffering from burning. 2) more significantly, I think the concept of “believe in Jesus”, “live forever”, is pretty universally Christian. However, as soon as someone says the wicked will suffer punishment eternally, you are also saying the wicked live forever too. Otherwise, you cannot suffer forever. So it seems to me that anyone that believes in eternal life (heaven), has to also reject an eternal, real place called hell, where the wicked suffer eternally, whether in spirit or body. So I can see a heaven, but not a hell. All very symbolic to me. However, I like the concept that Jehenna spoken by Jesus or in Rev refers to 70 AD.

    On another note, the “Hellbound” movie seems to be in such a limited release, very few people will be able to see it. Unless they sell it to TV. I probably made some mistakes in clarity in this post, since I am in a hurry, and have to leave. I think it would be useful to have some posts on Sheol, Hades, Jehenna, symbolism, various translations in KJV, NIV, ASV, Catholic, etc. And how come a bunch of creeds grab onto the concept of a real place called hell. Must be so the pastors can scare the church members, to keep them in line.

  • newenglandsun

    I would never be able to worship or be brought to awe before a god that forces people to love him. I worship YHWH. You worship a serial rapist.

    • You cannot force anyone to love you. But you do not have to torture those who do not love you. How is not torturing people akin to serial rape? I don’t think you take rape to be the serious act of violence that it is, and I would rather not have someone commenting on this blog who treats violence against women as a joke. So goodbye!

      • newenglandsun

        I never said that I was making “violence against women” a joke. I don’t believe that that’s what rape is. I believe that rape is any time you force or coerce someone into being with you. Thus, even if universalism is true, the people who don’t want anything to do with God are going to be tortured forever regardless (hence, in a state of Hell as St. Isaac the Syrian suggests).

        So universalism is just simply ruled out by logic and reason. As one poet once wrote:

        “13 because God did not make death,
        and he does not delight in the death of the living.
        14 For he created all things so that they might exist;
        the generative forces[a] of the world are wholesome,
        and there is no destructive poison in them,
        and the dominion[b] of Hades is not on earth.
        15 For righteousness is immortal.
        16 But the ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death;
        considering him a friend, they pined away
        and made a covenant with him,
        because they are fit to belong to his company. (Wisdom 1:13-16, NRSV Catholic Edition)

        And even more importantly,

        “God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end.” (CCC1037)

        • Presumably if you used a term like “kidnapping” that better fit your meaning, it would have not unnecessarily caused offense and misunderstanding.

          I understand that it is your view that God did not make hell. But that is not a view that all Christians share. And the lake of fire in the Book of Revelation is said to have been prepared for the Devil and his angels, and not merely to exist as a metaphor for their state.

          • newenglandsun

            A) I don’t read the Bible that way.
            B) Raping fits way better since kidnapping isn’t “coerced love”.

          • Rape has nothing to do with love, and if you suggest once more that it does, I will ban you and delete any comments you make in the future. This is not a forum for you to misuse a word in a manner that trivializes the harm that is inflicted through sexual abuse by suggesting that it is actually a form of love.

          • newenglandsun

            I’m not the one redefining the term rape.


            You’re the one limiting the definition of rape to include your victimologist theology into it.

            Of course if it is coerced it isn’t love. Maybe I should have put the word “love” in quotes.

          • newenglandsun

            Kidnap – to steal, carry off, or abduct by force or fraud, especially for use as a hostage or to extract ransom. (dictionary.com)

            You treat the person as a tool for gaining something, expect something in return for them.

            Rape – any act of sexual intercourse that is forced upon a person. (dictionary.com)

            Since according to universalism, God is not holding people for a *ransom* in Heaven, God therefore would be better described as a rapist if universalism is true.

          • So you think God forces people to have sex with him?! If not, then please stop misusing the term in this disgusting way. Ignoring the actual meaning of “rape,” and ignoring that kidnapping doesn’t require a ransom demand, doesn’t help whatever case it is you are trying to make. Indeed, it makes you seem to be aiming for shock value instead of accuracy.

          • newenglandsun

            I’m not aiming for shock value. I have decided to use the term rape because it works better than kidnap. If you want to delete my future comments and block me again, have at it. I don’t care. You appear to be encouraging people to embrace victimologist theology rather than consider deeper thoughts about these theological questions and why liberal theology might be considered heresy by those who aren’t liberals or fundamentalists (I’m neither a liberal nor a fundamentalist).

            How about reviewing the book, “The Problem of Hell” edited by Joel Buenting?

            And FYI, I’m not the one who first considered universalism to be rape. That was Alister McGrath you are saying is using shock value to get his message across. He was the head of the theological department at Oxford and former atheist. So is he using shock value instead of accuracy? Hardly. He puts together a great case why universalism is rape.