When I first heard about the movie Hellbound I was worried that it was going to be yet another conservative response to Rob Bell's book Love Wins. I mean if Christian culture is good at anything it's mobilizing all it's creative forces in the face of an “attack” against “traditional values.” For instance, the number of anti-Da Vinci Code books probably numbers a hundred or so.
However, I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that Hellbound was actually titled Hellbound?. Never has a question mark carried such interpretive significance.
Last Wednesday, I was lucky enough to be able to attend the cinematic premiere of Kevin Miller's documentary Hellbound?. In the film, Miller explores prevailing views of eternal damnation and the afterlife through a vast array of interviews from all across the theological spectrum. He delves into the beliefs of neo-Calvinism, explores Jesus cultural understanding of hell, wrestles with the theological issues of a God who may or may not damn people to eternal torment, and even lets members of the Westboro Baptist Church yell at him.
Over the first third of the movie, Miller lays out the classical position on hell beginning with the absurdist beliefs of the Westboro Baptist Church and slowly progressing into more mainline evangelical and Calvinist positions.
He then transitions into a deconstruction of this classical view. Miller and his interview subjects point out the historical background for a belief in hell and provide significant context to biblical references to Hell, especially Jesus' references to Gehenna. They also discuss the problem's inherent in referencing a
biblical idea of hell as the Bible makes references that point towards views favoring eternal torment, as well as annihilationism and universalism. To believe in one view is to deny or sublimate verses referring to other understandings of the afterlife.
The final third of the movie lays out a belief and an argument in favor of Christian Universalism including references to historical Christian figures, like Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, who held such a view.
It's important to note that from all appearances Miller began this project with an open mind; a mind with a list of questions and concerns, but far from convinced of one view or the other. However, it becomes clear over the course of the film that while Miller may not be entirely convinced of the fact of universalism, he is at least convinced by the function of this belief.
Though the interview subjects are treated with respect and dignity by Miller, many of their statements come across as at the least comical and occasionally terrifying. When Miller asks one of the Westboro Baptist protestors how many of his children he loves the man pauses and is unable to formulate an accurate response. Again, when Miller asks noted “evangelist” Ray Comfort how many people he has converted using his questionable techniques, Comfort is forced to awkwardly pause before saying that his accomplishments “will be in the Lambs Book of Life.”*
*For a fuller examination of Comfort's tactics, pick up Kevin Roose's book An Unlikely Disciple, which includes a chapter about a spring break trip with Liberty students to convert people using Comfort's methods.
The more painful moments of the film come predominantly from Miller's interviews with Mark Driscoll and Kevin DeYoung, both prominent neo-Calvinists from the mold of John Piper. Miller juxtaposes many of the statements concerning God's love made by scholars and writers in favor of universalism with angry, fire-breathing screeds from Driscoll. In the most painful scene of the movie, Miller asks Driscoll if all people are children of God, and Driscoll proclaims that they are not.
This is not a flawless film. The last third drags of the film drags in comparison to the first hour, also while there are mentions of annihilationism, it does not seem to be discussed by anyone interviewed in the film. Additionally, as one audience member pointed out in the Q&A after the premiere, the interview subjects were predominantly white males, Sharon Baker being a noted exception.
However, while it is not a flawless film, it is an important one. Though many may view this as propaganda in support of a universalist position, I don't believe that is the intent. Ultimately, this film is not concerned about where people go when they die, but how a belief in the afterlife affects how they deal with people today. The film's argument in favor of universalism is predicated on representing the beauty and love of God to a world in pain.
If anything, this film is intended to free people to think about what they believe, but especially to reflect on his there beliefs affect the way they deal with the world in the present. The problem is not with a belief in hell, the problem is a belief in hell that allows people to feel superior and rain down violence and damnation on those who they believe to be beneath them.
Maybe Sartre was right and maybe hell is other people. Dear God, save us from ourselves.
To see where Hellbound? and Kevin Miller will be headed next visit their website or follow them on Twitter @HellboundMovie.
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