There is a growing buzz around the new documentary Hellbound: The Movie. Check out the website. It was released in selected North American cinemas a few days ago.
It is a beautifully made and fascinating introduction to a debate within the contemporary church about the nature and duration of hell. But, more than that, it is an invitation for viewers to search their own hearts and consider what they believe, why, and what the implications of it are for how we view God and other human beings; indeed, how we treat other people.
The documentary is not a neutral guide that treats all views as equally plausible. It offers a clear critique of the traditional view of hell as eternal torment and it recommends, at very least, an openness towards universalism as a neglected view within the tradition.
What is especially good is that there is a focus throughout on the here-and-now implications of our views on hell. How should we treat those who disagree with us? How should we handle conflicts? How should we treat evil in society?
The documentary includes interviews with a range of people from street preachers to pastors to theologians to bloggers to philosophers to writers, an exorcist, death metal fans and musicians, and the like.
The movie frames the whole discussion of hell in the context of 9/11 and the cry for justice against overwhelming evil that lies behind the theology of hell. We then embark on a journey through a variety of Christian views on hell and their impact and implications for how we think of God and how we think of (and treat) other people. There are defenders of a wide range of views (though annihilationists were hardly represented so the focus was primarily versions of eternal torment vs. versions of universalism).
The first section sets forth the case for the traditional view of hell as eternal conscious torment and objections to universalism. Defenders of the trad view included Justin Taylor, Mark Driscoll (he featured a lot in the movie), Kevin DeYoung, Bob Larson (exorcist), Hank Hanegraaff, Mike Bickel, street preachers, and some of those crazy "God hates fags" protestors (they are gob-stoppingly horrific). My fave quote was from exorcist Bob Larson, who says that he believes in eternal hell because: "I believe Jesus and the demons" (emphasis his). (I know I took it out of context so don't quote it but I love the thought of getting one's theology of hell from demons.)
Then we move towards questioning the tradition. The movie explores some reason why traditionalists can be so zealous to resist those who question the mainstream view (on the grounds of both Scripture and tradition) and makes the case that questioning the tradition is a legitimate thing to do. Peter Kreeft (Catholic) Jerry Walls (Methodist) were particularly level-headed representatives who do not embrace universalism (though Kreeft is hopeful and Walls open).
The point was made that appeals to the authority of Scripture often mean the authority of my interpretation of Scripture. If you disagree with my interpretation of the Bible (which is what the Bible "clearly" says) then you are disagreeing with God. But, as Jerry Walls correctly points out (and he himself believes in a version of eternal punishment), the question is not whether we accept or reject the BIble but how we interpret the Bible. How we hold together texts that seem to teach eternal torment, texts that seem to teach annihilation, and texts that appear to affirm universalism. So we need to be more tolerant of each other.
Various interviewees argued that we need to focus less on crossing the doctrinal 't's and dotting the doctrinal 'i's than on living in gospel ways. Openness to others with different views and a willingness to live with tensions and mystery.
I was struck by Chad Holtz (a Luthran pastor who was sacked for becoming a universalist) — he was good. Other interviewees representing alternatives to the mainstream included David Bruce (hollywoodjesus.com). Greg Boyd, William Paul Young (author of The Shack), Sharon Baker, Brian McLaren, Frank Schaeffer, Robin Parry (me — looking every bit as jet-lagged as I felt when we did the interview), Michael Hardin, Brad Jersak, Archbishop Lazar Puhalo (Canadian Orthodox Monastery), Ron Dart, Jaime Clark-Soles. Some were universalists, some were hopeful, but all were up for discussing the issues with an open mind. (I was struck by the wise insights of Archbishop Puhalo — it must be the long beard.)
There is a good section reinvestigating the hell texts (Dan 12; Isa 66; the Genhenna texts) and the origins of the theology of hell. Brad Jersak is especially good arguing that so-called "eternal conscious torment" texts are actually about the Destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD and not about the afterlife.
Christian Universalism in various different forms — hopeful universalism and more dogmatic versions — is given serious attention. Misunderstandings are cleared up and its alternative visions of hell are explored (justice as restorative as well as/instead of retributive; Hell as painful but not destructive of the person; purificatory, etc.).
Along the way there are some wonderful interview moments. I especially enjoyed some of Kevin Miller's pushing traditionalists to explore their theological positions.
For instance, discussing the use of hell houses in evangelism (on hell houses see here)
Kevin: "Can you imagine Jesus running a hell house?"Yes. It is.
Hell house man: "[Pause] . . . That's tricky"
Or Kevin discussing with a couple of the crazy "God hates fags" protestors whether God does indeed hate 99.9999999% of the people he created
Kevin: "Do you have children?"
Crazy man: "I have four"
Kevin: "How many of them do you love?"
Crazy man: "exactly the right amount . . ."
Kevin: "How many is that? Give me a number."
Crazy man: "I'm doing the math . . . It's a little difficult. And, of course, it's an irrelevancy because . . .
Kevin: No, it's actually pretty relevant because Jesus told us that God is our Father and he framed the relationship betwen father and children. So, how many of your children do you love?
Crazy man: those who [. . .] obey me.
Watching Calvinist evangelists, pastors, and theologians insisting that God does not love everyone is fascinating. It is hard not to feel embarrased on their behalf . . . but they said it and meant it and are not embarrased so perhaps I should not feel so awkward for them. They are not asking for my pity.
This is a movie that is guaranteed to annoy everyone at some point — the range of views represented is wide — but it will annoy traditionalists more because their views are challenged from all angles: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.
I know that I am biased but I thought this film was a very good, provocative discussion generator. It it is not — nor is it intended to be — an attempt to settle the discussion. It raises a whole load of issues and questions and invites viewers to consider and to think again. If it can do that much; if it can open up the discussion and incite Christians on all sides to explore further then it has done its job well.
The hard work is what happens afterwards.