Hellbound: The Movie (full review)

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?"
Hell house man: "[Pause] . . . That's tricky"
Yes. It is.

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.


reblica said…
45interesting write-up...will watch this documentary for certain
Alex Smith said…
Excellent review Robin, I can't wait to see it!
Jason Pratt said…
While I had a few relatively minor problems with the film (I saw its pre-release in Nashville a few weeks ago, met Kevin Miller etc.), I feel confident that opponents to Christian universalism were treated with a lot more fairness than in, say, Rob Bell's Love Wins (of which I am much more critical, primarily for that reason, despite agreeing more with his specific type of UR than most of the proponents in this film).

Kevin saves Robin for mostly the last 1/3 of the film (or so it seemed to me), and he's definitely the big gun, not least because Robin represents the approach that theological conservatives (like myself {g}) are most likely to respect and take seriously. (Robin is too modest to say so of course, so I thought someone ought to mention it. {lol!})

Also, on a completely trivial note, I ADORED THE OLD BOOKSTORE OR LIBRARY OR WHATEVER THAT KEVIN FILMED ROBIN'S INTERVIEW IN!!!! Not "distinguished" old, unfortunately, but still I would easily camp out there for months if I could. Details?? (I'm going to ask this question over at the EU forum, too, for benefit of readers there.)

In conclusion, if you see one movie this year... well, you probably already saw it, and it was The Avengers (my Blu of which should finally arrive today, btw {ggg}). But if you see two movies this year, Hellbound? wouldn't be a bad choice.

Robin Parry said…

Blush . . .

The book room was Windows Booksellers in Eugene, Oregon. It is the basement level of the building in which we have our offices. It is indeed paradise.

Jason Pratt said…
Kewl! I wish we had a bookstore in our basement.

Actually, if we had a basement at our factory, it might as well be a bookstore, as I keep a lot of my resource books here. {lol!}

(Actually, I wish we had a basement anyway. West Tennessee has a load of tornadoes. {wry g} )

Anonymous said…
How can we see the movie here in the UK Robin? Is there a planned release?
Alex Smith said…
Kevin wants to bring it out in the UK, Australia & other places, however I believe he still negotiating the details... obviously the more successful it is in the US/Canada, the easier it is to convince cinemas to show it elsewhere.
Alex Smith said…
Additionally there will be a DVD, that will definitely be worthwhile as it has interviews with Thomas Talbott & others.
Alex Smith said…
I just asked Kevin: "any update on the theatre locations for the rest of the world who are longing to see the movie? Alternatively if we're not fortunate enough to be able to, what's the ETA of the DVD - both for the US/Canada & internationally?"

And he said: "I was just discussing this with my distributor. We are likely going to do VOD first. But I'm also not ruling out doing a tour in the UK and Australia in the new year."
Anonymous said…
Thanks, but ...
V.O.D. ???
John Shore said…
Hi, Robin. Not that it matters, but I was originally slated to be in HELLBOUND?--and along with Kevin Miller was pleased to do the Q&A after its recent San Diego opening. I wrote a review of the movie on my site (http://johnshore.com/2012/09/24/the-new-documetary-hellbound-wins-the-debate/) in which I (too quickly) say what I think is true, which is that you steal this movie. You are so obviously kind, and so clearly deeply informed, and just so unpretentiously and genuinely CHARMING that I don't think the film would be half as impactful without your contribution to it. So thank for that, and for all the great work you do.
Alex Smith said…
Anonymous I'm guessing VOD stands for http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_on_demand
Robin Parry said…
Anonymous — I have no idea about VOD. You'll need to ask on the film website.
Robin Parry said…

Blush. Thanks. I am not actually those things but am flattered that you imagine that I am.

rick gariepy said…
I think for all the hype the theme generates there was a subtlety to the film in sensing Kevin's journey to struggle with a more compassionate balance--of God's radical message in a Jesus who seeks to shock us into the realization of life with or without the Divine Embrace and the consequences of the hurt, and hate and pain the results without the love that seeks to heal a hurting and broken world...the doctrinal issues rightly take a back seat in this context in searching for a less religious self-righteousness and a more humanly authenticating struggle to touch the Compassionate Divine Reality as the real meaning of the Cross and Redemption and its consequences...
JT said…
I really enjoyed the film. I couldn't help wondering if anyone from the film, primarily the non traditional view holders, ever considered the Catholic view, which I see as very different from Calvinism. The issue I have with calvinism and universalism is that they minimize one of the greatest gifts God has given us, free will. They are two extremes of the same error. The documentary is a great example of what happens to a religion of a book. I almost fell out of my chair when traditional evangelicalism was compared to Islam, comment on paper popes, and the Luther/calvin question to Driscoll. Thank you for this film Mr Miller!
Alex Smith said…
JT I found Richard Beck's (who, from memory, featured in the DVD extras) post on Free Will helpful.
Jason Pratt said…
JT, I'm a huge believer in the importance of free will, too!

Which is why I don't believe God will ever do anything that will lead to rational creatures (human or otherwise) losing their freedom to repent of their sins and reconcile with God.

It's also why I don't believe creatures can ever do anything to prevent God from freely choosing to keep leading rebellious creatures to repent of their sins.

God's free will to save all sinners from sin cannot be defeated by creatures; and God isn't going to permanently rescind a gift of free will (though He might hamper it temporarily to accomplish some other plans meanwhile) in proportion to whatever extent He valued it enough to give it in the first place.

Any emphasis on the importance of creaturely free will coherently ends up at universal salvation eventually. It only seems not to arrive there when proponents of the importance turn around and tacitly deny the importance in order to explain why God cannot or won't keep acting to save sinners from sin until He gets it done.

So, yep, don't minimize the importance: go Katholicism! {g}

JT said…
Thanks for the note JRP.

//Which is why I don't believe God will ever do anything that will lead to rational creatures (human or otherwise) losing their freedom to repent of their sins and reconcile with God.//

I agree

//God's free will to save all sinners from sin cannot be defeated by creatures//

Is this free will? GOD is not a dictator.

What is the difference between your opinions above vs say calvinistic predestination and irresistable grace. How can I know you have the correct interpretation of scripture?

JT said…

Thanks for the link. I read Mr. Beck's article and I am not convinced. Love is primarily in the will and not in the emotions or glands. I also don't believe our condition is completely helpless and we have the ability by God's grace to make right choices.

Again, from my perspective, Universalism is basically Calvinism without hell. Irresistible grace's logical end.

Jason Pratt said…
JT: "What is the difference between your opinions above vs say calvinistic predestination and irresistable grace." It is certainly a variety of their assurance that God doesn't have to be convinced to save a sinner from sin, and doesn't have to be convinced to keep at it until He gets it done, and that we can trust Him to be competent about it. The main difference is that they would reject my agreement with Arminianistic assurance that God does intend and act toward saving all sinners from sin. (Catholics have gone with both assurances throughout history, though never officially affirming both. Those individuals who did affirm both historical Catholic assurances were Christian universalists.)

JT: "Again, from my perspective, Universalism is basically Calvinism without hell. Irresistible grace's logical end." More accurately, universalism is basically Calvinism without a finally hopeless punishment or fate or victory of sinners, but with Arminian scope of God's salvation as well as Calvinistic original persistence to victory.

Irresistble grace's logical end is only logically universalism with Arminian scope, which is why Calvs (and Augustinian Catholics, like for example Saint Augustine) deny the full scope. They would say universalism is basically Arminianism (or relatively modern Catholicism, which from their perspective needed reforming about the scope of God's saving love, and the denial of original persistence) taken to its logical end.

Both sides are correct, but only if the assurances of both sides are included, which naturally both sides tend to do in regard to their own important assurances they're protecting (against each other's assaults on those assurances).

Jason Pratt said…
JRP: "God's free will to save all sinners from sin cannot be defeated by creatures"

JT: "Is this [being unable to defeat God's salvation of sinners from sin] free will? GOD is not a dictator."

Any sinners permanently inconvenienced by God would disagree, from their perspective, about God not being a dictator. But the relevant point is that whatever exists is continually kept in existence (for however long that may be) by the self-sacrificial grace of God. There isn't anywhere a sinner can go to be free of God's interference (as they would consider it) while still existing, and neither can they cease to exist by their own power. Nor does sadly leaving them in hell amount to letting them do what they want, because what they want is to sin without inconvenience and one way or another hell certainly inconveniences them. (Nor does that sadly passive defeat of God by some sinners even slightly match up with scriptural testimony, since you mention it.)

You certainly don't have to worry about me trying to claim that love is primarily in the emotions or glands, instead of primarily in the will! But as a trinitarian theist, I mean that the action and active choice of fulfilling fair-togetherness between persons is the self-existence of God Most High and the ground of all reality, upon which all not-God reality depends for existence: God is essentially love, and isn't going to stop loving sinners and seeking their salvation; nor are sinners going to be able to finally defeat the source of their own existence.

That isn't dictatorship or tyranny: it's the gracious love of God Most High (not of a lesser lord or god who can be defeated at last) Who is essentially love (instead of being a mere monotheism as in Islam or nominal deism, for example). theological heresy. (But scripture interpretation is a whole other topic.)

Jason Pratt said…
Whoops, the final sentence fragment there was from an earlier edition of my comment which got snipped for a third comment.

The gist was that there were in fact a minority of important and influential Catholics who affirmed both historical Catholic assurances about salvation, while working hard at opposing challenges to trinitarian orthodoxy from heresy. And they didn't think the scriptures had to be interpreted to mean there was some kind of hopeless punishment or fate or final rebellious victory over God by some sinners. (They would have been especially horrified at the notion that sinners could have any kind of victory over God! -- nor would they have regarded such a theological impossibility as an unethical 'dictatorship' by God.)

But scriptural interpretation is a whole other topic, and I don't blame people for trying to account for what they think the scriptures are testifying. Doing so while denying some point of ortho-trin, however, cannot be the proper interpretation if ortho-trin is true.


Popular Posts