With all those superheroes, vampires and Kardashians running around, the pop-culture radar doesn't have a lot of space left over for theological debates. Which is a bit strange if you think about it, since the U.S. is supposed to be one of the most religious countries in the world, with more than three-quarters of the population identifying as Christian. Enter first-time filmmaker Kevin Miller, who challenges those 247 million Americans to put their movie going money where their Sunday-morning mouths are with Hellbound?
Not to be confused with the Hellraiser
sequel, it's an engaging, accessible documentary that explores the (truly) eternal questions, Does hell exist? If so, who ends up there, and why? Miller (who is actually from Canada) adds fuel to a smoldering corner of the culture wars, which flared up last year with the publication of the book Love Wins.
Written by the influential evangelical pastor Rob Bell, it challenged the notion of hell as a place of eternal suffering and suggested that God's grace might just be expansive enough to grant salvation to all, not just the elect
few. Miller positions himself as a neutral interlocutor, giving a full hearing to many perspectives. In addition to conservative and progressive evangelicals, he interviews Catholic and Orthodox theologians, an atheist, an exorcist and the founder of HollywoodJesus.com. He even chats up some (tongue-in-cheek) Satanists -- singers from the heavy-metal bands GWAR, Deicide and Morbid Angel -- at the Copenhell music festival. Adding some spice in between the talking heads, Hellbound?
also weaves in footage of street preachers haranguing nonbelievers and a Halloween hell house that aims to scare young Christians straight with gruesome images of the consequences of sin, in this world and the next. But don't get the impression that this is a frivolous endeavor. Miller's interviewees dig into the history of the early Christian church and the etymology of ancient biblical languages, and they argue with clarity and passion. Ironically, the conservative position is expressed most succinctly by the atheist, screenwriting guru Robert McKee, who argues that without the threat of damnation, there is no need for salvation, and thus no need for Christianity at all. By eliminating hell, he says, these people are sucking the meaning out of life. Speaking eloquently on the other side are scholars such as Brian McLaren (author of The Last Word and the Word After That
) and Brad Jersak (Her Gates Will Never be Shut
), who muster biblical and historical evidence to argue that a loving and omnipotent God could not condemn his own children to infinite torture as punishment for temporal sins. As for Miller himself, his stated aim is to open up the conversation, but he may tip his hand once or twice. For example, he opens the film with the most extreme view imaginable, in a conversation with members of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church -- yup, the God hates (gays) folks -- who proclaim that 99.99999999999 percent of humanity are going to hell, essentially because that's the way God likes it. Such withering certainty might be the best argument of all to entertain a little doubt. --AZCentral.com
A rich, thoughtful conversation-starter about changing notions of religious damnation, Hellbound?
invades notoriously touchy territory with an open mind, steady focus and civil disposition. Director Kevin Miller interviews an eclectic group of authors, theologians, pastors, social commentators and even musicians in exploring how and why so many modern-day Christians are so bound to a particular and specific vision of hell, and the manner in which that predominance in turn affects that world in which we are living. The idea of hell, for those who believe in its existence, breaks down broadly along three lines: those who --Religion Dispatches
A rich, thoughtful conversation-starter about changing notions of religious damnation, Hellbound?
invades notoriously touchy territory with an open mind, steady focus and civil disposition. Director Kevin Miller interviews an eclectic group of authors, theologians, pastors, social commentators and even musicians in exploring how and why so many modern-day Christians are so bound to a particular and specific vision of hell, and the manner in which that predominance in turn affects that world in which we are living. The idea of hell, for those who believe in its existence, breaks down broadly along three lines: those who accept it in literal terms, as a place of eternal torment for the souls of the damned; those who adhere to Annihilationism, in which true believers join God in Heaven while the souls of the wicked are on the other hand extinguished, snuffed out like a candle flame; and those who tout Universalism, in which God s grace and love eventually restores to right relationship the souls of all human beings. Different texts in the Bible on the surface teach all three, lending plenty of fuel and ammunition for the often vehemently expressed passions of various adherents. The struck fuse for this perhaps internecine conflict exploding more into the mainstream came about when Rob Bell, pastor of one of the largest and most influential churches in America, in February of 2011 released a two-minute trailer to promote his new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.
His virtual excommunication by many prominent evangelicals was swift and fiery. Miller, though, picks up this question about hell as a place of eternal torture for the wicked, and asks what it says about the notion of God as an all-loving creator if he really allows presumably allows billions of people to suffer in hell for eternity. Miller rather thankfully eschew man-on-the-street reportage and the banality such an approach would engender. Instead, he aims for a more elevated and informed level of discourse, and the result is a work of considerable eloquence and intrigue. Storytelling guru Robert McKee weighs in on religion s relationship to storytelling, and hell s place in that; Chad Holtz, a North Carolina pastor fired for embracing Bell s thoughts on Universalism, talks about the evolution of his beliefs; others debate whether non-Universalist ideologies necessarily minimize either God s love or power. Miller engages a wide variety of subjects with contrasting beliefs, and also visits and chats with the operators of a hell house, a seasonal, Halloween-type attraction in which ticket buyers are subjected to a roll call of sin, like drug use, murder and play-acted rape. Perhaps nothing better illustrates Miller s prudence than when he engages in conversation with a couple members of the Westboro Baptist Church the ultra-Calvinist Kansas house of worship who espouse a litany of hateful viewpoints and prance about at funerals of soldiers with signs reading God Hates Fags and God Loves Dead Soldiers and the like. Their exchange, intercut throughout the movie in relevant portions, unfolds along a theological rather than emotional axis. Miller keeps his cool. It is a woman from Westboro that becomes somewhat unhinged and veers into strange ad hominem attacks, leading Miller to ask, Are you expressing God s anger toward me right now, or yours? Hellbound?
of course does not arrive at a pat conclusion, but the questions it raises are weighty and, for the properly enlightened and engaged mind, stimulating and even a certain type of fun to ponder. Evil, empathy, love, duty, eternity, free will and acquiescence all are part of Miller s heady cerebral stew, sure to connect at least as a curio with open-minded viewers of various religious beliefs. --Shockya.com
Blame Canada for watering down our good old-time religion. Kevin Miller, originally of Saskatchewan, has made a terrifically provocative film called Hellbound? on the human urge to punish and how that urge gets projected onto our sense of what God is about. An opening sequence of Miller attempting to engage some mad-as-hell Westboro Baptists left me worrying. Oh. He s going to caricature the brimstoners. But it soon becomes obvious that Miller really does want to know the minds of people like atheist Robert McKee, who thinks universalism is a form of wussiness among people who just can t handle dichotomies and who are uncomfortable with ultimate choosing. If the pro-ECT (eternal conscious torment) figures in the film (Mars Hill s Mark Driscoll in particular) end up seeming harsher and less attractive than the universalist squad, it s not that Miller hasn t tried to give them a fair hearing. Still, there s no doubt that Miller s theological heroes are the love wins
cohort: Rob Bell, naturally, but also Frank Schaeffer, Brian McLaren, Sharon Baker, Brad Jersak, Gregory Boyd, Michael Hardin, The Shack
author William Young, and a compellingly watchable British evangelical universalist named Robin Parry. McLaren in particular comes across in the film as a gentle but very serious thinker who patiently explains how scriptural references to the unimaginable catastrophe of CE 70 (the Roman destruction of Jerusalem) have been construed as references to eternal perdition. Yes, the Jesus is saying that there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, but it will be right here in Jerusalem for people who don t straighten out their act. Several of Miller s talking heads speculate on why it s so important for ECT people to hold the line. They have constructed their lives, their identities, around the old verities. Plus there is obvious power in appointing oneself to be a defender of the ECT tradition. Schaeffer helpfully points out that to take a Jesus-like approach, to focus more on the content of one s character than on one s final destination, puts gatekeepers out of a job. Schaeffer, McLaren, and Hardin all identify Jesus as a figure who grew up in a culture rife with speculation about the afterlife, resurrection, etc. But, they argue, Jesus changed the subject and got people to think about what pleases God, about what makes for a godly life, rather than on what s behind Door #3. And, of course, Jesus is the supreme messenger of restorative rather than retributive justice (a fact all but universally ignored by the ECT folks). As a sucker for good theological discussion I was especially grateful to Miller for letting his good guys reprise the very ancient roots of the universalist position. Robin Parry lets us know that Gregory of Nyssa, whom he calls the final editor of the Nicene Creed, was a proto-universalist. Who knew? The good guys, then and now, didn t and don t reject the idea of justice, or of judgment, or even of postmortem punishment, but they were/are not ECT subscribers. For them God s clearly-expressed will is to lead all souls to mercy. Judgment is a process, a refiner s fire, not a permanent condition. If people can t abide the idea of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot gliding right through the Pearly Gates, they don t have to worry. The theological and ethical point is to try to have the mind and the loving heart of God. The big question under all of this is not so much about God s nature or God s will as it is about our own. Why do so many people demand Eternal Conscious Torment for evildoers? Why, for that matter, do so many insist on the retention of capital punishment? This question calls for serious reflection, maybe even serious prayer. If, as Michael Hardin seems to be saying, we humans have a built-in need for sacralized violence, we re in big, big trouble. --Religion Dispatches