Hellbound?

The thing I like best about the documentary Hellbound? is that it’s not just about hell. Instead, it’s a broad look at the subject that includes:

  • how we understand God
  • how we read the Bible
  • the church
  • theology
  • power
  • politics
  • asking questions
  • how we relate with people who don’t agree with us
  • how we live out what we believe or don’t believe in our daily lives.

These things give depth and background to the film, yet writer/director Kevin Miller never loses sight of his central focus to explore different views about hell. He begins and ends his film with remembering the suffering and terror of 9/11, and in that context combines narrative, interviews, images, and music to explore three different views:

1. the classic view of hell as a place of eternal punishment that takes seriously God’s justice
2. the annihilation view that takes seriously God’s justice and compassion–suffering will not be eternal, but eventually those who are not saved will be annihilated
3. the universalist view that eventually all will be saved–the grace of God and the all-powerful work of Christ by the Holy Spirit will one day reconcile all things

The film is even-handed in showing that each of these views can claim some support in the Bible, each has its advocates, and each also gives rise to some difficult questions. e.g., If hell is an eternal place of punishment, then isn’t God taking revenge as any human being might, and if that’s the case, then is God actually good? Is God actually God? If eternal punishment is replaced by annihilation, or if there is no hell and everyone goes to heaven–are these views simply wishful thinking, and are we simply trying to avoid hard truths? What then is the meaning of the cross? Does the universalist view mean that people don’t really have a choice?

While the film offers some critique all around, it does seem to favour a more open view that allows for questions, that puts less emphasis on having the right answers about hell, and more emphasis on how we live. That at least is what I came away with, or is that just my bias showing?

Personally I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about hell. I’m aware of these various views just as there are different views on the atonement or women in ministry, or any other aspect of theology. I realize that whatever we may think we know about hell or anything else is limited. But it was good to think about all of this in the context of the film–where else would I hear from rockers and the people of Westboro Baptist Church alongside church leaders like Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church, Rob Bell of Love Wins fame, emerging church author and speaker Brian McLaren, and alongside people from my own hometown of Abbotsford (good job, Brad Jersak and Ron Dart!).

I believe in God’s love and in God’s justice. I believe that Jesus demonstrated the sacrificial love of God and that he talked of coming judgement. And instead of erring on one side or the other, I think we need to “live in the mystery” of all of that as Ron Dart says at one point in the film.

Hellbound? is a thought-provoking documentary and a good discussion starter. I wonder, who is the audience for this film? (there were only 10 people in the theatre when I was there). Since there were very few women and people of colour in the film, does the debate about hell mainly concern those who are white and male?  Where were the [biblical] scholars? There were many church leaders among the interviewees, and I saw John Stackhouse Jr. and Mark Noll in the credits, but there seemed to be few biblical scholars [compared to the theologians and others] on screen. Would [even more attention to the biblical texts] have added more depth, or somehow made the film less accessible to a general audience? [added for clarity, please see the comments below]

I wonder too, How does a Christian documentary open at a theatre like the Langley Colossus which is also showing The Bourne Legacy and Sinister? Has anyone walked out of the theatre when they realized that Hellbound? was a documentary instead of a thriller?

Hellbound? is currently in theatres, so you still have a chance to see it or see it again. If you go, can you let me know, I thought I saw a shot of the interior of First Baptist Church in downtown Vancouver–is that right? And when you see the pastor who was dismissed from his church for questioning the existence of hell, is he holding a copy of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals? (at least it looks like the book I have) Otherwise, I’ll just wait for the dvd and check it out for myself!



Categories: Theology

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16 replies

  1. April, great summary of the film. And yes the pastor was holding that book! I was excited to see it getting a free plug : )

  2. I had the same question as you did when I saw it advertised as opening in Langley and Vancouver….who would its audience be. I was surprised that Cineplex offered it but am not surprised that only ten people attended. I thought I’d wait for renting it , or like you say dvd. maria

  3. April: I’m not sure what you mean by “Where were the scholars?” Are you saying that one must teach at a university to be a scholar? Brad Jersak has a PhD, I am working on one, Greg Boyd has two PhD’s, we have all published a score of books between the three of us. Jamie-Clark Soles and Sharon Baker both have PhD’s and teach at accredited institutions and have published. What makes a scholar? That line felt a bit unfair although I appreciated the rest of your review.

  4. Michael, I meant biblical scholars here. Most of the scholars interviewed in the film seemed to have a background in theology rather than biblical studies which made me wonder. But your point is well taken that those interviewed were well credentialed, and I’m thankful for each who took the time to be part of this project.

    • April: Jamie Clark-Soles is a biblical scholar. I have engaged biblical languages and culture for over thirty years even though my interest is in theology. The best scholars are multi-disciplinary. I am as comfortable in Rabbinics as I am in Barth or the Didache as I am in Paul. Brad Jersak has written the excellent biblical studies book on hell titled Her Gates Will Never Be Shut. Might you consider an addendum to your review?

  5. p.s. for clarity’s sake, I made a few additions to my wording as noted in the post. thanks for your comment.

  6. oops, your last comment came in just as I was trying to add some new wording above–I hope I haven’t made it worse! in any case, I’ve directed any readers to the comments so they can see the further background that you provide. thanks!

  7. Hell is human suffering, not a place of torment ruled by some devil. God is not vindictive, judgmental but inclusive. Look around at the religions of the world. Is Jesus solely for Christians? Indeed, not. Jesus was a jew who hung out with all types of people, religious and the atheists. God’s mission is simple. Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name; thy kingdom come, thy will be done on EARTH as it is in Heaven; give us this day our daily bread and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from EVIL, for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, Amen.

  8. Thank you for commenting and following my blog. I appreciate your point, and this was represented in the film as well. Your reference to the prayer of Jesus helps to put everything in perspective too!

  9. Thanks April. Your thoughts are well appreciated.

    Sorry for competing with you for length in the comment field. Kind of feel I need to ramble.

    I attended the movie on opening night so the theatre had a larger crowd, but I don’t think it was half full. I understand that it was sold out the next evening, for the Q&A showing, and that the attendance through the week was enough for a second week. The media on this seemed to draw enough attention to the movie and the theme that it has generated a number of paths of discussion, and maybe that is the best result that any movie could bring.
    I don’t know if my expectations were such that this movie could not have a positive end result for me. I did go, and I went with a hope that it would be what I wanted it to be – a thorough and fair discussion of the issues around the Biblical thoughts on hell. It might also be true that as soon as you open the door to question the classical views, any view after that is ‘liberal’ and not worth discussing. It is difficult to open those doors with caution – the pressure against the door is very great. In beginning the discussion I can commend Kevin Miller and those with him.

    It seemed to me that the movie did what it said it didn’t want to do. In the early segments of the movie it declared that merely questioning with giving answers did not have integrity (at least I thought it said that), and yet when I left, I felt that all it did was question. Yes, the three views were presented (I cannot say with equal integrity), but there was no sense of ‘Look this way, there is truth down here!” Instead it seemed to leave me feeling like there was no real answer, just speculation. I guess in reality, none of us have ever been to a ‘real, physical, other world’ called Hell (or Heaven for that matter), so we have speculation. The best we have would be the Biblical text, and the best tools we can use to understand the text. Merely saying this is what we always believed is not good enough. Neither is saying we can’t just believe it because it doesn’t ‘ring true’ with me.

    I agree with you on the need for Biblical scholars to enter into this discussion. It is time for the discussion to be brought up again. It has happened on this topic (and most every important topic) in the past. It is time for us to look at it again to see where we drifted from truth into religious system. The movie only tells us we need to do that. The movie does not open any of the truths into those ‘AHA’ moments. Some others have commented that Biblical scholars have been involved, but from what I hear, they are not in a discussion, but in an agreement before a discussion.

    I did find it interesting that at the showing I attended there were audible laughs every time Mark Driscoll spoke. He commented on some very difficult topics in 20 second sound bites. I think the members of the audience were just as biased as Westboro Baptist people were on the movie. That is not a comment on the movie, but soil on which this discussion is growing. The sides are being isolated, and the church is being divided. It makes me wonder why we do this. No matter which view of Hell we have, people are losing Christ because Christians in the many camps are again at war.

    This will probably be the last place I comment on this discussion of the movie (after one Minsterial gathering and a few comments on the Sunday after I saw the movie). I will enter into discussion on the Biblical teaching with people that I connect with (wide variety of congregations, with a wide variety of background on this topic). I know that I am in the classical camp at this point, with friends who are not. I will not lose friends over this. Why? Because that would not be biblical. That would not be Jesus’ way. It has far too often been the church’s way.

  10. @pasdan: Again I point out that several “biblical” scholars are interviewed in the film. Brad Jersak’s book Her Gates Will Never Be Shut is a magesterial reading of the various “hell” traditions; it contains sound exegesis, as does the work of Jamie Clark-Soles. I have spent 30 years studying biblical languages and second temple Judaism. I’m not sure what more you would want. It is true Driscoll comes off like a buffoon in the film; that’s because his view of Christianity is about as far from the message of Jesus as one can get. As far as AHA moments: have you considered Jersak’s noting Jesus’ use of Jeremiah, or my argument (following Rene Girard) that the satan is not a personal being but a human structure that manifests itself both socially and religiously as ‘sacred violence?’ Neither of these has yet made it to the general religious consciousness as far as I am aware, they could be (should be) AHA moments for ECT persons. The film does succeed in at least questioning whether eternal conscious torment should be the default position and that other alternative visions of the good news might offer a more Jesus centered approach to salvation. The questions Kevin Miller raises in the film are vital to moving beyond the retributive god of Christendom to the God of Jesus Christ from whom salvation, forgiveness and all life comes.

  11. Thanks Dan – rambling is welcome too. And thanks Michael for continuing to follow. There’s a lot more that could be said, and perhaps that’s one of the strengths of the film that it’s successful in raising questions and generating discussion. But there are also limits to the documentary genre–some point out that the classic view could have been represented better/more thoughtfully if other speakers had been interviewed, and I understand that others had been asked but declined so that’s one limitation. Plus to the extent that a documentary film is meant to be “entertainment,” it’s really too much to expect it to do everything–in this case, I saw the film as one man’s story/exploration of the issues with the audience invited to come along on his journey.

  12. Hi April,
    Your blog was the first introduction I had to this documentary. Last night it came to Waterloo and 20 members from my church went to see it in a sold-out theatre. It was a stimulating film and the conversation we had afterwards was excellent. I think it is an important conversation – one that I have to say I never had at the Mennonite Bible college or seminary that I attended!

  13. Wendy, I think that’s really the best way to see this film–with time for good conversation afterward. So glad for your experience!

  14. Just found this. Interesting in many ways. Thanks!

  15. The movie is showing tonight at St. Mathew’s Anglican Church…7 p.m I am thinking the discussion there afterward would be quite different than the one should it show in a Mennonite church.