There of some us out here for whom “Hell” is more than just a plot point in the latest episode of Supernatural. More than a video game catchphrase: “Burn in hell, suckers!” More than a slightly-less-sinful curse word.
Whether you were raised with it or jumped in later in life, the Christian concept of hell is by turns horrific, disconcerting and yet, to some, comforting.
“The Bible is clear.” It’s something I heard all my life. From the pulpit. From Sunday School teachers. From my own parents. It’s a sentence I’ve thrown around myself in years past.
And there are topics which the bible is clear and straightforward on.
Hell is not one of them.
Today I did something different. I paid full price to see a documentary in a movie theater. I bypassed Bruce Willis’ journey back in time to kill his younger self. I forsook serious Ben Affleck. I didn’t even give the quirky teen drama a second thought.
Hellbound? explores the surprisingly vast spectrum of beliefs within Christianity about Hell. Writer and Director Kevin Miller interviews pastors, authors, scholars and even death metal musicians as he navigates us through the issues. From uber-conservative Mark Driscoll to emergent thinker Brian McClaren, from those with absolute certainty to those “living in the mystery”, everyone contributes a verse.
There are three classic positions on hell: those who believe it is a literal place of eternal conscious torment, those who believe it is simply the end of a soul’s existence (annihilationism) and those who believe that is either a temporary or metaphorical condition from which all people will ultimately be redeemed (universalism). What many do not realize is that there is scriptural and historical support for all three sides of the debate. The answers are not simple.
There is something to offend everyone in this film, whether it is a death metal rocker positing that religion is simply a money-making business, or the hateful vitriol of the Westboro Baptist church member who insists that God hates almost everyone. My favourite part is when this 50-year-old woman refers to the interviewer as a pussy. Very godly.
This is not a cheesy church-umentary to be played in church basements and used for neighbourhood outreach. It is a fascinating look at a complex and contentious issue.
The release of Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” rocked the evangelical community last year. There are many who believe we are better off NOT to broach the discussion at all. But these are the questions people are asking. And I have to agree with Gregory Boyd who said “the truth shouldn’t have anything to fear.”
So here’s me, not a bible scholar, or pastor, or theologian; just a regular Jo. And this movie was made for us too. Choose it – Bruce Willis will be killing someone else next month.
October 16th, 2012 at 9:39 am
Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t trying to paint a picture of all arguments to what hell is, it simply pushes a universalism view. I wish it didn’t have an agenda going into it. It needed to feature much more theologians with a traditional view on hell. I hope this movie isn’t taken as solid truth by the public, as it was one sided, and that people address their thought process on this issue based on scripture alone, and not people who make the bible say what they want it to say to fit their view.
October 16th, 2012 at 10:31 am
Yes, there is a slant in this film, but there is a fair representation of each side. And the main focus is that sincere, faithful Christians can (and do) hold to all 3 positions.
Combatting the traditional evangelical position that “anyone who disagrees with me is cowardly or simply can’t be bothered to read the bible” is what I appreciate most. I do not have a clear position right now, but honestly looking into the issue and reading scriptures which support all the sides has convinced me that the issue is very UNclear. I feel like anyone who claims otherwise on any side is blinded by their own agenda.
October 17th, 2012 at 12:47 am
The problem with addressing our thought processes on this issue, (or any issue for that matter), based on scripture alone is that this is simply not possible.
The scriptures that we read today in contemporary North American culture are themselves coming to us from a human perspective. And a particular human perspective. What I mean is this: I believe scripture is God-breathed, no question. The path that it has taken to get from the breath of God to us and our understanding of it, however, is far from direct. It has passed through three different levels of human perspective.
First of all, it was written down by it’s original author in a different time, a different language, from a different part of the world, and with different cultural, social, philosophical, and religious presuppositions. Not only that, but much of scripture (especially the epistles) was written into and about specific situations and to specific people. All of these things are dealing with human perspective, and a perspective that is quite different from ours.
Secondly, the translations that we use in present-day North America have passed through another host of human perspective. The writers of, say, the NIV, ESV, the King James, or whichever translation you use have done their work, no matter how unbiasedly or painstakingly, from a particular point of view. And when they come upon an issue in translation that is not clear cut but rather up for interpretation, they will interpret that passage, word, or phrase in a way that supports their particular human perspective and whichever particular theology they subscribe to.
This leads us to the third level of human perspective, which is our own. Each of us reading these words written so far away and so long ago, having been translated rather recently, come at scripture with our own host of human perspective. Our social status, nationality, upbringing, denomination or religion, relationships, personal experiences, etc. etc. etc. all lead us to have our particular, individual, and unique view of the world. This inevitably has an effect on our perception of scripture as well. We cannot escape it.
We run into problems on the first level when we fail to understand the context of the original text, and all the nuances of the language, the culture of the day, etc.
We run into problems on the second level when we base much of our beliefs on specific wordings of phrases or passages and our 21st century North American cultural understanding of that specific word, phrase, or passage.
And we run into issues on the third level when we are unable to see beyond our own experiences and viewpoints, and be open to the opinions, beliefs and experiences of others.
Yet what remains to be my favourite thing about scripture is that despite all these human perspectives, despite the disparity of thousands of years between the writing of these words and our hearing of them today, and despite our feeble, fallen intellect God’s Word is living and active, penetrating to the very core of us to this day. I believe that the Holy Spirit that inspired the writing of these words is the same Spirit that speaks them to us today. The issue lies in whether or not we are listening.
If we can come to a better understanding of the world into which the Spirit was speaking at the time the scriptures were written, and the significance of these passages to the intended hearers and readers of the text, then we will be in a much better place to determine and interpret the scriptures, and apply them to our lives today. And always interpret them in that direction: from a place of understanding the original context. and allowing that to inform our interpretation, rather than reading our current context back into the scriptures, thus muddying the already at times unclear waters that comprise the Bible.
I cannot speak for every person interviewed in Hellbound, but I know that not every one of them was reading their own points of view back into scripture. I sensed in some a true wrestling with what was actually being said in scripture, and what it meant for the original audience as well as what it means for us today.
I do not disagree that there was a particular slant of the film-makers away from a traditional view of hell. Once again, they are making this film from a particular perspective. Whether or not they set out to make a documentary that supports universalism, or just wanted to explore the issue and this is what the result was, only those involved in putting together the film will be able to answer that definitively. Therefore I think it is unfair to call the film one-sided and assume that there was a particular agenda in the motivation behind making the film. Much was presented, and from many different denominations/schools of thought. We should welcome a multi-faceted discussion of this issue.
As for my reaction to the film, I did not come away from it with a clear idea of what I believe to be the “right way”. In fact, as Christie pointed out, the issue seems to be much less clear than I had at first thought. What I did come away from the film with was a desire to wrestle with the unknown; with my doubts, with my questions, and ultimately, to deepen my relationship with God by studying his Word, learning from those who have an understanding of the culture, language, and context of Scripture, and allowing God to be bigger than my human perspective of Him.
October 17th, 2012 at 8:19 am
Ya… what he said.
Thank you, very thoughtful and thorough and I totally agree!
October 16th, 2012 at 10:37 am
What more needed to be said by theologians with a traditional view on hell?
October 18th, 2012 at 12:42 pm
Three of the contributors at the Rethinking Hell blog and podcast (http://www.rethinkinghell.com) saw the film and said that although our view–annihilationism–received a tiny bit of lip service, it really wasn’t given fair treatment, unlike the other two views. That’s a shame. I was particularly surprised to discover that in the scene where there are three columns with proof-texts in each, Matthew 10:28 appeared in the traditionalist column. Huh?!?!
October 18th, 2012 at 3:18 pm
Yes, I think you have a point. While annihilationism was treated with equal respect as other positions, it did not get as much of an explanation or screen time. I’m going to assume the other 2 were more extreme and therefore more dramatic. And Matt 10:28 (destruction of body and soul) seems to fit better with that viewpoint than the others.
October 18th, 2012 at 3:32 pm
Personally, I think *all* the traditionalist proof-texts are, upon being given even a modicum of careful exegesis, far stronger support for annihilation than for the traditional view. That was what shocked me when, a little over a year ago, I began to question the traditional view of hell. Even the infamous Revelation passages are better support for annihilation when one takes a closer look.
I was hoping Hellbound! would give our view comparable time to the other views, and am disappointed. We at Rethinking Hell are trying to arrange an interview with Kevin Miller, and hopefully we’ll get to ask him why he made that decision.
October 19th, 2012 at 9:11 am
While I am still undecided (and may always be) I have certainly found the same and without the mental gymnastics I thought annihilationism must require (having been cowed by the attitude that anyone who questions is simply a coward or even worse, gasp, a liberal). It is the position I am most comfortable with but I hope that “ultimate redemptionist” wins the day.
As disappointing as it must seem not to get as much screen time, I don’t think there was enough time to really dig into the debate and still retain entertainment value. To me it seemed more about accepting and engaging in the discussion. I hope you get your chance to talk to the director.