Please note that this is not a full review. I was trying to get my toddler to sleep while watching the film, so I couldn’t really get everything in the best possible way. These are just some basic thoughts and impressions I came away with from a casual viewing. This blog hasn’t generated much in the comments department (although given what some bloggers deal with, maybe this is a good thing) but perhaps this post can asks some questions, or generate some questions from you fine folks who read this. So, here it is, some thoughts on Kevin Miller’s documentary Hellbound?
What it’s about
Film maker Kevin Miller is a universalist (the belief that all people will ultimately be reconciled to God). He challenges the traditional interpretation of hell, interviewing various thinkers from different ends of the spectrum to probe the question will God actually send some (vast number) of people to a fiery place of torment where they will experience torture and pain for all eternity? That’s a valid question. To say yes is to make a bold assertion about God. What if God isn’t like that? To say he is would be a heinous false accusation. So Miller speaks to theologians, pastors, musicians etc. to present the debate which is raging fairly intensely in some circles.
This documentary is in many ways inspired by the brouhaha begun by Rob Bell and the reaction to his suggestion that maybe we can’t be certain what God will do with people who reject him. Miller confronts the vocal defenders of eternal conscious torment (ECT), and introduces us to some of the dissenting voices.
Here’s the description from the film’s website:
For many people, belief in hell as a place of eternal torment for the wicked is an indisputable tenet of Christian orthodoxy. In their view, rejecting or modifying this belief is tantamount to rejecting Christianity, itself. But a growing number of believers disagree. They argue that we can have a loving God or we can have eternal hell, but we can’t have both.
Hellbound? is a provocative, critically acclaimed documentary that wades right into the center of this debate. Featuring interviews with controversial Mars Hill Church pastor Mark Driscoll; screenwriting guru (and atheist) Robert McKee; self-proclaimed exorcist Bob Larson; the purveyors of a “hell house” in Dallas, TX; “Oderous Urungus,” lead singer of the rock band GWAR; and the notorious Westboro Baptists, Hellbound? presents a challenging, eclectic and entertaining mixture of views from across the theological spectrum.
Does hell exist? If so, who goes there, and why? Hellbound? is a probing, incendiary journey that ensures viewers will never look at hell the same way again.
1. I’m pretty cynical about Christian movies, but unlike most Christian film productions, it’s actually well made. This isn’t your usual poorly crafted, family friendly Christian media. It’s actually a high quality production. Miller does a great job of filming, editing and producing something worth watching.
2. It’s bold. I like bold assertions. Even if I disagree, I can respect someone who says something courageous and potentially unpopular and brings something to the table to back it up. He doesn’t mock or demonize, but challenges. He asks questions, and puts some of the ECTers into corners they at times struggle to get out of. It’s nice to see folks like Westboro Baptist mouthpiece Margie Phelps get challenged in a polite, but firm way. Most of us would prefer to dismiss or lash out at folks like them, but I like Miller’s approach. Ask a tough question, see where it goes.
3. A brief cameo appearance by Oderus Urungus from the shock rock band Gwar. Yep, remember Gwar? Oh man the flashbacks to 8th grade. Who knew they were still touring?
1. Frames the debate as ECT vs. Universalism, leaving annihiliationism/conditionalism aside. Only one annihilationism advocate shows up (Greg Boyd), but the clips he’s featured in show him speaking to questions about universalism and whether church history allows for debate on the issue and whether theology has been unanimous on the issue (btw, it does allow for it, and it hasn’t been unanimous). I did have an exchange on twitter with the film’s twitter account (not sure if it’s Miller himself) in the days after viewing it, and there it was said that the film was inspired by the universalism vs. ECT debate (currently slowing down, but which burned hot for a while in 2011-12) and not a comprehensive investigation of all views. So, it’s hard to criticize Miller for not doing something when he set out to do something different. But still, it would have been nice to let Boyd speak for the third option, which only gets mentioned in passing, and maybe seek out other voices from that perspective. So while it suggests it offers view from across the spectrum, it really doesn’t. It gives two points on the spectrum. There are varying degrees within universalism, annihilationism and ECT (there is a considerable number of different interpretations and presentations of ECT), and Miller doesn’t give the whole spectrum.
2. Not the best representatives of ECT. To defend ECT, Miller looks to Mark Driscoll, Kevin DeYoung, Justin Taylor, Ray Comfort, Margie Phelps and exorcist Bob Larson (and a few others). Those first 5 names will often generate a visceral reaction from many folks. Hellbound’s twitter account tells me others were approached (apparently Piper and Keller declined, as did Francis Chan). But basically what we see here is three from the New Calvinist camp (Driscoll, DeYoung, Taylor, who are associated with TGC), and some folks with… let’s say less than sparkling reputations. So it is one sided. Also, you have pastors, bloggers, an evangelist and a… oh I don’t even know what label to use for Margie Phelps. On the other side of the debate you have an array of authors, theologians, pastors, etc. who are generally viewed (except by their most vocal and aggressive detractors) as reputable folks; Robin Perry, Brian McLaren, William Young (author of The Shack), Sharon Baker and a few less-widely know folks. I’m sure it would have been possible to find some ECT advocates coming from a slightly different or nuanced slant. The ECTers who appear have a view of Hell that basically says that God gives nasty, deplorable sinners exactly what they deserve by leaving them to writhe eternally in flames and the righteous will applaud God for his justice. So, perhaps someone else could have been tracked down who hold? An academic? The most vocal defenders of ECT may be Driscoll and Comfort, but that doesn’t mean they are the most informed or articulate. If you have people with Ph.Ds on one side (Parry, Jersak, Baker, Clark-Soles) get a few on the other side too.
3. (Overly?) Biased. All documentaries exist because they want to convince you of their viewpoint. I know that. Most documentary watchers realize that on some level. We are seeing someone present an argument. A doc has a thesis. In this case, Miller’s thesis is that God will reconcile all people and set all things in his order. I knew that going in. But, what I didn’t fully anticipate was the way the conversation would be framed. I saw the cast of characters, and knew I should expect certain things. I’ve seen Driscoll and Comfort and Phelps at work. But the picture we get of ECT advocates from this film is perhaps not accurate (at least not complete). The ECT advocates chosen are from the one end of the spectrum. There are far more nuanced arguments for ECT (not arguments I buy into, but better, e.g. William Crockett in Four Views on Hell). But the advocates of universalism are allowed to speak to their position on the defensive. Phelps, Driscoll and DeYoung are consistently defending a challenge, whereas Perry, Baker and McLaren are able to express compassion, kindness. Even the lighting and settings give away something. Larson is in dark shadows. DeYoung is in a dimly lit evangelical style sanctuary, with dull earth tones. And there are the usual uhms and ahs when asked tough questions as they gather their thoughts (ie. we are being led to believe they’re struggling to put together an argument) whereas the universalists are surrounded by soft colours, warm light, they’re smiling and laughing, and they’re articulate (rehearsed?…) sophisticated folks. Driscoll is depicted as a stern, angry man (Miller includes Driscolls famous “How dare you” moment, which is taken way out of context- that message was a rant against men abusing women. If you don’t know the clip here it is and of course there’s the remix).
It’s worth watching. It’ll at least make you take the question seriously. I’m glad I saw it. It didn’t convince me one way or another (and as I’ve stated before, I do think the conditionalist argument holds more weight than the other options, although I’m not fully prepared to say it’s the only valid biblical conclusion). But there it is, a good thought provoking documentary which raises questions most people haven’t really asked or thought through in a complete manner. This certainly won’t be the final word (I’m sure Miller wouldn’t anticipate that it would be). But I do appreciate the voice in the discussion which sheds light on the way we’ve scandalized people who are suggesting we re-investigate issues of doctrine.