Review: Hellbound

Heaven and Hell reviews Theology / Biblical Studies

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A version of this review was first posted at Rethinking Hell, a collaborative project that I contribute to. Check it out, it’s worth your time. Trust me.

I know of two movies going by the name Hellbound. One, as I’m sure everyone knows (right?), is Clive Barker’s horror classic, part two in the Hellraiser series. The other is a new documentary called Hellbound by Kevin Miller. I almost said “a new documentary called Hellbound by Kevin Miller, in which he explores the doctrine of hell,” because that, or so I think, is the way Kevin wants the public to see the movie. But having watched the movie carefully, I don’t think I would naturally describe it that way. The issue of hell, its biblical basis, its historical development, its critics and the evidence they cite – none of these things are really broached in what I would call much depth. While I genuinely appreciated aspects of what Kevin is trying to say, I came away with real reservations about a good deal of what was presented here – and certainly about the way that it was presented.

The good

Let me make it clear that there are things about Hellbound that I really do appreciate by starting with those. Firstly, this is a project that someone really needed to make. The evangelical handling of the subject of hell is absolutely terrible: Dogmatic, resting so much conviction on such a flimsy biblical case, and way, way too much suspicion and marginalisation of dissenting voices, casting dissenters as “theological liberals,” no matter how evangelical their actual convictions may be. I’m not the universalist that Kevin is, but I certainly appreciate that a universalist is in a position to know these things. Universalism may be a poor understanding of the biblical material as far as I am concerned, but the way to respond to it is not simply by excluding those who hold it from the discussion about divine judgement. As someone who has reached the honest conclusion that the Biblical passages that speak about final judgement clearly teach annihilationism, I know only too well how shallow, dismissive and hostile supporters of the evangelical establishment can be when they encounter ideas that are not their own, and Kevin’s criticisms here, presented in his own words and in those of his guests (again, many of whom with I would disagree on a whole range of theological issues) deserve to be heard often and clearly, so I had no objection to them being made repeatedly here. Greg Boyd’s comments were particularly welcome: Universalists do carry a pretty hefty burden of proof given some prima facie facts. “But that doesn’t mean that they should be squashed as heretics for suggesting the idea.”

While, again, I’m no universalist, I also have to stress that I wouldn’t fault a movie like this because it promotes universalism. If I thought that people shouldn’t seriously consider and even enjoy the presentation of alternative views on this subject, there would be very little point in my writing and speaking on my own view (in case I was merely reaching out to people who do what they ought not – namely by considering my viewpoint). For a further exposure to those who defend universalism from a more-or-less evangelical perspective, I think we can be grateful. I say “more-or-less” because it’s pretty clear that some of the spokespeople here have little or no time for Evangelicalism, with contributors as diverse as David Bruce of Hollywood Jesus, Robin Parry (aka Gregory MacDonald), author of The Evangelical Universalist, and Frank Schaeffer, who spoke in particularly acidic tones about evangelicalism, giving away a sense of revulsion at the conservative evangelical he once was. If evangelicals who want to talk about and hold themselves as really understanding and knowing all about the issue of hell aren’t conversant with what these people say, I think they really lose the right to participate, as it were, as “communicant members” of this discussion. You have to know where everyone is coming from and what they have to say if you’re going to presume to speak with any sort of authority on the question of hell.

Obviously a movie like this is primarily theological in thrust, so a good deal of the material was about theology (not the better part of the material unfortunately, see below). But there was a fair amount said about the more general issue of how people disagree with each other, with how much certainty, and how and why the react the way they do to opposition on an issue that they care about. Getting a good, empathetic and even pastoral grip on that issue is perhaps as important as getting a grip on the theological issue that people are disagreeing about in the first place, so I was grateful for the coverage given to this facet of the discussion as well.

The bad

But all is not well here. In spite of the “infotainment” packaging that is common in documentaries, Hellbound really is meant to tackle a theological issue here, namely that of hell. In this documentary as well as in his discussion with Rethinking Hell’s Chris Date, Kevin tells people that part of the difficulty with getting Christians to talk and think about hell is getting them to think about punishment and justice in God’s plan of salvation more generally, and also in breaking through the prevalent view of the death of Christ in evangelical theology. He wants to challenge the “lens” through which Evangelicals view the issues, and not simply the conclusions they reach. Most evangelicals, Miller correctly notes, view the cross of Christ as a way in which Jesus stood in as a substitute for human beings, suffering and dying in their place. This way of thinking about the atonement, it is said, places violence at the centre, and it really makes God the author of it. It’s a punishment-focused view of justice, where God saves people only by punishing others. Punishment has to happen, or salvation doesn’t. Similarly, when it comes to what happens to people who aren’t saved, it’s all about satisfying God’s thirst for punishment. God can’t rest until punishment has been meted out.

I’m intentionally describing things in somewhat provocative language, because that’s precisely how the opponents of this way of thinking describe it – and that’s when they’re being gentle. Kevin is on record putting it this way:

If you favor preventive measures of justice, you probably fall into the eternal torment or Annihilationist camp. If you gravitate toward curative measures, you are likely a Universalist.

The scene is set. If you like payback over healing, you won’t be a universalist. Naturally, we all like the sound of healing, so let’s be universalists! I’m fairly sure that’s how the pitch is supposed to work.

Surely we shouldn’t affirm any given view as true because we “favour” it or “gravitate” towards it. If you’re trying to figure out what the Bible teaches (and that’s really the heart of the theological task as most evangelicals see it), then the question is about something external to us, whether we like it or not.

One comment that immediately comes to mind is that I have difficulty relating to this whole way of doing theology. Surely we shouldn’t affirm any given view as true because we “favour” it or “gravitate” towards it. If you’re trying to figure out what the Bible teaches (and that’s really the heart of the theological task as most evangelicals see it), then the question is about something external to us, whether we like it or not. As John Stott was careful to stress, in spite of his own emotional difficulty with the doctrine of the eternal torments of hell, “my question must be – and is – not what does my heart tell me, but what does God’s word say?.”((David L. Edwards and John Stott, Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (Hodder & Stoughton, 1988), 314-315.)) But I’m prepared to cut Kevin some slack here. Maybe by “favour” he means something like “personally favour because you think it’s true and you favour things that are true.”

The second thing to say is that there is something to be said for Kevin’s observations. There certainly are movements within Christianity that seem to focus more on the harshness, judgement, punishment and condemnation of God than on anything else, which naturally results in a distorted theology. Those who picket the funerals of children or soldiers, or those who run “hell houses” designed to scare people into a decision for Christ are clear and unwelcome evidence of this.

But the third thing to say is that it’s an easy mistake to react to the error or one extreme by rushing to the opposite extreme, yet another error.

… it’s an easy mistake to react to the error or one extreme by rushing to the opposite extreme, yet another error.

 Caricatures of traditional portraits of God, drawn from the worst examples that exist in contemporary fundamentalism, shouldn’t simply be reacted to in knee-jerk fashion by immediately embracing their mirror image. There is little plausible doubt that authors of the New Testament certainly did, at least in part, see punishment as a facet of divine justice. It’s not the full picture, granted. But it is surely part of the picture. Jesus notoriously claimed that God would send the unrighteous away into “eternal punishment.” St Paul spoke of Jesus wreaking “flaming vengeance” on those who reject the Gospel, and Jude wrote of Sodom and Gomorrah being annihilated with “everlasting fire” and serving as an example of what is going to happen to the lost one day. You can’t eliminate punishment from the picture without simply ignoring at least some of what Jesus and the biblical writers had to say.

Miller, along with Rob Bell and other critics of contemporary Evangelicalism (and yes, I’m aware that I am a critic of contemporary Evangelicalism myself at times) are very happy to point out the zeal and dogmatism of people who don’t want to wrestle with the hard questions and tensions but who want to confidently declare the final answer. But this is one point where they need to take their own concerns seriously. If too many evangelicals latch on to the judgement of God and make that their controlling picture, leaping from there to dogmatic answers to too many questions, then they are likewise not entitled to latch on to references to God’s love and make a similar leap to confident answers. It’s all very well to say that they’re only asking questions or encouraging others to claim the right to ask such questions – a right they certainly have – but it’s another to imply in almost sneering tones that because of the biblical notion of God’s love, we must reject the concept of a just, judging and even punishing God in favour of one who ultimately saves everyone. Mainstream evangelicals are not the only ones who need to be willing to wrestle with concepts of God that they don’t “gravitate” towards. Miller, like other Christians, surely has to wrestle with the fact that Scripture says that God is not only loving, but also that he is just and that he engages in punishment. If Evangelicals don’t get to exclude one in favour of the other, then neither does he.

This brings me to the fourth – and main – thing that I want to say here. It’s an attractive set up for the universalist to say that if you believe in harsh, nasty justice then you might interpret the Bible as teaching eternal torment or annihilationism, but if you believe in a loving God and in a different model of justice then you should interpret the biblical passages as supporting universalism. But it’s simply not true. Kevin never really explains why all other versions of final judgement fall apart once we give up the purely punitive picture of God. For example, in its 1995 report, The Mystery of Salvation, the doctrine commission of the Church of England tentatively affirmed annihilationism, saying that “Hell is not eternal torment but it is the final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God so completely and so absolutely that the only end is total non-being.” Here we see the classical portrait of God as the ground of being – he is pure being itself, and so the complete rejection of God means rejecting the source of our own existence, resulting in our own nonexistence. Here the idea is not punishment but self-exclusion. It’s true (in my view, at least, which I have defended elsewhere) that a penal substitutionary view of the cross gives us good grounds for adopting annihilationism, it’s not true that accepting annihilationism forces us to accept a penal substitutionary view of the atonement. CS Lewis, a traditionalist, posed the suggestion that “hell is locked from the inside,” the idea being that people in hell, seeing hell for what it really is, still persist in rejecting God and remaining where they are. I find that proposal implausible, but the point is that there is a range of possibilities about what God is like and just how punitive justice really is, whatever one’s view of hell. Telling people that they have to choose between a God who’s all about punishment on the one hand and universalism on the other – aside from underestimating the prominence of biblical talk about punishment – is simply not correct.

Another issue that needed more probing was the nature of Gehenna. Brian McLaren makes a brief case that Gehenna (the word translated “hell” several times in the Gospels), literally is nothing more than the Valley of Hinnom. All of Jesus’ warnings of divine judgement, or so the message seemed to be, are exhausted in their fulfilment in the destruction of Jerusalem. These comments beg for a response. Yes, the actual Greek term Gehenna is derived from the Hebrew Gai-ben-hinnom, “Valley of the son of Hinnom,” or just Gai-Hinnom, Valley of Hinnom, later becoming Gehinnom, and Gehenna in Greek. Yes, the Valley of Hinnom is South of Jerusalem and is historically associated with slaughter, and yes this can inform us as to the word’s likely intended meaning. But it’s a basic error to think that whenever a word is used, the speaker or writer has in mind the historical origin of that word. Gehenna had come to refer to the fate of the unsaved after death in the Jewish literature that was prevalent in the first century, and there were several views on what Gehenna was like. Some though it was eternal torment, some annihilation and a few even thought that some people would come back from Gehenna and be saved. But it wasn’t simply the valley of Hinnom, and there is no voice in the documentary that substantiates or challenges comments like these. Similarly, yes there are some sayings of Jesus that are seen by some to refer to the “end times” but actually refer to the destruction of Jerusalem. His comments about the so-called “great tribulation” are a classic example. But a brief pause to look over some of the evidence that is being swept up here as all about the Roman sack of Jerusalem would at least give viewers pause. Matthew 10:28, for example, warns people not to fear men (presumably including the Romans) who can kill the body, but instead to fear the one who can destroy the body and soul in Gehenna.

The above kind of interaction with the issue that I’ve offered – namely, critical, even if brief – is the kind of thing that was lacking in this movie. There were so many responses and criticisms that could have been made to virtually all of the provocative suggestions made by Kevin and those who spoke in favour of his view. But virtually none of the many possible objections were given coverage – and the closest thing to such coverage that was given was Robert McKee (an atheist) with his comments on the importance of human decisions. This is partly why the movie isn’t an exploration of the issue of hell at all, but rather a chance to listen to what is essentially advertising for universalism.

In fairness, Kevin interviews people who enjoy a fairly good reputation among many evangelicals and who hold to the traditional view, like Hank Hannegraaf, the “Bible Answer Man.” But why feature people like Robin Parry in favour of Universalism – people for whom this is their primary area of scholarly expertise – but popular radio hosts like Hannegraaf for the other side, who, as far as I know, really isn’t viewed as having any particular area of scholarly expertise? This made for a fairly predictable set of conclusions. I predict that as more people watch Hellbound, this reaction will be a common one.

The ugly

But beyond the problem of what I see as a lack of depth and critical engagement (even for a documentary of this nature) coupled with what looks like decidedly one-sided coverage of questions, what really left an unpleasant taste in my mouth and what sullied my overall impression of this movie was an overriding distortion of the intellectual options in the game by what must surely have been the intentional use of easy targets and attacks on “low hanging fruit.” Consider the fact that the movie opens with scenes of Westboro Baptist church, the notorious crew whose mantra is “God hates fags,” protesting a 9/11 memorial gathering. Yes, really. Naturally, Kevin gets their side of the story (by provoking some fairly predictable verbal shots from them as they stand there with their signs). But this hardly makes things balanced. One of the other staples used to represent the “other” (namely, the traditional) view that Kevin’s opposed to is Bob Larson, famous for doing battle with Demons on TV as “The Real Exorcist.” Bob defends the traditional view by saying that he knows hell is real because he casts out demons from hell who don’t want to go back there. This explanation is accompanied by clips of Bob in action, replete with his blinged-up cross, pressing his Bible against the heads of the possessed as he orders the demons around. Again, yes, really, this is actually in the movie. Westboro Baptist and Bob Larson appear numerous times. We also get shown the Hell House – a group of Christians who get young people into what is basically a carnival house of horrors depicting all sorts of horror and violence in an effort to give them a taste of what hell is like.

This is surely monstrously unfair. Westboro Baptist? Arguably the most hated group in America? You chose them as representatives? And Bob Larson? I can’t think of a single respectable writer or speaker defending the traditional view of hell who would defer to this guy. “Nutjob” is a word that fairly easily comes to mind. Why not people like Robert Peterson, Christopher Morgan, Don Carson, Douglas Moo, or anyone with a bit of scholarly respectability instead? You really, really think that people who picket funerals or cast out demons on a TV show are better fodder? How is this not an obvious case of poisoning the well?

Kevin has defended himself against such criticisms a few times that I know of, and each time the defence is more or less the same: Firstly, people like Larson, he says, use the same basic arguments that other traditionalists do, so what’s the big deal? Second, there just aren’t any universalist equivalents to feature! If he could have found a nasty bunch of Universalists, Kevin says, he would have included them, but universalism (and annihilationism, he was good enough to mention to Chris Date in his interview on Rethinking Hell) just doesn’t foster that type of thing. But this defence just won’t do, for a couple of reasons.

First, it frankly doesn’t matter if the likes of Bob Larson or Westboro Baptist Church would use the same arguments that other traditionalists use. It’s not true, by the way, that the arguments are the same. As I indicated earlier, respectable traditionalists do not argue for the traditional view of hell on the grounds that they cast out demons from hell who don’t want to go back there. But more importantly, the point that does the emotive work is that they are the ones giving the argument, regardless of whether the arguments are the same as those used by traditionalist theologians. Imagine if I had a guest on a news show to explain his economic theory – which was very similar to mainstream theories accepted by respectable economists, but the guy I invited onto the show was notorious KKK member, who sat in front of the camera in full uniform. If people asked me why I chose him, it would do no good to reply that his theories really aren’t that different from popular theories. By choosing a person like that I’m facilitating an association in the minds of viewers between his views on this subject and all the nasty things we already associate with racism. Similarly, by offering Bob Larson, Westboro Baptist and the Hell House as representatives of the traditional view, there’s no real doubt that Kevin is trying to forge an association between traditional views of hell as a place of torment at the hands of God, and bigots, crackpots and people who put on shock shows.

But secondly, it’s really not the case that there are no universalist equivalents of these people. You’re thinking about the objection wrong if you think that since there aren’t universalists who picket funerals or do outlandish things in public, there’s no equivalent. Westboro Baptist and Larson etc are types of fundamentalists. Universalists tend to be liberals. So extreme examples of universalists aren’t going to look at all like extreme examples of traditionalists. But they exist. Why did Kevin not have, speaking for his view, several examples of Unitarian Universalists? Perhaps because it would associate his cause with extraordinarily liberal Christianity (if it could be called that at all). But that’s the point: Association. The documentary encourages readers to associate traditionalism with its very worst representatives, and it does not at all do the same for universalism.

Moving on from the unfortunate selection of representatives, I was particularly struck by what, on the face of it, looks for all the world like inexcusable editorial dishonesty in Kevin’s portrayal of Mark Driscoll – the preacher that progressive Christians love to hate, let’s be honest. The scene started out fine. Greg Boyd was being interviewed, commenting on the hostile reaction you can encounter when you challenge people’s beliefs. When people have a lot invested in bring right about hell (or anything else), you’re going to get their amygdala working, triggering a chemical reaction in the “reptilian brain stem,” and they’ll start “raging.” OK, now that’s a fair enough comment on one of the factors that comes into play in dogmatism. But then Kevin immediately cuts to footage of Mark Driscoll shouting at the top of his voice to the congregation “Who do you think you are?! You’re not God, you’re just a man!” Kevin then cuts back to Greg’s comments (he’s still speaking), as he explains that the stronger the new perspective is, the more the opposition gets, to the point where people don’t even want you to consider the new idea. You know, people who get ferocious when their theology is challenged. People like Mark Driscoll. You all saw him shouting just now, right? You saw him “raging” when his beliefs are challenged, right?

No, you didn’t. What you just saw was edited footage from this clip where Mark is shouting at young men in his church who mistreat their girlfriends or wives, and the clip closes with him calling on them to repent and to apologise to these women. Of course, the viewer of Hellbound doesn’t know this, because all the surrounding context is removed. All they see is Greg Boyd – innocently, remember – talking about the way people who are resistant to new ideas can react to them by “raging,” and then footage of Mark Driscoll as an example of that raging, hostile reaction to new ideas. I don’t often go all drama-queen and say that something someone says “disgusted” me, but I was pretty disgusted by this. I couldn’t see any possible way that Kevin would not realise how he was portraying Mark here. So before I published this review, I spoke to Kevin directly to allow him to say something on his behalf. His explanation was that he was well aware that he was taking Mark out of context (that’s what he told me), and that really what he was doing was trying to say that Mark’s shouting and raging was a “metaphor” for the way that he deals with people like Greg Boyd. He metaphorically shouts and rages at them. Do I buy this? Well, I’m prepared to believe that this is how Kevin rationalised what he was doing here, but it’s not excusable on these grounds. What about the other scenes we’re shown: Protestors, angry ministers closing the door on cameras and so on. Is any of this just meant to serve as metaphor? I don’t believe anyone would expect any viewer to see it this way. Greg is shown saying that when people’s beliefs are threatened, they rage because they’re hostile to other perspective. Mark is shown as an example of someone doing exactly that. This was really, really below the belt. I haven’t seen Kevin’s other documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. But the effect that Hellbound has had on me is rather like the effect of watching Bowling for Columbine by Michael Moore. I was genuinely interested in watching this movie, but now I’m highly suspicious from the outset of the next thing I see from Kevin Miller (Expelled, for example), which is a shame. (It’s worth noting, by the way, that in Hellbound mark is on record saying that actually, while he thinks Greg’s view – annihilationism – isn’t correct, far from raging against it, he’s happy to work with people who hold that view, so he rages neither literally nor metaphorically at it!) I’ve criticised Mark’s treatment of the doctrine of hell and those who don’t hold the traditional view before and I certainly don’t sympathise with it, but he deserves better than this.

Enough with the ugly.

And then, the end. The outcome of the documentary is pretty much what you expected. Universalism is good. It enables us to see everyone as “created in God’s image.” It enables us to believe In a God who resurrects and restores. Of course, the viewer might think “but don’t other views teach that too”? But this is ultimately made to get people to warm to universalism. I don’t object to that. The viewer may have some concern at closing assurances like “there’s nothing to fear.” Nothing? Not even a “fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries”? Is it not “a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” But, these misgivings aside, the documentary leaves the viewer with questions – “homework,” perhaps – that really are worth pursuing. Although I think Robin Parry is dead wrong, his closing remarks are among the best in the movie – Don’t watch this and then rush off into universalism. Read what people have said on each side. Think about it, pray about it, but just be open to the possibility. Here evangelicals should be listening. Being open to the possibility that their theology is wrong is really not something a lot of us evangelicals are good at. So take this advice. I don’t think Universalism is true, but if I had never, ever been open to the possibility of it being true, my conclusion that it’s not true would be simply a product of my will. Closing comments that ask us to be suspicious of the idea that “I know who’s in and I know who’s out” are surely on the mark. I happen to think Evangelicals are already a bit past that, and only the incurably dogmatic would make any such claim to knowledge, but it’s good advice nonetheless.

So that’s the good, the bad, and the ugly. I wanted to like this – I did, and the movie delivers some of what I hoped for. But in spite of its great moments, the potentially intellectually stimulating viewing experience was ruined by far too many flies in the ointment. It raises good questions, and provides some very wise caution about confidence and dogmatism. But the framework in which it does so is not ideal by any means. The level of theological rigour here is low. The treatment of opposing people and opposing points of view is seriously disappointing. Yes, dogmatic fundamentalism is bad. But so is a critique of that fundamentalism (and the wider evangelical community) that’s simplistic, caricatured, one-sided and that at times, I’m sorry to say, looks calculated to mislead. Can I recommend an alternative documentary to watch in place of this one? No. Maybe one day I’ll make one. Watch this one if it interests you, by all means. Hellbound should have been much better.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Michelle February 24, 2013, 5:26 am

    Thanks, Glenn, for such a thorough and balanced review. I have been curious about seeing this documentary and am even more anxious now. Thanks, especially, for voicing your concerns.

  • Nick February 24, 2013, 4:35 pm

    I am looking forward to hearing your comments on the newest ‘unbelievable’ episode about this topic. It should be a good discussion, I hope. Thanks.

  • bethyada March 1, 2013, 5:17 pm

    Have you read Facing Hell, An Autobiography 1913-1996, by Wenham.

  • Glenn March 1, 2013, 5:48 pm

    No, I haven’t. I really like Wenham’s work though.

  • bethyada March 2, 2013, 4:40 pm

    I mention it because the last part of the book discusses his move toward annihilationism later in life. The first part I think is someone biographical. I would like to read it but it is hard to come by.

    This is John Wenham by the way, I think father to Gordon.

  • Rev. Robert LaVeck December 7, 2013, 8:17 pm

    I would like to point out that there is danger in any movie or book that attempts to change peoples minds on issues that are so close to the flesh. After all, hell is a scary subject. But, the heart is deceitfully wicked, according to Jeremiah, and should not be trusted on these issues. So, whenever I see or hear someone trying to prove or disprove hell, purely by logic, reason and, so called scholarship, flags immediately go up. First sign of impure motive is the fact that on one side of the issue we have an over abundance of seemingly loving, intellectual, and reasonable people rooting for one side. But on the other side we only see foaming at the mouth extremists that do not appear very smart. The agenda is quite clear. I say that truth is not the ultimate goal of this effort.
    To me, it is obvious that God allows for many mysteries in life and in the Bible. Mysteries that can not be unraveled by Scholarship and logic. There are many mysteries that can only be resolved by a personal, supernatural connection with God and until we receive it in this manor, we must simply say, I do not know for sure. Amen. On the other hand we should say that wisdom dictates that if it is even possible that there is an eternal hell, I should conduct my life with great care and humility, just in case!!!

    Love,
    Pastor Bob LaVeck

  • Willy December 8, 2013, 1:12 pm

    Very good review. Much of what I thought/felt after watching it, put into words. Please proceed on your mention of doing a documentary yourself.

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