Hellbound(?) Review - Part 2: it is more than just a movie

Click to read part 1

As I said in part 1, good art is primarily provocative, rarely conclusive on any one topic or idea. When it comes to understanding hell, Hellbound(?) cannot be seen as authoritative theologically or conceptually.

But all art still says something. While not authoritative, art still presents a point of view in the provocation. Dante’s Inferno, for example, was very influential in determining peoples’ conclusions on hell - a poem! In the case of Hellbound(?), then, what is it saying?

The film makes a case to raise the credibility of Christian Universalism (not to be confused with universalism in general). Kevin Miller, the filmmaker, reflected on this sole purpose in a recent interview: “The people who are opposing the idea of eternal conscious torment are Christ centered, biblically based, and around since the beginning of the church (e.g. Gregory of Nyssa).”  Beyond semi-controversial figures such as Brian McLaren and Frank Schaeffer, Hellbound(?) includes several thoughtful and nuanced descriptions towards a biblical understanding of Christian Universalism. Brad Jersak stands out in this regard. At the very least, the viewer should take their views seriously and respectfully.

At the same time, however, Hellbound(?) doesn’t do itself any favors in establishing this desired credibility. The film very clearly slants towards supporting some sort of Christian universalism. The lack of interaction with annihilationism and the caricatures of the eternal conscious torment folks (although the examples are true) leave Christian universalism looking like the only sane option. This will no doubt - and it should - leave viewers who disagree very frustrated, unfairly represented by the Phelps clan and an angry Mark Driscoll. To get the respect he desires, Miller would have been well served to convince better proponents of the traditional view or annihilationism to participate in the film.

In the end, I’m not convinced by Christian universalism. Well it’s interesting to learn of some in history who have held this position, such an appeal still stands against the majority of theological tradition and orthodoxy. There is too much speculation on exactly how God enacts his love and judgement in the afterlife to make a convincing case, although this could be said about all detailed descriptions of heaven and hell. To Miller’s goal of establishing a greater appreciation and understanding of the Christian universalism project, I do think this movie helps dispel false caricatures of universalism devoid of Jesus and the bible. I resonate and support the desire for faithfulness to Jesus and biblical interpretation. I’m just not convinced they're right in their conclusions.

And finally, like my conclusion with Love Wins, the greatest value of Hellbound(?) is not its speculation on the afterlife but rather how it challenges the audience to consider the implications of their belief for life here and now. Cosmic speculations are never far from down-to-earth ethics. I was particularly surprised with the repeated reference to peace and violence in relation to our views on God’s love and judgment. I found my inner-Anabaptist cheering (reserved Mennonite cheering of course) as folks interacted with how our beliefs about God and judgement will inevitably influence how we treat others in the world. Near the end of the film, the gospel of peace boldly confronts Christianity’s tendency towards violence. If we truly believe, as Christians on all sides of the heaven/hell discussion do, that Jesus embodies the fullness of God’s love and judgement, we should all default to patience and humility as we interact around ideas of love and justice, ideas only fully known and lived in the divine mystery of God in the flesh.

So yes, I recommend Hellbound(?). Find folks to interact, challenge and reflect with. Don’t just speculate without turning to the bible. But also don’t just read the bible without taking the speculation seriously. And with a topic as controversial and divisive as hell, let this reminder be your guide:

There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. 
But you—who are you to judge your neighbor? James 4:12


Ryan said...

Thanks for this very measured reflection, Dave. The more I've thought about the film since seeing it last week, the more I agree with your assessment here:

"To get the respect he desires, Miller would have been well served to convince better proponents of the traditional view or annihilationism to participate in the film."

At the Calgary screening Kevin Miller indicated that many popular figures declined to be in the film (John Piper and Francis Chan among them). Perhaps some of the more "moderate" eternal conscious torment folks (can there be such a thing?!) were unavailable/unwilling to participate. Having said that, even though Driscoll and deYoung are popular proponents of the "eternal conscious torment" view, starting off with the Westboro Baptist folks and an "exorcist" certainly sets a rather ominous and not altogether fair tone.

David Warkentin said...

Yes Ryan, and I am torn on this criticism from an artistic perspective as the entertainment/shock value was enhanced as is. Just not balanced (who are the extreme, raving, irrational universalists?).

In particular, John Stackhouse's lecture, "Hell and the Goodness of God", is quite thought provoking without going the universalist route (yes, a biased recommendation!). He would have been an excellent addition to the film - http://www.regentaudio.com/RGDL4102K

Ryan said...

I saw Stackhouse's name in the credits. Must have served some kind of a consultative role? Who knows... I listened to that lecture a while back and really appreciated his perspective.

(Come on Dave, we all know that universalists don't rave! They are ALL calm, rational, measured paragons of virtue. Sheesh...)

David Warkentin said...

I didn't pick that up, thanks for pointing that out. Maybe Stackhouse was left on the cutting room floor? :-(

And thanks for the reminder! :-)

Chris said...

We at http://www.rethinkinghell.com were disappointed as well by the lack of interaction with annihilationism. We interviewed Stackhouse in episode 3 of our podcast; I wish I'd known he was involved so I could have asked him about it :S

David Warkentin said...

Hi Chris, thanks for stopping by! I look forward to listening to your interview with Stackhouse!

Anonymous said...

Hi David, thanks for blogging on this. I haven't seen either the movie or read Jersak's book so your and Ryan's blogging have been very helpful.

I found this Jersak article/interview which appears to give a good overview of his book/views http://www.ptm.org/11PT/spring/remodelingHell.pdf.

Jersak's comments in the article about the ambiguity of the various ways Hell can be understood based on biblical texts runs against the perspicuity of Scripture. Reminds me of Christian Smith's book about biblical interpretation.

Larry S.

David Warkentin said...

Hi Larry,

I haven't read Jersak's book either, so do realize the movie offers a limited picture. Thanks for the link to help expand things a bit. I'll check it out.

If anything, the movie forces anyone to examine their views of the afterlife, hopefully adopting a posture of humility along the way.

Anonymous said...

After reading the Jerasak article I have the sense that I may not 'need' to read his book.
my bet the book runs something like this: the Biblical materials provide us with 3 ways to interpret 'judgement/hell' - we need to be humble about the interpretation we land on.

What i'd be real interested in reading is some kind of exegetical, hermeneutical, historical development overview of the judgement/hell biblical material. do u know of any such animal? Of course I have way too many books I've purchased and have not yet read, along with my want to read list ... The problem of tracking blogs which give me a sense of what is currently hot (pun intended) in the evangelical scene is that I have a life and can't keep up with my reading.


Larry S.
Larry S.

David Warkentin said...

Yes indeed, the list of books grows and grows...

It was Jersak's humble inquiry (without just being ignorant) that I appreciated most about his part in the film.

Can't remember if it gets at the depth you desire (i.e. "animal" status :-) but this is a good interaction of the different views:

Crockett, William. ed. "Four Views on Hell." Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.

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