Hellbound? The Review

I recently saw a documentary in a theatre, on opening night. Extra nerd points. Sadly, not everyone is as nerdy as me; even with the carload of students I brought with me, there were only about 30 people in the theatre! Winnipeg, you’re missing out.

The film does have a fairly niche market. It’s called Hellbound? (www.hellboundthemovie.com) and addresses the recent controversy surrounding the doctrine of Hell. Remember that little book Rob Bell put out a few years ago that set the internets on fire? Love Wins was released, John Piper tweeted “Farewell Rob Bell,” Kevin DeYoung wrote a lengthy rebuttal online within days, and within months Francis Chan and half a dozen others had published book-length rebuttals. It seems like there isn’t much a person can do to get Christians after them than to question a particular interpretation of a secondary doctrine.

The controversy was, and is, about Christian Universalism, the doctrine that holds that God will eventually save everyone. It’s still a strongly Christian doctrine – not the “all roads lead to God, so you go be Buddhist because Buddha is interchangeable with Jesus” approach – in that it holds that the efficacy of the cross is universal, and that there will come a day when “every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is lord,” even if those knees and tongues are in Hell. Some propose that there is a Hell, but it will eventually be empty; others don’t see it as a place at all, but perhaps a state of mind or experience. Most people who hold to this doctrine also question what has been the go-to version for a very long time: the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT), in which those who do not accept Christ as their saviour will suffer in Hell forever at the hands of God or his designates. It can be hard to square that idea with our understanding of God as a loving Father who desires that everyone should be saved.

So back to the film. It never states it flat-out, but it’s an apologetic for Christian Universalism – not even for the doctrine, per se, but for the conversation about it. Canadian filmmaker Kevin Miller looked at the debate and saw that a lot of the people who were speaking up about it were actually trying to shut the conversation down, and I think he made this film to give the Christian Universalists their due.

That’s not to say that it doesn’t look at other angles. It only makes a brief mention of Annihilationism, the doctrine that God will simply destroy the unrepentant in the end, but it spends some quality time with some of the ECT crowd’s big names, and even checks out a death metal show and speaks with a bass player named Necrobutcher and the singer from Gwar. While Miller’s choices for interviews to represent the ECT view may face criticism (he speaks at length with members of the Westboro Baptist Church who were picketing at the 10th anniversary of 9/11), he can’t be faulted for paying more attention to the Christian Universalists; after all, ECT’s been the default for most people for ages, it hardly needs further explanation.

Even with the Westboro Baptist Church aside, some of the ECT people pictured are easy targets. Kevin DeYoung interviewed very well, and Mark Driscoll looked very sharp in his long interview (one of the longer ones in the film); but clips of Jerry Falwell, John Piper, and even Mark Driscoll saying things like “God hates you” are pretty hard to ignore, even though Miller includes some of the context for the clips. Doing street evangelism with Ray Comfort, during which he asks people on the street to name their sins before naming them sinners and reminding them of their damnation, can’t help but leave a bit of a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth. Where are the less inflammatory defenders of Hell? Well, I suppose they aren’t the ones engaged in the controversy.

Miller speaks with a wide variety of defenders of Christian Universalism, including a former pastor who lost his job due to holding this view; big names like Brian McLaren, Robin Parry, Frank Schaeffer, Peter Kreeft (a Catholic apologist), Sharon Baker, William Paul Young (author of The Shack); Canadian names like Michael Hardin and Brad Jersak (editors of Stricken By God?), and Archbishop Lazar Puhalo (of the Canadian Orthodox Monastery); and others I was less familiar with.

This film is meant to be a conversation starter, and it does so very well. For most Christians, this will be their first serious look at Christian Universalism, and it’s a pretty good introduction. I was very pleased to see the humility of Robin Parry, author of The Evangelical Universalist, when he noted that this is a very attractive doctrine for some, and urged them to take it slowly and read as much as they can before jumping into it. But probably my favourite part of the film is that it makes the point that what we believe about Hell has huge implications: for our understanding of God, and for the way we see the world and other people.

Kevin DeYoung makes the point that if we preach that there is no Hell, and people believe us and therefore don’t repent of their sinful lifestyles, and then we find out that we were wrong, we’ve led people astray. (I’m not really convinced by this argument; deterrence doesn’t work with crime, why should it work with sin?) On the other hand, if we believe that God created a place of eternal conscious torment, and will send people there to be tortured for all eternity in retribution for finite human sins, it gives us a hard picture of a God who picks favourites and justifies endless violence against others. If this is our image of God, how will we treat those we perceive to be “others”? Jerry Falwell epitomizes this in a short clip from 2004 about the war in Iraq, in which he says “let’s blow them all away, in the name of the Lord.” Frank Schaeffer comes at it from the other side: if we believe that God is on the side of our enemy at least as much as he’s on our side, we’ll see our enemies differently, and therefore treat them differently.

Given the low turnouts, this film will only be in for one week. Go see it if you can – there’s a Q&A session after the screening on Wednesday at Silver City St. Vital. Bring some friends, and start a conversation – because your theology matters, and it’s something we work out in community.


14 thoughts on “Hellbound? The Review

  1. Whenever my youth asked me about heaven and hell, I told them, “Don’t worry, nobody’s there yet. But think hard of where you’d like to be, cause you’re already there!”
    “You mean I’m already in heaven?”
    “…but nobody’s there yet…..?”
    “You’re messing with my head!”
    “A little bit.”

    “Finite human sins” presupposes that what we do within the confines of this life is, indeed, finite; like begets like. However, if we are not finite beings, but eternal beings, then everything we do is eternal by nature. An eternal being committing an affront against an eternal being would then, i think, necessitate an eternal response, else justice would not be met.

    The flip-side though, is that the affront engaged in is not eternal. Sin had a beginning and, at least according to some eschatoloies, will have an end.

    Thoughts of hell and the end, or not, are always interesting to discuss, and for all conversation on the love and mercy of God, we must give due consideration to His justice. Ultimately, the only thing I think I know is that everyone will give account for the things he has done… I don’t necessarily look forward to that day.

    • Hey James, good to hear from you!

      I think the notion of finite sins and eternal sins is a little off, though that was always how it was explained to me. You’re right, our affront is not eternal, it’s very much temporal (and usually has a complicated context).

      Our concept of divine justice really makes more sense when we put it in the context in which it really got popular: medieval feudalism. By their standards, a lord’s honour was worth far more than a serf’s, and so any affront to that honour had to have a punishment that reflected the victim’s honour (the lord’s). A lord could thus do whatever he wanted to a serf, who had little or no honour to affront, while any crime a serf committed against a lord could justifiably result in the death penalty. The punishment had to make sure that the honour of the victim, and justice, were satisfied.

      This is where we get our understanding of justice, but it’s not a biblical conception of justice at all. OT justice is restorative justice, something we haven’t embraced as a society in millennia. Unfortunately, our doctrine of Hell isn’t the only doctrine that really leans on this notion of justice; so does our most dominant model of atonement, the penal substitution model. Check out Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin’s book Stricken By God? for a critique of it. (Fun fact: I think they’re both from Abbotsford)


  2. Hey Jeff: I’d like to see this (probably on DVD?). One criticism I read elsewhere but don’t hear from you as loudly is that it had a very narrow range of options–crass ECTers on one side, and the universalists on the other. You didn’t think it was unfairly balanced?

    I enjoy Robin Parry’s humility, too. It shines through in “The Evangelical Universalist” (which, to my shame, I haven’t finished yet…and now there’s a new edition out!). He’s not an apologist so much as someone who holds a belief and wants to tell you why, but cautiously and gently.

    • I don’t think it was unbalanced if you consider it to be an apologetic for talking about Christian Universalism. Annihilationism only gets brief mention, as a point of comparison.

      The WBC discussion, the clips of Driscoll and Falwell and Piper basically also saying that God hates you, and the tour of “Hell House” (a haunted-house style attraction designed to scare kids into repentance by attempting to depict Hell) certainly give the impression that he may be unfairly portraying ECT, but I had the impression that he covered the spectrum, focusing on the area of conflict. If the conflict is between Brian McLaren and Mark Driscoll, then most of the people he talked to fall somewhere in between, but those other examples are so public and well-known that he’d be foolish not to address them. He also had a decent interview with Kevin DeYoung, Hank Hannegraaff, and Mike Bickle (IHOP), who were less inflammatory. One review I read noted that he tries to give ECT a fair shake, but they come across like jerks anyways. I think that if he had only talked to Kevin DeYoung, ECT would have looked a lot different in the film – but would it have been a fairer representation? As much as we don’t like the WBC, they do certainly believe in eternal conscious torment; on the other end, the Orthodox Archbishop sounded very, very Universalist, and he got a lot of camera time too.

      For a full debate about the issue, it would be considered unbalanced. But for a documentary film and a discussion starter, it was fine. And if it causes the more moderate ECT crowd to better advertise their view than the WBC folks, we all win 🙂

    • I can’t get anything past you, Wadholm 😉

      That’s one of the things I appreciate about this film, is that it draws attention to the implications of our doctrines. Most of the objections to the doctrine are more to do with its relationship to other doctrines. It’s no surprise then that most of the people interviewed in this film are known for their stance on related doctrines: Greg Boyd is anti-Calvinism, Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin reject penal substitution theories of atonement, Frank Schaeffer frames his critique against the backdrop of the Palestinian conflict and Christian Zionism, etc. The doctrine of Hell isn’t central to any of those, but it certainly leans a person one way or another, depending on how one’s doctrine of Hell reflects on one’s understanding of God’s character. What most of the people come back to (and what I come back to) is the notion that ECT seems not to jive as well with Jesus’ character and mission as CU does. It works best logically if God is a feudal lord (see my reply to James), but doesn’t work as well if God became one of the least of these so as to identify with human suffering.

      The criticism of Christian Universalism is that people are changing their doctrines based on their dislike of how the Bible portrays God. I think most of the people who advocate for CU in this film do so because they read the Bible through the lens of Jesus. Their reflection on God’s character isn’t a reaction to their doctrine, but rather a preliminary step to forming doctrines, and I think that’s quite appropriate for a Christian reading of scripture.

      • Well, the text is certainly based on covenants – I’m not sure that anyone would deny that. What they do take issue with is the way in which we interpret those treaties. In a covenant, as I understand it, the two parties are much more egalitarian: what applies to one also applies to the other, and the punishment for breaking a covenant is final, not eternal. The object of the covenant is similarly personal: it’s a relationship of mutual commitment, not of vassalage. And keeping with the context, the OT understanding of justice in every other instance is restorative, which I see as a Jewish improvement on the culture, just as Yahweh’s covenants with Israel were of a warmer and more relational nature than the few pagan treaties I’ve seen reference to. It’s easy to see why a medieval theologian would see parallels between ANE Suzerain treaties – there’s certainly connections to be made – but that doesn’t mean that we should continue to read it in that context, and I think the criticism that these authors make is that we largely still do (particularly in strong Calvinism).

        I’m not expert on Suzerain treaties, feudalism, or any of the rest of this, but I’d love to see your review of Stricken By God? when you get a chance.

      • It would seem that while the HB notions of “covenant” are far more relational than ANE versions, it is still conceived as a suzerain-vassal treaty form. After all, who sets the bounds of the covenant? Who determines the responsibilities and the rewards/punishments? It is certainly not an agreement of mutual design, even as it is agreed upon by a people already in relationship.

        And one might actually argue that in the HB things were treated as “final” but not “eternal” as such development seems beyond the ANE worldview. This was altered by the time of the Second Temple and with the rise of the Christian sect (particularly that part which was influenced so strongly by Greek philosophy).

        And I’m wondering (per this conversation and many others I’ve had with other folks) what is really “restorative” in the OT? Is everything God does “restorative”? Is there no end to the delay of God’s ultimate judgment? Does every individual get included in the various “restorations” of God…or only the continuance of a people which may or may not include the individuals being judged?

      • I would agree that eternal notions are a later development. I suppose this raises the always difficult notion of how much it’s appropriate to read a later development back into the older texts (the Bible seems to be the only place we do this).

        As for restorative justice in the OT, I’m speaking specifically of the laws of Israel, the punishments for which were usually some form of “give it back, with interest.” There were laws in place to discourage retribution (e.g. cities of refuge) as well. Gus had a great bit on this in OT Theology. I suppose that this is somewhat limited to the Pentateuch, though I don’t think that the prophets’ notions of judgment are always necessarily retributive or violent, even if their images for it usually are.

      • I find it hard to see the promised judgments of famine, death “by the sword”, and exile (among others) as “restorative” other than in an ultimate sense…certainly not in an immediate sense. Those who were exiled or killed would not be restored…but the LORD would find a way to draw back the people to Himself eventually. It was always a remnant though…for the majority there seems to not have been any restoration, but only punishment. For those who received it as of the LORD it was functionally discipline shaping them.

      • It would be an interesting study to see which of those were directly from the hand of God and which were the actions of the nations that were interpreted as God’s judgment – it’s an important distinction, and I think that’s what many of the scholars I had in mind in this post were referring to. It’s one thing to say that a natural disaster, or a war that is the result of our sin, is a form of judgment; it’s quite another to say that it’s right or good for God to personally torment people.

  3. Hey all… I really appreciate the discussion. Where do you think Christ fits into this discussion of God’s justice, even in the OT? I mean, we (Christians) often talk about Christ and His work as being restorative, but that doesn’t always match with how we talk about God’s justice elsewhere. What do you think Jesus shows us about the nature of God’s justice, especially in his death and resurrection? I believe that God’s justice, as seen through Christ, is ultimately restorative… which really influences how I read the OT as well… but I was wondering about your thoughts on this. Once again, thanks for starting this conversation.

    • Hey Rob, it’s great to hear from you!

      Personally, I struggle with this question. We’re trained not to read later texts into earlier texts, on one hand, but on the other hand if we see Jesus Christ as God incarnate, it makes perfect sense to try to understand older passages which describe God in light of the clearer representation of God in Christ. Personally, I lean toward the latter; I guess that makes me a “red letter Christian.”

      In light of Christ, it makes sense to me that God does not put conditions on forgiveness: Jesus healed all who asked, and forgiveness of sins seemed to be synonymous with healing to him. Where he did make demands of those he healed, they were straightforward: “go and sin no more” is more like someone telling the kids who just broke his window with a baseball “Don’t worry about it – just stay out of trouble!” The Old Testament judgments seem like this at some points, but at other points it’s more difficult to read this.

      But there are verses in which Jesus also preached judgment, and I suppose I probably don’t put due emphasis on those (though I am convinced that Jesus only preached God’s judgment on hypocrites, which would suggest that if there is a Hell, it’s full of holier-than-thou Christians and Jews). The really harsh judgment passages of the Old Testament (that I can think of) seem to follow this distinction as well: God is harsh on idolatrous Israel, but sends prophets to the Nations, and they repent. It seems like the role of the prophets is to call out hypocrites, which is certainly a major feature of Jesus’ ministry. Is it appropriate for us to associate God’s notion of a just society as the lack of hypocrisy and pretension? If so, judgment’s purpose would be to deal with that pretension, by calling out the hypocrites and teaching us to be humble – a corrective, restorative intention.

      Rick? Anyone else? What are your thoughts on this?

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