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.