Another view of Hellbound?
Kevin Miller knew his film Hellbound? would push buttons; its marketing promises “you [will] never look at hell the same way again.” Everyone has a bias, and it’s within a filmmaker’s rights to articulate various views in a film, then promote a particular one. However, though Hellbound? is technically a documentary, it feels more like a Christian version of a Michael Moore mockumentary.
The film argues two things: Christian universalism is within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy, and people who believe in God’s retributive justice and hell will (and do!) act violently toward others. The Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith disagrees on both points.
On theologically thin ice
There is no room for Christian universalism within the Confession of Faith’s articulation of orthodoxy.
“If we want to be faithful to the Scriptures we cannot avoid this ‘elementary’ doctrine [judgment] (Hebrews 6:1–2),” reads Article 18’s commentary. “All those who have rejected Christ will be condemned to hell, forever separated from the presence of God.” Furthermore, “Jesus…proclaimed loudly and clearly that a day of judgment was yet to come (Matthew 7:19; 8:12; 25:31–46; John 3:16; 5:29). The apostles too made it very clear that the ungodly ‘will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord’ (2 Thessalonians1:9, NRSV)…. Those who have rejected the gospel will suffer eternal punishment (2 Thessalonians 1:8; 1 Peter 4:17, NRSV)…. ‘Whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath’ (John 3:36, NRSV).”
The Confession clearly articulates that hell is a populated place where people experience eternal punishment. It holds the doctrines of God’s retributive justice and the believer’s sacrificial peace-seeking love for others as two friends standing beside each other, not opponents in need of reconciling. As the apostle Paul writes: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’.… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:19–21, NRSV).
Too many cheap shots
The manner in which Hellbound? argues its main points is not above reproach.
We expect theological writers to quote people in context; the same requirement ought to apply to theological filmmakers. Yet the film persistently tears down the traditional-literal view of hell with straw man arguments. For example, after setting up an argument that belief in a populated and eternal hell produces angry Christians, the film cuts to a clip of Mark Driscoll yelling. However, the clip ends without providing the subject of Driscoll’s comments (men who abuse women). By divorcing the clip from context, the filmmaker doesn’t allow Driscoll the clarity he is due in a constructive conversation.
Another editing “low blow” was following one contributor’s discussion of his belief that not everyone is a child of God (making the case that God reserves a special love for his children, the elect) with a montage of the general public while a cheeky version of “one of these things is not like the other” plays. The clip garners chuckles, but they come at the expense of a genuinely held belief – hardly a gracious way to treat a conversation partner. Such editing cheap shots were not taken at those who held to universalism.
The most grievous example of poor argumentation was functionally lumping all who hold a traditional view of hell with the unchristian antics of Westboro Baptist Church – an affiliation the other traditional proponents would surely dislike. The film consistently presents universalists as intelligent, thoughtful, and likeable people; and repeatedly associates traditional folks with extremists like Westboro Baptist Church.
Miller reduces himself by making fun of his opponents to make his view look better. After presenting the two sides, the film essentially asks viewers who they would rather be like: a winsome British chap who is a universalist or a hate-filled, fear-mongering, placard-sign-holding extremist who believes in a literal hell? It left this viewer wondering if those were the only options.
Hellbound? does more harm than good. The specifics of what hell is like as experienced by those in it is beyond our scope of complete understanding. However, the doctrine of hell as an eternally populated place of punishment is affirmed by the Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith. Holding this doctrine has not made MBs into vengeance-seeking, war-championing, fear-mongers who relish the damnation of others.
Though Hellbound? promises impartial dialogue on the different views of hell, it functions more like a universalistic sermon that takes cheap shots at contributors who hold a traditional-literal view of hell. The film is certainly engaging and provocative, but it fails at the harder task of being fair and nuanced.
—Greg Harris is director of local missions at Northview Community Church, Abbotsford, B.C.
This MB Herald review is a nice counter-balance to Greg’s perspective: https://mbherald.com/film-on-hot-topic-questions-actions-arising-from-belief/
Most notably this quote from Rachel Lloyd’s article: “Though I’ve never carried around placards stating my beliefs that many of my friends will go to hell, I have thought this and acted on it. As a former adherent to the “traditional” view, I saw many of my friends as projects to convert, rather than people whom I loved and cared about. As Miller’s documentary portrays the actions of Westboro Baptist Church members, maybe we will pay attention to our own actions and the fruit they bear.”
Ok, so the above post proves what one of the theologians in the film pointed out: people with one particular lens on will see ALL texts referring to “hell” through their lens and will automatically dismiss any other views.
As a recommended reading, Boyd’s “Across the Spectrum” might serve you well, Greg, in engaging with a variety of theological perspectives. Although other’s conclusions may not fit with the MB’s Confession of Faith, perhaps we can embrace those differences rather than saying “No, they don’t believe what I believe. I must respond with angry posts.” I don’t think Miller ever claimed that his film would fit with the BCMB’s statements of faith.
While I myself encountered many new a thought-provoking approaches to the doctrine of hell, it seems important to be able to engage in a thoughtful dialogue.
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I appreciated both Herald reviews of Hellbound? and was prompted to view the film via the magic of Netflix. I agree with Greg Harris’s review that the film is slanted towards universalism. I kept waiting for the annihilationist view (which links extinction to God’s judgement) to be more fully represented/explained.
Art Isaac’s (September 1 letter) appears concerned that the film could even be shown in an MB Church. Adrienne Lloyd’s September Herald article, however, indicates that Lendrum MB had a weekend of discussion around the topic (albeit with the film’s producer). I presume (perhaps naively) that the three historic views were fully presented at Lendrum.
Greg Harris was concerned at how Mark Driscoll was presented. Yes that classic Driscoll rant was taken out of context. However, Driscoll’s “God Hates Sinners” rant seems to be a fair representation of his brand of Calvinism. Miller actually gave Driscoll plenty of airtime. I appreciated Driscoll’s overview of the three views (at 13.30). Driscoll labels the Classic and Annihilationist views as orthodox but states that Universalism lands one outside orthodoxy. Interestingly, later in the film Brad Jersak cites a Church Father, Gregory of Nysa as the editor of the Nicene Creed and a universalist. Something to study further.
I don’t agree with Greg that the film does more harm than good. The notion of eternal conscious torment for a finite sin strikes many as unjust. The development of Hell’s theology does seem layered and codified by tradition. I’m sure Greg will agree that the subject can be discussed. The film for all its’ weaknesses may be a catalyst for further study and that seems like a good thing.
We can say all we want about how the idea of eternal torment is unacceptable and therefore develop a new postmodern theology to deal with it like. . .[inclusivism]. . . But what do we do with the forty-five explicit and alarming citations of Jesus concerning judgement in the gospel of Matthew alone? Do we throw out the text in the name of postmodern scepticism?
If we need a more ‘Christlike God in Jesus’ (as Brad Jersak suggests), how do we excuse Jesus` warnings for those who insist upon a more palatable gospel? What becomes of our mission and message?