My favourite podcast is Life & Faith, produced by the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX). Below I’ve transcribed the first of the two part series they did on the provocative documentary film Hellbound?.
Justine: Well this week we’re taking on a very unpopular topic—the kind that might even stop a dinner party rather than start one but one, of course, that we think is worth tackling.
William P. Young: If you have a paradigm that doesn’t allow you to ask questions, there’s something wrong with the paradigm. And inside the traditional paradigm of Dante’s hell Inferno, you’re not allowed to ask all kinds of questions.
Mark Driscoll (voice of Rob Bell in background): It’s not a problem to ask questions but sometimes when certain questions are asked its by someone who’s a coward and doesn’t have the conviction to declare their answer.
Robert McKee: The notion that there really isn’t a hell is simply a wussy effort to make God a nice guy.
Bob Larson: Can anyone really believe that Hitler’s had a second chance?? Ha. I don’t think so.
Justine: Now that grab was from the documentary Hellbound? that has recently been shown all over North America and is causing quite a stir. So we’re gonna be talking hell and judgment over these next two episodes of Life & Faith. We’re going to be thinking about the Christian understanding of judgment and specifically of hell. Maybe… is hell a place or is it a state of mind, and who’s going there: Most people? Some people? No one?? And where do the life and death and resurrection of Jesus come into this? And these are all the sorts of questions that Hellbound? addresses. Now Simon, do you think it’s surprising that this topic is getting so much attention these days?
Simon: No, I don’t actually. It surprises me, actually, that it doesn’t get more attention because it’s a vital question to examine. There can’t be many more serious, important questions to consider than where we’ll spend eternity! And Christian theology and tradition teach some very definite things about that. So, no, the question of death and what’s beyond it remains a crucial one for humans everywhere.
Justine: But let’s be honest, like, no one likes the idea of judgment.
Simon: No, we don’t. I don’t. And you know it’s really offensive to too many people these days, increasingly so. When we’re so attached to the notion of freedom being endless choice—which I happen to think is the way we tend to go these days—anything that gets in the way of that choice, people tend to find a way to reject it and I think that’s why this discussion is largely off the table. It’s just too offensive. But it’s really important discussion to have because if you believe the Bible has something to say about who God is and who we are and the nature of our reality, it’s important to get as close as we can to the correct answers about those things. So the question of judgment is important.
Justine: I spoke with Kevin Miller, the director of Hellbound?, from his home in Canada.
Justine: So Kevin thanks for joining us on the program.
Kevin: Great to be here.
Justine: So what first got you interested in this topic.
Kevin: Well, I come from a Christian background myself and and you’re right, I mean hell is one of those issues within Christianity that typically you don’t question. It’s just part of the package. So you become a Christian. You sort of accept this idea that some people are gonna go to heaven—of course that’s going to be you—and some people are going to go to hell and that’s, you know, the other people. But as a Christian it’s something that I think everyone, on some level, wrestles with because how do you reconcile this idea of eternal torment with a God who is supposedly loving? And so this has definitely been, personally, a huge issue for me and so Hellbound became really my way of trying to grapple with it.
I’ve been investigating that topic and related issues for several years and it was finally in January 2011 that I had the opportunity to begin production on this film. And it was just an attempt to really go deep on this topic because, you know, Christianity is often presented as this cut-and-dried thing to the outside world and I think that’s a mistake. That within the faith itself, just as you’ll find within Islam and Buddhism and all sorts of other religions, there’s all sorts of different factions—some progressive, some conservative, some liberals—all trying to work out different aspects of the faith. And so, definitely, with the topic of hell you see that sort of thing playing itself out.
Justine: We see a lot of interviews with popular writers in the documentary but we don’t really see a lot of theologians. Can you give us a sense of why you’ve chosen that tack?
Kevin: Actually there are quite a few theologians. Somebody asked me that recently and I think we’ve got at least a dozen people with PhDs in theology or biblical studies or philosophy of religion, and related fields. So we actually do have quite a few academics in the film. And we have a blend. As well as some people who write at a popular level, we have atheists in the film, we have death metal musicians in the film, we have a broad spectrum of people. What we really try to do in the film is to say, okay, within Christianity there is a broad spectrum of belief. I mean, if you just look at Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism and then the various types of Protestantism…. So really trying to span the gamut. But then looking outside of Christianity, particularly at people who are reacting against Christianity, largely because of this idea of hell, and the image of God that comes with it. So we really sought to be as inclusive as possible with a variety of voices.
Justine: What’s the reaction to your film been like?
Kevin: It’s actually quite positive. I mean, we probably received the harshest response to the film from the bastion of the conservative Christian establishment in America, which is Christianity Today. But by and large, I mean, we’ve gotten surprisingly positive reviews from a variety of [places]—the New York Times horror film movie sites of all places—but from the mainstream press, the Huffington Post, all these places we’ve got very strong positive reactions to the film.
I actually toured the film. We screened, I think, in 40 something cities across North America and I probably did Q&A screenings in maybe 30 of those cities. And, you know, the experience in every city was almost exactly the same: where I go in kind of expecting, you know, it to be highly combative. But, instead, what the overwhelming response is, is “Thanks for making a film that opens up this conversation”. And that’s really what we’re trying to do in Hellbound?, is to provoke informed discussion—it’s not supposed to be the last word on hell. I mean, hopefully for a lot of people it’s going to be the first word, and it will just really challenge people to rethink a lot of these issues that they’ve taken for granted over the years.
Justine: That was Hellbound? director, Kevin Miller. It seems that he wanted to at least have a good discussion around the issue of hell. What do you reckon Simon?
Simon: Yeah, and there’s no doubt he’d get a reaction to this. Now that’s a good thing, it’s a topic that brings up strong emotions, that’s for sure! And you see that in the film. And there are definitely some unhelpful images and misleading ideas on what God’s judgment is about, that have come into our culture. And we get some of the great works of art over the centuries that I think have had a really big influence in this way. You might think of something like Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, which is on the walls of the Sistine Chapel.
You get horrifying images there, or even Dante’s Inferno—the great 14th century allegory of a journey through hell—and you get these lurid images of suffering and torment. That’s had a big influence, for sure. But this subject’s really a heavy one and it’s just that it’s worth reminding ourselves that the language that Jesus—who talks the most actually about hell—is using a language that was drawing on really symbolic material, to stress a real thing. So he’s stressing the serious nature of judgment. We have to remember the symbolic nature of the language as well, and be careful about getting too specific about the nature of that judgment and what we’re talking about.
Justine: You sometimes hear people say that if God wants to send people to hell, especially those who don’t follow him, then he can’t be a God worth following.
Simon: Yeah, you do hear that a bit and I think it’s a terrible misunderstanding about who the God of the Bible is. The picture in the Bible is one of God’s constantly reaching out to His people, in mercy and forgiveness. And I guess that the other big sweep of the Bible is one of people constantly rebelling from that love but still God finds a way for people to come back to Him. It’s just that ultimately, I guess, there’s a choice of whether we want to accept that relationship or reject it—and there’s a sense of respecting those wishes. I think when we talk about God’s judgment we have to keep that in mind.
Hank Hanegraaff: So ultimately the panoply of Scripture is pointing to one thing and that is either reconciliation with God or separation from God.
Gregory A. Boyd: You often find folks whose map is the territory. If you disagree with them, you’re not disagreeing with them, you’re disagreeing with God!
Mark Driscoll: I use the language of national and state borders or boundaries. I can work with anybody in the state borders but I can’t partner with anyone who’s crossed a national border.
David Bruce: I gotta tell you, that’s not a good way to be.
Gregory A. Boyd: If someone’s got a position or argument, and you think it’s wrong, then why do you fear looking at it? The truth shouldn’t have any fear.
Justine: That idea that truth shouldn’t have anything to fear—that’s from Hellbound?. But plenty of people have also reacted to this film, saying that it’s not an accurate biblical portrayal.
Simon: Yes and you get this debate going on in the film between those who believe in hell as an eternal state for those who are outside of relationship with God and those who think that, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, that in the end the victory of the Cross will mean that all people, one way or another, will be saved. And there’s no doubt that the film comes down on the side of that universalist idea.
Justine: You gotta say though, like, you can see the attraction of that universalist idea. Everyone wants to talk about God as a God of love—and He is that, right? So what’s wrong with that?
Simon: I just think the amount of the material in the Bible that takes you in another direction is overwhelming. J.I. Packer, my old lecturer, used to say this is avalanche dodging when it comes to the material in the Bible. And so, while the makers of this film seem to want us to leech-out aspects of God that are right through the Bible: that He is holy, that He requires holiness on his people’s part, to some degree, that we’re incapable of that and we need help in it, are part of the same thing. So there’s judgment, there’s mercy. I’d agree with the makers of the film who say that God’s primary characteristic that you see in the Bible is one of grace and great love and mercy—I really believe that. But I think that you have to hold that in tension, to some degree, with his holiness. And judgment is part of that.
Justine: Do you think Hellbound? the film has kind of lost that tension that you’re speaking of?
Simon: Well in fairness, they do talk about judgment—like a post-death judgment, but then an opportunity to come back to God in that—a refining sort of aspect to this. So no, they don’t junk it completely. They keep it there. Now the nature of that judgment I think may not quite match with the sort of material that’s in the Bible, where Jesus talks about, you know, “I never knew you” and these sorts of pretty sobering comments that He makes. So yeah, it’s there but we need to look carefully whether this matches the biblical material.
Justine: So what then does it look like to hold the two and in tension, I guess, the aspects of God’s holiness but also His love? How do you juggle that?
Simon: I think there’s a way in which you have to realize that God’s not someone to be trifled with. There’s a necessary reverence for God if we’re seeing God for who He truly is and who we are before him. But the overwhelming picture, Justine, in the Bible is that God is a father figure who just loves us—is full of mercy and grace—I think that they get that part right in this film—and he is looking for a way to bring us back to him. We see that in the life of Jesus and so I think you’ve gotta remember both things. But the mercy and the grace—I think absolutely is the most outstanding characteristic of God. It’s one really worth responding to.
So next time on Life & Faith we will keep talking about this issue of hell and judgment and we’re going to hear from people on the street, you know, what do they think about Hell. And we’re also going to hear the thoughts of John Dickson, ancient historian, biblical scholar and director of the Centre for Public Christianity. Here’s a taste of what he had to say on this topic:
Simon: John we often hear that the Christian gospel is about good news. What’s the good news when we’re talking about judgment and hell?
John: Well it’s two parts of good news. One part is that God sees the injustice of the world, He hears the oppressed’s cry, for someone to make things right. And he is coming to make things right. This is why the Bible can actually say “hallelujah” for the judgments of God and you certainly see that in the final book of Revelation in the Bible—there’s great praise for the God who finally comes to overthrow those who have oppressed the poor, who have shed blood around the world and so on.
So if you think of it like this, that it’s actually a sign of God’s love for the oppressed that he is coming to bring his justice on the oppressor. In a weird way judgment is a great sign of God’s love because it’s that he loved the massacred indigenous people of Tasmania that he will bring those who perpetrated those judgments to justice and there’s a sense in which love fuels that judgment. So judgment itself is good news.
The good news of the gospel message is not just that judgment is coming because that’s righting the wrongs of the world but that there is amnesty. God has declared an amnesty so that all who turn to him for forgiveness, will—because of Jesus death—be forgiven. So not only is judgment good news, the good news is that we can be forgiven.
Update: See Engaging with CPX’s discussion of hell—part 1 for my thoughts on the above.