NEW YORK – Writer and director Kevin Miller appeared with author Frank Schaeffer and "Preaching Peace" founder Michael Hardin during a Q&A session at a NYC theater Friday for the U.S. premiere of his documentary "Hellbound?"
"Hellbound?" questions the traditional Christian teaching on a literal, eternal punishing hell, a doctrine espoused by many American evangelicals. The documentary's answer: not really – for GOD so loved the world that He's going to save the world, whether anyone personally wants Him to or not.
Or, as it is put by Rob Bell, who briefly features in the film via a 2011 promo clip for his aptly-titled and controversial book, "Love wins."
At the center of the documentary, which was filmed in the wake of the publication of Bell's Love Wins, is the premise that America's evangelical Christian community has it wrong when it comes to the idea that God loves some people and hates others who, by their rejection of Jesus Christ as Savior, choose to go to hell.
But as the theologians, authors, clergymen and scholars featured in "Hellbound?" spin it, Scripture doesn't really clearly teach any such thing. Neither were the Church's earlier thinkers uniform in such a belief.
When asked by The Christian Post during the Q&A session to explain what it means to be orthodox in a Christian view of hell, Hardin explained that orthodoxy is really about God's love, and His redemption of humanity from self-destructive violence, which Jesus addressed with his teachings on forgiveness, non-retribution, reconciliation.
"To be orthodox, you don't have to believe in a heaven or hell or have a retributive God. Certainly, one could point to thousands of great figures, mothers and fathers [of the Church] who believed in a God who is rich in mercy and full of compassion to the least of these. And if God tells us to forgive our enemies and God isn't willing to do it, why would I want to bother following that kind of a God?"
"The fact is, as the movie points out, there are whole swaths of the Christian tradition that are not infernalists in their approach," Hardin added. "And that one, in fact, can be a lover of Jesus, a lover of Scripture, a lover of the Church and not have to believe in this notion of eternal conscious torment."
"To me, one of the great fallacies of all theology is to portray a god who's meaner than we are. I just think that's ridiculous," added Schaeffer, son of prominent evangelical Christian theologian Francis Schaeffer. "Because that basically undermines faith to the point where God just becomes a monster. So to me, the greatest enemies of God, are the people who put theology ahead of common sense."
Schaeffer's comment seemed to challenge International House of Prayer pastor Mike Bickle's view, as he shared in the documentary, that proclaiming that God's grace extends into hell "is the worst crime that a preacher of the Gospel could say to the world."
Among some of the more memorable speakers featured in the film either arguing for or against the traditional Christian teaching on hell are: Schaeffer, Hardin, Westboro Baptist Church's Jonathan and Margie Phelps, Chad Holtz, Robin Parry, Brad Jersak, Brian McLaren, Gregory A. Boyd, and Sharon Baker.
Also featured is Michigan pastor Kevin DeYoung, whose relaxed, soft-spoken observations about God's common grace and whether or not He loves everyone serve as a noticeable contrast to sermon clips of fellow reformed Calvinist and Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll screaming "God hates some of you" from the pulpit. It was left to Driscoll to line up passages in Scripture that seem to provide the foundation for a modern view of hell – which were then presumably toppled by Jersak, author of Her Gates Will Never Be Shut.
The Phelps, shown picketing on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in NYC at the scene of the crime, declare to Hill that about "99.9999... percent" of the population is destined for hell – although it isn't made clear if Jonathan and Margie Phelps believe the Bible says that percentage reflects the world's population, or just the U.S.'s.
Bob Larson was also shown performing a (staged?) exorcism and later declaring that he chooses to believe "Jesus and the demons" about hell.
Is "Hellbound?" trying to ridicule some Christians and present a simplification of their long-held beliefs?
"I don't accept that criticism," Miller told CP outside the Cinema Village theater. "I know that we have a little fun with Mark Driscoll at a couple of points. I think that we give people who believe what he believes ample time to make their case. We're not having somebody who doesn't believe what they believe kind of present a caricature. We give them, some people would say we give them too much time, to make their case."
Acknowledging that "we don't have every position," Miller adds, "I would hope that this film would build bridges too. I know that some people don't want a bridge. It's going to burn some bridges, and I'm sorry for that. That's not what I would like to see happen."
In Schaeffer's opinion, "Hellbound?" isn't trying to explain God or what people believe about Him.
"The fact, is I don't think this movie is about hell or theology," he said. "I think there's a subtext which totally overwhelms the film. And the subtext is flag-waving, insane retributive ideas of justice which are going to get this country slaughtered at some point in history, because you can't just keep going down that road. My view is, yes, the subtext is hell, the text of this film is the price we paid for a reformed theology that has cast the good guys as us, the bad guys as everybody else. And if you cross our path, we may not be able to burn you forever, but we will burn your cities flat."
"That's a simplification of it," he added, "but I think that's what this movie is about. ... I think the whole theological premise of good guys and bad guys, ultimate justice being burning people forever, has nothing to do with evangelicalism, it has everything to do with a kind of a nationalistic jingoism which just suits this country fine. It happens to have a theological spin. So what? It's bad."
There is ample time given in "Hellbound?" to the opinion that "evangelical extremists" perhaps peddle hell out of fear – not of fear that those rejecting Christ could find themselves in a literal, eternal place of torment, but of the possibility that this weapon of mass manipulation (or so it is presented) convincingly challenged or dismantled might rock their very sense of being and strip these Christians of influence, and their jobs.
When asked by an audience member about the "power of hell," Hardin insisted that a literal hell is "a great threat, it's a huge threat, it's the worst threat possible."
"I think one of the things that's happening now is that this neo-Calvinistic hegemony, this 'We are the authorities and the gate keepers of the tradition and we're the ones that have the right to claim orthodoxy and a lineage with Church history and we've got the Church fathers on our side' – that's all been breaking down. And now, the very purveyors of fear are themselves afraid," he added.
Responding to a similar question by CP on Christians clinging to the doctrine of hell, Miller said he believes they are only being faithful to what they believe.
"I think that by and large people, even someone like Mark Driscoll, I think is in his way thinking being faithful to the Bible and I think that is true for the majority of people," the filmmaker said. "People aren't preaching hell because they are vindictive and just control freaks. They just feel this is what it is to be a faithful Christian. But I think lurking behind all of that ultimately is a fear. I have had people say to me this is a dangerous film because if you start asking these types of questions, really people's eternities is at stake if we answer these questions in the wrong way. I think fear is always there."
One viewer said during the Q&A session that she was brought up evangelical, and told Miller she appreciated "Hellbound?"
"I appreciate the film. I think it's fantastic," she said. "I was raised in the evangelical church, I taught Sunday school. My faith is not going to be shaken by someone who's going to make me think. I think that at the end of the day, even if there isn't a hell or there isn't a heaven, I would not give up the life that I'm living with God on a daily basis for anything. So I don't care at the end. ... I don't think that if you're strong in your faith that – things like this, it makes me think and there's nothing wrong with that. If you are shaken by something like this, then I have to question [your] faith."
Another viewer wanted to know if Miller was "hoping for a post-hell society or thinking."
"I would like to see this idea of a purely retributive God, a God who would give up on the beings that He has created, I would like to see that idea go away. Because I don't think anything is bigger than the love of God," Miller responded.
Miller, who distanced himself Friday evening from listed writing credits for the documentaries "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" and "Monumental: In Search of America's National Treasure," shared with CP that, due to the provocative nature of his film, he is "already being called a heretic."
"My personal views have grown and changed over the last decade," he explained. "I come from an evangelical background, most of my friends are still in that world. I feel like I owe a great debt to the people that shared the Gospel with me. It literally changed my life and continues to change [it]."
"The thing that I find ironic is that I'm being called already a heretic for this film and yet I love Jesus more, and I think the Gospel is truly deep wisdom from the dawn of time," he added. "I am more evangelistic than I have ever been in my entire life, because I truly believe that I have discovered good news that could save the world. But it's not going to save the world from God, because I don't believe that that's ever been in jeopardy. I think that the Gospel truly is grace and that it's given to us as we're in the midst of destroying ourselves and we even then reject it. And this is the beauty of the resurrection, is Jesus says 'no, you can't get rid of me that easy. I'm coming back because you need to see something, you need to understand and you need to be set free, not from me, you need to be set free from yourself.'
"To me that's the good news, like wow, that can actually happen. That's the good news I want to share with people. All this stuff about...some of these really arcane theological arguments for me aren't nearly as important as what kind of world are we building right now."
Sharing how he views the current protests in the Middle East against a U.S.-made film deemed offensive to Islam and its prophet Muhammad as the "outworkings of bad theology," Miller suggested that Americans are living an illusion if they believe "we're not as violent as those Muslims."
"People want to argue 'is America a Christian nation?' I would say yes, I think that a lot of the form America has taken has been birthed through a really retributive from of justice that comes from a view of God that goes back to reformed Christianity, and that we believe that violence is ultimately the only way to solve the problem. We'll try reason, diplomacy and all that stuff because we always know that we can outgun them, and I think we believe that God will eventually do the same thing. This is to me, what I think Christ is trying to save us from is this arms race that will ultimately end in our destruction."
"Hellbound?" opened in select theaters in the U.S. on Sept. 21 and will debut in Canadian theaters starting Oct. 12. Exact theater locations can be found on the film's official website.