It may seem odd to start a review for religious documentary with a clip from a hit HBO show, but sometimes, when others have said what you want to say far better than you ever could, well, lead with the talent. Aaron Sorkin’s hit show The Newsroom is all about a news team trying to rethink how they tell the news. In the second episode they roll out News Night 2.0 with all new rules to the game.
Hellbound? is a documentary just waiting to happen. After Rob Bell, and the opposition marketing of John Piper and the blogosphere, pushed the Hell debate front and center with the controversy surrounding Love Wins it was high time for Christians to enter into an open and honest discussion about Hell. I was a fairly open Bible student in a rather conservative Bible school at the book’s release and can remember the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Hell debates arising after that first promo video. I, for one, was ready for the conversation.
Kevin Miller is ready for the conversation too. He wants to dive right in. It is evident that Miller wants to frame the Hell debate both in the context of both Rob Bell’s controversy, and more broadly, the context of a very American conversation — sorry, not much influence from across the pond. The fact that this is an American conversation (though the film is very well aware of its global impact, and it may in fact wish to make it an American-Critical conversation instead) is evident from the opening shots of ground zero accompanied by the vocal demonstrations of Westboro Baptist Church, a group whose extreme views and dead solider protesting has thrust them into an ill-deserved limelight. Their belief that everything from Islam’s hatred of America, to 9/11, to the Iraq war was orchestrated by God to grant them a national spotlight may cause viewers to question the logic of providing them yet another platform. Yet, beginning as it does, the film makes one thing clear, this conversation is not taking place in a vacuum, and sometimes it is not so much a conversation as a shouting match with signs and bullhorns.
The film addresses three common views of Hell: eternal conscience torment, annihlationism, and universalism (or final reconciliationism). A majority of the time is spent on the first and the third, with much les given to the awkward middle child. Supporting eternal conscious torment are the likes of vocal west coast Pastor Mark Driscoll, Gospel Coalition writers Kevin DeYoung and Justin Taylor, and Bob Larson, with help from Mike Bickle, Ray Comfort and others, while Brian McLaeren, Brad Jersak, Frank Schaffer, Robin Perry, Sharon Baker, Michael Hardin, and others represent the universalist side of the fence. In the middle are a others — Greg Boyd, Peter Kreeft, Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, and many more — who give perspective, insight, and depth to the discussion.
From both the amount of guests and use of time, it is clear the documentary is at least aiming to make sure universalism has its day in court. Perhaps it is only because most people are more familiar with the traditional view of Hell, that the film spends so much time explaining the universalist position. Perhaps the strongest parts of the documentary are those focused on showing the ambiguity in texts the traditional reading of Hell has claimed are so clear. Brian McLaren and Brad Jarsak are particularly notable here, giving some of the best exposition of the New Testament texts in the documentary.
Especially insightful is Brad’s point that the biblical text has a variety of sets of verses on hell and the afterlife. One set seems to support eternal conscience torment, another annihlationism, and another universalism. Proponents of the traditional view have long held those verse referring to eternal conscience torment as normative and literal while viewing the other sets as metaphorical or to be understood within the context of those ‘clearly’ supporting eternal conscience torment. He points out that adherents of annihlationism or universalism are simply deciding to take as normative and literal the set of verse supporting their viewpoint and interpret the other sets in light of those.
Yet the documentary is not a line-by-line exposition of the biblical texts. While that documentary would certainly be informative, it is not the documentary that Miller set out to make, nor should it be. I suppose had he made that movie, I would still be sitting in a Kirksville theater, or worse, Miller would still be on the cutting room floor (Jaime Clark-Soles is right, taking the bible seriously takes a certain dedication to do the boring stuff). That said, the byproduct of not going line-by-line is that more often than not, it is sentiment, not the text, which drive the conversation. Everyone being saved is simply a more emotionally and cognitively appealing conclusion and the documentary is tempted at times to rest too heavily on the fact that at the end of the day most of their audience would simply rather not believe that Hell exists. And to be fair why would they want to.
This brings me back to News Night 2.0. The second “I” (well, they’re all “I’s”) is “Is this the best possible form of the argument?” While their isn’t, as MacKenzie says, a best form to every argument, there are to some, and the position of eternal conscience torment should at least be considered one of them. In this regard the documentary seemed to miss its mark on several counts. The first is undercutting the rather clean cut and straightforward interview of Mark Driscoll with the more extreme preaching moments from his sunday morning sermon. While certainly Driscoll has no shortage of foot-in-the-mouth ridiculousness to exploit, one wonders if their use here is more an ad hominem to undermine his much more succinct interview than an attempt at a fair debate.
Secondly, both Driscoll and The Gospel Coalition crowd are fairly hard-line Calvinists, the most important feature of which being their believe in limited election: God chooses some people to be saved, for his glory, and he chooses some people to go to Hell, also for his glory. While this idea, I’m sure, has its reasonings, it is, in any case, a pretty hard sell for most people. Yet introduced late in the game, long after the Universalist have had their say, it makes the proponents of eternal conscious torment seem laughable, even monstrous. This is not the best possible form of the argument. There are many proponents of eternal conscious torment who are not also proponents of limited election. Using only proponents of limited election to defend eternal conscious torment seems cheap. It draws the focus away from the issue at hand into a whole other discussion. Never does a believer of eternal conscience torment get to say, “We believe this is what the Bible says — as counterintuitive, as offensive, as seemingly cruel, hard to swallow it may be — we believe fidelity to the text demands this belief and that fidelity to Christ demands we believe and teach what the Bible says.
My concern is not that proponents of eternal conscience torment are right and the film just made them look like fools (they help themselves do that all on their own). We would all like to find out there is no Hell. Maybe this is the case. Maybe there is a way as a Christian to be faithful to both text and history and believe Hell will be empty. Maybe not. Whatever the case, it is important we get there by way of best possible form of the argument, not the worst. Nobody (hopefully) in this conversation wants there to be a Hell (well, except for Westboro Baptist Church, I guess) or wants anyone to go there (again, except for those Westboro folks). It isn’t just twisted sentiment that has convinced people of a Hell, though no doubt it has caused some to need it so badly. Rather there are good arguments on all sides, and it would be best, before arriving at any conclusion, to take the advice of Robin Perry and not run into any decision too hastily, but to study, read and pray, and to take the advice of MacKenzie McHale’s News Night 2.0 and try to find the best possible form of each argument.
Kevin Miller’s documentary wraps up back where it began: ground zero, 9/11, ten years later. We are back with the Westboro crowd, haggling over what percentage of God’s children he loves. In the light of their argument, any other in the film looks gracious and kind (Except for maybe that “God hates some of you” part of Driscoll’s Sunday morning spiel). As I said before, Miller wants us to see the Hell debates as more than just an isolated theological discussion. Rather it is a uniquely American conversation. And maybe that uniquely American way of looking at things draws more from our relationship with the rest of the world — where we are the righteous, right, true and just ones while they, the others, the foreigners, are the terrorists, the evil ones, and the wicked ones — than it comes from our commitment to biblical accuracy. Maybe we have made a religion around seeing those we find ‘guilty’ punished rather than seeing them forgiven. Maybe what is reflected back at us from the Hell’s fiery surface is our own disfigured refection rather than God’s.
There are a lot of questions to ask. For some there are answers. For some there are not. For some there are better answers than the ones Miller and others provide. For some the asking is more important than the answering. Kevin doesn’t seemed too concerned about all this. He knows his documentary isn’t here to settle the debate, and if it did I have a sinking suspicion he would be out there trying to unsettle it as soon as possible. Does the movie always play fair? No. Does it always use the best form argument? No. Does it at times rely more on sentiment and rhetoric than scriptural exegesis? Yes. Is it Hell Debate 2.0? Maybe not, but that’s okay. At the end of the day it’s the conversation that matters, and Kevin Miller, he gets us started in an excellent way.
- Raising the Questions in “Hellbound?” (thecosmiccathedral.wordpress.com)