If you are among the more than one in two North Americans who believe in hell, it would be wise to check out Hellbound?, produced and directed by Canada’s impressive Kevin Miller.
The prospect of hell is a surprisingly big deal to a heck of a lot of people, including in so-called “secular” Canada and the U.S. But virtually nobody wants to talk about it in polite company.
Six of ten Americans have told Pew Forum pollsters they believe hell is “where people who have led bad lives, and die without being sorry, are eternally punished.”
In Canada, University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby has found 50 per cent of the population believes in some form of hell.
Miller, who lives in Abbotsford, deserves credit for taking on this explosive subject, in part because many religious authorities try to hide their views about its unpleasantness from potential converts.
Still, as polling reveals, an incredible number of Christians, Muslims and others believe that some sort of realm of divine punishment awaits the unremorseful.
Even if you are an atheist, it would be eye-opening to see this film – because many powerful people must be among those who believe in hell.
Respected opinion surveys confirm hell is a foundational doctrine for evangelical Christians (a movement that includes George W. Bush and Stephen Harper), Muslims (Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) and Mormons (Mitt Romney).
By bringing hell out of the closet, Miller’s film sheds light on humans’ ongoing belief in horrifying darkness. Better yet, Miller accomplishes his task with respect and intellectual scope, peppered with flashes of brash drama.
The most aggressive proponents of hell in the movie include the gut-churning activists of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church who preach that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were God’s punishment for “fags,” and the near-sadistic organizers of Hellhouse, a kind of haunted trailer-home, in which wide-eyed young people are grabbed, smashed, and screamed at so they’ll learn to fear God’s wrath.
The powerful evangelical founder of Mars Hill mega-church in Seattle, pastor-author Mark Driscoll, also plays religious hardball in Hell-bound?, declaring only certain special people are God’s children; the rest are destined for flames.
However, Hellbound? includes quite another offering of views.
Many seemingly gentle Christians appear on camera to suggest hell is not forever, even for Adolf Hitler and Idi Amin. One or two speakers claim religious authorities push hell to control the gullible.
And respected Bible scholars suggest hell may not really exist; beyond being a kind of metaphor for the suffering that befalls those who oppress the afflicted and incite unnecessary war.
As director and narrator, Miller generally advances a “universalist” theology of hell, which has long maintained that everyone, Christian or not, can ultimately be redeemed through God’s love.
Miller finds support for his world view from many empathetic Christians, including two British Columbians who take New Testament passages about hell seriously but not literally: University of the Fraser Valley world religions professor Ron Dart and Eastern Orthodox Archbishop Lazar Puhalo.
It is only a minor criticism to point out the film focuses almost exclusively on Christians, from fundamentalists to moderate evangelicals.
Hellbound? doesn’t profile agnostics, Buddhists or Hindus, or even those thinkers representing the roughly 17 million North Americans who call themselves “liberal Christians.”
As Gary Dorrien makes clear in his book, The Making of American Liberal Theology, many leaders of this Christian stream don’t think it’s essential for the faithful to believe even in consciousness after death, let alone hell.
All in all, however, Hellbound? is a provocative and ideas-rich discussion-starter, which is how Miller is packaging it.
There’s something for everyone. Even those who don’t believe in hell will at some point in this difficult life ask themselves: “Is there rough justice in the universe?”
Do those who do evil ultimately suffer for it?
No matter where you stand on hell or heaven, this film will nudge you to develop a more coherent position on that burning existential question.