October 17, 2012

Some Thoughts on "Hellbound?"

I watched Hellbound? with my wife and some friends on its opening night in Langley B.C. The film promises to be provocative and push buttons, and has been reviewed by Variety and The New York Times. I have contemplated whether or not adding my views would be helpful or not; I am confident that there are more thoughtful and nuanced comments than what I could add to the conversation. However, I will respond to one of my former professor’s and answer his question: “What did you think of the movie?” Consider this your spoiler alert.

The Hellbound? filmmakers, including local boys Kevin Miller and David Rempel, produced a high quality film. I was thoroughly engaged throughout the entire film and it was not merely a “talking head” piece because it included some great cinematography. If the film was marketed as a piece that articulates various views on hell and then promotes a particular view, then the project was a success. However, the film was marketed as an even handed documentary that would merely raise questions and prompt discussion. The film prompted discussion, but was by no means even handed or 'just asking' questions. I disagree with Miller’s view on hell, I think the film is counterproductive in its goal of gracious dialogue, and it ultimately does more harm than good.

My View
The doctrine of Hell as the populated place where people not-in-Christ dwell eternally is a difficult one to think about, but I hold it as a true doctrine of the church nonetheless. I believe it is the testimony of scripture and also the doctrine held throughout church history.

The specifics of what Hell is like as experienced by those in it is beyond our scope of complete understanding, yet the doctrine of hell is affirmed as a doctrine in many denominations - including the Mennonite Brethren Church. The MB Confession of Faith states that “all those who have rejected Christ will be condemned to hell, forever separated from the presence of God” (p.198 - Article 18).

In its commentary on Article 18, the MB Confession states:

“In sermon and parable Jesus, the kindest person that ever lived on this earth, proclaimed loudly and clearly that a day of judgment was yet to come (Matthew 7:9; 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 and from the glory of his might’ (2 Thess.1:9)... Those who have rejected the gospel will suffer eternal punishment (2 Thess. 1:8; 1 Pet. 4:17)... ‘Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath’ (John 3:36)” (p.203).

J.I. Packer eloquently and soberly discusses Hell as he understands it. His disposition towards the subject and his wisdom would have been a helpful addition to the film. I'd encourage you to watch it.

Hellbound? As Counterproductive (Regarding Gracious Discourse)
One of the primary goals of the film was to encourage and facilitate constructive dialogue. I believe the film contradicts this goal in the editing process because there were a few cheap-shots taken towards the “traditional-literal” folks, and the traditional-literal view of hell is described at the beginning only to be torn down as the film goes along. For example, a Mark Driscoll video clip was ripped from its context in order to prove a point being made. The argument was made that if you believe in a populated and eternal Hell, that you will be angry with everyone - as an example of this anger a clip of Driscoll yelling was shown. However, the clip ended before it was clear what Driscoll was yelling about, and in ripping it from its context they did not allow Driscoll the type of clarity he is due in a constructive conversation. In context, Driscoll is yelling at guys who abuse women. Surely, something people on all sides of the discussion can agree is worth a certain level of passion. It’s shoddy work and was not gracious in their treatment of Driscoll. 

Another example of an “editing” low-blow was after one contributor discussed how he believed that not everyone is a child of God, and in so doing made a case that God loves everyone but not equally (with a special love for his children, the elect). After this clip, a brief montage of the general public were shown with a cheeky version of “One of these things...” playing in the background. Sure it was a moment of humor, but it was at the expense of one of the contributors - hardly a gracious way to treat a conversation partner. Such editing cheap-shots were not taken with those who held annihilationism or universalism as true, as far as I could tell. 
Miller reduced himself to making fun of his opponents to make his view look better. Don't bully's do the same on childhood playgrounds?

Hellbound? Does More Harm Than Good
The film promises a dialogue on the different views of Hell but functions more as a universalistic sermon. The film promises a fair dialogue but takes cheap shots at contributors who hold a traditional-literal view of hell. The film was engaging and provocative, but it's easy to be provocative and hard to be fair and nuanced.

There is some good that has come out of the making of this film. I think the film may be helpful for some as a starting point to discuss the doctrine of Hell (they even provide a discussion guide available here). However, there is also a danger in showing it to a group that has no interest in seeking out further what the scriptures say about the matter. This film should be watched with ears, and a Bible, open.

Ultimately, I think the film does more harm than good. The film doesn’t talk very much about sin or the need for the incarnate, obedient, victory-winning, death-substituting, resurrected Jesus Christ. Repentance is not discussed at all as a normative part of the Christian experience, even though a consistent message preached throughout the New Testament is that people must repent of sin and believe the gospel in order to know and follow Jesus. While the film may be preaching some notion of good news, it is not the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Bible teaches that actions and beliefs have eternal consequences, while universalism proclaims actions and beliefs are essentially inconsequential from an eternal perspective.  I agree with Mike Bickle's comment that it is both biblically irresponsible and incredibly dangerous 
for Christian's to propagate universalism. Hell as an eternally-populated place need not be the primary motivation to follow and talk to others about Jesus Christ, but we ought not throw the doctrine out the window either.

(Note: This version of the review has been edited in my attempt to be more clear)


  1. Thanks for your thorough review in response to my question. Another thing the movie will hopefully do is to send people to their Bibles. It would be nice to have those 3 lists of Scriptures they provided.

    1. I agree that we ought to go back to the Bible in this conversation! I think it's an important conversation to have. I'd still love to hear you elaborate on how you understood the film as a good prophetic and evangelistic sermon.

  2. I just re-read Lewis' "The Great Divorce" where he is clear that it is a dream and not a picture of hell, but, it seems to me, he offers us the vision of hell that is most useful for our lives now, regardless of what the Real afterlife looks like. I like that approach.

    The dialogue on this topic is good, I think. Even those with whom we disagree can expose errors of emphasis in our own positions. But it's frustrating when they don't play fair. Thanks for the review.

    1. Hey Trent, I agree that it's important to have conversations with people of various viewpoints, and when we do so I think we should do our best to represent the other's view in terms they would readily accept. It is hard to do, and I'm guilty of failing at time, but I think it's necessary for constructive conversation.

  3. "The Bible teaches that actions and beliefs have eternal consequences, while universalism proclaims actions and beliefs are essentially inconsequential from an eternal perspective." I think this sentence shows that you did not fully understand the type of Christian universalism that the movie was describing. You are creating a straw man argument out of Christian universalism which is easy to tear down. This makes me feel that any critique you offer is invalid on the basis of your misunderstanding of the doctrine itself.

    I feel that the movie clearly stated that judgment is an act of refinement, never void of punishment. This means that our actions have consequences. Next, You say that belief from a universalist perspective is inconsequential from a eternal perspective, yet the movie said again and again that we HOPE that all will be saved, but there is always the possibly that someone could reject the love of God after death. How is this, in any way, saying that belief is not important?

    I did not appreciate your false caricaturization of the film and its purposes. Clearly the point of the film was to show that Christian universalism is within the fold of orthodox Christianity. I am curious, do you disagree with this point?

    1. Hey Dalton,

      Thanks for your feedback. I’m sorry that you thought my critique was invalid, that I was creating and tearing down a straw man argument, and that I falsely caricatured the film and its purposes. As I said in the beginning of my post, I’m sure that there are more nuanced reviews than mine on this topic, and I don’t want to claim to be an expert in this matter.

      I’ll respond by (1) addressing your comment on my understanding of Christian universalism and eternal consequences for beliefs/actions, (2) addressing your comment that I falsely caricatured the film and its purposes, and (3) to answer your question at the end of your comment.

      (1) My understanding of Christian universalism as articulated in the film is: Because of Jesus every person without distinction will eventually be reconciled to God based on their response to God (before or after death), judgment is only restorative, and eternal punishment/separation is a false doctrine.

      I may not have nailed that definition, but I think I’m in the ballpark where a constructive conversation can take place. So, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to nuance the sentence you quoted by adding in italics: “... universalism proclaims that actions and beliefs prior to death are essentially inconsequential from an eternal perspective - in the sense that eventually every person without exception will be reconciled to God”. I think the part I should have made more clear in my original post was the prior to death part, because I unintentionally bulldozed over the view that (within universalism) people are presented with a post-mortem choice. I think holding a Christian universalist perspective necessitates a belief that pre-death choices do not have eternal/binding consequences because there is post-mortem choice still to come for everyone without exception.

      (2) As I followed the Hellbound website prior to its release, it was my impression that the film’s primary intended purpose was not show that Christian universalism is within the fold of Christian orthodoxy, but rather to articulate the various views on Hell within the context of a constructive and gracious conversation that will push people’s buttons. I’m open to correction on the primary intended purpose of the film (and even sought the feedback from the filmmakers). If the film’s primary intention was to show that Christian universalism is within the fold of orthodox Christianity then either the marketing was misleading or I was too dense to understand their marketing - either options are entirely possible (and so too is a both/and scenario)! Nevertheless, I think I am standing on solid ground when I say that the filmmakers desired to both preach universalism and promote constructive/gracious discourse, and my critique regarding universalism and their editing of the “conversation” need not be invalid if I mixed up which of those two goals were primary or secondary in the minds of the filmmakers - though of course you’re entitled to your opinion.

      (3) Regarding your last question, I will point you to the “My View” section in my original post. I will do my best (and likely fail often) to listen well to, and dialogue fairly and graciously with, those with universalistic leanings/beliefs, but I cannot in all biblical honesty accept universalism as within the fold of Christian orthodoxy.

      I’m not sure if we’ve ever met in person, but it sounds like if we grabbed coffee together we’d have a good chat!

      All the best Dalton!

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

    I think it's sad that we can't gather around the table together as orthodox Christians because of a disagreement over a doctrine that can't really be proven one way or the other. It's a shame that the Christians who believe Jesus' work on the cross was so effective that most, if not all, will eventually be reconciled to God, are also those uninvited to the orthodox dinner party.

  5. Hey Dalton,

    Thanks for engaging with my post as thorough as you did. Let me know if you want to grab a coffee sometime to chat about this further!

    All the best!