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Does hell exist? Who goes there? Is it a literal “lake of fire?” How does what we believe about hell relate to our views about violence? About the nature and interpretation of Scripture? About people of other faiths? What does our view of hell say about our view of God? These are among the questions addressed in Hellbound?, an intriguing and, for some, controversial film that has been making its way around North America this fall.

Last night, a friend and I made the two hour trek north to attend the sold-out Calgary premiere of Hellbound? Producer Kevin Miller (a Canadian!) was in attendance as was Nathan Phelps, son of infamous Westboro Baptist “pastor” Fred Phelps (Nathan walked away from the Westboro clan as an eighteen year old and now calls himself an agnostic). I had read a number of reviews of the film so I had a pretty good idea of what to expect—a well-made, provocative, timely film about a topic that matters to people. This is exactly what we got.

The film begins, ominously, at the sight of the fallen twin towers in New York where the camera eventually settles on the now-familiar sight of the Westboro Baptist folks with their “God Hates Fags” and “Rot in Hell” signs. The stage for conversation is set in the most extreme fashion possible, with one Westboro member claiming that 99.99999% of human beings will burn for eternity in conscious eternal torment (!). We hear from many people from this point on—from exorcist Bob Larson to conservative Reformed folks like Kevin deYoung and Mark Driscoll who would fall into the “traditional” eternal hell camp to Greg Boyd, Sharon Baker (author of Razing Hell), and Robin Parry (host of The Evangelical Universalist) who question this interpretation. The former had history and (a certain view of) Scripture on their side while the latter seemed more sensitive to philosophical and moral concerns, but each tried, in their own way to come up with a coherent position on hell that takes history, Scripture, and theology seriously.

In the Q & A after the film, Miller said that it is a “boring film” that does not itself take a particular position. Hellbound? covers a range of positions on hell, certainly, but very obviously favours a move away from the “eternal conscious torment” view and toward either a form of universalism or at least agnosticism about what happens after we die. For some in the audience, this was welcome; others, of course, did not appreciate this as much. One man angrily asked, “What is the point of evangelism if there’s no hell? How is the gospel good news if there is no bad news to save us from?” Others accused Miller of slanting the film too obviously away from the traditional view of hell and wondered why certain people (Francis Chan and John Piper came up, both of whom apparently declined requests to be in the film) or viewpoints were not better represented. Most, though, seemed appreciative of the film and affirmed Miller both for the quality of the film and for the questions it raised.

The makers of Hellbound? say they want the film to provoke questions and it certainly does. There are two questions, in particular, that I am mulling over the morning after the film. First, is a universalist position (in the end God saves everyone) structurally identical to some of the more extreme and unpalatable (to my mind, at least) expressions of Calvinism? Many people (myself among them) recoil in horror at some Calvinist positions that claim that God has decided, from before the foundations of the world, who will be eternally damned and who will be saved. Aside from the enormously troubling moral implications of this view, it seems to render history meaningless. What’s the point of creating a world and allowing human beings to run across the stage for a few millennia if the game is rigged from the beginning? But could the same not be said for a universalist position? The result is immeasurably more palatable, to be sure, but does it not raise the same question? If the end is rigged—if everyone will eventually be saved, no matter what—why bother with history? There have been decent answers offered—Irenaeus, for example, claimed that the point of history was to purify our souls to fit them for eternity through a period of moral purification—but the question remains a live one for me.

Second, and most importantly in my view, what does our view of hell say about our view of God? Is it just for God to punish human beings eternally for temporal sins? No matter how evil a human being is, after all, there’s only so much wrong one can accumulate in 70-80 years. What does it say about God’s character if we say that God loves you but he will punish you eternally if you do not accept his love? Is this even coherent? Is it moral? What does it say about God’s power if we say that the overwhelming majority of the people who God created in his image will either suffer eternally (conscious torment) or simply be extinguished (annihilationism). If we say that God wants all to be saved (2 Peter 3:9) but that most are not, doesn’t that say that God is kinda incompetent? Or at least not as resourceful as we might expect from divinity? So many questions…

At any rate, Hellbound? is well-worth watching, in my view, and I enthusiastically recommend it. If it’s playing in a city near you, make the time.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    I’ve always struggled with the idea that works can’t save you but they sure as hell (pun intended) can get you (at best) killed or worse, tortured for eternity. So if I accept justification through faith….(settle down sir, I refer to the RC version of stated principal 🙂 ) and I do. And I believe in some degree of synergy (and I do). Then the story goes something like; sincere faith requires me to believe in God. This belief also understands that repentance is continual and progressive and my salvation ultimately dependent upon God’s mercy. So I believe, I repent, I ask for forgiveness and mercy and I WILL be saved. God will never abandon a believer. A believer will never abandon his ongoing repentance and his trust in God’s mercy.

    October 20, 2012
    • Actually, most people who believe in eternal conscious torment would probably say that it’s not your works that can get you tortured for eternity but your beliefs. At least that’s how I’ve often heard it presented. They’re at least consistent, I suppose.

      Anabaptists would probably have more similarities to Roman Catholics than Protestants on this score in that we have often tended to emphasize behaviour rather than beliefs. This isn’t true across the board, of course, but very generally speaking this seems to be the case.

      [R]epentance is continual and progressive and my salvation ultimately dependent upon God’s mercy. So I believe, I repent, I ask for forgiveness and mercy and I WILL be saved. God will never abandon a believer. A believer will never abandon his ongoing repentance and his trust in God’s mercy.

      Amen. Well said.

      October 21, 2012
  2. Paul Johnston #

    As for “Hellbound” I’m going to be something of the “weasel” here and say to you that I will only see it, if I can see it for free. Irrespective of how they portray him, I do not want to give money to any enterprise that gives Mr. Phelps yet another platform.

    October 20, 2012
  3. thanks for your reflections – I was especially interested in your account of the Q&A with Kevin Miller saying the film doesn’t take a position, since as you note, it also seemed to me that the film does seem to favour a more open view. More about that here:

    October 22, 2012
    • Thanks for the link, April. I appreciated your opening reflections about how the film is about much more than hell, even if only implicitly. I suspect a whole post (or series of posts!) could be written about each of your bulleted points. I am especially intrigued by the “power” question and how the doctrine of hell has been and continues to be used to bolster power and influence for those in positions of religious authority. This certainly seems to be part of what is going on with Driscoll and Piper, in my estimation. That whole “God personally hates you!!” business in the film (Driscoll) made me want to vomit…

      Re: Miller, perhaps I wasn’t clear in the post. Miller was quite straightforward in the Q & A about the fact that the film does advocate a more open position. He opined that any film that doesn’t actually take a position would be boring and not worth watching. I’m inclined to agree with him.

      October 22, 2012
      • Thanks for the clarification–on the one hand, I also think that a film without any position at all wouldn’t be as interesting, but on the other extreme a one-sided rant wouldn’t have engaged me as much as the sense of exploration/journey I got from Hellbound?

        October 26, 2012
  4. Thanks Ryan – I saw the film last week and just posted some initial thoughts. Finding it hard to pin down a specific response!

    Wish I could have been at one of the Q&A sessions, but missed out.

    Miller may have stated this in the discussion, but one of his motives was to raise the profile and credibility of the Christian universalism position as one viable option (instead of outright heresy). In a recent interview, Miller states how he hopes people realize that “the people who are opposing the idea of eternal conscious torment are Christ centered, biblically based, and around since the beginning of the church (e.g. Gregory of Nyssa).”

    Not sure he’ll convince many…

    October 23, 2012
    • Thanks for the links, Dave. Yes, Miller was quite open in Calgary about using the film to try to locate some of the more open views under the Christian tent. Like you, I’m not sure how many will be convinced. Based on some of the interaction around this film that I’ve seen online, it seems to simply be driving people further into their previously decided upon polarized views. Of course, the people with the polarized views also tend to be the loudest and most eager for attention, too, so who knows… :). Maybe there is a silent majority out there that is reflectively chewing on—possibly even reconsidering their views about—these matters…

      I liked your first post on this with its focus on the film as a film (i.e., a piece of art) rather than a pedagogical instrument. Good reminder. Looking forward to part 2.

      October 23, 2012
      • Yes, I figured I better engage the content of the art too!

        October 23, 2012

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