Thursday, January 23, 2014

Hellbound? A thought provoking film and a missed opportunity.

A friend and former mentor during my time in Boy Scouts posted a link to a video on Facebook today that piqued my interest. When Pastor Rob Bell's book "Love Wins" came out in 2011 I did a fair amount of writing about it. Bell came under a lot of scrutiny for his book that asked hard questions about heaven, hell, the afterlife, and what that means for us on earth. The most outraged called him a heretic, and many began painting him as a universalist. This post isn't primarily about Bell, so I'll put him aside for a moment - it does give us a good launching point to discuss this film, however.

"Hellbound?" came out in 2012 and I completely missed it. I'm not sure how - though something tells me it had to do with my face being buried in Physics books during Yearling year at West Point. The film asks "Does hell exist? If so, who ends up there, and why? 'Hellbound?' is a provocative, feature-length documentary that will ensure you never look at hell the same way again!" After reading this brief description, I watched the trailer video.

If you're like me, this caught your attention. I couldn't help but dig up the full version - which didn't take long considering the film is now on Netflix. The movie clocks in at 84 minutes long, making it perfect for my after-lunch relaxation ritual. It explores exactly what it states - and I came away knowing a lot more about the various arguments about hell and was overall impressed with the quality. This could have easily been a one-sided argument slanted towards the director's personal convictions, but it wasn't.

Instead, "Hellbound?" starts with the 10 year anniversary of September 11th, complete with Westboro Baptist Church protestors. This powerful beginning led into an explanation about the "usual" Christian perspective (sometimes referred to as "conditionalism") on hell: if you die and don't accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you are judged by God and sent to eternal darkness and suffering. It then offers up brief explanations about "annihilationism" which is similar to conditionalism, but asserts that instead of eternal suffering, souls that do not believe in Christ will be annihilated and cease to exist. Sometimes torment is a part of being annihilated, sometimes not. The third, and final, perspective on hell that the film explores is universalism, which states that in the end, God's grace is bigger than sin: all will be forgiven, and all will spend eternity in paradise.

Roughly half of the film is spent on conditionalism, while the other half discusses universalism. In an interesting move, the director interviews theologians, authors, pastors, death-metal guitarists, and atheists in an effort to develop a holistic perspective about the debate, letting the interviewees, in a sense, debate each other without ever coming face to face. The audience is left to decide for themselves and no final word is given on which side presents the best argument. Questions are asked and explored, but never fully answered. After all, at the end of the day, we really don't know.

I enjoyed the film. It got me to think. It got me to explore some of my long-held beliefs about hell, while at the same time, it pricked me with questions that had been nagging at my brain for a long time. Questions like:

  • If God is all loving and all powerful, why, then, does he not choose to save all of humanity? Is he unwilling?
  • Why is the literal translation of "hell" in the Bible hotly disputed?
  • Why are there scriptures that seem to back up each side of the debate?
I asked my mom and dad to watch the movie, and after their viewing my father and I discussed the merits and pitfalls of the film. I had come away feeling that the director was even-handed in his approach. My dad, on the other hand, felt like the first third of the movie was set up as a straw-man to be toppled in the final third. We did, however, agree on one major issue:

The movie did not adequately express the importance of a faith in Jesus. While the nature and very existence of hell was hotly discussed, nearly all of the people interviewed in the movie agreed that Jesus is the only way to heaven. This was almost taken for granted, and the director simply did not make it clear why. Additionally, the documentary was clearly targeted at a demographic: mine. That is, Christians. Part way through my viewing, I stopped and put myself in the shoes of a non-believer watching the film. Why would I even care? Christian lingo and phrases were tossed around with little explanation, and very little effort was made to cater to the most important potential audience: those that need to hear the message of Christ the most. This, I believe, was a huge missed opportunity on the part of the director. 

Personally, I think I lean more universalist than I do towards the the traditional notion of hell. But this isn't, necessarily, because I have been convinced either way. Rather, I'm a firm believer that Love covers a multitude of sins and that believing in Christ's unfailing love will always bring me back to the Cross; fear of hell, and fear in general, is not only a poor motivator to pursuing God, but it puts my heart in a place of self-focused negativeness that in no way aids my spiritual journey. I am a strong believer in ultimate Truth. I'm just not sure we'll ever know some aspects of that Truth until after our bodies are six feet under.

And ultimately, pursuing Christ and being that city on the hill is what I want in my life. These questions about heaven and hell are important, and worth pondering. Questions are good: they lead to self-discovery and can open new cognitive doors. But only Jesus leads to salvation.