If I set out to have a really frustrating day, I might try to open a conversation on the concept of hell with a group of North American evangelicals.
Canadian filmmaker Kevin Miller makes that sound easy. Possibly the most hopeful Christian I have encountered in my work, recently Miller gently applied his magical movie-making potion to the slammed door of damnation. Will he be able to ease it open?
Last week, I had a chance to interview Miller about his latest film, "Hellbound?" which is due out in theaters this fall. It focuses on the range of primary Christian perspectives of hell. Surprising to many Western Christians, there are actually a number of Christian theological representations of the concept of hell, although in our part of the world the one we hear most about is "eternal damnation."
For many Christians in North America, there isn't much flexibility or openness to new ways to consider hell, or for that matter, any other Christian subject. They're already certain they know what hell is -- and some are also pretty sure they know who's going there.
Hell has never been an easy topic to discuss openly -- it's a dinner party disaster every time. But why do so many Christians feel it's their duty to "save" humanity from the lake of fire into which God may soon be throwing us? And how can one argue with someone trying to spare humanity that fate? It is a noble mission of sorts, as misguided as it may turn out to be and as unwelcome as it often is to most who are going about their ordinary lives trying to be good people according to personal goals and living well within the norms of their peers, families and faiths.
This little blog post is not going to take a deep dive into the comparative analyses of the many theories, interpretations and doctrines that have emerged out of thousands of years of Christian thinking on the subject of hell. With nearly 20,000 documented Christian denominations in the world, there could easily be nearly that many versions of hell being preached. And with nearly 2 billion Christians in the world, it could be argued that each individual has his or her unique point of view on hell. You won't get that kind of mind-numbingly complex analyses from the film either, but the main concepts of hell and how they vary are solidly presented from a variety of interesting perspectives.
"Challenging" and "memorable" are words that come to mind when describing "Hellbound?" I'm going to call it a "stretch" film. It is a brave and refreshing documentary capable of lasting impact. It is one of those mind-shift films that shakes loose a bolt or two in the mechanics of our thoughts and opens a path to critical thinking that opposes the "we do what our preachers tell us is right" mindset that many have adopted.
Now, critical thinking may sound perfectly horrifying to some evangelicals and other Bible literalists who may believe that their way is absolutely correct and that their congregants do not need to think any further on the subject of hell beyond what they are learning in church. While they may preach and believe the vast majority of us deserve Satan's form of infinite misery, Miller asserts that he "hopes the film brings hope" to people. He is one hopeful guy.
In a sense, we have a lot of Christians trying to save us from eternal, horrifying hell, and Miller is trying to save Christians from that perspective. But more than hoping for change, he took thoughtful, artistic action and has created something fascinating.
As I listened to him transition effortlessly during our phone call from one complex Christian topic to the next, I found myself hopeful too. Of course, I hope the film is a success. I hope it does a lot of good. I also hope he has a hard hat. I hope he has thick skin. I hope he has a way of letting hate mail roll off him like an afternoon breeze. I hope his reception is warm, not icy, in the Christian communities of North America where the film will be released.
Will he be met with applause or outrage? Will he strike a chord with the group of Christians who have decided they are "right," or those who have decided to forget spreading the "good news," or those who appear to have become the judges themselves? Or, all of the above?
The film opens up some interesting questions that are unrelated to the film itself. I started wondering: Is the concept of hell in some way a good thing for society? In other words, if a person didn't believe in hell, would he or she be any more likely to commit a crime?
Statistics say no. According to a recent Pew Forum study of religion among prisoners, Christian religiosity and the mindset of "consequence" after death really had no significant relationship with crime.
In fact, those atheists who work tirelessly for humanity, including all those in the medical and science fields who aim to end disease and suffering, are pretty impressive, precisely because they believe in no eternal payoff.
Miller says it is somewhat normal for humans to take comfort in the "eternal damnation" version of hell, particularly because we are so frustrated at our inability to punish those who commit horrible crimes, particularly those who take their own lives or are killed before the law can deal with them. We like to feel that whatever justice can be meted out in our court systems is only a stop-gap measure until the ultimate wrath of God is unleashed upon some, particularly those who caused large-scale suffering like Hitler, Stalin, bin Laden and the sad, long list of cruel, maniacal people throughout history.
Miller thinks, however, that a higher -- perhaps the highest -- interpretation of Christianity is to be able to "forgive your enemy." To him that even includes Hitler.
At that moment, I was rendered silent, realizing Miller is the bigger person between us. Having lost members of my own family in the Holocaust, I still take some comfort in the belief Hitler is somewhere paying the price.
Today, are most Christians that forgiving? Miller thinks not, at least not in our part of the world. The important question is: could they be?
For some, hell gives hope, albeit a grim kind of hope, that justice is ultimately done.
I haven't been confronted with such a personal dilemma in a long, long time. Perhaps I needed to hear Miller call Christians out on that level of forgiveness to even begin to entertain the thought of forgiving Hitler myself. I was reminded I've got some room to grow. Perhaps it will be because of films like this that I can. It will not be the passionate fire and brimstone sermons by what often seems like infuriated, exclusionary preachers, nor the protestors on street corners that will cause me any pause and reflection. It will be films like these that facilitate constructive thought, dialogue and progress.
Will Christians, particularly those in Miller's own evangelical community, be open to his message? Will they engage in the conversation he is hoping for? Will they take one small step toward humanity and stay there long enough to briefly reconsider just how constructive they really are in their current approach to creating a form of hell on earth so that hell in the afterlife may be avoided? Will they allow themselves to believe for a moment that other perspectives may be worthy of consideration?
We are about to find out.
Miller is to be admired for this effort. Will "Hellbound?" mitigate some human suffering for those who are being taught in churches across our religiously free lands of North America that they or their loved ones are doomed to eternal damnation? For all those who have given up living here and now, because the meaning of their entire lives has been reduced to preparing for judgment day and avoiding hell at all cost, will it improve their human plight?
Those who want to find out and follow this important contemporary discussion, may like to see this film, which premieres Sept. 12 in Nashville, followed by openings in 20 other U.S. markets.
Whether or not Christians or people of all faiths see the film, they might sincerely enjoy listening to Kevin Miller talk about these concepts. This man, on his journey toward higher ground, seems to reveal new paths toward common ground.