Admirers of nuanced theological discourse, an admittedly small and underserved segment of the moviegoing public, have a welcome conversation-starter at hand in “Hellbound?” By narrowing its range of voices to Christian leaders, thinkers and writers, Kevin Miller’s sober, stimulating documentary on the hot topic of eternal damnation necessarily limits its audience, but achieves a level of rhetorical eloquence that would theoretically appeal to open-minded viewers of any religious stripe. Likely to offend more than a few evangelicals with its support for a universalist point of view, this civilized provocation could generate considerable discussion in faith-based theatrical play and ancillary.
A British Columbia-based writer-director making his feature debut, Miller has received writing credits on a number of Christian-themed documentaries, including 2008’s anti-evolution polemic “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.” He’s on much surer footing here. Wisely confining his line of inquiry to strictly spiritual matters, the helmer elicits a considered range of smart, well-articulated opinions that, as mediated by Simon Tondeur’s tight editing, maintains a lively discussion while carefully moving a dominant perspective to the fore.
The docu is bookended by footage shot in Lower Manhattan on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 (backed by Marcus Zuhr’s somber score), an initially tacky touch that eventually develops into a thoughtful leitmotif on the morality of punishment and the very human desire to see one’s enemies suffer. Visiting the memorial site also allows Miller to interview several picketing members of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, who share their healthy, balanced perspective that the whole world is going to hell. The quality of the debate can only improve from there, and it does.
At the core of “Hellbound?” is the question, more perplexing for some than others, of how to reconcile a merciful, compassionate God with the fiery fate that supposedly awaits nonbelievers and unrepentant sinners. Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll draws on Old Testament scriptures to lay out the classical Western view of heaven and hell as a foundational element of the gospel, while screenwriting guru and self-professed atheist Robert McKee, of all people, comes forth to argue that a Christian worldview without hell is essentially meaningless; if choices have no real-world consequences, he notes, then life has no meaning.
But the film ushers in an opposing position fueled by discussion of Rob Bell’s controversial book “Love Wins,” which caused a stir in the evangelical community by expressing uncertainty about hell as a literal place. Among the many speakers sympathetic to Bell’s doubts are Chad Holtz, who lost his pastoral post after renouncing his belief in hell; author/teacher Brad Jersak, who suggests the Bible’s references to the fires of Gehenna are historical rather than prophetic in nature; and author William P. Young and pastor Gregory A. Boyd, who note that the church has a major investment, financial as well as spiritual, in the idea of hell.
Most outspoken of the bunch is author, filmmaker and Orthodox Christian Frank Schaeffer, who wryly suggests that any proper evaluation of the hell-worthy would have to include the most rigid fundamentalists, whom he likens to modern-day Pharisees. Overall, however, the discussion is more temperate, led by smart, engaging interviewees who combine a high level of biblical scholarship with warm, unforced compassion. Riffing casually on theological literature ranging from St. Augustine and Dante to C.S. Lewis, they wear their beliefs and their erudition with easy grace.
Miller wisely doesn’t try to answer all the questions posed here, though simply by dint of the speakers chosen, his film comes down largely in support of a universalist perspective. Whether Christians agree or disagree with this conclusion, which cuts across political lines as well as sectarian boundaries, non-Christian viewers may be refreshed and even inspired by the sheer number of believers here extolling the virtues of Christlike character, introspection and compassion, while warning against the fear-mongering intimidation tactics that have turned the church, in the words of pastor Brian McLaren, into “a hell avoidance plan.”
Tech credits are straightforward but sharp.