As a seminary student, Kevin Miller’s concentration was epistemology, the study of how we know what we know. You won’t hear the term in his new documentary, Hellbound?, but his background shows. The film is an entertaining and thought-provoking bit of cinematic epistemological inquiry.
Mr. Miller interviewed writers, preachers and thinkers from a range of perspectives (including Perkins School of Theology’s Jaime Clark-Soles) along with a few heavy metal musicians for good measure. The film tackles questions like: “Is there a hell? And do we know that it’s a place of eternal torment?” The result is a Bible-based challenge of what many modern Christians assume is established orthodoxy about hell.
He spoke with staff writer Mary Jacobs; here are excerpts.
Why’d you want to do a documentary on hell?
I became a Christian when I was 9 years old. Coming home from Bible camp, where I made my decision, I remember looking at my family and thinking, if they did not come to know what I knew, they’d go to hell. The problem was, I knew they ridiculed our evangelical neighbors, so I was too afraid to tell them. It really was a terrifying position to be in. The people who shared that [idea of hell] with me absolutely loved me, but the message of good news was infected with a message of bad news that ultimately overcame the host. I’ve struggled with this ever since that night. It manifested itself in many different ways. When you’re trying to worship a God you’re always afraid of, you always live in that fear.
Four years ago, I edited a book on hell by my friend Brad Jersak, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hell, Hope, and the New Jerusalem. That was a revelatory book for me. It turns out the Bible is far from univocal on the topic of hell. There are passages that seem to say God will annihilate his enemies. There are other voices that suggest God will torture souls in hell forever. And then there are people in the Bible who seem to suggest that all will be ultimately reconciled to God. Seeing this wide diversity within the Bible itself, it really was helpful to me, to break away from this one-way-ism. It’s OK to question. I think I might be able to be a Christian and not believe in hell—at least not in the way in which it is popularly conceived. There are many people throughout history who questioned that view as well. So I wanted to take some of the things I’ve learned and open them up to a broad audience.
Where does the idea of eternal torment turn up in the Bible?
Revelation 14 is one of the only passages you can point to that would provide a ghost of the idea of eternal conscious torment. But if you want to take the lake of fire literally, then you also need to say that Jesus was literally a lamb with seven eyes and seven horns. So people who point to that passage as the final word on hell—they are picking and choosing even within the proof texts they use for hell. I think it’s important we recognize that. You don’t have to share my bias, but let’s admit we all have one.
What’s your faith background?
I’m a member of an Anglican church. My father was a minister of the United Church of Canada, which I would describe as theologically liberal. Later we migrated over to a Mennonite church.
Are Christians your target audience for the film?
I think the audience is primarily Christian. People who believe in the traditional western view of hell—which I call “infernalism,” their views are based on the things they consider authority: one, the Bible; two, tradition; and three, reason. In the film, we allow them to set the table using these ways of forming theology, and then we re-examine their arguments. More to the point, is there another way to read the evidence?
A lot of people who aren’t in church who’ve walked away, I’m hoping I can reach out to them as well. I’ve been tempted for so long to stop identifying myself as a Christian because of all the baggage attached to such a name. There’s something amazing at the heart of Christianity, but it’s been crusted over by images of hell, of this God who’s out to get us. But we’re not all fire and brimstone fundamentalists. I think this film shows there are thoughtful people of good will within Christianity.
You interviewed some death metal musicians in the film. Why?
I grew up a metal fan, and I recognize these folks have taken the icons of Christianity but rejected the message. It’s partly for marketing. As I look at it, it’s a way of rebelling against the status quo.
This is actually a great group of people. They’re congregating because they feel they have no place in a church with a God who’s dangling them over hell. In a sense they’re creating their own church. They’re looking for identity, belonging and affirmation. They can’t find that in the church. They’re encountering judgment in churches. That’s a real tragedy. I think they’re saying something. It’s prophetic protest music against the abuses done in the name of religion. And, yes, there’s an element of entertainment, too. You put a microphone in front of Oderus Urungus [lead vocalist for the metal band Gwar), and just let the cameras roll. He said a ton of stuff that we couldn’t use.
Why the name “Hellbound”?
It’s funny, I knew the title before I knew what the movie was going to be. On the first level, it’s the question of, “Are we actually hellbound? Who is hellbound?” At another level, it’s asking, “Why are we bound to this idea of hell?”
Any religion will develop a system of rewards and punishments. The fact that hell shows up in so many religions shows that it’s a projection of a very human need for justice. If you’re an atheist—it all begins and ends in this life. But death just isn’t good enough for some people. There are things that happen in this world that we are utterly powerless to make right. We cry out to God. If we can’t make it right, then, God, you have to. For me, part of my goal in making the documentary was really trying to understand the psychological side of this. That doesn’t mean hell doesn’t exist.
We all cried out on 9/11 to God, “Why?” If you lose [a loved one], all you can do is hope there is some place you’re going to meet them again. But there are healthy and unhealthy expressions of this longing for justice.
On another level, we’re asking, “Are there some versions of hell that need to be bound?” We gravitate toward the images of God we have in our mind. We will begin to emulate that God. Some versions give us a vengeful, wrathful God. That’s dangerous, especially when we become fundamentalist and rigid. As the question mark at the end of my film’s title suggests, I don’t think any of us can be certain what happens after we die—if anything. But we can be certain of one thing: As long as we continue to insist on certainty, we won’t have to wait until we die to experience hell. We will have plenty of it here on Earth, because we will continue to use our sense of certainty to bludgeon others with “the truth.”
You also interviewed Margie Phelps, daughter of Westboro Baptist’s Fred Phelps. How scary was that?
She’s a tough lady. A huge crowd gathered around us, and a lot of people were rolling their own cameras. The interesting thing was, I had my wife and her gay brother and his partner there, watching the whole thing as well. I was trying to keep my cool. It was definitely the most difficult interview I did. I was on my toes the whole time. When I challenged them about their anger, they basically said, what they’re doing here may sound angry, but we are doing it out of love. They really believe people are on the road to destruction. That’s their justification for what they’re doing. Well, I saw way too much joy about people’s damnation there.
Having done all this research, did you change your mind, one way or another, about hell?
It’s funny. You think you know something about the subject, then it blows your mind. Even though I was open to the idea of ultimate reconciliation all along, my views of hell have changed on a wholesale level. I’m asking basic questions like, “What is the gospel? How are we to understand what the Bible is?”
Ironically, having done the documentary, I feel more excited about being a Christian and about telling people about Christianity. And now I’m being told by some people that I’m not a Christian.
Is there anything you hope people take out of the documentary, whatever they believe?
No matter what people believe about hell—and I don’t care if they totally disagree—what we really want the film to do is to provoke informed discussion. I also wanted to help people relax. There’s nothing to be afraid of here. Let’s allow that conversation about hell to happen. Let’s not shut it down.