Director Kevin Miller, right, talks with Margie Phelps, left, and Jonathan Phelps, of the Westboro Baptist Church, in a scene from the film "Hellbound?"
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — How can a loving God send people, even bad people, to a place of eternal torment? A new documentary struggles with questions of punishment and redemption and how culture affects and shapes Christian beliefs about God and the Bible.
Coming in the wake of controversy over Rob Bell's 2011 hell-questioning book "Love Wins," which put hell on the cover of Time magazine, and treading some of the same ground, filmmaker Kevin Miller believes the debate about the nature of hell is not academic.
In an interview after a Nashville screening of "Hellbound?" Miller said he believes our ideas about hell have a real-world effect on the way we live our lives and the way we relate to others.
Perhaps popular theologian Brian McLaren best expresses that thought in the movie when he says, "If I believe that a small percentage of human beings were created to enjoy bliss eternally and another group of beings were created to experience eternal conscious torment, then I look at human beings differently than if I say, 'Every human being was made in the image of God. Every human being is beloved by God. God is at work to save every human being.'"
McLaren's position is contrasted with that of Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll, who explains that, in his view, "God created the world and people chose to rebel against him. And God came and died to save some of them from the death they deserve."
Mainstream Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity, tends to promote some version of that view, which includes the idea of hell as eternal torment.
Miller briefly mentions the view that those unsaved by Jesus will simply perish, called annihilationism. But the filmmaker seems to lean toward a view that holds out hope that hell exists but may not be eternal — that God wants to be reconciled to all people, and that the reconciliation can happen even after death.
Bell was called heretical by some critics for promoting a similar view in "Love Wins."
In the film, Missouri's International House of Prayer Director Mike Bickle says that to promote the idea that the grace of God is available in hell, or universalism, "is the worst crime that a preacher of the Gospel could say to the world."
But Miller seeks to show that the view is not out of line with Christian tradition.
Catholic apologist Peter Kreeft says the Catholic church leaves the question somewhat open.
"That there is a hell and that anyone can go there by their free choice, that's dogma," he says. "That there's anybody in it and how many people are in it, nobody knows."
Orthodox Archbishop Lazar Puhalo emphatically asserts, "God doesn't send anybody to hell. God doesn't punish anybody, either in this world or the world to come."
In his view, "hell is a condition, not a place. The malice we feel is the fire that burns."
Miller bookends the film around the 9/11 tragedy, saying events like the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center are the reason people need to believe in hell as a place of punishment for bad people, like Osama bin Laden or Adolf Hitler.
But Christian author Brad Jersak reminds the audience that common Christian belief teaches that Hitler isn't the only one going to hell.
"If we're strict infernalists, the victims of Auschwitz who didn't have their names written in the book of life go right from Hitler's flames into God's flames, forever and ever and ever," he says.
Miller is from Canada, but his religious upbringing probably would be more common for an American. He calls himself a recovering fundamentalist, although he said has great respect for the "ladies who put their heart and soul" into teaching him about the Bible.
He grew up in the mainline United Church of Canada but joined the Mennonite church as teenager. He went to a Mennonite Bible college and spent some time in an interdenominational seminary. He attended several nondenominational evangelical churches before becoming an Anglican.
Miller said he considers himself a sophisticated reader of the Bible but never gave much thought to hell before he edited a book on the subject several years ago.
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The controversy surrounding Bell's "Love Wins" helped him frame the debate for the movie and some of the interview subjects are Bell's most significant critics and supporters.
Miller says his film is primarily aimed at a religious audience.
"A growing number of people are increasingly uncomfortable with the notion of a God who calls us to love our enemies but who will one day vanquish his enemies to hell," he said in an interview. "People sense the contradiction but think that the only way to resolve it is to leave Christianity."
"Hellbound?" opened in New York City on Friday.