Film Review – Hellbound?
As someone who is not particularly religious, I generally avoid theological arguments whenever possible. Even still, the concept behind writer/director Kevin Miller’s documentary Hellbound? had me curious. The film presents the questions of whether hell exists and, if so, who would going there. Despite not really thinking much about hell, I’ve been inundated with ideas about it from the media, all the way from Dante’s Inferno to movies like Little Nicky. Hell is a major figure in our culture, so the topic seemed worth checking out.
I had never realized the extent of the debate over hell. According the film, there are three main perspectives: the classic view, the annihilist view (that life ceases after death), and the universalist view (that everyone eventually can get into heaven). Since there is no clear information to declare which view is right, the filmmakers take the question to many of the major religious theologians in the United States. The film uses 9/11 as a backdrop for much of the story, with a lot of footage coming from the 10th anniversary remembrance ceremony. The question of the fate of victims of that attack is a good one to stem from, but at times it feels like too much time is spent focusing on it, so it ends up being a bit of a crutch.
Kevin Miller does a good of interviewing major players in the religious world to get their perspective on the topic, from classic believers such as the folks from the Westboro Baptist Church and Mark Driscoll from Mars Hill Church to universalists like Archbishop Lazar Puhalo and Robin Parry. The discussion of the perception of Jesus/God in response to these perspectives is fascinating—to hear how some people view them to be vengeful and some believe them to be capable of absolute forgiveness presents a huge difference in perception. That there can be so much variety within the religious community makes me even more confused and content in my decision to position myself as a neutral outside viewer.
Along these same lines, despite it not being the primary focus, some of the most fascinating points were focused on the differences between the various branches of Christianity. The different borders that are drawn are very helpful, but also miss the bigger issue of what the world perspective on hell actually is. With seven billion people in the world (and about a third of them in Asia), the Catholic/Christian perspective is just a piece of a much larger pie.
The problems with the film aren’t necessarily with the content, but more with the presentation. They reference and speed through Bible verses at times in support or against an argument. Unless you are very well versed in the Bible, it will be hard to keep up with that is going on, and this was problematic for keeping my attention. Additionally, the film is meant to be a debate about the various perspectives, but it ultimately boils down more to a battle between the classic view and the universalist view, and the director Kevin Miller has a clear slant towards universalism. I would’ve been curious to hear more about the annihilist view, but with exception of when the perspectives are defined, it is rarely referenced.
Another issue is that the film purely focuses mostly on the different perspectives on the existence of hell and doesn’t spend enough time tackling the issue of what it takes to theoretically get into hell. Some of the most engaging parts of the movie are when people take a world view to show that while we might believe we have the moral right on our side, so do other people around the world, and almost all of that discussion occurs right before the end. Honestly, I would’ve enjoyed that discussion even more than the question of whether or not hell exists, because it seems much more open for interpretation.
Despite the jam-packed storytelling, I thought the film had some worthwhile points. Unfortunately, most of them will be lost on anyone but the most avid believers. It is somewhat unclear who the audience for the film is, since most of the believers in the film appear to be pretty firm in their beliefs…while at the same time this isn’t exactly a welcoming introduction to non-believers. Conceptually, I liked where Kevin Miller was coming from; unfortunately it was tough for me to take much away. A more narrow discussion probably would’ve made the movie a lot more digestible.
Final Grade: C+