I recently had a chance to talk with former Hollywood Jesus contributor Kevin Miller about his new documentary, Hellbound? The film is a look at some of the theological issues around the idea of Hell.
What is it about the subject of Hell that made this important to you?
I came to faith within an Evangelical Christian church, and even though I didn’t realize it at the time, when I became a Christian along with the Good News came the bad news. The bad news is if you don’t accept the Good News you’re going to suffer for eternity in Hell when you die. I think that anybody who’s heard that story on one level or another has a problem with it, because how do we reconcile this idea of a loving God who asks us to love our enemies—who commands us to love our enemies—but who will one day supposedly vanquish all of His enemies in Hell?
So there seems to be an inherent contradiction at the heart of the Christian message, at least the one I received. This is something that has troubled me my whole life. What was a general struggle ever since I became a Christian at age nine intensified over the years, especially when I worked on the documentary Expelled several years ago. When you go head-to-head with some of the strongest arguments against theism and Christianity, you’re forced to deconstruct everything that you believe in. I barely emerged from that experience with any of my faith intact. So I think that there’s just been an ongoing deconstruction and reconstruction process in my own life. And Hell is really front and center, because we don’t just come up with a theology of Hell. Our theology of Hell generally arises out of our view of who we think God is.
So I begin with what Jesus says in the Gospels: “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” If Jesus is the perfect representation of God on earth, what does that mean about how things will all work out in the end? It’s difficult to reconcile this idea of Jesus, who taught us to love our enemies, vanquishing His enemies. The same goes for the atonement. Why did Jesus die? Did He die to satisfy God’s wrath or was something else going on there? Something about this story isn’t making sense. And ultimately you get to this question of Hell. I don’t think I’m alone in this struggle. I think there are thousands if not millions of Christians who are asking exactly the same questions. So I’m hoping that by showcasing a number of different voices in the debate, Hellbound? can help viewers reexamine what they believe, why they believe it, and what effect those beliefs are having on the world.
What kind of discoveries did you personally make on this film-making journey?
I’ve been asked many times how working on this film has affected my view of Hell or Christianity or what have you, and I just have to say it’s been wholesale. It’s been such a tremendous experience for me, a tremendously liberating experience on so many different levels. One of the biggest discoveries for me, I think, is the significant role that death and our anxieties about death play in how we look at Hell and how we look at God and religion. I think that on one level you can say that all religions are a way of helping us deal with the horror of death. So almost every religion holds out some sort of hope that this isn’t the only life. Then the questions arise: if this isn’t the only life, what’s the next life like? And what are the consequences of the choices we make in this life in the one to come? It’s only natural then that the ideas of rewards and punishment come up, so then you get the questions of Hell. Richard Beck of Experimental Theology has done a good job of laying this out, that so much of Christianity is ultimately death-centered in that it’s all about the death event. I was having dinner with some people the other night when one of my friends, who is a Christian, said, “Well, this life is just about preparing for the next one anyway, right?” Such thinking creates a tendency to look past this life to the one to come. “What good is this earth? It’s all going to burn anyway.” “This is just a training ground for the real game which is after we die.” I hear these things all the time.
I see things quite differently. I don’t see Christianity being primarily about the next life at all. It’s about here and now. Christianity liberates us from the fear of death—not in a way that tells us a nice little story that makes us feel better, but truly liberates us from an entire society that has ordered itself around a fear of death—a society that exploits our fear of death in order to manipulate us. When we realize we’re going to die one day, that naturally puts us in a defensive posture because we want to prevent that from happening for as long as possible. So we become self-centered. When we become self-centered we begin to look at other people in self-centered ways. They become people who can potentially threaten us, so we have to co-opt them somehow in order to help us avert death or at least avert the fear of death.