Title: Hellbound?

Director: Kevin Miller

A rich, thoughtful conversation-starter about changing notions of religious damnation, “Hellbound?” invades notoriously touchy territory with an open mind, steady focus and civil disposition. Director Kevin Miller interviews an eclectic group of authors, theologians, pastors, social commentators and even musicians in exploring how and why so many modern-day Christians are so bound to a particular and specific vision of hell, and the manner in which that predominance in turn affects that world in which we are living.

The idea of hell, for those who believe in its existence, breaks down broadly along three lines: those who accept it in literal terms, as a place of eternal torment for the souls of the damned; those who adhere to Annihilationism, in which true believers join God in Heaven while the souls of the wicked are on the other hand extinguished, snuffed out like a candle flame; and those who tout Universalism, in which God’s grace and love eventually restores to right relationship the souls of all human beings.

Different texts in the Bible on the surface teach all three, lending plenty of fuel and ammunition for the often vehemently expressed passions of various adherents. The struck fuse for this perhaps internecine conflict exploding more into the mainstream came about when Rob Bell, pastor of one of the largest and most influential churches in America, in February of 2011 released a two-minute trailer to promote his new book, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” His virtual excommunication by many prominent evangelicals was swift and fiery.

Miller, though, picks up this question about hell as a place of eternal torture for the wicked, and asks what it says about the notion of God as an all-loving creator (admittedly not the shorthand doctrine of a broad swath of Christianity) if he really allows presumably allows billions of people to suffer in hell for eternity. Miller rather thankfully eschew man-on-the-street reportage and querying, and the banality such an approach would engender. Instead, he aims for a more elevated and informed level of discourse, and the result is a work of considerable eloquence and intrigue.

Storytelling guru Robert McKee weighs in on religion’s relationship to storytelling, and hell’s place in that; Chad Holtz, a North Carolina pastor fired for embracing Bell’s thoughts on Universalism, talks about the evolution of his beliefs; others debate whether non-Universalist ideologies necessarily minimize either God’s love or power. Miller engages a wide variety of subjects with contrasting beliefs, and also visits and chats with the operators of a “Hell House,” a seasonal, Halloween-type attraction in which ticket buyers are subjected to a roll call of sin, like drug use, murder and play-acted rape.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates Miller’s prudence and levelheadedness than when he engages in conversation with a couple members of the Westboro Baptist Church — the ultra-Calvinist Kansas house of worship who espouse a litany of hateful viewpoints and prance about at funerals of soldiers with signs reading “God Hates Fags” and “God Loves Dead Soldiers,” and the like. Their exchange, intercut throughout the movie in relevant portions, unfolds along a theological rather than emotional axis. Miller keeps his cool. It is a woman from Westboro that becomes somewhat unhinged and veers into strange ad hominem attacks, leading Miller to ask, “Are you expressing God’s anger toward me right now, or yours?”

“Hellbound?” of course does not arrive at a pat conclusion, but the questions it raises — amongst them, Does or would God respond to evil in the same way we do? — are weighty and, for the properly enlightened and engaged mind, stimulating and even a certain type of fun to ponder. Evil, empathy, love, duty, eternity, free will and acquiescence — all are part of Miller’s heady cerebral stew, sure to connect at least as a curio with open-minded viewers of various religious beliefs.

NOTE: “Hellbound?” will see release in major metropolitan markets as well as through a series of special event screenings. For more information on the movie and to view its trailer, visit www.HellboundTheMovie.com.

Technical: B-

Story: A-

Overall: B+

Written by: Brent Simon


By Brent Simon

A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International, Newsweek Japan, Magill's Cinema Annual, and many other outlets. He cannot abide a world without U2 and tacos.

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