Hell Is (For) Other People

Blame Canada for watering down our good old-time religion. Kevin Miller, originally of Saskatchewan, has made a terrifically provocative film called Hellbound? on the human urge to punish and how that urge gets projected onto our sense of what God is about.

An opening sequence of Miller attempting to engage some mad-as-hell Westboro Baptists left me worrying, “Oh. He’s going to caricature the brimstoners. Not good.” But it soon becomes obvious that Miller really does want to know the minds of people like atheist Robert McKee, who thinks universalism is a form of wussiness among people who just can’t handle dichotomies and who are uncomfortable with ultimate choosing.

If the pro-ECT (eternal conscious torment) figures in the film (Mars Hill’s Mark Driscoll in particular) end up seeming harsher and less attractive than the universalist squad, it’s not that Miller hasn’t tried to give them a fair hearing. He appreciates that, for the ECT crowd, the existence of Hell ratifies the idea of free choice. He lets the International House of Prayer’s Mike Bickle rant on about how outrageous it is that anyone should imagine that God’s grace would be available in Hell.

Still, there’s no doubt that Miller’s theological heroes are the “love wins” cohort: Rob Bell, naturally, but also Frank Schaeffer, Brian McLaren, Sharon Baker, Brad Jersak, Gregory Boyd, Michael Hardin, The Shack author William Young, and a compellingly watchable British “evangelical universalist” named Robin Parry. McLaren in particular, filmed in warm close-up, comes across in the film as a gentle but very serious thinker who patiently explains how scriptural references to the unimaginable catastrophe of CE 70 (the Roman destruction of Jerusalem) have been construed as references to eternal perdition. Yes, the Jesus of the “Little Apocalypse” is saying that there will be “weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth,” but it will be right here in Jerusalem for people who don’t straighten out their act.

Several of Miller’s talking heads speculate on why it’s so important for ECT people to hold the line. They have constructed their lives, their identities, around the old verities. Plus there is obvious power in appointing oneself to be a gatekeeper, guardian, and defender of the ECT tradition. Schaeffer helpfully points out that to take a Jesus-like approach, to focus more on the content of one’s character than on one’s final destination, puts gatekeepers out of a job.

Schaeffer, McLaren, and Hardin all identify Jesus as a figure who grew up in a (Second Temple Period) culture rife with speculation about the afterlife, resurrection, etc. But, they argue, Jesus changed the subject and got people to think about what pleases God, about what makes for a godly life, rather than on what’s behind Door #3. And, of course, Jesus is the supreme messenger of restorative rather than retributive justice (a fact all but universally ignored by the ECT folks).

Michael Hardin riffs on connections between developing post-exilic notions of Hell and concomitantly evolving ideas about Satan. Hardin also can’t resist noting that people who want to argue about who’s “in” and who’s “out” are, in fact, engaged in Satan-like activity. Satan being sacred history’s Great Litigator, as it were.

As a sucker for good theological discussion I was especially grateful to Miller for letting his good guys reprise the very ancient roots of the universalist position. Robin Parry lets us know that Gregory of Nyssa, whom he calls the “final editor” of the Nicene Creed, was a proto-universalist. Who knew?

The good guys, then and now, didn’t and don’t reject the idea of justice, or of judgment, or even of postmortem punishment, but they were/are not ECT subscribers. For them God’s clearly-expressed will is to lead all souls to mercy. A Donald Sutherland-like Eastern Orthodox cleric (Lazar Puhalo) quotes St. Anthony to the effect that it would be a “great error” to suppose that a merciful God could or would love people in Hell any less.

Judgment is a process, a refiner’s fire, not a permanent condition. If people can’t abide the idea of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot gliding right through the Pearly Gates, they don’t have to worry. But no one should ever say “never” about anyone else’s chances. The theological and ethical point is to try to have the mind, and more importantly, the loving heart of God. Miller lets Parry tell us that his universalism is actually grounded in a high view of Scripture, a high Christology, and a strong sense of God’s irresistible grace. (Take that, John Calvin.)

The big question under all of this, as Miller well understands, is not so much about God’s nature or God’s will as it is about our own. Why do so many people demand Eternal Conscious Torment for evildoers (mere annihilation isn’t enough for them)? Why, for that matter, do so many insist on the retention of capital punishment?

This question calls for serious reflection, maybe even serious prayer. If, as Michael Hardin seems to be saying, we humans have a built-in need for sacralized violence, we’re in big, big trouble.

Blind old John Milton got this part right: “The mind is its own place and in it self/Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” Our own perversity seems to be the problem. But to speak of perversity takes us back to Satan-land, and really, have you tried the guacamole?

[Note: This article was changed to correct an historical detail. If only history were as easy to change. –The Eds.]
peterlaarman@gmail.com'

Peter Laarman is a United Church of Christ minister and activist who recently retired as executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting in Los Angeles. He remains involved in numerous justice struggles, in particular a campaign known as Justice Not Jails that calls upon faith communities to critique and combat the system of racialized mass incarceration often referred to as The New Jim Crow.