Oct. 17, 2012 - Issue #887: Dedfest
'Shall not the Judge of all Earth do what's right?"
It's a Book of Genesis quote that opens Kevin Miller's Hellbound?, a documentary that looks to recontextualize the place where the Good Book says bad people go to be punished once they shuffle off this mortal coil. But it's the fact that Miller uses that quote as a springboard, rather than flat rhetoric, that lends his doc its genuinely curious (and necessary) bent: it rolls out a very rational look at the concept of eternal damnation, of what it can mean to believe in a contradictory God who loves all his creatures, and yet damns some for eternity. Miller fills the screen with interviews from across the full spectrum of belief, atheist to fundamentalist, non-believing authors to Westboro Baptist members to construct his points.
In advance of the film's Edmonton opening, which Miller will be present for, the director took a phone call with Vue to discuss the film.
VUE WEEKLY: I feel I'd be wrong not to ask you about your own beliefs about heaven and hell.
KEVIN MILLER: I think there's a difference between what I believe and what the film says. It's really trying to advocate a position in regard to the beliefs we hold. So this notion of absolute certainty that we begin the film with, I think we come around to a point to say, well rather than certainty, I think humility is a better stance. And so, that's what we're arguing for in the film. My own beliefs, I think of the three categories we talk about in the film—eternal torment, annihilationism and universalism, or ultimate reconciliation, I would definitely be firmly in the ultimate reconciliation camp. Not a fundamentalist in that regard, but that is where my reading of the situation puts me.
VW: It seems to be that argument [reconciliation] was particularly under assault in the movie.
KM: This idea of universalism is under assault, because it's a threat to people who have gatekeeper status. And I think that also, there's people who feel that there is only one way to read the Bible, and that way leads to [a belief in] an eternal torment in hell. And what we're trying to do in the film is to say, well, to be fair, throughout the history of the church there's been a wide variety of views. And in fact, some of the people who helped determine what books would be in the bible didn't believe in eternal hell. So you're in a difficult position if you're trying to use the Bible to say that those that don't believe in eternal hell aren't Christians. [laugh], because then you're gonna have to disqualify some of the people who gave you the Bible.
What we're trying to do in the film a lot is help Christians and non-Christians re-engage with history. To help them understand how we got to a place where the majority view seems to portray a God who ultimately contradicts everything that Jesus taught.
VW: Religion today seems increasingly radicalized, for lack of a better term. It seems like those who do have a sense of belief are even more guarded about it.
KM: There's a lot of victim ideologies out there. Even in 9/11, which we use in the film, the people flying planes into the buildings, they claimed they were doing it on behalf of victims. And yet the people who suffered under that were victims. So we have these competing victim stories. And I think that christians, defintiely—I think that people of many faiths are in a form of retreat, and they're feeling marginalized, and under threat, and that will tend to radicalize. And I think that by and large, we live in a world that's very confusing: the world was pretty simple during the Cold War, because we knew who the bad guys were: the ones on the other side of the iron curtian. Well, you get rid of the iron curtain now, and you're a soldier in Afghanistan, for instance. No wonder why these guys have such a high suicide rate, and there's so many bad things going on. We live in this world where it's like the whole framework that helps us make sense of it has been obliterated. So I think we're in the midst of trying to reconstruct it. And I think one response to the confusion is fundamentalist religion, because it simplifies a very complicated world.
VW: I think that's a good point. We all need some way to make sense of the world, and Religon, and fundamental religion, are increasingly part of that.
KM: Well I have to say, you'll see fundamentalist version of atheism as well, because it's a gross simplification and it appeals to everybody on one level, because man, wouldn't you like to not have to figure all this stuff out? [laugh], But on the other sie, I think it can become very oppressive, because it can draw battle lines in the world between us and them, and so then when you bring God into the picture, I think it becomes really precarious.
But I think you're right. I don't care if you're a christian or a buddhist or a muslim or an atheist. Each one of those things, we call them religions, but they're really narratives, that give us identity. What religion has always done is help explain the world and our place in it. And we all need that; we have to have a framework of some kind. And I think that what we're seeing here with this debate over hell is people raising questions about the framework, to say, 'y'know what? there's certain parts of this narrative that no longer work.' Because we have seen the fruit of them, and it's not good. We see the light of an option that maybe we actually forgot about, and perhaps it's time to reconsider it.
And the reaction, the knee jerk reaction is to call people who question the traditional view heretics and all these crazy things, but that's not true engagement with the arguments these people are making: that's an emotional reaction. Which is something you would expect, but I'm hoping that we can move beyond that, because what we're trying to argue in the film is this is far from an abstract theological discussion. These beliefs that we have shape the values that we hold and shape the policies that we create and ultimately shape the world that we created. We live in a world where violence is the organizing principle. And I really think the ultimate message that Jesus is calling us to is a radical rejection of that. That he's calling us to a new organizing principle. Because if we continue to cling to reciprocal violence, it can only lead to escalation.
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