By C.S. Morrissey
Special to The B.C. Catholic
A documentary on hell, you say? Wow! How did they get that footage?
Actually HELLBOUND? is a feature-length film that uses interviews with a quirky parade of theologians, pastors, authors, exorcists, and even heavy-metal musicians.
The movie explores the current debate over the Christian doctrine of hell, with a special focus on Protestant quarrels that Catholics should find fascinating.
Moreover, in a nice touch, Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft makes an appearance in the exact centre of the film. Whether it is intentional or not (the writer and director Kevin Miller attends an Anglican church), this beautiful formal structure artfully communicates the Catholic position for what it is: namely, the golden mean for a hot theological argument.
Hell really exists, says Kreeft, but we simply do not know whether it is populated with many, few, or even one person. Kreeft admirably communicates the Catholic Church's sane and balanced view. He points out that, "Lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy," is part of her famous rosary prayer.
Kreeft is surrounded on either side of the film by the non-Catholic extremes. One Protestant extreme wants to affirm that over 99% of humanity winds up damned. The film begins with this group of angry cranks.
They abusively voice their extremist view as they demonstrate at the 9/11 "Ground Zero" Memorial in New York. The filmmaker himself debates them in a riveting series of episodes.
The opposite extreme is represented in the film by Frank Schaeffer, author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back.
Schaeffer denies that hell exists, and his contempt for the rationality of Western Christianity's intellectual tradition is palpable.
No doubt Schaeffer's dogmatic skepticism and radical-left politics are a reaction to whatever in his evangelical upbringing has embittered him, but his substitute creed is indistinguishable from a crude and militant atheism, and an angry anti-Catholicism is on display in many of his publications.
Schaeffer is therefore a mimetic double of the other extremist cranks that the film opens with at Ground Zero.
Both extremes are mirror images possessing a deadly certainty, whether it is the misanthropic certainty that hell is stuffed full with most of humanity, or the equally contemptuous certainty that hell is a fairy tale, useful only for spiritual abuse and political manipulation (and therefore obviously empty).
Both extremes are self-righteously certain about who the monstrous villains are.
When avoiding these two extremes, the remaining voices in the film have more interesting things to say about the hell debate. Filmmaker Kevin Miller even reveals his screenwriter's interest in the topic, because hell highlights the dramatic problem of human choice, as screen-writing guru Robert McKee explains in his interview.
HELLBOUND? is subtly and sympathetically committed to promoting a reconsideration of "universalism," the theological idea that everybody will be saved from hell.
From the Catholic point of view, this position would be heretical if, moving beyond a seriously lived Christian hope for the salvation of all, it were to profess in addition that we can know with certainty that everybody will in fact be saved.
(For more details see Joseph Ratzinger's book Eschatology and Hans Urs von Balthasar's Dare We Hope "That All Men Be Saved"?)
The strength of the film is that it honestly invites us to rediscover what the Christian love is that "hopes all things."
It's a salutary invitation, since everybody is daily tempted to scapegoat convenient targets. This "consignment to hell" of our favourite hated enemies is always and everywhere a failure to live the Gospel fully.
The movie HELLBOUND? which opened in the U.S. in September, will open in B.C. Oct. 12. There will be an audience Q&A with the filmmaker after the Oct. 12 Vancouver show at Cineplex Odeon International Village Cinemas, and also after the Oct. 13 show at Colossus Langley. Details at hellboundthemovie.com.
C.S. Morrissey is an associate professor of philosophy at Redeemer Pacific College.