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Hell is for bad guys, but not me

Hell is for bad guys, but not me

In the film Hellbound?, writer/director Kevin Miller asks why it is so important for some people to believe that God will consign evil-doers to an eternal, conscious hell and for others to believe that God will eventually welcome everyone into heaven.

Peter Laarman writes in Religion Dispatches:

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 BCE 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.

Miller says that what we believe about hell and eternal punishment says more about us than about God.

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.


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Bill Dilworth

NB: Thinking that rigorists engage in bibliolatry isn’t really what I have in mind. It’s okay to think that others are mistaken about religious authority.

I even think it’s OK to think that some rigorists are motivated by hatred for others – just as it’s equally okay for rigorists to think that some progressives are motivated by similarly base desires. But what I think is not okay is denying the ascription of good faith to everyone who believes differently than we do, as people on all sides of the current controversies in Christianity often do. I even think that the sort of Christian love we owe one another ought to make us assume good faith on the part of individual opponents unless it’s impossible to do so.

I won’t hold my breath, though, and fully expect progressives continuing to accuse those who believe in Hell, those who think homosexuality is a sin, and those who do not support women’s ordination as misanthropes, homophobes, and misogynists, respectively – while rigorists will continue to claim that progressives are led by libertine self-interest and hatred of all that is holy.


Guilt as charged, BillD. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around what seems like pure Bibliolatry to me.

“It’s in the Bible” (leaving aside what the assertion of “it” is, and translation). Yes, and? Words on a page? It may have come red-lettered from Grandma (God bless her!), but have you ever even CONSIDERED where this artifact, “The Bible”, came from before that?

One thing I don’t Episcopalians proclaim NEAR enough: the “Word of God” is JESUS. The words-on-the-page matter insofar as they point us to/help us build a (formative) relationship with Jesus Christ.

…but mainly I think belief in “ECT” (Eternal Conscious Torment: I feel nauseous just typing that phrase) comes from childhood abuse, not any kind of reading/interpreting of the Bible. But that’s another discussion…

JC Fisher

Bill Dilworth

It seems that the film might overlook one reason people believe in Hell, and refuse to countenance any suggestion that the punishment might be limited or that everyone will be saved in the end: because they believe that that’s what the Bible (or, alternatively, the Church’s Magisterium) says on the subject, and they feel conscience-bound to affirm what they believe is a divinely authoritative teaching.

I don’t think that a lot of “progressive” types are able to get their heads around such a position simply because it is not theirs; it represents a failure of imagination, or perhaps empathy, on their part. And so anyone who affirms rigorist notions of Hell, or the impermissible nature of homosexuality or women’s ordination, is labeled as being motivated by hatred of one kind or another. Of course, many of those rigorists are similarly unable to believe that progressives might adopt their own positions out of their reading of Tradition, and instead ascribe to them lust, hatred of God, or what have you as motivations. Many on both sides are unwilling or unable to accept the bona fides of those who disagree with them. I think it’s a tragic situation for the Church.

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