Monday, 30 September 2013

Hellbound? - A Discussion and Reflection

In July Kevin Miller came to Newton Abbot for a screening of Hellbound? the Movie.  As you'd expect the reaction and response to the documentary was mixed with the issues raised highly contentious to some.  A few of us gathered together last week to discuss the themes and statements made in the film.

For those who are unaware, Hellbound? is a film that explores the Christian doctrine and understanding of hell and challenges the traditional belief that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment.  The film interviews various pastors, theologians and writers to present a variety of views and beliefs from across the theological spectrum.

As I watched it I was aware that what Kevin was seeking to do through the film was argue that universal reconciliation (UR) is a belief that can be held by Christians and still be deemed as sitting within orthodox Christianity.

Kevin and I were able to chat a fair amount while he was here in the UK and what he found useful about doing a screening here was to gain an understanding on this issue from a UK perspective. I hope this article will help that understanding a little more.

I think Kevin is a great guy who I've got a lot of time for. In the making of Hellbound? it seems that people are quick to judge him, condemn him and dismiss him, and that is unfair. Sarah and I were struck by his humility, gentleness and warmth. This is simply a side-note, but one that I think is needed to be heard.

So a few people gathered at my place to reflect further on Hellbound? and the issues it raised and to
dig further into some of the theological positions that the film posed.  This reflection will hopefully help reveal something of how some in the UK might see this whole issue and the differences perhaps to the arguments in the USA.

There was a mixed reaction the film itself.

Someone shared how useful the film had been in helping them gain a fuller and more balanced understanding of universalism without the caricatures.  They said that often they views universalism as something that simply believes no matter who you are or what you do or believe you'll go to heaven.  Hellbound? has helped them see that a proper Christian understanding does not view this doctrine in this way.  Of course there are a variety of ways and understandings of UR within the Christian tradition, so it was at this point we looked at Robin Parry's The Evangelical Universalist to help bring further clarity to a doctrine of UR that people could, at the very least, listen to.  He writes,

'I want us to get concrete in our discussion, so I wish to introduce you to an imaginary representative of Christian Universalism. We shall call her Anastasia.  She will represent a version of Christian Universalism I consider to have plausible grounds for claiming to be a position in tune with Scripture...Anastasia is an evangelical Christian. She believes in the inspiration and authority of the Bible. She believes in all those crucial Christian doctrines such as Trinity, creation, sin, atonement, the return of Christ, salvation through Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone. In fact, on most things you'd be hard pressed to tell her apart from any other evangelical. Contrary to what we may suspect, she even believes in the eschatological wrath of God - in hell.  She differs most obviously in two unusual beliefs. First, she believes that one's eternal destiny is not fixed at death and, consequently, that those in hell can repent and throw themselves upon the mercy of God in Christ and thus be saved. Second, she also believes that in the end everyone will do this.'

This quote proved helpful in defining a type of UR that we could centre our discussion upon.

There were those who disliked the film a lot, with someone saying that they found it manipulative and a-spiritual. They argued that so much time was given to UR and what time was given to the other more traditional views of hell were not a fair representation of views held here in the UK.  Another person wondered whether so much time was given to UR because it is the minority view among evangelicals and because it is such a contentious issue, and because most people in the church know what you mean when talking about ECT, then the film was seeking to redress the balance by giving UR plenty of airtime. A couple of people said that too much time was given to Westbro Baptist, and the views espoused by Mark Driscoll and others were not helpful or in line with their own understanding and belief in ECT.  We wondered what it would look like if you made the same documentary here in the UK?  It struck us how political this issue is in the USA and how tied together Christianity and American patriotism is.  We spoke about 'American Jesus' and how the flag of the United States is often very prominent within American Evangelical churches.  It seems that the political agenda of evangelical Christianity in America is not as pronounced as here in the UK.  The way Republicanism and Evangelicalism is fused together in the USA means that issues like that of abortion, church, Israel and hell (as well as many other issues) take on, at times, an altogether different tone than here in the UK.

In light of all this we thought for a time on the kind of theology that Mark Driscoll, John Piper etc preach and teach and how popular it is in the USA. Whilst those in the room did not hold to their kind of theology, and whilst someone like me would view their theology as at times abhorrent, at times heretical, we also recognised that there is a growing movement here in the UK of neo-calvinists who would support and endorse the teachings of Piper and Driscoll.  It seems that among the 20-30's, young professionals and university students this particular theological framework is proving very popular.  One person suggested that it is popular among university students here in the UK because it enables faith to be very black and white, creating absolute certainty in a world and learning environment of real uncertainty and instability.  Indeed some church movements here in the UK have openly embraced and welcomed Driscoll and the theology he is portraying, so while those who were in the discussion did not hold to this particular theological disposition, it is certainly becoming increasingly popular among Christians here n the UK.  So in that regard Hellbound? was showing a true reflection of belief here in the UK but it is not the whole story in regard to ECT.

Although people were mixed in their feelings towards the film, everyone did express that what the film has done is open the discussion and bring UR into the arena to be looked at, reflected on and thought about. Someone spoke about refreshing it was to watch Hellbound? and to hear and see this discussion being brought into the public church sphere. Some people may have wanted to talk about UR for months or years but have felt completely paralysed in their ability to even mention it. Hellbound? has enabled people to talk about it in honesty and with openness and not simply to talk about it, but to be taken seriously in their discussions.

Annihilationism was not discussed in great detail but we did speak about some of the ways it has been expressed or described within evangelical theology. Because so much respect is given to John Stott within evangelical circles it was recognised that annihilationism is a view that has to be taken seriously and biblically. I suspect that for many people they simply haven't had much or any teaching on it to even know what it means, the nuances of it and why more and more evangelicals are holding to it.

The discussions took many paths on the evening and in many ways we ended up at the Creeds of the Church. A question that has been raised again and again around these discussions is on orthodoxy
and whether a persons view on hell determines whether or not they sit within or without orthodox Christian teaching. The Nicene Creed is a place of common ground for the Church, whatever the tradition or denomination or movement. Whilst it is said every week within some traditions and hardly ever said within others, it surely is something that all Christians can say together with one voice. Now of course many have argued that it does not say enough in regard to the life of Jesus, and this is true, but if we are looking for a marker, a place of unity, then maybe the Creeds are a great place to start.

But maybe there are those for whom this simply is not enough. Maybe a particular theology of the Cross and the Creeds.  Maybe a particular theology of the Bible and the Creeds. Maybe a particular theology about hell and the Creeds. Maybe a particular theology about...

And in many ways this is completely understandable. The ground of culture feels very unstable, chaos appears to surround us and so we need something to hold onto, a stability that will see us through the storm. And that stability is Christ. So when a theology of hell is questioned we can feel like the ground is moving beneath us because it is so tied up in our understanding of God; John Colwell has said there are only two theological questions 'what kind of God?' and 'so what?' So when traditional evangelical theology is questioned it feels like the very understanding of who God is is being questioned. And this can be really tough.

Here it is helpful to remind ourselves that the Christian faith has a long and rich theological history that flows around us, before us and beyond us, much like the tide that ebbs and flows. This is a tide that incorporates Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, the Reformation, Anglican, non-conformist, charismatic and a whole plethora of others. Therefore whilst evangelicals may approach theology one way, our sisters and brothers within another tradition may approach it another way. Questions on hell are not handled in the same way within different traditions, so it is important that we remind ourselves of this. Now that doesn't mean you need to give up what you believe about hell if you are convinced biblically, theologically, etc, etc, but it is to acknowledge that not all within the Church view things the way you do, but they are still 'in Christ'.  Of course I am aware that others would not be so generous and would dismiss any who did not hold to their statement of faith, but if Church history is anything to go by then we need to be generous and humble in our understanding of others.

So where did we arrive?

Hellbound? has divided people. I for instance thoroughly enjoyed it and am grateful for how the film has opened the door for discussion - that is not to say where I am at in this whole discussion! I am very purposely not saying where I am at as I want to hear how others are thinking and feeling without my own views being heard - some however did not like the film, with others feeling mixed.

And this is where we are at, discussion.  Interestingly enough we didn't tackle the biblical texts with any great force on our discussion evening.  I think the reason for this was that people needed to share how the film made them think and feel, what the issues were and to open up with honesty about this all, whether it was honesty about concern that UR is being discussed or honesty of appreciation that UR is being discussed.

The next phase I see, if people want to, is to look at Scripture together and to explore together what the narrative is saying. Of course this is not easy as we don't read Scripture in a vacuum with our own theological disposition, our history and current life's circumstances all playing their part in how we interpret the text; there is no neutral interpretation. But if we take this seriously, take Scripture seriously and take each other seriously (which includes not taking ourselves so seriously!) then we can look at Scripture healthily together.

Showing Hellbound? has proven to be unsettling and liberating, painful and healing, joyful and joyless, disturbing and reconciling, challenging and changing. And yet together we confess as Lord the One who raised Israel out of Egypt and Babylon, the One who raised Jesus from the dead, the One who is reconciling the cosmos to Himself.

Maybe Stanley Hauerwas' quote sums everything up when he says,

'Jesus is Lord, everything else is bullshit.'


MrLuke said...

I very much enjoyed the film and was thankful for someone taking the time to show that there are other views which have an equally valid interpretation when looking at the full scope of Scripture. I've long since struggled with reconciling ECT with a God who not only has love, but IS love. After spending the last few years looking into this and then Rob Bell's Love Wins coming out at a very timely moment for me, this film has just helped me solidify more of where I stand, especially being able to see the perspectives from the Eastern Orthodox too. It helps to see and realise that Western Christianity (read: Protestants mainly) aren't the only branch of the Faith and isn't the only branch which has got it all sorted, theologically!

Joe Haward said...

Good to hear from you Luke.

Discovering Eastern Orthodoxy has been a source of real joy and growth in my own faith. There is something deeply beautiful about the theology of EO that is awakening something within me!!

I'm glad you found the film really helpful. I hope that by having an arena where people can talk and share together we might be able to find unity within our diversity.

Pog said...

Very brave of you to do this, I admire the spirit of inquiry. For those wanting to ask further questions of Evangelical Universalists the EU web forum is an obvious starting place. For those wanting to know which theologians might support non traditional ideas of hell there is a long list there:

Joe Haward said...

Thank you Pog, and thank you for the link.

Anonymous said...

On the subject of traditional hell: Many Christians (including theologians) have failed to notice something very important: The word "hell" is disappearing from the Bible. Many of the newer and better version of the Old Testament have completely eliminated "hell" from the sacred text because it is a glaring mistranslation of the original Hebrew (see NIV, ESV,NASV, etc. It's only a matter of time until the word "hell" is removed from the New Testament, too. It's a clear violation of the original Greek text. In fact, the word "hell" wasn't even know in any language or literature prior to the early Middle Ages; well AFTER the Scriptures were written.