The new documentary Hellbound? has reignited discussion about the perennial topic of hell as well as revealed some very bizarre perspectives.
Kevin Miller, the film’s director, who identifies as a Christian, stated in an interview that, regarding the traditional view of hell as a place of fiery torment, “I don’t see anything in the Bible that would lead me to believe that such a place exists.” Instead, according to Miller, when Jesus talked about hell, he was talking about the here and now.
Really? Jesus didn’t warn about a place of judgment to come? And Director Miller gets his denial of hell from the Bible? Perhaps he is reading into the Scriptures what he would like them to say? Warnings like this from Jesus, spoken with rhetorical urgency, are hard to dismiss: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” (Matthew 5:29)
Frank Schaeffer, son of the late and revered evangelical leader, philosopher Francis Schaeffer, appeared in the movie and is more aggressive in his dismissal of hell. He writes in his column in the Huffington Post, “People ‘defending’ God have completely screwed up America and our politics. And their version of ‘God’ f----d up the first half of my life too.”
He claims that, “Hell is irrelevant because of course there isn’t one. The movie is important though because it exposes a real question: how can we survive the God-nuts who take this stuff seriously? Hellbound? is our chance to get to know the enemies of what’s left of our crumbling ‘civilization.’”
So, those who believe in a place of future judgment are “the enemies of what’s left of our crumbling ‘civilization,’” by which he explicitly means America.
Schaeffer continues, “Talking about hell in and of itself is a waste of time because if there is a ‘God’ no one knows anything about him/her or it and they never will, let alone about what he/she or it will ‘do’ about the ‘lost.’ But there are people, lots of them, who think hell is real because it fits their kill-your-neighbor-if-he-looks-at-you-funny vision of ‘life.’”
Well, I just learned something new: If I believe that God will bring about justice in the world to come and settle wrongs at the time of resurrection, I believe this because it fits my “kill-my-neighbor-if-he-looks-at-my-funny vision of ‘life.’” Seriously?
But there’s more. For Schaeffer, America’s hawkish tendencies and aggressive foreign policy directly relate to our fundamentalist reading of the Bible: “Thank you St. John (or whomever) loon was the author of the ‘book’/acid-trip of Revelation, for giving us a deluded roadmap so that the Americans who can’t find France on a map can get their foreign ‘policy’ marching orders direct from a ‘prophet’ huddling in a cave alone with his odd brain 2000 years ago.”
Aside from the fact that it is sad to see someone like Frank Schaffer, who once held to evangelical Christian beliefs, then Greek Orthodox beliefs, turn into such a Bible mocker, it is more than a stretch – shall we call it a leap of incredulity? – to claim that America fought (or is fighting) wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other places, because of a literal belief in hell and the Scriptures.
Interestingly, a study “appearing in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE, found that criminal activity is lower in societies where people’s religious beliefs contain a strong punitive component than in places where religious beliefs are more benevolent. A country where many more people believe in heaven than in hell, for example, is likely to have a much higher crime rate than one where these beliefs are about equal. The finding surfaced from a comprehensive analysis of 26 years of data involving 143,197 people in 67 countries.”
According to Azim F. Shariff, professor of psychology and director of the Culture and Morality Lab at the University of Oregon, “The key finding is that, controlling for each other, a nation’s rate of belief in hell predicts lower crime rates, but the nation’s rate of belief in heaven predicts higher crime rates, and these are strong effects. . . . The finding is consistent with controlled research we’ve done in the lab, but here shows a powerful ‘real world’ effect on something that really affects people -- crime.”
Here in America, belief in hell remains prevalent, and a 2003 poll by George Barna indicated that 71% of the population “said that there is such a thing as Hell.” At the same time, “just one-half of 1% expect to go to Hell upon their death.” So, hell is real, but none of us are going there!
Putting aside our religious differences, perhaps the questions we need to ask ourselves are these: 1) Are there lasting consequences to our actions? 2) Will there be an ultimate judgment and final justice? 3) If so, how should we live today?
Michael Brown holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from New York University. He is the author of 25 books, includingLine of Fire. Follow him at AskDrBrown on Facebook or @drmichaellbrown on Twitter.