10/29/2012 04:06 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2012

'Hellbound?' and the Simulation of Divine Violence as an Obstacle to Peace

The documentary-style film "Hellbound?" has drawn a healthy amount of media attention in recent weeks and taken up significant editorial space in faith-based magazines in no small part due to its somewhat controversial subject matter and perceived ambition -- to challenge the popular notion of hell as a place of endless torment. Typically these reviews and opinion pieces revolve around the courage of the film crew to explore such a tendentious topic, theological speculations on the population of hell, or sanctimonious edicts that advise those who believe the wrong thing about hell to jump in front of the queue to purchase fire insurance.

But these aren't necessarily the type of responses that filmmaker, Kevin Miller, who happens to hail from my neck of the woods -- BC's Fraser Valley -- primarily set out to induce with this documentary. The film is flanked by images of the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks and the dismay of onlookers at the repulsive depths at which human behaviour can sink, whether the 9/11 hijackers or the infamous gaggle of Westboroites who haunt Ground Zero to, among other indefensible pronouncements, "thank God for 9/11."

Miller's purpose in exposing his audience to the various perspectives on hell is not primarily to scrutinize the Gordian theological and hermeneutical knots that siphon the intellectual capital of ivory tower academics, clergy and seminarians. Instead, the writer and director of "Hellbound?" aims to highlight the importance of one's character and behaviour over correct belief, yet with a sincere awareness of how the latter can shape the former. Simply put, truth is meant to be embodied, not stated, and this is true especially of how we approach the topic of hell.

A central thrust of the film's message, therefore, is that what we believe about hell, though largely unimportant in a social vacuum, has profound implications on how we behave toward our fellow human beings. A deliberate focus in this regard was the connection between religious devotion to a violent, tyrannical deity who is willing to torment human beings endlessly in the next life as a justification and licence for our violent oppression of other human beings by simulating such vindictive theistic behaviour in this life. As Miller asks near the opening of the film, "If God responds to evil in the same way we do, how can we call him God? How can we call him good?" In this sense, "Hellbound?" has much to contribute to practical peacebuilding and conflict analysis where religious values and teachings are either distorted to justify violence or can be harnessed as resources for humanizing the Other and resolving conflicts.

When I spoke with Miller briefly after a recent screening and subsequent Q&A, he assured me that this was indeed on his radar as he shot the film, corroborated by omitted interviews -- cut from the film due to time constraints -- with the likes of Miroslav Volf and others whose peace-themed writings are well known. Of those whose interviews remained a part of this refreshingly perceptive film, Sharon Baker, author of "Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You've Been Taught About God's Wrath and Judgment," observes that if we believe God quells rebellious human beings through violent coercion, "then we're going to treat other people that way" when they fail to conform to our unrealistic and unnecessary expectations. A case in point highlighted in the film is Jerry Falwell's infamous post-9/11 remarks in reference to Islamic extremists, that we should "blow them all away in the name of the Lord."

Emergent church guru, Brian McLaren, cites the disturbing similarities between Arab children celebrating in the streets of Palestine after the WTC attacks and the American jubilation over bin Laden's demise as exhibiting a mutual yet competing selectiveness in who we love and who we hate. If we believe God loves only a select few, McLaren surmises in the film, "then I look at human beings differently." This, according to retired Orthodox Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, contradicts the purpose of Jesus' public execution: the visibility of his crucifixion was meant to elicit empathy in the face of suffering, the compassion of which charts a path half way to heaven.

On a practical peacebuilding level, where pseudo-religious loyalties are a factor, the film deftly underscores the influence of shallow, self-serving, destructive End Times ideologies on one's behavior -- whether the seemingly harmless Pharisaic arrogance that funds and shapes the foreign policies of Western powers to the life-altering violence that often plagues sectarian conflicts around the world today. Indeed, the marriage of an apologia for participating in sectarian violence that uses pitiless theistic conduct as a licence to mimic this cruelty against designated segments of society with a desired acceleration of apocalyptic theatres that play out in one's own favour is certainly a match made in conflict resolution hell. It's important, therefore, that those involved in inter-religious peacebuilding around the world undermine these more recent eschatological trends -- often mislabeled "traditional" or "classic" by the evangelical gatekeepers -- through interfaith dialogue, reconciliation meetings, accessible publications, and the advancement of a more sophisticated theological literacy in North America and around the world.

"Hellbound?" confronts specifically Christian paradigms of the hereafter, though the cosmic apartheid between those we love and hate, humanize and dehumanize, can find expression in each of the Abrahamic religions -- even if they are distortions. Not to get overly theological here (which is what you say before you do), but thoughtful alternatives to these harmful and convenient eschatological narratives also exist. Christianity, as "Hellbound?" shows, boasts reputable "mainstream" ancient voices whose hope in the final restoration of all human beings is, in every respect, a legitimate and authentic view to hold. While this view is not the only one in Orthodoxy -- the most prevalent Christian expression in, for instance, the Mideast--damning a portion of the human race to a separate location of endless torment at the behest of a genocidal demiurge is inconsistent with Orthodox teachings.

Instead, divine conduct at the final judgment does not in any way offer a justification for violence against other human beings in this life -- far from it. Rather, God ceaselessly emanates love and merciful compassion, and the pain of the final judgment (if this is the case) is not due to the infliction of divine retribution, but the unbearable incompatibility of one's own prejudicial hatred in the posthumous encounter with divine love and peace. The object of this eschatological encounter is therefore uniformly compassion; agony is felt to the degree that we reject this compassion.

What's more, the pain is temporary according to many of Christianity's most beloved forebears. St. Isaac of Nineveh, to whom Chalcedonian, Oriental and Assyrian Orthodox Christians all lay claim -- encompassing the major Christian branches of the Mideast -- declares, "Far be it that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness!" This is why Isaac can also affirm that "those who are punished in Gehenna, are scourged by the scourge of love. The power of love works in two ways," the Syrian abba continues, "it torments sinners as bitter regret, but love inebriates the souls of the sons of Heaven by its delectability." These voices could be multiplied many times over from ancient Christian texts. Parallels exist also in the guiding voices of Islam and Judaism.

"Hellbound?" is an honest exploration into a few of the prevalent Christian views on hell, but it's much more than that. Competing perspectives on the afterlife are relatively harmless against an empty social backdrop, but this is of course never the case. Malignant pseudo-religious allegiances mixed with economic, social or political dissatisfaction and marginalization has been shown time and again to be a recipe for disaster. Kevin Miller will satisfy not only the armchair theologian and more thoughtful savant with this offering, but he skillfully weaves the real world repercussions of fear-based attitudes into his inquiry on hell that's often missing from documentaries on ideological divides.