“If there’s a hell below, we’re all going to go,” intoned Curtis Mayfield on his classic 1970 single “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go,” but many of the subjects in Kevin Miller’s doc, Hellbound?, would disagree. (The question mark in the film’s title is the giveaway.) Not that the various theologians and religious thinkers whose on-screen interviews provide the bulk of the movie don’t take their Christianity seriously; it’s simply that they argue against the essentialism of an all-or-nothing conception of the afterlife.
In fact, in its juxtaposition of repulsive and intolerant fire-and-brimstone subjects with appealing, intelligently open-minded afterlife revisionists, the movie makes a case against traditional images of pitchforks and roasting bodies. Drawing on historical context as well as careful readings of the Bible, many of the talking heads show that less severe ideas about the afterlife such as annihilationism and universalism were just as prominent in the church at the time of the New Testament’s composition as was the everlasting torment model of eternity.
Miller scores his most cogent points both when dealing with this historical perspective and through his understanding of many hellfire preachers as using their moral authority as an instrument of power and control. Similarly, though the film, which begins and ends at lower Manhattan’s ground zero, too often milks 9/11 for unnecessary sentiment, it also uses these events, which after all did not occur in a vacuum, to critique the black-and-white thinking that not only dominates religious fundamentalism, but American us-versus-them geopolitical thinking as well.
As such, Hellbound? proves fitfully engaging, but it soon turns into a touchy-feely isn’t-it-wonderful-we’re-all-saved love fest as the universalists begin to dominate the interview segments, even as Miller continually cuts back to the Westboro Baptist Church protestors outside ground zero to contrast the bigotry of the Phelpses with the accepting nature of his more favored subjects. Ultimately, the film makes an argument for tolerance, a nuanced worldview, and empathy for one’s fellow human, sentiments that can scarcely be denied. But if doctrinaire religion is seen only as an instrument of control and eternal damnation vs. annihilationism vs. universalism, is a debate of interest only to theologians, then one wonders why Miller feels the need to work within a Christian framework at all, particularly as he never reveals his own personal stake in the project. After all, as the film itself admits, no one can possibly know what happens after we die, so Miller’s insistence on couching what amounts to a celebration of humanistic values in academic debates over something that no amount of discussion and close readings can settle remains more than a little vexing.