Does hell exist? If it does, what do those who have been consigned there experience? Will the damned remain in hell forever or will they eventually be released? These are some of the questions raised in the thought-provoking documentary "Hellbound?" (Area23a).
Filmmaker Kevin Miller interviews writers, theologians, ministers and even some heavy-metal rock musicians, eliciting -- predictably enough -- a wide variety of viewpoints.
Among those who acknowledge the existence of an afterlife, three primary outlooks, we learn, have traditionally prevailed. Some hold that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment. Others claim that those souls barred from entering heaven simply cease to exist, a position known as annihilationism. So-called universalists, by contrast, believe that God will eventually save all human beings, so that, even if there is a hell, it constitutes only a temporary experience, like purgatory.
Miller's focus is mostly on the debate about this subject within the evangelical community, which has seen eternal-torment literalists denouncing universalism as a heretical contradiction of Scripture.
The Catholic standpoint is ably, albeit briefly, presented by Boston College professor -- and celebrated apologist -- Peter Kreeft: The church affirms the existence of hell, its eternity and the peril it poses to those who persistently reject God's love in this life (Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 1035). Yet the secret workings of repentance are such that the church asserts no definitive judgment as to the eternal damnation of any given individual, even the great monsters of history.
Thus, as Kreeft points out, Catholics can hope for a universalist outcome but can never be certain of it.
Both Kreeft and Orthodox Archbishop Lazar Puhalo of Ottawa, Ontario -- who conveys the Eastern Christian view -- come across as more reflective and humane than some of the hard-line Protestant fundamentalists with whom Miller talks -- and with whom he clearly disagrees.
Miller goes to the fringes at both extremes. He chats with the aforementioned head-bangers, who casually side with Satan; and he debates members of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, a sect that has stirred nationwide revulsion with its hate-mongering protests. Asked what percentage of people will wind up in everlasting horror, one Westboro picketer cheerfully replies, "99.99999 percent."
Along with the obvious issue of its potentially upsetting theme, some less than kid-friendly images and words make this intelligent exploration of a weighty subject suitable for grown-ups only.
The film contains a brief act of blasphemy as well as a few rough and crude terms. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. Not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America.