(RNS) It's something that has haunted Kevin Miller ever since he became a Christian at age 9 at summer camp: hell.
Now 41, Miller says he has no idea what happens to people after death. But as a child, he believed that some people were going to hell, and he feared that it could be him, or his parents, or his siblings.
“It’s a horrible place for a kid to be,” Miller said in an interview shortly after the recent release of his new film, “Hellbound?" “That fear has percolated underneath my faith for my entire life.”
“Hellbound?” -- which cost $350,000 to produce -- is opening in more than 20 theaters across North America, and will continue to add venues in the coming months. Filming coincided with the 2011 release of evangelical pastor Rob Bell’s controversial book, “Love Wins,” which questions conventional views of hell and landed Bell on the cover of Time magazine.
Though Bell declined to appear in "Hellbound?" Miller said the book helped pave the way for a film. “All of a sudden it brought everybody out of the woodwork who had a dog in the fight. ... It helped show what a lightning rod this is.”
The questions posed by "Hellbound?" -- does hell exist and if so, who goes there? -- are no longer so anxiety-producing for Miller, a Canadian writer and director who has worked on projects with both religious and nonreligious themes, and briefly played Superman villain Lex Luthor on the television show "Smallville."
Miller's faith journey has taken him through Mennonite and evangelical churches to his current Anglicanism, where he embraced a gentle view of hell before he made the film: universalism, which doesn’t consider hell a place of eternal torment and holds that all souls will be saved.
To the annoyance of those who preach a more traditional fire-and-brimstone view of post-mortem punishment, Miller's film gives much space to calm voices who reject the idea of endless punishment, such as Christian author Brad Jersak.
“If we’re strict infernalists, the victims of Auschwitz who didn’t have their names written in the Book of Life go right from Hitler’s flames into God’s flames, forever and ever and ever,” Jersak says in the film. “Is that justice?”
“Hellbound?” does include articulate adherents of the more prevalent understanding of hell, including Mark Driscoll, pastor of Seattle's Mars Hill evangelical megachurch. But this perspective is also represented by a fair share of fringe types in the film, most notably an exorcist, and members of Westboro Baptist Church, famous for their picketing of soldiers’ funerals with signs that read “God Hates Fags.”
Miller caught up with the Westboro protesters near Ground Zero, and interviews them as they rail that 9/11 was divine retribution for America’s sins. He contrasts their understanding with his own, of God as a more loving and forgiving divinity.
“I don’t think the Bible is so much concerned with what happens to us after we die as it is with how we live today,” Miller said. “If I could say that I believe in hell, it is the hell we create by perpetuating the cycle of retributive violence that we’re caught up in. The minute we walk away from the ideal that Christ gives us, I think we walk into hell.”
But “Hellbound?” presents a more complex conversation about hell, even as it picks fights with the Westboro congregants and takes viewers to a death metal concert, where the bands and fans wear horns on their heads and growl like the devil.
Interviewing scholars who explain evolving views of damnation over the course of Christian history, Miller presents choices on hell, at one point throwing a chart up on the screen. It shows three possibilities -- eternal torment, universalism and annihilationism (good souls go to heaven, the bad just disappear) -- and tallies of Bible verses that support each.
The biblical ambiguity Miller presents in "Hellbound?" isn't likely to play well with traditional Christians, an audience he hopes to reach with the film. He knows many of them are not likely to go out to watch it on a big screen. But he hopes that those as plagued by the question of hell as his 9-year-old self was won’t have much trouble finding it on the Internet.
Evangelist Ray Comfort, who gets significant screen time during the 85-minute documentary, said he hasn’t seen “Hellbound?” and didn't know that it favors universalism.
“That belief is attractive to many," Comfort told Religion News Service, "but it is unbiblical.”
“If there is no ultimate justice and no hell as a place of just punishment, then Hitler got away with it and God is wicked, in the same way a judge is a criminal if he turns a blind eye to a murder,” Comfort said.
Miller, who lives in British Columbia with his wife and four children, said he knows some will see "Hellbound?" as his feeble attempt to escape the unpleasant idea that some people are going to suffer forever.
“Poor Kevin, he had to make a whole movie to deal with the fact that he was traumatized as a kid,” Miller imagines them thinking.
The film wasn't born of fear, but to help free people from fear, he said. “I would like to think I’m a lot more self aware than that."