September 24, 2012

Hell and Mr. Fudge

Are you guessing that Hell and Mr. Fudge is a story of a quaint old candymaker trapped in a burning kitchen? Well, you’re . . . warm. Actually, it’s about how the fires of controversy raged around a kind, unassuming Southern preacher—who just happens to be named Edward Fudge. And what a story it is! But actually this article will recount two stories: the story of Edward Fudge, a Southern preacher turned controversial author on the subject of hell, and the story of how Pat Arrabito and her Seventh-day Adventist production team turned Fudge’s story into an award-winning feature film, soon to be released (and, we hope, watched by you).

The Day Hell Broke Loose
Rewind. Edward Fudge, now a Houston-based lawyer and internationally known theologian and author, began his preaching career at the tender age of 16 for the Church of Christ. Like most other evangelical churches, Fudge’s denomination taught the twofold doctrines of natural immortality and eternal hell. Young Edward accepted these teachings unquestioningly, because that’s what good Christians did in those days. Interestingly, he devoured a set of Voice of Prophecy study guides at  age 14. Apparently the force of his training kept him from accepting the biblical teaching of annihilation of the wicked. But he would revisit the issue later in life.

Fast-forward 15 years. Edward has married a schoolteacher named Sarah Faye Locke and fathered two children. Plans for an academic career loomed before him until his father’s death at only 57 years of age led him to assume the directorship of the family publishing business in Athens, Alabama.

When a hostile takeover led to his firing, he found a job as a typesetter in a printshop while serving as volunteer pastor of a small nondenominational church that met in a renovated barn. It was during these days of barn preaching that hell quite literally broke loose.

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Between Takes: Jeff Wood discusses some of the issues raised by Edward Fudge in his book, and in the film on which it's based.

Keep rolling. Fudge published an article in Christianity Today (CT) that simply observed that the Bible most often described the end of the lost with such words as “die,” “perish,” or “destroy.” Ever the scholar, he gathered and shared biblical data as naturally as a farmer sowed a field. A renegade Adventist named Robert Brinsmead read the article. Brinsmead, once a preacher, had restudied most of Adventism’s distinctive teachings and rejected them. Now he wanted to restudy the doctrine of hell to decide whether he wanted to also reject the Adventist view that it entails annihilation rather than an eternally conscious torment.

From Fear to Love
In an interview with Planet Preterist Edward Fudge says: “Brinsmead planned to hire a theological researcher to spend a year compiling everything on the end of the wicked, as found in the Old Testament, intertestamental literature (Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Dead Sea scrolls), New Testament, Apostolic Fathers, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Post-Nicene Fathers, medieval theologians, Reformers, and a few modern theologians. When he saw my CT article, he decided to invite me to take on the project, which, after prayerful discussion and considerations, I did. By the time I finished that yearlong project, the evidence I found had compelled me to change my own mind.”1

Edward Fudge emerged from his research converted to the biblical teaching that humans possessed conditional immortality, and that hell served to destroy sinners rather than torture them. What? A Bible Belt preacher who discarded traditional hell? How would he move sinners to the altar?

Very simple: love. In his words: “The gospel, not hell, is our primary message, and love for God is a far more effective motivator than fear of hell. . . . The traditional doctrine of unending torment has turned many people away from God, including famous atheists from Bertrand Russell to Antony Flew.”2

How did his community respond? That serves as the central drama of the film Hell and Mr. Fudge. And we won’t be giving any spoilers in this article.

$500,000 for the State of the Dead Project
Pan west to Angwin, California. Another unassuming type, film producer Pat Arrabito holds the goal of capturing on film the twin pillar doctrines of the seventh-day Sabbath and the condition of humanity in death.

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Meet the Press: Pat Arrabito (left) is interviewed prior to one of the screenings of the film.

Ellen White’s words, found in one of her favorite books, The Great Controversy, etch themselves into her mind: “Through the two great errors, the immortality of the soul and Sunday sacredness, Satan will bring the people under his deceptions. While the former lays the foundation of spiritualism, the latter creates a bond of sympathy with Rome. The Protestants of the United States will be foremost in stretching their hands across the gulf to grasp the hand of spiritualism; they will reach over the abyss to clasp hands with the Roman power; and under the influence of this threefold union, this country will follow in the steps of Rome in trampling on the rights of conscience.”3

In 2005 Arrabito, through her nonprofit corporation, LLT Productions, released a five-part documentary on the history of the Sabbath entitled The Seventh Day. This multimillion-dollar film series features actor Hal Holbrook as narrator. To date, close to a half-million copies circulate around the world in 13 languages (see sidebar).

Contemplating and praying about how best to present the truth about death and the fate of the lost, Arrabito and her colleagues, producer/director Jeff Wood, and researcher Jim Wood, initially filmed interviews with scholars and theologians for a documentary (yet to be completed). But Edward Fudge’s story intrigued them, and the idea of a feature film began to grow. In 2009, after much preliminary planning and several visits with Fudge at his home in Houston, funding fell through and the project was put on hold.

A phone call a year later changed that. “It was a big mistake for you to stop working on that ‘death project,’” the voice said. “Is there anything I can do to talk you into doing it?”

“I’ve never stopped praying that God would supply the means for it,” Arrabito responded. Three weeks later an envelope containing $500,000 arrived in the mail, designated for the “death project,” which, you guessed it, rose from the grave to new life. Events unfolded in rapid succession: Donald Davenport wrote the script, which would be filmed in the very place its drama unfolded—Athens, Alabama. For 15 days in June 2011, cameras rolled.

Platinum at Worldfest and the Diamond of Friendship
Cut to April 2012. The film, entered in the Worldfest-Houston International Film Festival as a work in progress, wins a Platinum Award, the highest award in its category.

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On Location: Jeff Wood directs film crew and actors in one scene.

Not letting the thrill of recognition lead them to forget the film’s humble roots, LLT brought Hell and Mr. Fudge back to Athens, Alabama, June 5, 2012. Mayor Ronnie Marks stood at the front of the Cinemagic Theatre to welcome the film’s local talent, vendors, crew, and extras, along with friends and neighbors. As the film flashed on the screen, the darkness was punctuated with whispers of “There I am!” “I recognize that house.” “That classroom is at Athens State!” and “That’s the Red Caboose in Elkmont.” Then, as the credits rolled, the applause grew louder with each recognizable Athens name. It was as if their hometown had gone to Hollywood and returned home with a touch more makeup and lighting.

“The main reason we filmed here,” Arrabito said at the screening, “is the community—you dear people here in this town opened your arms to us and welcomed us and helped us.” The screening was, she said, “a thank-you to the city of Athens.”

Having known Arrabito personally for many years, I must say she excels at building trusting, positive relationships with her colleagues. She’ll give a warm smile, a listening ear, and a ready laugh as freely as a lark sings. Such winsome Christians have an influence that only eternity can measure.

One such relationship is the one she developed with Edward Fudge and his wife, Sarah Faye. He says, “I allowed the producers to tell my story because I trusted them. I found out what they believed in God and what I believed were the same. And second, I found out they’re not from Hollywood. They’re from northern California.”

The Prolific Fudge
Fudge named the book that flowed from his original studies The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment. Published in 1982, it remains a classic, with the third edition released last year. I have a copy on my shelf with more underlines than a help-wanted section of a jobless person’s newspaper.

The author says, “The Fire That Consumes was published in 1982—500 pages in length with 1,600 footnotes and two fascinating appendices examining the treatment given hell by Augustine and by John Calvin. Evangelical Book Club made it an Alternate Selection; scholars who are far better known than I am gave it their endorsement; and the rest is history. More accurately, the rest is providence.”4

Fudge knew that most readers won’t slog through 500 pages and won’t find appendices fascinating, so he wrote a shorter book to complement the movie. The narrative-styled Hell: A Final Word will be enjoyed by nontheologians and even those who have never read the Bible.

Hell (the Film): A Final Word
Pat Arrabito and the team hold big dreams for the film. “We want national and international distribution,” she says. “That means we want to see it in theaters across the country and in other parts of the world. We’d like to see church groups get together to air it locally. We’d be happy to see it used for discussion groups. We want to see it distributed on DVD in bookstores and Walmart. We’d like people to watch it at home and show it to their neighbors.”

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Planning the Shots: Producer/director Jeff Woods (facing camera) discusses the logistics of filming with director of photography David Brillhart.

To see the trailer, go to:

To be notified about release dates of the film in your area, or to know when the film will be available on DVD, e-mail [email protected] and sign up to receive the online newsletter.

Eternal torture for the sins of one lifetime? Many have struggled to accept this. A lost loved one, taken away by a car wreck or heart attack, plunged straight into eternal hell by God, is a horrifying prospect. “Many have been driven to insanity by this harrowing thought,” wrote Ellen White.5 Arrabito and her crew hope to bring a little sanity to the topic.

For some, this film will provoke probing questions about God’s character. For some, it will provoke deeper Bible study. For some, it will simply be a good film in which the little guy stands up for what he believes, suffers for it, and wins in the end. In any of these cases a loving and lovable God will stand in the spotlight.

Pondering why she chose this time to produce a feature film, Arrabito says, “Everyone likes stories; Jesus told stories; a person’s own story is the most powerful witness they possess; stories will attract viewers who might not watch a documentary.”

LLT Productions strives to bring the soul-saving message of God’s character of love before the masses. Ellen White wrote: “Workers with clear minds are needed to devise methods for reaching the people. Something must be done to break down the prejudice existing in the world against the truth.”6

“God selects His messengers, and gives them His message; and He says, ‘Forbid them not.’ New methods must be introduced. God’s people must awake to the necessities of the time in which they are living.”7 

2 Ibid.
3 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 588.
(Italics supplied.)
5  White, p. 545.
6 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), p. 129.
 7 Ellen G. White, in Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Sept. 30, 1902.

Jennifer Jill Schwirzer is a freelance writer who lives in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania. This article was published September 20, 2012.