As Halloween approaches and community organizations are doing Halloween fund-raising events like haunted houses, you may have seen the term “Hell House” or “Judgment House” pop up. Typically, these are similar in format to a haunted house but with a religious twist where each room vividly depicts some sorts of sinful behaviors-as vividly as it can be and still be “church appropriate”-followed by their consequences and usually some sort of death scene. After the demise of the main characters, they find themselves in a subsequent re-creation of “Hell”. Abortion, suicide, self-mutilation, chemical abuse, premarital sex, and other heavy issues are portrayed in an often tasteful but realistic manner, and the message is very black and white: “This is what will happen to you…” A similar event called Heaven’s Gates-Hell’s Flames is a traveling production that goes from town to town recruiting local townspeople to be actors then putting on the show several nights waiting for the throngs of lost souls to flood the aisles. So, yes, pulling out all the stops to confront people with the message of hell is nothing new.
I am speaking from experience. I have been to and through a couple of these events, although it’s been quite a few years. Before I was able to step back and examine my beliefs from a different perspective, the “scare tactic” method of conversion wasn’t far from the way I was taught about heaven and hell. After all, I’d sat through quite a few “hell fire and brimstone” sermons demanding I get right with God lest I suffer eternal damnation. So what better way to make this ideology more real to non-believers than to “recreate” hell, as best we understand it so to speak, than confront them with this reality. The hell houses were actually really well-done in terms of production quality, by churches in the Dallas area that converted entire buildings into multi-room events. The costumes, the sets, the lights and music, were all top notch. One even employed the wreckage of an old car for a crash scene. Of course, I went through the “house” as a believer, but I remember thinking that it portrayed the harsh idea of hell in a seemingly very real way. And it gave people a chance to respond to their experience and give their lives to Jesus right there on the spot. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that these types of Halloween church events do more harm than good.
I’ll explain what I mean, but first let me be clear about some points of doctrine here. I do believe as Christ said he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life and no person comes to the Father except through him, that following Christ is a choice of eternal significance. I also believe that when Jesus talked about sinners being separated from God for eternity where there was “wailing and gnashing of teeth” that these verses are not to be taken lightly. So if I believe Jesus is the only way to God and that hell is a real place, why would I believe that confronting people with that reality is a bad thing?
1. Hell Houses are a “bait and switch” evangelism tactic. These events set themselves up as a haunted house, and often charge admission, usually to cover their costs or to raise funds for some other church program (charging people to get saved is a whole other topic, so I’ll stay away from that one for now). People going in often expect to be scared by zombies, vampires, and other typical Halloween creatures, only to find they walked into a theatrical sermon. This is just plain dishonest and is a turn-off to non-believers. Anyone legitimately seeking to follow Christ could see the trickery of this type of marketing and be forever turned off to the gospel of Christ.
2. Fear is a great motivation for avoiding something, but rarely a good motivation for following something. If I see that my house is on fire, fear is going to cause me to get my family, myself, and maybe a few belongings to safety and call the fire department. But when is fear ever a motivation for moving towards or following someone? Dictators throughout history have used fear to manipulate their followers into being loyal to the death, lest they suffer the consequences. But I can’t think of any one positive leader who used fear mongering to make his followers love him. When Jesus called his disciples, he did not say “Put down your nets and follow me, lest you be damned to eternal hell.” He told them to follow him and he would show them a better way to live. So why do we think scaring people into a relationship with Jesus is a good venture? I’m not sure.
3. Jesus’ message of hell was not for the common folks, it was for the ultra-religious. Read the book of Matthew and see how many times he is speaking to the Scribes and Pharisees when he is talking about hell (This is a great example). The only time he used what we could loosely call scare tactics was when he was talking to the people that thought they had it all figured out because they were living their lives to the letter of the law, but their hearts were not in the right place.
4. While I think well-intended, the Hell House concept is, at the end of the day, an emotional manipulation tactic. I think it is driven by a desire to see a lot of people check a box on a card that they “accepted Jesus” rather than a desire to see people truly become disciples. Of course discipleship has to start somewhere, usually with a profession of faith in Jesus, but is 45 minutes of loud music, staged gunshots, suicides, car crashes, and other calamity really the way you want people to say it all started for them? With all of the sensational drama, it takes a strong person to not get emotionally wrapped up in the event and give their hearts to someone they’ve never met at the end of the tour. But if the person leaves with a new commitment to Christ and maybe even a Bible, then what? The Christian life is about following him while we navigate in a very mundane world. Where is Jesus when all of the lights, music, actors, are gone and it’s just a new believer and a computer? It’s just a new believer and a school cafeteria? It’s just a new believer and the heartache of losing a girlfriend?
Do I think people who put on hell houses are bad? No. But I do think these events send the wrong message about what it means to follow Christ. Following Christ is not about staying out of hell. It’s about loving God and loving your neighbor, and becoming a better person as God is calling us into holiness. If your church wants to do a Halloween production, I recommend a Halloween carnival, a Trunk or Treat, or even a regular haunted house to be done as a fund raiser. Have you been to a hell house? Does your church do one? What are your thoughts?