Of Hell Houses and the Christian Witness
- Debbie Holloway Assistant Editor, Crosswalk.com
- 2013 30 Oct
That beautiful time of year when Christians of every denomination and persuasion offer advice about how to deal with the mystical, supernatural, and over-commercialized holiday we know as Halloween. Usually it boils down to a few different arguments:
1) Halloween is a Satanic, dangerous holiday and Christians should abstain from participating!
2) Halloween is a harmless holiday of candy and community, and Christians should lighten up and let their kids trick-or-treat!
3) Halloween is a tool which can be used to reach the lost for Christ!
It is this third perspective which informs some of the “hell-houses” that pop up around this time of year. Perhaps you’ve heard of Liberty University’s “Scaremare” exhibit, or the long-running drama “Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames” produced by Reality Outreach Ministries. In case these names are unfamiliar, here’s a basic rundown: these exhibits take spectators through renditions of hell (some meant to spook, like a haunted house, and some are just intense dramatizations). At the end of the event there is a presentation of the Gospel message and a prompt for spectators to reflect on their relationship (or lack thereof) with Christ.
“If you’re terrified of what you saw, imagine how much worse the real hell will be. Accept Christ as your savior and he will save you from these torments.”
Love it or hate it, scare-tactics are certainly not a new method of evangelism. Perhaps the most famous use of the scare-people-out-of-hell method was Jonathan Edwards, a Presbyterian Minister who lived during the Great Awakening. His sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was given (upon request) to a lethargic congregation in Enfield, Connecticut which had been heretofore unaffected by the revival touching New England at the time. Edwards’ imagery is stirring enough to be featured in any hell-house, as evidenced by some excerpts below:
“Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering.”
“[the Devil]... stands waiting for them, like greedy hungry lions that see their prey, and expect to have it...”
“The old serpent is gaping for them; hell opens its mouth wide to receive them; and if God should permit it, they would be hastily swallowed up and lost.”
“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.”
Many Christians continue to carry Edwards’ proverbial torch by using hell’s flames to scorch people into right living, and convict them of their dire need of God’s grace. However, plenty of theologians (even early church fathers) disapprove of this sort of conversion method. It’s a tactic that, when used today, is met with hot criticism certainly equal to the righteous fervor of those running, promoting, and participating in hell-houses.
So in the spirit of the season, I thought perhaps I’d try to take a step back and look at both pros and cons of these spooky exhibits from my own perspective and experiences. Do these things truly produce converts? Do they properly represent the message of Christ? Here are some observations.
Pro #1: Hell-houses start conversations.
I attended a hell-house type dramatization when I was a very young child, and I can say that I still remember parts of it quite profoundly. Various scenes depicted people rejecting the message of Christ when it was offered to them. The audience then followed these individuals as they met the hour of their deaths, and into the afterlife as they were sentenced to eternal damnation, crying, screaming, and begging for another chance.
No matter your theological conviction, interesting conversations can come from watching these demonstrations. Does God give second chances? Do demonic forces play a part in our daily lives? Do we live like our good works alone can get us into Heaven? Is the Kingdom of God just a destination, or is it a lived reality? So, I can see how enriching conversations can be sparked by these haunted attractions.
Con #1: Those conservations can be damaging and bitter.
Unfortunately, hell-houses can also perpetuate unfortunate stereotypes: like that Christians are obsessed with the afterlife, with condemning people to hell, and don’t care enough for the here-and-now reality. A few friends of mine were recently having this very sort of conversation in my living room. One friend, a young man who grew up in a Christian family but now considers himself agnostic, was absolutely appalled when he heard what a hell-house was.
“This is why I’m not a Christian anymore,” he said, frustration apparent in his tone. “How is it OK to scare people into following your religion?”
Pro #2: Hell-houses do work.
One testimony on the website of Liberty University’s “Scaremare” reads,
"It's been almost a year and Scaremare is still ministering my walk with God. I've gone through a few fun/death houses… stunning way to draw the lost to redemption, and to quicken a holy living in the believer. It may not be for everyone, but most needed it.”
This reviewer shows that some people truly do respond to graphic visualizations of end-time punishment. (It’s said that during “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” it was occasionally difficult to hear Edwards preach over the wailing of the convicted parishioners!) Sometimes a creative, imaginative presentation of choices and consequences can have lasting, positive influence in someone’s life.
Con #2: Sometimes they don’t work.
It’s likely that just as many, if not more, unbelievers leave hell-houses with a sour taste in their mouths when it comes to God. The message being proclaimed at the hell-houses isn’t, after all, isn’t the full story of God; they present just a snapshot. Human beings are created by and beloved of God, with amazing potential, and God wants to be reconciled to every one of us. Hell-houses, however, dwell on sin and rebellion and the torment which follows if we don’t repent. This part of the story can be confusing to someone unacquainted with the fullness of the Gospel’s love and the depth of God’s goodness (and the Holy Spirit’s inner conviction of sin). It casts God solely in a light of unrelenting judge and punisher.
And if the hell-houses don’t offend, they are equally likely to draw ridicule for Christianity in general. It can be easy for a believer or a nonbeliever to mock and guffaw at some antics people have used to “win souls.”
Pro #3: Hell-houses present truth.
It would be impossible for any Bible-believing Christian to deny that some form of punishment and/or separation from God happens for the unrighteous in the afterlife. Many people make terrible, selfish choices with no regard for the consequences (be they immediate or eternal). Hell-houses tap into the spiritual element of this phenomenon, and remind onlookers that someday we will all be accountable for our actions and beliefs.
Con #3: It’s still somewhat of a partial truth.
Countless books have been written about hell, punishment, purgatory, and many other afterlife issues. But often we can only come to understand this aspect of theology after the Holy Spirit has already softened our hearts, and we already have a relationship with Christ. If someone unfamiliar with God’s grace and Christ’s open arms goes through a hell-house, he may come away from it with an incomplete view of God. Just as in on-the-street witnessing, hell-houses carry the danger of proclaiming some truths in a short window of time without devoting follow-up time to discipleship. This can result in shallow conversions, rather than fully convicted new followers of Christ.
So, what do you think? Do the pros of haunted hell-houses outweigh the cons?
Debbie Holloway is the Family Life editor for Crosswalk.com.
Publication date: October 30, 2013