Should we scare the hell out of them?

Halloween is one of my least favorite times of the year. Don’t worry.  I am not going to launch into a tirade about how Christians need to protest this pagan holiday. I dislike Halloween because it is one of the times each year when I want to take my evangelical name tag off and hide it for a few days. One of the reasons I want to go incognito is the proliferation of Christian Halloween Hell Houses or Judgment Houses. Yes, in another sad attempt to mirror the popular culture we have taken the bad idea of the haunted house and made it into the infinitely worse idea of the Hell House. These actual descriptions are taken from a popular version of this odd approach to evangelism.

What is the Hell House concept? It is series of vignettes that show the results of sin in wretched excess. The idea is literally to frighten you so much that you will make a decision to embrace Christianity. I call it  Fear Christianity. I had to admit I enjoyed the play on former NBA star Daryl Dawkin’s slam dunk taunt rewritten to promote the Hell House.

Shake your city with the most “in-your-face, high-flyin’, no denyin’, death-defyin’, Satan-be-cryin’, keep-ya-from-fryin’, theatrical stylin’, no holds barred, cutting-edge” evangelism tool of the new millennium!

I think the “Satan-be-cryin’, keep-ya-from-fryin’” riffs are particularly catchy. Does anything promote the grace of our Lord Jesus any better than a good “keep-ya-from-fryin’” taunt? Promotional information from one such outreach proclaims that groups of twenty people will tour Hell House with their own personal demon acting as a tour guide. Timeout. Your own personal demon? A lot of us have been trying to get rid of a personal demon for years…not hire him as a tour guide. But let’s continue to the description of Hell.

“In Hell the tour meets Satan himself. Hell will be hot, smoky, loud, visually disturbing, and sensually confusing.”

To me that sounds like Las Vegas. But I digress. For the low price of $7 (unless you tip your personal demon) you will see the following:

  • A funeral scene of a homosexual teenaged boy who has died of AIDS

  • A riveting (?) reenactment of an abortion

  • A satanic ritual involving human sacrifice

  • A drunk driving accident in which a father realizes he has just killed his own family

The list of disturbing scenes goes on and on.

So if you are interested in scaring the hell out of your community you can order a Hell House Kit for only $299. You will receive a production manual, dvd, and special effects CD. But to do it right you might want to add some additional resources (apparently you can’t replicate hell for 300 bucks). You might order the Hell Screams Background CD ($20) which is described as seventy-three minutes of screaming, groaning and agonizing of what sounds like people in torment in Hell. (perhaps they recorded fans of my beloved Cleveland Browns watching their offense this season) The promo material notes that, “Your Hell House hell-dwellers will love you for helping them vocally”. I believe no one is more in need of a helping hand more than your hell dwellers.

I do not doubt the sincerity of those involved in the Hell House concept. The website uses Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians as a Biblical basis for the program.

“I have become all things to all men, so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the Gospel…”

I believe this is a bit of an exegetical stretch. Paul’s comments in context seem to send a very different message.

When I am with the Jews, I become one of them so that I can bring them to Christ. When I am with those who follow the Jewish laws, I do the same, even though I am not subject to the law, so that I can bring them to Christ.  When I am with the Gentiles who do not have the Jewish law, I fit in with them as much as I can. In this way, I gain their confidence and bring them to Christ. But I do not discard the law of God; I obey the law of Christ. When I am with those who are oppressed, I share their oppression so that I might bring them to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone so that I might bring them to Christ. I do all this to spread the Good News, and in doing so I enjoy its blessings. 1st Cor 9  NLT

Isn’t Paul saying that he makes an attempt to empathise with those who don’t know Christ? That he tries to understand their needs and then develops a strategy about how the Good News of  Jesus can be communicated? I struggle a bit to see how this verse can be used as a basis for the disturbing Hell House program. In the interest of full disclosure, I was raised in a church where Fear Christianity was the primary evangelistic tactic. Over and over I heard the story of the man who resisted the call to come forward to accept faith in Christ and then was flattened by a steamroller on his way home. And of course that poor pancaked sinner went to hell because of  his stubbornness and incredible misfortune to encounter a steamroller on a Sunday.  I am grateful that I came to faith not out of fear of a vengeful God. And yes, I know that Scripture is very clear about ultimate judgment. 

One reader thoughtfully noted that “there are individuals who need a “sobering” presentation of the Gospel message before they will respond. I believe the church must have balance–we cannot overpreach hell or overpreach God’s love. Either one creates an unhealthy mentality–one feels like he can never please God and the other feels like God accepts him no matter what sin He might be wallering in (so why would he want to quit practicing that sin?) There must be balance. While many will respond to the message of love and hope, there are still those who will only respond to the message of judgment. I guess it takes all kinds.”

I guess it does. I have just seen so much damage from the “fear Christianity” approach and that is tragic to me. I guess it is the balance that was referenced above that was missing from my church upbringing. What made me realize my need for Christ was the realization that I had to live perfectly by the law or find another way to be reconciled to a Holy God. I was smart enough to know that I had not, could not, and would not follow the law perfectly. So I needed another way. That way was Jesus. For me I doubt that a faith based on fear would have been lasting. The Bible does talk about hell. We should not avoid that. But God’s Word also talks about heaven. And it talks about a personal relationship with Him and about faith that changes men and women. Evangelical means good news. We could use a little good news today. And I think Paul is saying we should communicate that good news with grace. When I was a kid the religious seeker asked “what must I do to be saved”? Now the religious seeker asks the question “does Christianity make my life, work, and marriage better?” After three decades of experience I can say from personal experience that the answer is yes. Without fear.