“It didn’t work,” Matt said as he lowered his head so that I wouldn’t notice the tears filling his eyes.
“What do you mean it didn’t work?” I asked. “I thought your pastor said over 3,000 responded to ‘give their life to Jesus.’”
“I mean that-” he paused, genuine tears rolling down his face. “I dunno… it just didn’t work. 90% of the people that ‘gave their life to Jesus’ won’t return our calls or emails. It’s like they never made the decision in the first place.”
I had known Matt for around five years now. Up to that point, he was one of the most kindhearted people I knew. He had a genuine love for God and people and, in many ways I looked up to him as an old brother in the faith- though we had significant disagreements concerning evangelism methods. “I can’t believe that,” I stammered.
“It gets worse,” he cleared his throat. “The other 10% is mostly made up of sensitive Christian kids that felt they weren’t ‘right with God.’ They were already in bible school or the youth group.”
At the time we had this conversation, he was a discipleship coordinator for a local ministry. If the evangelism department made new converts, it was Matt’s responsibility to place them in discipleship programs to fit their needs. One would catch the fish; the other would clean the fish. This time, however, they teamed up to put on a Hell House over the Halloween season.
A Hell House is a “Christian” version of a haunted house. Instead of zombies, vampires, and werewolves, these Hell Houses portray “real life” scenarios of rape, school shootings, abortions, molestation, and suicide. After various death scenes, “demon-guides” escort the onlookers into hell to view the eternal torment of each wrongdoer within the various scenes. The key word for all Hell Houses is “choices.” Everyone has a choice to make.
I had firm disagreements with Matt and the ministry he was a part of concerning the usage of tormenting tactics to convert the masses- so I decided to go… with my parents, both of whom are Christians. The primary storyline was about a girl named Katy. Her and her brother were abused and raped by their father growing up. Her brother went on to shoot up a school after being bullied repeatedly at school. Katy, however, finds out that she has HIV from her boyfriend and that she is pregnant (whether from her father or boyfriend is unclear). Seeing she has HIV, she decides to have an abortion. Lying on the table at the doctor’s office, she decides against it. However, the nurses tie her down, her screams for help falling on deaf ears. The doctor then said, “I’m sorry Katy, you’ve already made your CHOICE!” He then performs the abortion and throws the fetus at the glass that we were all standing behind.
Katy then finds all her friends have died in a car accident (sounds a bit like Job huh?). Nevertheless, Katy commits suicide later that night after hearing about her brother, friends, her HIV, and experiencing the flagrant malpractice of the abortion doctors. We were then escorted into hell and had the opportunity to watch her eternal torment and screams. Finally, we are invited to cross over to heaven where Katy’s screams can be heard no longer. We are greeted by angels and a figure of Jesus on the cross. There the call for salvation is given and the people walk away with their hearts strangely warmed… Or mortified as I and my parents were. Allow me to explain.
Within the drama there was never hope given to Katy. From the onset of the enactment she was thrown down a deep and dark hole and expected to climb out. Never was the “gospel” presented for her to accept. Never did the Holy Spirit come to her. Never did she get encountered by love. She was given about as many choices as a young girl caught within a human trafficking ring. If the love of God was ever present in the production I sure didn’t see it. By the time we were whisked away into heaven it was too late. I already hated the god they were showing; one without compassion who is wholly absent from his creation.
But I don’t want to just give theological disagreements- I have compiled 5 various psychological reasons why I disagree with Hell Houses.
1. Non-relational Evangelism- A significant reason Hell Houses will never produce godly fruit is that it is a non-relational form of evangelism. This method of evangelism conveys messages and concepts about God rather than displaying the concrete love of God. You cannot scare someone into Jesus’ arms, but you can love them there. There is simply no substitute for relationships and love when it comes to “saving souls” and spreading the gospel.
2. Victim Blaming- Victim blaming happens when victims are held responsible for things done to them. Katy was responsible for the abortion even though the doctors and nurses heard her cries to stop. She was responsible for the pregnancy even though it may very well have come from her father. Within the bible, the language of hell is never used towards victims- only towards those that wielded great power for evil. Did Katy not have any vindication for the injustices done to her in her life? Villainizing those that have been consistently given the short end of the stick is a power game that is often played by the original offenders (ex. “If you didn’t wear such slutty clothing we wouldn’t sexually harass you”). Katy was given difficult circumstances with even more difficult decisions that she had to face on her own. What she needed from God was help and compassion, not a tormentor.
3. Dishonesty- Caricatures were made out of the abortion doctors. They were throwing the fetus around the room like a toy doll and neglecting to stop once the patient demanded them to stop. When Katy found out she was pregnant, a demon picked up a condom and proclaimed for all to hear, “We told you these actually worked against disease and pregnancies and YOU BELIEVED US!!! HA HA HA!” I understand Christian abstinence, but do you really want to tell a group of 12-18 year old youth that condoms shouldn’t be used if they decide to have sex?
4. Emotional Manipulation- The “decisions for Jesus” that were made were all emotionally charged decisions. It is hard to believe that much careful thought went into each conversion, at least by the ones converting. People make decisions out of passion all of the time; they are usually called mistakes. If 90% of the new converts no longer responded to calls or emails, as Matt claimed, it is probably because they made a highly emotional decision and later, when the emotions vanished, the decision did as well. Changing ones religion means changing almost every aspect of one’s life and learning to see things in a completely different light with a group of people one hardly knows. It is not a decision that ought to be made compulsively or unreflectively.
5. Psychological State of Actors/Viewers- In his 2001 documentary “Hell House” director George Ratliff said that the actors within the Hell Houses all took a grotesque enjoyment in various rape, school shooting, drug, and abortion scenes. More, the age cutoff for viewing these Hell Houses is 11 and under. That means 12-15 year olds will be having a bloody fetus thrown at them and view various rape and incest scenes. This is more than disturbing.
These Hell Houses are not an accurate presentation of the gospel of Jesus. They do not show how the resurrection life of Jesus is breaking into the present and setting the world to rights. They do not portray humans as agents of God’s new creation and image bearers that assist Him in reconciliation and justice. They do not even portray God as loving and near to those who suffer. Rather, He is a distant and uncompassionate judge looking to throw evildoers into a lake of fire forever. In his 2012 documentary “Hellbound,” director Kevin Miller asked a leader of a Hell House if Jesus would put one on. “That’s a tricky question,” the leader hesitantly said. But within this ugly view of God I think the answer is clear. He should have said,” He does put one on. The real thing.” But that wouldn’t be the truth. The truth is, the Hell House view of God is about as fictitious as their predecessors, the werewolves, vampires, and zombies.