Is it ever “okay” for Christians to “scare the hell” out of non-believers? Is it even possible? For centuries, pastors and priests have used the “turn or burn” approach on others. While the intentions are good, are they always effective? In this series, join in the discussion and weigh in your opinion and thoughts.
“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!”
That’s the greeting you get when visiting the Hell House outreach page of the New Destiny Christian Center’s website. For 17 years now, New Destiny, an Assemblies of God church located in Thornton, Colorado, has been producing its own “hell house.” In addition, they have been providing outreach kits to hundreds of other churches and ministries across the country and 18 foreign countries so that they too can produce these walk-through thrill adventures. To date, over 1,000 kits have been sold.
“The method is timely! The message is timeless! Desperate times call for drastic measures!” says Senior Pastor Keenan Roberts, “If your church or ministry is determined to take a stand against sin and the kingdom of darkness and to reach people for Jesus like never before, then this outreach is for you! Get prayed up and powered up and be prepared for the ride of your ministry life!”
He’s not kidding. Set up just like a haunted house, a hell house features scary people, scary sights and lots of blood. But don’t expect to see Dracula or a bunch of zombies. The scenes that you’re likely to find in your local hell house involve domestic abuse, gay weddings, gay and/or lesbian suicides, parties and raves, drunk driving, high school shootings, abortions and of course, hell.
“Hell House is much more than a haunted house. It is a spiritually-based adventure depicting the hell and devastation that Satan and this world can bestow on those who choose not to serve Jesus Christ,” says the website. Typically, hell houses conclude with two scenes in hell and heaven. In the heaven scene, guests are given the opportunity to pray the salvation prayer with an average 33% salvation or rededication rate.
Roberts continues, “The bottom line of this outreach is proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ! He is the Way out of sin, the Truth to believe in and the Life to begin to live! He shines hope to people in darkness! This outreach paints very clearly that Jesus and heaven are real and that Satan and hell are also real.”
Timothy George of First Things.com says, “The late Jerry Falwell is often credited with launching the current Hell House craze with his Scare Mare program back in 1972. But the demand for ‘sanctified’ haunted houses has grown over the years…Graphic depictions of hell have long been a part of Christian rhetoric…The problem with this kind of approach to the afterlife is not that it says too much, but that it offers too little. It says what it does not know and thus falls prey to that most damning of theological temptations, what medieval scholars called vana curiositas. Theology should be done within the limits of revelation alone but what is shown in most modern-day Hell Houses is 90 percent speculation.”
Not surprisingly, not everyone is thrilled with these projects. In 2001, Director George Ratliff filmed a hell house being performed at Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, Texas. It was for the documentary simply titled, “Hell House.” He wanted to capture the event as it truly was. “The whole experience was very trying, but I walked away thinking they were all remarkably nice people. Of course I don’t agree with their methods or what they’re doing, but I never disliked anyone there, and I thought they were all good people.”
As expected, the documentary ruffled a few feathers. “As I watched the documentary of the original Hell House here in TX, I couldn’t help but wonder how many people were being forced to relive their own private pain and then being scorned for being victims,” said Lisa Robinson for ReclaimingTheMind.org. “I see nothing of these tactics used in the pages of scripture to win people to Christ. If anything, Jesus Himself reached out to the very ones these scenarios condemn – the outcast, the abused, the neglected and the mistreated. Can you imagine if He made the woman with the issue of blood watch a scenario that only emphasized the horror of her situation? Or if He had told showed something like this to the woman at the well?”
The documentary struck a chord with Maggie Row as well. In 2004, she created a comedy stage version of the hell house for a theatre in Hollywood that starred Sarah Silverman and David Cross. She told the New York Times, that in order to get the original scripts; she had to pose as a director of a West Hollywood youth group. ”We couldn’t parody them any better,” she said. Row wanted to use the original scripts so that if protesters were to arrive at the performances, she would be able to tell them, “We are doing your own script exactly. To the letter. ”
However, there is equal amount of praise for these events as well. Organizers of this year’s hell house at Farmington Heights Church of God, located in Wilson, North Carolina, say that the event isn’t meant to startle and scare. “It’s not a haunted house,” says Scott Sauls, the church’s administrative pastor. “We don’t like to play up the gore and do what typical haunted houses do to inflict fright and fear. We just want to use this time of year to make people think about their choices…We live and die by the choices we make,” he said. “Life is choice-driven. We’re raising awareness of people’s choice for eternity.”
Another church, Victory Foursquare in Marysville, Washington is offering a slightly different version as well. Judgment Day begins and ends in heaven. In between are scenes involving the creation of the world, Adam & Eve, the introduction of sin into the world and Jesus dying on the cross. It is basically a passion play with the devil thrown in. Still, this production is considered “intense” and not recommended for small children.
When asked about negative criticism he has received about hell houses, Roberts says, “Jesus was so controversial that they killed him. You can’t have an impact without a collision.” In addition Roberts himself thinks that a Hollywood movie would be a great addition. He told Huffington Post last year, “We were real close to a movie once,” he said, “but too many people were scared of it.” Imagine that.
So, what do you think? Are you for or against hell houses and why?