when churches attack!: scaring the hell out of the masses

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Saturday, October 31st, 2009

when churches attack!: scaring the hell out of the masses

wanna talk eternity? hell yes?

hell no, actually.

tonight, across the country, there’s a wave of church productions that will be saying no to hell as well. eternity house. hell house. i’m sure there are other names than those out there, but maybe you’ve heard of one of these in some similar iteration.

in case you’re not aware of this phenomenon that has gained momentum over the last 10-20 years, here’s how our friends at wikipedia describe it:

Hell houses are haunted attractions typically run by American, fundamentalist Christian churches or parachurch groups. These depict sin, the torments of the damned in Hell, and usually conclude with a depiction of heaven. They are most typically operated in the days preceding Halloween, although they are not part of the holiday.

A hell house, like a conventional haunted-house attraction, is a space set aside in which actors attempt to frighten patrons with gruesome exhibits and scenes. The format is that the various scenes are presented as a series of short vignettes with a narrated guide. Unlike haunted houses, hell houses focus on occasions and effects of sin or the fate of unrepentant sinners in the afterlife. They are scheduled during the month of October to capitalize on the similarities between hell houses and haunted attractions.

The exhibits at a hell house often have a controversial tone and focus on sins that are also issues of concern to evangelicals in the United States. Hell houses frequently feature exhibits that depict sin and its consequences. Common examples include abortion, suicide, use of alcoholic beverages and other recreational drugs, adultery and pre-marital sex, occultism, homosexuality, and Satanic ritual abuse. Hell houses typically emphasize the belief that anyone who does not accept Christ as their personal savior is damned to Hell.

as you can gather, they’re a barrel of monkeys!

i know you’ll all be surprised to learn that i’m not a big fan of these. shocking, i know.

but i don’t want to just dump all over the concept without going into a little of why i harbor these feelings and beliefs.


the first important piece of information to offer about these productions is that i’ve been involved with them in the past. i was actually in one nearly 10 years ago. not only was i in it, but i played the most menacing character of them all: satan. yes, i was satan. [insert ryan is satan joke here] 🙂

while the past is what it is, let me say a couple things. first, i was a very different person then than i am now. that’s moderately self-explanatory. second, even then, i felt conflicted about the whole thing. i actually knew nothing about it when i got talked into doing it and, surprisingly, never even saw it fully acted out until a couple days before it was showtime. throughout the handful of performances, i felt uncomfortable with various elements, but felt compelled to fulfill my obligation. by the final night, i had little trouble deciding that this wasn’t something i’d be involved with again.

so, that’s an important piece of my argument. i’m not just a critical outsider. i was actually a part of it.

another important disclaimer in this is that my time spent with this production taught me a very important thing: there are many, many sincere, well-intentioned people who are behind these and are a part of these. these people are not bad people. they are not hateful people who want to prey on people’s vulnerabilities. these are people who genuinely want people to accept jesus.

ok, now for the giant but


while my beef involves various bits of theological minutiae, the overarching issue i have is the core driving force behind these productions: fear mongering.

one of my pet peeves is seeing people driven by fear. fear makes people put 37 locks on their doors. it makes people move out of certain parts of the city. it makes people vote for certain candidates. it makes people reluctantly (or not-so-reluctantly, at times) support war and torturing. it makes people hate other people.

but fear has also been used in religious contexts for thousands of years. fear doesn’t only make us do “bad things.” sometimes fear pushes us to do “good things”. like accept jesus. like do whatever it takes to avoid burning for eternity in some place called hell. like make a hasty decision after experiencing frightening scenes of death and eternal damnation.

allow me to make a case from the world of psychology.


kohlberg is an american psychologist who developed a six-stage moral development theory. in brief, his series works from stage 1 being the most simplistic up to stage 6 which is the highest level of social and moral participation. (read more here.) his six stages are based around what is called the heinz dilemma, which offers the following scenario:

A woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $ 1,000, which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said, “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife. Should Heinz have broken into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?

stage 1, in essence, says that the lowest form of moral recognition is based on fear of punishment. so, in this scenario heinz should not have broken into the man’s store to steal the drug because he will go to jail, which means he’s a bad person. the dilemma, in stage 1, is based around whether or not the action leads to punishment.

this, my friends, is the stage of moral reasoning that these productions pander to. fear is what makes you accept jesus. here’s the equation:

not accepting jesus + dying = you will get in trouble from god which leads to burning and torturing for eternity in hell

so, the natural choice here is that if i want to avoid punishment, i will accept jesus. the equation then becomes:

accepting jesus + dying = jesus is happy with me and lets me live with him for eternity where it’s white and they play mercy me songs forever and ever


so, what do we do with this? am i saying that everyone who accepts jesus via this production is actually just as lost as when they came in? no. am i saying that the people who lead the production are actively leading people to a false sense of salvation? no. am i saying that these productions might actually do more harm than good? maybe. probably so. am i saying that there’s a much better ethic of introducing people to jesus? absolutely.

i agree with my brothers and sisters who run these productions. to the question of eternity, i say hell no.

moreover, though, i say yes to a message of love. i say yes to a jesus sees god in everyone. i say yes to a god of grace. i say yes to a christ who breaks bread with the drunk and the whore and the religious alike.


  1. Morgon77 says:

    My problem with hell houses:

    1. They aren't preaching the Gospel, and people in them who make decisions aren't making a salvation response to the Gospel, they're making a reaction response to the threat of Hell.

    2. For the most part, these programs do not enter directly into an intensive program of discipleship and mentoring for the new Christian. Instead, it's up to that person to figure out where they're going to church, what they learn, and what they become. Which means that 95% of them will probably be driven off by the hypocrisy of the church within the next year.

    3. None of these houses give equal time to the things that Jesus actually mentions in terms of hell, like not taking care of the poor, being divisive, etc.

    I suspect, however, that for the well meaning people who make these events, the above qualities are normal to church, and not to be questioned.

  2. derekablaylock says:

    take 2…
    You've mongered fear in me about doing hellhouses so is that counterproductive to your point about not to fear-monger.

    Seriously though, I think we're starting to see the tide turn in our culture (primarily younger generation) that we're moving away from solely forumulaic patterns of learning/understanding and starting to embrace the experiential model along with other modes.

    I'm sure there will always be those 'fundys who try to sell Jesus as an "eternal life insurance policy" but I would hope that somehow they see how narrow (and destructive to God's message of love and grace) of a view that is to God.

    Just my four half-pennies.

  3. taddelay says:

    Inspired by this post, Libby and I watched the documentary "he'll house" last night. I'm absolutely humbled by the fact that I once, not so long ago, would have called that sort of thing a very good thing. It's crazy (and humbling) to think that in another five or ten years I will look back on things I believe now with similar shock

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