Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Scaring the Hell Out of You

A few years ago, one of the local Lutheran churches put this message on their sign: “Our God is a God of love, not judgment.” The uproar and negative phone calls they received led them to take the message down within three days. What was so outrageous about this message? While it appeared as the standard “God loves everyone, come as you are” message, there was a passive-aggressive tone. That’s because it was late October, which means the Baptist church a few blocks down was putting on Judgment House.

If you haven’t heard of Judgment House (sometimes called Hell House), it’s the Christianized version of a haunted house. It shows teens in typical after-school special situations (pressured to have sex, drink, bully, etc). Then some tragedy strikes, and you follow the ones who didn’t love Jesus to a hot, torturous hell, and the ones who did love Jesus to shiny, happy heaven. At the end, you fill out an information card that asked if you've been saved or not. If you want to give (or re-give) your life to Christ, there are prayer groups waiting to talk to you. They remind me a lot of the medieval morality plays, except the morality plays personified virtues and vices and covered a range of Church teachings. They are similar, though, in that each offers skits about "average Christian" making choices that affect his salvation, showing images of heaven and hell.

I know the people who put on these productions mean well. At the least, they want to provide a Christian alternative to Halloween. I always feel a little bad for making fun of them. But the whole production gets under my skin. Inducing fear to create converts just isn’t the right way to bring people to Christ.

People should want to be with God, not just want to avoid hell. It’s like marrying someone just because you are afraid of being alone for the rest of your life. You should marry someone because you love that person, because you can’t imagine anything else but a life with that person, and because being with that person makes you a better you.

Judgment Houses believe you have to break people down to build them back up, that they can only find Jesus when they are emotionally vulnerable. Sometimes being scared is good. It’s scary to realize how much we (humanity in general and individuals) sin and reject God. It’s scary to realize how hard actually living a holy life would be. Fear reminds us that we mess up a lot, that we need to improve ourselves, and that we can’t just assume we can coast through life without struggle. It holds us accountable. But that sort of fear comes from real-life, individual experiences. It’s not fictionalized. It’s not a production designed to stir up and exploit particular emotions. As humans, we’re already broken enough. We don’t need to be frightened into realizing that we sin and need God’s help.

But in the end, Judgment Houses aren’t even a good tool for evangelism: I suspect that if a person decides to go to a Judgment House, he already is a particular type of Christian that believes in this description of hell and salvation. A person that doesn’t believe in God, sin, hell, or heaven probably isn’t going to go to a church looking for a haunted house. And if someone like that does wind up there, the production doesn’t make a case for the existence of these things. It scares believers into wanting to avoid hell above wanting heaven on its own merits and leaves non-believers (and non-fire-and-brimstone Christians) with a bad impression of what salvation is about.

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