Hell House

Posted on November 27, 2011


It’s hard to say how I became interested in hell houses. Part of it may be my Catholic upbringing, though I don’t believe in Jesus per se. Most days I’m an Agnostic, and some days I’m a Hopeful Deist. While I haven’t seen definitive proof that God exists, I’d like for there to be a helpful God, universal Spirit, or generic Something Out There, and I would certainly prefer to have an Afterlife instead of absolute Nothingness.

For those who don’t know, hell houses are an evangelical Christian’s version of a haunted house. But instead of holding zombies and vampires, hell houses have teenagers with botched abortions and gay men dying of AIDS. It’s meant to reinvigorate current Christians and win over new converts; attendees are bombarded with alarming, realistic visions of hell and then encouraged to accept Jesus.

Another reason for my interest, I think, is that evangelical Christians have always made me vaguely uncomfortable. In my experience, they tend to be wholesomely attractive, friendly, and well-intentioned (if hopelessly irrational). In Japan, I once shared a house with a group of evangelical missionaries. They put up little index cards with Scripture quotes (in crayon and glitter!), had regular prayer sessions, and successfully converted two other housemates.  I shunned their company, believing it a threat to my Anything-Goes Agnostic identity. (I avoid people who do a lot of drugs for the same reason.)

I would never volunteer to live in a house of missionaries, but I figured that a hell house might be a useful way to confront my fears – a non-participatory way to experience and understand evangelical Christian culture.

I drove down to Bakersfield, California several weeks ago to attend a Baptist church’s performance of this year’s Judgement House script. Judgement House is one of several companies (Tribulation Trail, Revelation Walk, etc.) that create hell house scripts for evangelical churches to use. The church was along a thriving stretch of road, just beyond a commercial area seeded with every chain store imaginable. A gas station near the church contained the most godly graffiti ever written in a pit stop bathroom – “Jesus is your Savior!”, “Welcome the Lord!”, etc., written in a rounded, teenagerish way in the spot where the mirror used to be.

The church campus was decently sized, though it didn’t qualify for ‘megachurch’ status. On the grounds were a cafeteria, a large auditorium, and about twelve different classrooms. At the church cafeteria, there were a dozen volunteers wearing Judgement House t-shirts with this year’s theme, “The Unexpected”, written in thick capital letters on the back. They asked for a suggested donation of $3. As I waited for my group to be called, a cheerful-seeming, pregnant woman came up and introduced herself as the wife of the youth pastor. She was quietly charismatic, something I have noticed (and envied) in actively religious people.

Eventually, our guide came and called our group together. My fellow attendees were mainly teenagers and their mothers. Our guide explained that we would be following the lives of a young, thriving family, the Endicotts; the father had a regular office job, the mother, Carol, was a homemaker who volunteered at a soup kitchen regularly, and their three children were all healthy and active. No one in the family was Christian, although the middle sister, Abby, was beginning to learn about Jesus through a friend. She had been invited by that friend to participate in a youth-oriented ‘puppet ministry’.

As we walked through the different scenes, we saw Abby participate in the puppet ministry and be converted. Shortly afterwards, she was picked up by her mother and both were killed in a car accident. Abby, who had accepted Jesus as her savior, went to heaven, while Carol went to hell despite having been a good wife and mother. Notable scenes were as follows:

  • The Puppet Ministry. This room, in blacklight, featured neon puppets, white-gloved hands waving glowing orange signs, and the catchy, somewhat dopey tune,”Don’t worry, trust Jesus”. It was explained that the birds and beasts never worried about having to eat, and neither should we; we should put all our faith in Jesus instead. (This seemed a bit unhelpful to me, in light of the credit crisis.) It was also explained that believing in Jesus was as simple as A-B-C; a) admitting that you have sinned, b) believing in Jesus, and c) confessing this belief to the world and converting others.
  • The Texting Teenagers. Small young bodies, covered in blood, were sprawled above and under a crashed car with a completely crumpled hood. A teenage girl had been texting while driving, causing this accident (which apparently killed Abby, Carol, and about six young children). The girl, along with her friends, continued to text while being interrogated by police and emergency technicians.
  • Judgement. A man wearing priestly vestments stood before an altar containing a heavy book; everything to his left was draped in black, and there were two dark-clad, hooded figures standing on his left side. Everything to his right was draped in white, and a barefoot girl wearing a white garment with a golden sash stood on his right. Abby and Sarah were welcomed into heaven, but Carol was not allowed in. You did not make preparations for your eternal life, the judge said. Carol protested that she had been a loving wife and mother and had done good deeds. The judge replied that Carol had not made a place for Jesus while she was alive, and that there were no second chances. The only way to heaven was through Jesus.
  • One Step. Then the judge called each of us by name, asking us to take one step forward. I felt tense as I did so, thinking that he might call on us to accept Jesus right then and there. Instead, he told us that we were fortunate enough to have escaped Judgement for now, and that we would soon return to our normal lives to be Judged another time.
  • Hell. After the Judgement, our guide took us to a preview of the afterlife. Hell was a heated room with a fat man in an armchair; behind him, Carol and Thomas writhed in shackles. The fat man ranted in a crackling voice, something along the lines of,”So you don’t think this place is real, do you? You don’t think the flames are real, do you? Well, it’s very hot here, and there is no escape.” He went on and on in this somewhat grating manner.
  • Heaven. Here, two teenage girls in white garments draped white cloths over our shoulders. We entered a room covered in white with twinkling silvery lights on the ceiling. Mellow music was playing. Young boys in white were lined against the wall, making coordinated hand gestures in time with the music; two older women gave them gentle encouragement. Jesus – a bearded, potbellied man in white with a purple sash – came and hugged each one of us, warmly whispering into our ears that he had died for our sins.
  • The Conversion. Afterwards, a pastor from the church said a short prayer and thanked us for coming. He said that counselors were waiting in the adjoining auditorium, ready to talk and pray with any of us. He told us to raise our hands if we needed a counselor. “If you have accepted Jesus as your personal lord and savior tonight, raise your hand.” “If you are a Christian but have fallen off the way, and want to get right with God, raise your hand.” “If you just want someone to pray with, raise your hand.”

I didn’t raise my hand, although I felt tempted to pretend that I had been converted. I walked out into the hallway instead, where I was greeted by a group of older female volunteers. “What did you think?” they asked.

I walked out to the parking lot, where I sat and pondered the statement that Jesus was your only way to heaven. What about tribesmen in remote parts of the world who had never heard of Jesus? I wondered if evangelicals would have a satisfying answer for that. I also brooded, inevitably, about death. What if I were killed in a car crash that very night? I felt saddened, thinking of all of the things I would never get to experience, like having children, and all of the things I would never be able to write or make. I also considered the prospect of going to hell, but comforted myself by thinking that my God isn’t the punitive type.

I went back to the greeters and asked them how an uninformed tribesman might end up. One woman with long wild hair said she believed everyone would have a chance to make an informed decision, even people living in unevangelized places. She did not elaborate on how this might happen, simply saying,”It is said.” Another woman surmised that even a nomad might form notions about some kind of Higher Power, simply by looking around at all of Creation and wondering how it got there. Such a person, she said, wouldn’t be penalized for not knowing about Jesus. She was quick to mention, however, that people in the US and North America have all been told about Jesus, and that they wouldn’t have any excuses come Judgement Day.

I told the greeters that I would like to believe in a God, generally, but didn’t (and probably couldn’t) believe in Jesus specifically. They pressed upon me a book called The Case for Christ, supposedly written by a formerly atheist journalist. They said that even if I didn’t believe, it was enough that I was “seeking”, which sounded a little like failing a test but getting the extra-credit questions right.

Note: For reasons unknown to me, Judgement House consistently spells “judgment” as “judgement”, although its URL defaults to the more conventional “judgment”. I wonder if the spelling “judgement” has a very specific meaning for evangelicals.

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