Jesus and the Hell Houses

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An article by Lucy Broadbent in today’s Times Magazine describes the current Hell House phenomenon and its impact on teenagers. Churches such as Trinity Church in Dallas present shocking tableaux of classroom massacres, date rape, abortions (with real theatrical blood and pieces of real meat), suicide, child molestation, and drink-driving accidents. The kids arrive expecting a jolly evening of Halloween-style entertainment, I suppose; and they leave traumatized – strangers cling to each other in tears, one girl passes out, another sobs convulsively on the grass.

I wouldn’t want to judge it from a distance. Hell Houses are certainly controversial and have attracted a lot of criticism, but I rather like the idea of reviving the tradition of morality plays as a teaching medium, and the shock and gore at least make a change from the usual banality and sentimentality that passes for drama in churches.

The objection voiced by a specialist in developmental psychology at the University of Colorado – that it is bad thing for people to internalize fear of hell and the prospect of being tortured for eternity – seems to me to miss the point. The main objective behind these modern morality plays appears be to frighten children with visions not of hell but of what might go wrong on earth. Mothers take their daughters along because they want them to know what abortion and rape are like.

I also wonder about comments made by the head of theology at the Evangelical Alliance in the UK, Justin Thacker, who was interviewed for the piece. He doesn’t like the idea of Hell Houses being imported into Britain. It’s not the way he would promote Christianity: ‘They deliberately try to use fear to promote Christianity, but that is not the kind of Christianity I know and love – and I don’t think that is what Jesus’s message was. I don’t believe you can scare people into having an authentic relationship with God.’

The trouble is that Jesus had some pretty severe things to say: anyone who says ‘fool!’ will be liable to the gehenna of fire; it is better that you lose one of the limbs than that your whole body be thrown into gehenna; the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down; the sons of the kingdom will be thrown in the outer darkness; it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town; I have not come to bring peace but a sword; this evil generation will suffer the madness of war (my understanding of the parable of the seven spirits); the angels will throw the wicked into the furnace of fire; the king will send his troops to destroy those who do not come to the feast and will burn their city; those who do not see Jesus in the suffering disciples will be sent away to be punished – just briefly to list the most obvious statements from Matthew’s Gospel.

Arguably, Jesus is doing something very similar to the Hell Houses. He graphically portrays the suffering that will come upon his people because of their sin, their rebellion against God, unless they mend their ways. His ‘hell’ is not some lurid post-mortem torture chamber; it is the ghastly, bloody reality of war. The Jews can stay on that broad path leading to destruction, or they can take a narrow path leading to life. There may be some serious ethical and psychological issues raised by the Hell Houses, but I’m a little surprised that the head of theology at the Evangelical Alliance would be so quick to sanitize a Jesus who in his own way was not averse to using shock and gore tactics in order to keep people on the straight and narrow.