I just completed watching the documentary Hell House with a group of my advanced Bible students. It’s giving us an opportunity to ask and discuss important issues about our own experiences of Christian evangelism. Several students have participated in Hell Houses, while others find it to be offensive and disturbing.
If you don’t know what a Hell House is, you might read this review of the film, which is much better than the wikipedia entry.
Hell House shows evangelicals at their most honest: We live in a world filled with demonic forces seeking to overwhelm us in a sea of despair, violence, destructive sexuality, abuse, divorce, homosexuality, AIDS and suicide. And it shows evangelicals at their most purpose-driven: Save people from hell by doing anything you can to get them to pray a prayer that indicates they have “accepted Jesus as their personal savior.” Anything including an amusement park quality haunted house depicting all the evils listed above in graphic, emotion-shaking live theater.
This is the evangelicalism of my youth ramped up with the capabilities and priorities of today’s evangelicalism. Preachers would scare you with stories of car wrecks, tragedies and sudden death. Satan was outside the walls of the church working full time to suck you into this world of sin. Hell was never far away, and only a few would make the right choice.
Such an understanding of Christianity is a dramatic story that lends itself well to presentations like Hell House and its more sophisticated progeny.
Thousands line up for this show. Many are evangelical Christians themselves, but many of them will be in the prayer rooms praying the prayer to “really” accept Christ. One character in the documentary has been working on Hell House as an adult volunteer for years. He’s a committed Christian, but at one point he goes on the Hell House tour like everyone else, and there he is in the prayer room.
Some of those attending Hell House are the mirror images of the very people portrayed in the dramas: stoners, atheists, gays, alienated rebels, liberals. One Catholic young man found himself torn between two sides in a post-tour discussion. He agreed with the basic outline of what Hell House was doing, but this was not his world either.
Hell House lets these evangelicals- Pentecostals actually- talk for themselves. A theologically sensitive person will wince more than once. A Biblically literate person will be shaking his/her head often. A person with reservations about what we do to young people and children may get angry.
Hell House features a number of interviews. They emphasize the sincerity of the participants and the power of the experience on those who take part in it.
But a person cannot watch Hell House without seeing a bleak, pessimistic and ultimately apocalyptically distorted vision of Christianity. This is a community of believers who are shaped almost entirely by the manipulative authoritarian spirituality of pastors who seem to have never heard of the doctrine of creation, the Kingdom of God, the present Lordship of Jesus or the church as the living body of Christ. This is a vision of evangelicalism that is loading a plane for escape from this world as quickly as possible.
The rapture and a strange rejoicing in the demise of the world into darkness loom over Hell House. A few souls will be snatched from the fires, and the church will bear witness to the truth in the waning years of the last days. But ultimately, the world is a lost cause and the church is a lifeboat operation.
There are various ways to live out this vision, and not every community of evangelicals would express their vision in the same way as the community observed in Hell House. But it is not hard to see that many would judge this kind of community the bitter leftovers of the Reformation. A church marginalized. A theology gutted by ignorance. Worship and mission methodology dictated by entertainment and pragmatism. The culture war dominating the agenda, with the Gospel reduced to the purchase of a ticket to escape the coming apocalypse.
This is a church that has openly made itself little more than a rescue operation for the rapture. If you look for the Christian tradition, the optimism to create, the foundation on which to build life, family, vocation and mission, you will find little of help.
Hell House has over 15,000 “decisions” for Jesus as of when the film was made. I suspect that, while some may begin a genuine walk with Christ in a Hell House or similar program, most of those decisions are invisible, redundant or non-existent.
The evangelicalism represented in Hell House would be disappointed if the rapture doesn’t happen soon, because they are clearly not counting on being here long.