January 19, 2021

Thoughts on “Hell House:” An Evangelicalism Eager To Leave

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.


  1. HUG- that’s your acronym. Your name is too long and weird 🙂

    That was my point about most of the Christian world. Only Americans think persecution is “coming.” Everyone else knows its always been here.

    Bob: Whatever. No major confession has a detailed eschatology, and there’s a reason for that. I don’t do eschatology. It makes me want to be a Buddhist.

  2. Patrick Lynch is absolutely right on the money speaking power to the truth.
    Without a real sense of very deep love and personal concern for others developing a true personal relationship with God our words are nothing but clanging gongs as Paul put in 1ST CORINTHIANS.
    Knee jerk Pavlovian formulas are doomed to failure and an outright mockery of the Lords aspirations.
    “because of you Gods name is laughing stock amongst the gentiles”
    Dare I say we should see each person as our own lost child and that includes Hugh Hefner and Osama Binladin.
    “Be as wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove.”
    I could say so much more about all this but Paul simplified it for us.

    2ND TIMOTHY 2:24 And the Lord’s servant must not strive, but be gentle towards all, apt to teach, forbearing,
    25 in meekness correcting them that oppose themselves; if peradventure God may give them repentance unto the knowledge of the truth,
    26 and they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him unto his will.

  3. Brigitte,

    No offense, but if that is what Luther believed then he was nearly 100% wrong. From the Gospels to Revelation the New Testament is riddled with discussions of fruit, deeds, the lack thereof and what it means to humanity.

    This is just a case of overcompensation. The RCC believed deeply in the idea works “earning” salvation if not is confession then in practice. I am oversimplifying for time and space but even here on this board recently folks discussed how praying, reading your Bible can help “earn” (yes, I know that term annoys people but for the sake of this argument can we not get nit-picky) indulgences. Luther went hard the other way.

    If anybody would like a list of said verses, please feel free to email me. I listed some out in my 11:27 AM post, even a couple by Paul though he has more than one or two.

    The Great Tribulation is not here. Tribulation yes. The Great tribulation…no. “It was given him the power to make war with the saints and to prevail over them.”..talking about the Son of Perdition/Man of Sin..whatever. I have never seen or heard of anything that could be described as a war against the Church.

    I have never got the whole Pre-Trib, Escape Pod theology myself. It seems to take a whole lot of exegetical gymnastics to get there.


  4. Thank you for the Luther quote, Brigitte. I also am cautious about hijacking iMonk’s thread. Maybe he needs to create a posting on James. GRIN.

    However, I find it interesting that the claim was made in an earlier post that James was considered to be a lesser epistle. I have no memory of that being taught. I can remember that Hebrews, Revelation, 2 Peter, and some of the Johannine epistles were questioned, but I have never heard of James having a lesser place.

    So, I did some quick checking. The first full list we have of the 27 books of the New Testament is St. Athanasius in 367 in his Festal Letter preceding Easter that year. In that letter he said, “These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words that they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take anything from these. For concerning these the Lord put to shame the Sadducees, and said, ‘Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures.’ And he reproved the Jews, saying, ‘Search the Scriptures, for these are they that testify of me.'”

    However, it is his listing of the order of the books that is most important for us. He states the order as the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, “and the seven epistles called catholic.” Then he lists the epistles of Paul the Apostle, and lastly he lists the book of Revelation. Here is the important point. The book of James is listed as the FIRST of the Catholic epistles, right after the Book of Acts.

    In the same way, the Codex Vaticanus, which is listed as “one of the oldest and most valuable extant manuscripts of the Greek Bible,” and dates from the same century as Athanasius, also lists the exact same New Testament order, with James as the FIRST of the catholic epistles, right after the Book of Acts.

    Frankly, this does not seem as though the Early Church regarded James as a second-class book. That was true of the Protestant Reformers, who realized that their theology was seriously compromised if they admitted James as equal to the rest, which that book is. Simply put, we Orthodox say that the Protestant Reformers were mistaken in their theological constructions, and did not accept the correction that St. James brought to those who misinterpreted St. Paul.

    But, here is a problem. If we are going to classify some Scriptures as first class and some as second class, then maybe we need to follow the Early Church priorities. The Early Church prioritized the Gospels above all else, for they were the records of their Lord. And the Gospels have quite a bit to say about judgment and behavior. But, even prioritizing New Testament books gives a philosophical problem. Once we do that, then we say that some books are somehow more Scripture than other books. Many a theological liberal would cheerfully agree with that statement.

  5. Hey guys-

    You can view Hell House directly from your computer if you have Netflix. Just search and click on “Watch Instantly”

    That’s how I saw it. They also have a ton of other good documentaries.

    No, Netflix didn’t pay me………….

  6. Fr. Ernesto,
    Don’t have time now, But go read Eusebius.

  7. As I read this post, I keep seeing that scene from the movie, “Luther” where Tetzel works up his crowds with the terrors and flames of hell to sell his indulgences.

    Religious empires are no longer built on indulgences but on decisions. The more decisions produced, the more powerful, influential, and legitimate a religious leader or movement becomes. In the end, it has nothing to do with bringing the prodigals home to the Father. And just like the closing hours of the medieval period, Jesus becomes a judgemental monster, not a loving savior.

    I’ll join in that prayer for reformation.

  8. Bror, Origen cites the letter as Scripture written by James. It is true that Eusebius says that the letter is currently being read by many but that it was not as read by the Early Church Fathers. However, J.B. Mayor in 1897 compiles a list of references to James by Early Church Fathers and basically said that Eusebius was mistaken on this issue. I suspect that this is one of those debatable points.

  9. Fr. Ernesto,
    Not quite what he said. Just had a thought as i was going to quote Eusebius. Rather than hijack this thread lets move over to Brigitte’blog, where she posted on this.

  10. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    HUG- that’s your acronym. Your name is too long and weird. — IMonk

    Like Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes, I try to make everybody’s day a bit more surreal.

    The handle actually originated from the creative process behind this pic from 1999: The Age of Reason has No Need of Unicorns. Click on the link if you dare. And this accompanying flashfic, if the link isn’t dead from age.

  11. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Headless Unicorn Guy, not even!


    Having now watched it all the way through, I can figure what happened.

    This kid was in church, listened to the preacher do his thing, and went up and imitated what he just saw and heard before waddling off. Though given the kid’s shticks, I wonder about the preacher’s; the kid seemed to be doing Elmer Gantry in Hellfire-and-Damnation mode.

    So far, something easily explainable that wouldn’t look out of place on one of those “Dumbest Home Videos” shows.

    The scary part was the comment thread on the site. The ones about the Holy Spirit taking over the kid with the implication of “Touch Not God’s Anointed”. Somebody’s either seriously clueless or so into supernatural explanations I wonder what they’re using for reality.

  12. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    With the election results in, it looks like Evangelicals will be even more Eager to Leave. (“Beam me up! There’s no intelligent life here!”)

    Though with all the Ron Paulistas and John Galt Celebrity Impersonators coming out of the woodwork going “I TOLD YOU SO!”, they’re going to have to take a number and wait in line.

    And I suspect one small country church in PA is going to get a surprise this coming Sunday. They’ll go in expecting a conventional post-Election Day sermon on “End Time Prophecy! Obama IS The Antichrist!” and they’ll get one on “DON’T GO STUPID ON ME!”

  13. My blog is unmoderated now. Bror and you and others can discuss there, if you wish. Bror, being the theologian, knows more about it than me.

    Fr. Ernesto:

    “Once we do that, then we say that some books are somehow more Scripture than other books. Many a theological liberal would cheerfully agree with that statement.”

    When there are controversies, and we want to let scripture interpret scripture to come up with the answer, it can be absolutely necessary to rank what’s more important, more apostolic, has better known authorship, etc. This is not to diminish other scripture, but sometimes the congruence or incongruence has to be worked out. This does not make us liberal. We want to find the answer in scripture.


    “No offense, but if that is what Luther believed then he was nearly 100% wrong. From the Gospels to Revelation the New Testament is riddled with discussions of fruit, deeds, the lack thereof and what it means to humanity.”

    Luther did not teach that are shall be no fruits. He only taught that they need to be kept out of salvation. There needs to be a separation of concepts. If you or I, or anybody else on this blog or any other blog… thinks they have done enough deeds, they will be hypocrites or despairing. It is not honest or psychologically tenable, or in harmony with your conscience, that you will say: me or so and so really has enough fruits, love, deeds. There is never enough. You know that. I know that. I-monk knows that.

  14. Sorry for my absence. The election got in the way and occupied my time for a day or so.

    Bror, as I remember the mental tapes, the saints in Revelation 7 are the ones saved *after* the Rapture (though I’m a little cloudy on just how they get saved when the Holy Spirit has been removed from the world at the rapture). They are the 144,000 righteous Jews, 12,000 from each tribe, who spread the Gospel message to the world after the church is taken up, and for their trouble, they are beheaded and “come out of great tribulation” (such a fate seemed so medieval, unreal even, until the Iraq war). Daniel’s 70th week. Israel’s clock starts ticking again, and so forth. It’s easy to explain when you take it all literally. Not as easy if you don’t. 🙂

    I don’t do eschatology. –iMonk
    Avoiding the subject altogether, that’s the ticket! So then are these *not* the last days, or what? But I understand what you’re saying, why have a “doctrine of end times” if there are no end times? I guess things will just keep on getting better and better (as they have in our lifetime) until the golden messianic age is ushered in by man’s own efforts. That’s the only possible conclusion. 🙂

    I am being obstreperous. I repent in sackcloth and ashes.

  15. “He only taught that they need to be kept out of salvation.”

    Maybe. However, that’s not what he’s saying in his critique of James. He’s saying it can’t really be James because the idea of works reflecting salvation can’t be found anywhere else in the NT. He’s wrong. James simply says that we are saved by faith but that faith DOES things. If you say you have faith but don’t do things you don’t really have faith.

    It’s a similar concept to “If a man hates his brother whom he can see, how can he love God whom he can’t?” If you don’t have faith enough in Jesus to do the things he told us to do(the things we can see), how can you have enough faith in Jesus to save your soul (the things we can’t see)? James says you can’t. Lipservice doesn’t get it.

    Jesus asks Peter three times “Do you love me?” Peter answers three times “Yes.” Three times Jesus tells him Feed my Sheep. Sounds an awful lot like if you believe you will ACT on that belief. He also talks about unfruitful trees being cast into the fire.

    Paul talks about the idea that many run the race but only one wins. “So run, that ye may obtain.” He also says to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. He tells Timothy to do good works. He talks about striving to attain “the resurrection of the dead”.

    One of the Gospels says that blessed is the servant who is found working when the Lord returns. The whole parable of the sheep and the goats is about putting actions to your faith. Those that do go to heaven, those that don’t…well, don’t. If Matthew 25:14-30 isn’t talking about works after receiving what God has given you I don’t know what it could be about.

    John the Baptist says “therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire”.

    None of this even remotely suggests that you can earn Heaven apart from being in Christ. It does however say that NOT doing these works will get you kicked off that bus.

    Luther is just plain wrong is his assessment.


  16. Bob Brogue,

    I’ll bet you my house for yours that you die before Jesus comes back. Do it…

    Headless Unicorn Guy,

    The comments are right about one thing: The Holy Spirit is freaking adorable!

  17. I’m speaking as one from the Baptist family…We are schizophrenic about conversion. We will do these Hell House sort of things, reap a lot of ‘conversions’, and get excited about the numbers. But then we go to a conference where some leader will tell us, “our problem is we have a lot of people in the church who aren’t saved and by the way we have a breakout session after this on how to do Hell House!”

    And from personal experience…I prayed to receive Christ as a teenager after a sermon on the second coming (first time I heard anything about that) and a guy blew a trumpet from the balcony at the end of the sermon. Scared the hell out of me. I was converted several years later when I trusted in Christ.

  18. For DaveD

    Luther quote I like on the subject. Sorry to all who think this is off topic.

    On the topic, though, I have to say I was subjected to “Thief in the Night” in my youth, as well, found it disturbing and wrong. Christ will return, or as somebody pointed out “appear” (since he is not really missing), and it will be the last day.

    Here for DaveD

    From the commentary to letter to the Galatians (Luther’s works, volume 26, commentary on Galatians, p. 137):

    ” ‘ But the Law is good, righteous, and holy.’ Very well! But when we are involved in a discussion of justification, there is no room for speaking about the Law. The question is what Christ is and what blessing He has brought us. Christ is not the law; He is not my work or that of the Law; he is not my love or that of the law; He is not my chastity, obedience, or poverty. But He is the Lord of life and death, the Mediator and Savior of sinners, the Redeemer of those who are under the Law. By faith we are in Him and He is in us (John 6:56). This Bridegroom, Christ, must be alone with his bride in His private chamber, and all the family and household must be shunted away. But later on, when the Bridegroom opens the door and comes out, then let the servants return to take care of them and serve them food and drink. Then let works and love begin.

    … Victory over sin and death does not come by the works of the Law or by our will; therefore it comes by Jesus Christ, alone. Here we are perfectly willing to have ourselves called ’sola fideists’ by our opponents, who do not understand anything of Paul’s argument. You who are to be the consolers of consciences that are afflicted, should teach this doctrine diligently, study it continually, and defend it vigorously…”

    P. 145
    But we do make a distinction here; and we say that we are not disputing now whether good works ought to be done. Nor are we inquiring whether the law is good, holy, and righteous, or whether it ought to be observed; FOR THAT IS ANOTHER TOPIC (my emphasis). But our argument and questions concerns justification and whether the law justifies. Our opponents do not listen to this. They do not answer this question, nor do they distinguish as we do. All they do is to scream that good works ought to be done and that the law ought to be observed. ALL RIGHT, WE KNOW THAT. (my emphasis). But because these are distinct topics, we will not permit them to be confused. In due time we shall discuss the teaching that the law and good works ought to be done.”

  19. Dave D,
    “Maybe. However, that’s not what he’s saying in his critique of James. He’s saying it can’t really be James because the idea of works reflecting salvation can’t be found anywhere else in the NT. He’s wrong. James simply says that we are saved by faith but that faith DOES things. If you say you have faith but don’t do things you don’t really have faith.”

    You will not find Luther anywhere arguing that faith does not manifest itself in works. Luther believed whole heartedly that faith does produce works. But this is not how James states the case, (though it can be argued that is what he meant. And Luther would agree that you could interpret James to say that.) James says “James 2:24 (ESV) You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
    Now I tend to think that the translators are a bit dishonest here, because the word Pistis they translate as faith here, they translate as knowledge when it comes to the demons. So I think James was trying to distinguish between mere knowledge, and the living faith that Paul speaks about, but he did a very poor job, and I don’t mind saying that because I’m with Luther on this, I not sure that it was written by an apostle, and Paul is much clearer than James.

  20. The “Hell House” kind of antics aren’t just for Halloween :


    You can be scared into salvation at anytime during the year.

  21. Great piece. Some interesting comments. It bothers me to no end that so many Christians waste time on such stuff as ‘Hell House’.

    Hearing or reading about such things always makes me think of how much I’d rather see an Alice Cooper concert.

    Keep up the excellent work, Michael.

Speak Your Mind