Years ago I accepted a friend’s mysterious invitation to attend what he said would be the “greatest Halloween celebration” I would ever experience. He wouldn’t share much more than that. So we met for dinner and then traveled deep into the spooky Tennessee hills to where a little community church was hosting, much to my chagrin, a “Hell House.”
For the uninitiated (oh, lucky you!), a Hell House, also known as a “Judgment House,” is an evangelical-revivalistic adaptation of a Haunted House. At each Hell House the script is pretty much the same. A small group of attendees is led through the designated area and witnesses scenes of violence or tragedy, scenes typically acted out by high school or college students from the local church.
These scenes may involve a group of drunken teenagers killed in a car accident, a frat house drug overdose, or a horrid suicide. In that Hell House I was snookered into years ago, the main script revolved around a school shooting complete with copious amounts of fake blood, cracking firearms, and a horde of the dead and dying. The manifestations are many, but the outcome is always the same: Somebody is going to die and go straight to hell.
The attendees watch as the dearly departed take their ill-prepared stand before the judgment of God, only to be dragged away by the howling, soul-thirsty demons to burn in eternal fire. After all this shock and awe, and with half of the attendees usually in tears, it creates just the right moment for the Hell House organizers to present a tract or brochure from the church, to give a spontaneous altar call to repentance, or to conduct some plain old fashioned fear mongering.
My friend thought I would benefit from seeing such a thing, hoping that I would lead my own congregation in hosting a Hell House the next Halloween. He was wrong. I’m not a fan of those things, and as soon as the school shooting scenario began to play itself out, I went home.
Halloween is a strange holiday, and not because of the costumes, ghosts, and goblins. Like so many of our holidays, it is a muddled fusion of the pagan with the Christian. When the world started to turn toward Christianity many centuries ago, and the church was consecrating heathen worship sites and customs left and right, day and night, a lot of the paganism was kept for adaptive purposes.
Since then (and even before) the rites and rituals have gotten so jumbled together, that looking back, it is sometimes impossible to tell where paganism ended and Christianity began. This doesn’t stop some believers from working very hard to redeem October 31st. In fact, they work so hard at it, they go backward rather than forward, calling on the elements of fear, coercion, and dread more than hope and redemption.
Hell Houses put emphasis on a horrible, dare I say, pagan concept of God. God is portrayed not much differently than an eternally angry executioner who takes delight in sending virgins and sinners over the edge into the volcano.
God becomes a terrifying hobgoblin rising on the night of Samhain or an insatiable Zeus hurling lightning bolts from Mt. Olympus until someone can appease him. The message of the Hell House is intentionally crystal clear: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
Halloween or not, I believe the words of the Disciple John, who was casting off so much pagan misconception in his own day. He said, “God is love, and love expels all fear. The thought of being punished is what makes us afraid, and this shows that we have not fully experienced God’s perfect love.”
So here is the contrast in sharp focus: Paganism imagines what we must do to keep God from hating and destroying us. But faith leads us in joyfully celebrating and living the perfect mercy and love of God. The choice is the life of fear, or the life of love. The difference between these two makes all the difference in the world.