When I was younger I was invited to a mainstream denominational church who was putting on a "sort of haunted house." At the time I had no idea what it was, but now I commonly refer to it as a "Hell House" which some churches put on around Halloween. After arriving, we were funneled together in groups and ushered throughout the church. Children and adults of all ages were packed in. The first room came which began a story about two teenage boys. One of them had gone to church and believed in Christ while the other had not. In the second room the boys wrecked a car killing them both. Our group was then led into hell where the boy who did not go to church went. It was a fiery, hot, loud place where people shouted, yelled, and were tortured. I have to admit it was uncomfortable watching it. Next we moved into heaven where the other boy was. It was pristine white, with angels, and anything and everything you ever wanted. Finally the story finished asking what would you choose. We were led into a room and asked if we had accepted Christ into our hearts. There were ministers standing by to recite words with you if you had not. I quickly moved on getting out of the place.
Throughout the whole production I found myself angry. I was upset because I felt like the whole event was used for scaring people into Christ. I had been taught that God was love. In my mind no one should ever have to come to God by way of fear. I realize this is a common practice among some churches which I do not agree with. Here is a similar story out of Relevant Magazine. I think many people have pushed away from religion because of these types of practices. Let's take a closer look at fear based practices, hell and how fear impacts us.
Fear Based Programs
Scared Straight and Boot Camp programs have been around for decades. They advertise getting kids to make better decisions so they do not end up as delinquents. However what most people do not know is that these programs are discouraged by the Juvenile Justice System and have been since the late 90's. If you don't believe me click here. These programs have been found to actually cause more harm than good leading to further trauma or more offending behavior. An important part of this is kids make decisions in the moment and in adolescence kids are at a low point in thinking about the consequences of their behavior.
Gehenna was a ravine outside of the southwest wall of Jerusalem. It's modern name is the Valley of Hinnom. In early days this was the place where the Kings of Judah sacrificed their children to fire causing it to be a cursed place. The commentary by William Barclay states, "When the valley had been so declared unclean and had been so desecrated it was set apart as the place where the refuse of Jerusalem was burned. The consequence was that it was a foul, unclean place, where loathsome worms bred on the refuse, and which smoked and smouldered at all times like some vast incinerator." This physical place became a symbol for "hell". Now some scholars do not agree with Barclay's suggestion of Gehenna, as a physical place. Explaining the differences in interpretation might come because the idea of Gehenna changed. It was specifically a place where physical bodies went to burn and through time changed to a place where souls went. So are Gehenna and Hell the same thing? Various theologians argue since there was a change in interpretation they have different understandings and hence are not the same. On the other hand there are theologians who think they are. Further exploration of the term is needed for you to identify what it is you believe. I would encourage you to look through other commentaries such as Moody's, Barclay's, etc. I think it is always important to use historical context when seeking understanding of scripture because it reshapes our thoughts. Exploration of terms which are sometimes messy, deepens our faith. However in today's society these messy terms are used inappropriately to produce fear instead of focusing on the gospel message.
No Fear in Love
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” 1 John 4:18
I have to ask isn't Jesus' story compelling enough? Isn't love the essence of Christianity. Jesus' showed perfect love to those around him. The compassionate love he shared captures and continues to capture people. It seems that scaring people into Christ doesn't really help them come to know love. Their decisions are based out of fear of what may potentially happen. Fear traps us into actions that we may not fully want to participate in, actions that do not really capture our hearts. This produces guilt, regret, and bitterness in our lives which can fester. Shouldn't love be what we lead with? Shouldn't love be our goal? Love does cast out fear!
Have you ever experienced a "Hell House"? How did you feel about it?
What experiences have you had with organizations instilling fear into others?
What do you think or believe about Hell?
When is a time love has overcome fear in your life?
I feel blessed for all those reading out there! This week contemplate how fear lives in your life and how you can use love to cast it out.
The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Community of Christ. We believe individuals should be allowed to have their own opinions and be at different places in their faith journey.