By Martyn Jones
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When beset with thoughts of death and oblivion, I sometimes find solace in online puzzle games. I believe I inherited this practice from my mother, a mahjong genius. The Friday night before a recent trip to Ohio, my reason for traveling had left me beset with thoughts of death and oblivion, so I opened my computer and tinkered with a couple of puzzles at my desk in the dark.
That night I didn’t sleep. After a few hours I watched the sky outside lighten as though I were hallucinating it. I got my things together and made it to my interstate bus. It rumbled to life and I blinked as Chicago turned and shrank behind a pane of rain-flecked glass.
In a haze, I drifted beneath the golden and blood-red leaves of so much autumnal flora and arrived in Cleveland. My friend Amanda found me at the terminal and ferried me to the house where I would be staying for the night. It stands in a forest on the far side of River Styx Road in Wadsworth, Ohio. Two hours after arriving there, I would be delivered unto Judgment.
Here in the pastured counties where distant kin spent their lives toiling to draw food from the earth that would later swallow them all, I had come for a preview of the reckoning. I was in Ohio for Judgement House.
. . .
Created in 1983 by Tom Hudgins, Judgement House is an outreach drama that some evangelical churches put on around Halloween. The main organization creates scripts, starter kits, promotional materials, and walkthrough videos for its covenant partners, and puts on training conferences that partner churches can send representatives to attend. Churches create the productions themselves using their Judgement House materials and training.
The Judgement House narrative varies by script, but every story involves a central character whose relationship status with the Lord is unambiguous from beginning to end, who evangelizes (or is evangelized by) other similarly unambiguous characters, and whose life is affected by at least one tragic and sudden event that introduces a body count. Deceased characters meet the Lord, who either welcomes them into heaven or condemns them to hell. There are no second chances for the posthumously repentant, and no admissions for the basically good folks who forgot to give their lives to Jesus before meeting him in person. At the end of the drama, attendees are brought to an invitation room, where they are given the chance to give their lives to Jesus before meeting him in person.
It’s easy to confuse Judgement House with the better-known Hell House, a similar production which ascended to notoriety after being featured in a 2001 documentary. Hell House is intent on scandalizing its visitors with scenes of depravity and violence, warming hearts with just enough fear to make them pliable during the concluding altar call. In the niche field of Christian alt-horror show attractions, Hell House’s brand has overpowered its competitors. It’s kind of like how every non-alcoholic, carbonated drink in the South is called a “coke.” The common assumption is that productions fitting the general description are all trying to play the same game.
The week before I traveled to Ohio I spoke with Sandra Hubbard, executive director of Judgement House. She claimed that scaring folks into the arms of Christ isn’t her organization’s jam at all. Judgement House’s PR situation has been complicated because many churches have started their own Judgement Houses without any involvement from her or her team, and many of their productions have gone off the rails by embracing scare tactics. Hubbard went on to tell me that Judgement House’s goal is simply to impress upon the audience the reality of death and judgment, and the need to make a choice about God given those realities.
After making this point, she then told me she no longer gives interviews since a number of people “saying they were Christians” had spoken to her and gone on to seriously misrepresent Judgement House in their work.
We ended the conversation on polite terms and hung up. Earlier in the day, I had already put my expectations about Judgement House on hold and gotten in touch with the church I was scheduled to visit about an interview.
. . .
He greets me by the registration table soon after I arrive and leads me back to his office. Unassuming and personable, Pastor Jeff shepherds the flock at Hope Community Church in Hudson, Ohio, where one of the state’s three official Judgement Houses for 2013 is in full swing. Each year between 5,000 and 6,000 people make their way through Hope Community’s production, which runs Friday through Sunday night during the last two weekends of October each year. This is the church’s 13th year of putting on a Judgement House, and each time they’ve used a different script. The theme for 2013 is “Unexpected.”
The most important function of Judgement House is to “bring to the forefront the reality of eternity,” as Pastor Jeff tells me, to drive home the idea that “the choices you make in this life, particularly with regards to Christ, affect eternal outcomes. This is not just some little play we do.”
It certainly isn’t. Hope Community spends about $10,000 on every Judgment House production. Each year a leadership team begins planning in January, enlisting the help of between 200 and 250 volunteers in August to start building sets and rehearsing parts for the October performances. It’s a major operation.
I asked him what sort of outcomes they hope for year to year. While bringing people to Christ is the goal, “at the end of the day we’re just happy to have conversations.” Hope Community doesn’t have a target number of commitments in view. “This is the heart of Judgement House for Hope Community Church,” Pastor Jeff says, “thousands of conversations about Jesus.”
What about critics who say you’re trying to scare people into faith? Pastor Jeff nods as I ask; it’s a question he’s anticipated. “We go out of our way to not scare people into faith.” He tells me that the creative team does its best to avoid “over-exemplifying hell” while still presenting the reality of it. “Christ talked about hell more than he did about heaven,” he says. Avoiding it entirely would be dishonest.
To sidestep the fear-based conversions problem, the wrap-up is also “very personal, very relational.” Groups of 30 who go through the performance together are broken up into groups of 5 for a debriefing session with a Hope Community “counselor” after the conclusion of the piece. Counselors receive about an hour and a half of training beforehand to prepare them for their conversations. There’s no pressure for a particular outcome, Pastor Jeff tells me, just a chance for everyone to talk out what they’ve just seen. Counselors also present an opportunity to respond to the Gospel, for those who have been so moved. “The Holy Spirit does that work,” he says, “we’re just communicating the message.”
I eye him across the room. He is wearing a large blue sweatshirt with JUDGEMENT HOUSE STAFF in white block letters on it.
“So you wouldn’t say you try to emotionally manipulate anyone into getting saved?”
In my sleepless delirium, apparently this question seems good, tough, and incisive.
“No, absolutely not.”
I don’t think about how slim the chances are of him responding “well, yes, actually, that is totally what we are trying to do.”
Talk turns to the portrayals of heaven and hell. “What does the imagery that you guys use in the heaven and hells scenes derive from?” Pastor Jeff nods. “That’s a very good question,” he says, “we’ve always struggled with this.”
This year, Hope Community decided to go for starker portrayals of eternal realities than they’ve done in the past. Pastor Jeff is fond of the elaborate staging of heaven as a bright, beautiful, and joyful place, but if you do too much, “it just starts to seems corny.” This year they’re taking a minimalist approach: A door opens, a light shines, God speaks. The one who’s made his peace with the Almighty walks into a happy eternity.
Hell receives a fuller treatment. “We draw from the classic scriptural images to create our vision of hell,” he says. That means darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, the desperation of the rich man and Lazarus. This year, a father is desperate to warn his family so that they don’t follow him when they go down to sheol. They’ve designed the scene to be affecting. “The hardest part of Judgement House,” Pastor Jeff says, “is wanting people to really feel, not just watch.”
We’re getting close to the time I’ve signed up for to go on my own tour. Any final thoughts? He nods. “Judgement House is a great tool for churches to use to reach people for the Gospel,” he says. “It’s also great for the church body. It’s that experience of synergy—everyone having a role to play together.”
It’s now half past eight, and I am due to stare into the abyss. Pastor Jeff walks me out.
. . .
Back at the registration table I meet up with my friend Amanda, Amanda’s boyfriend Matt, and my best friend Tim, who has driven out from D.C. to attend. We’re given purple wristbands and are told to assemble in an adjacent tent, the kind with the clear plastic windows made to imitate windows on a brick-and-mortar structure. Pastor Jeff walks over with us and buys us hot chocolates at the concessions stand before heading back inside the church. Amanda, Matt, Tim, and I sit down with the rest of Purple Group to wait for judgment.
Groups cycle through Hope Community’s Judgement House every nine minutes, so it’s not long before Sonya appears. She is Purple Group’s guide. After explaining how things are going to go down, she leads us through a double door into the church basement, where we enter a room marked “1.”
In order to build narrative productions that lots and lots of souls can cycle through, Judgement House splits its scripts into a series of self-enclosed scenes. Each one takes place in a different classroom. Characters remain the same throughout the story, but actors are confined to one room to play a single iteration of their character, so audiences see a new cast in each scene. Continuity comes about through explicit verbal cues and identical clothing items. To banish the very possibility of identity confusion, some churches go so far as to dress their actors in t-shirts emblazoned with the names of their characters. I find this practice delightfully Brechtian for how it does away with the suspension of disbelief that allows for empathetic connections with characters, instead inviting us to distantly consider the feats and foibles of a few archetypal figures.
In Purple Group’s first scene we meet Josh, a middle schooler who’s clearly distant from the Lord. The evil in his heart manifests in fits of pique and grumpiness, as it does for so many young teens. Josh’s friend Zachary appears on a mounted television when Josh powers it up to play against him online in basketball. I’m impressed with the technical aspect of this scene. Zachary’s prerecorded contributions to their dialogue are superimposed over video of NBA 2k13. The boys get to bantering, but the conversation takes a grave turn.
“I have brain cancer, dude,” Zachary says into his webcam.
“Sure, and I’m the captain of a spaceship,” Josh retorts.
The game ends and Josh sits on the floor, head in his hands. I hear a click behind me and turn to see Sonya beaming a pocket flashlight at a laminated notecard. Behind the group, she exposits the tumult in Josh’s heart as he begins to softly weep for his friend.
Call me a squish, but Josh’s grief sort of gets to me. “Is this how it’s going to be?” I think, “just a bunch of high-stakes emotions and then an altar call?” Fortunately for me, the feelings ratchet back down in room 2, where we find Zachary in a hospital bed during a visit from Josh and Josh’s mom. Josh is taller and leaner now, and his voice has dropped. Zachary is the same as before on account of having videoed in during the first scene. Josh’s mom sounds the same as she did before, but we never saw her. Now she’s offering her prayers to Zachary, to Josh’s embarrassment. “Will you chill out about that God stuff, mom?”
Zach’s okay with it though, and explains to Josh that the Good Book has come to mean a lot more to him since he became terminally ill a few seconds ago. In fact, he’s come to know Jesus personally. “Promise me, dude,” he intones, “promise me that when I’m gone, you’ll really take a look at this Jesus guy.”
“Sure thing,” says Josh.
A curtain closes across the hospital quadrant of the room, and a new one opens to reveal a casket surrounded by flowers. A large photo of Zachary sits on a tripod. Josh enters stage right and addresses the coffin. He reassures Zachary that he’s a new man after giving his life to the Lord. Sonya reiterates from the back of the room that Josh is a new man after giving his life to the Lord.
We shuffle out of room 2 and enter room 3. It’s a dorm room. Taylor, Josh’s sister, is annoyed with her roommate Ashley. Josh calls her via Skype and her annoyance shifts onto him.
Josh tells Taylor that he’s worried about their father, whom both siblings describe multiple times as being a good, hardworking family man. “Life keeps passing by and he just doesn’t want to talk about God,” Josh says.
A funny thing happens at this point. Taylor launches into a tirade about how “what’s true for you might not be true for me. Religion is personal and private,” and “at this school they’re teaching me to be tolerant. We need to do whatever it takes to stop offending people.”
Here we arrive at the truly Brechtian moment in the narrative, as Taylor abandons all semblance of individual identity and starts talking like a personified grab bag of ideas. Not one that likely has a real-world analogue, however—Taylor’s rant reflects one peculiar evangelical view of the liberal relativizers who threaten to brainwash our youth into becoming wanton accepters of gay teens and abortion doctors. Real humans don’t talk this way. Not even the liberal relativizers who want to brainwash our youth into becoming wanton accepters of gay teens and abortion doctors.
Josh courageously stands up for the truth. “You know there’s only one truth, Taylor.” Their Skype conversation concludes and Sonya again provides expository detail from behind our group. “Josh has experienced rejection at the hands of many of his friends and family…”
A note here about “cause” theater. I prefer my art to exist largely for its own sake, free from the driving force of an overt agenda, but I also understand that keeping Das Kapital on the director’s table can make for a legitimate approach to the stage. Bertolt Brecht, the playwright I’ve been mentioning, intentionally alienated his audience from his characters in a bid to spur social change. His goal was to force audiences to engage with his work on a conscious and reflective level instead of through their roiling emotions. Sometimes he would have actors put white powder on their faces to signify fright without changing their flat line deliveries. Whatever helps the ideas to come through the clearest.
This comes at a cost. Many of the problems with Hope Community’s Judgement House production are simply those that attend to “cause” theater. (Those problems are in turn compounded by the fact that Hope Community doesn’t go the “cause” route full-bore; Pastor Jeff’s hope for people to really feel what’s happening cuts directly against the true nature of his church’s production.) But really, at the end of the day Judgement House isn’t even a play exactly, is it? It’s a presentation of the Gospel—or a call to action regarding the Gospel—dressed up in the guise of a play. And this, ultimately, is the key to why Judgement House does not, and cannot, succeed as theater: The “theater” aspect is ultimately incidental to it.
Back in Hudson, our group migrates into room 4. It’s dark. To our left sits a car with working headlights. Josh and his father are inside, and the radio is broadcasting an Ohio State football game.
Josh brings up his upcoming baptism and how he’d like for his father to attend. His dad reluctantly agrees to come, but makes clear no fewer than three times the measure of his disbelief.
“You know I don’t believe any of that is real… Religion makes you look stupid and weak!”
“But dad, it’s not about all that,” Josh plaintively replies, “It’s about Jesus!”
There are shouts of surprise and a mighty crash, and the stage goes black.
A door opens in the dark. A light refracts through a turning crystal, sending dozens of individual beams into our room. They catch wafts of smoke and throw Josh’s shadow behind him as he approaches the door. It is a very pretty sight.
“Joshua,” says the sonorous voice of God. After a short conversation with the voice, a humble and shocked Joshua enters the kingdom.
Josh’s father stumbles into the light, clutching his arm.
“Who are you?” he snaps. God explains that He Is That He Is. Josh’s dad responds “I’m getting tired of your mouth” and demands to know what the Lord’s deal is. God reveals to Josh’s dad that he has surrounded him with love “since you were born on November 5, 1968.”
Josh’s dad falls to his knees and repents, but God rejects him and closes the door.
A curtain to our right slides open. Red light irradiates two people chained to the wall. Smoke swirls all around. A hooded figure seizes Josh’s father, leads him down the wall, and shackles him to it. “This is real?” the father cries. I chuckle at his intonation but can feel my anxiety climbing. The figures alongside him moan and pull at their chains.
Sonya opens another door, the one that leads back into the hallway, and calls out to us to follow her. Purple Group moves to leave but gets caught in the bottleneck next to Josh’s father. He calls to us as we pass him, “Please warn my daughter! Hey, I know you! And you know me!”
In the hallway outside we reassemble. “Haha, I wasn’t even scared,” a child says, clutching her older brother’s hand. Sonya surveys us impassively. She turns to a laminated notecard, offers some exposition, and continues walking. In this way we pass through hell.
. . .
She now leads us through a hallway where we encounter people at intervals reading scripture. “Believe in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” Some of the verses are too long to catch in full.
We climb stairs and enter a large carpeted room through double doors. Cloth dividers mark off three main troughs, and each trough contains perhaps six groups of chairs clustered around table lamps. It is here that Sonya takes her leave of us. Purple Group breaks into smaller groups. My three companions and I take seats around one lamp. A boy sits with us. Our counselor looks at all of us.
Bald and dressed in olive green clothes, Rich has an old-timey pugilist’s face and a gentle, slow voice. He opens up the conversation by asking for all of our names, which he begins committing to memory through repetition. I always appreciate a person’s effort to learn names. After identifying each of us out loud a couple times, Rich looks around the circle, and opens up our conversation. “So, what did you like or hate out of what you just saw?”
Rich is my beautiful enemy.
Rich calls on me to be the first to offer my thoughts. I look at him, look to the side, and look at him again.
“I, um, actually appreciated the depiction of heaven? I’m used to heaven being depicted in church things as a big white room that’s like, festooned, with like, cotton balls and glitter and stuff, and I don’t like that so much.”
My neck feels hot and itchy. Rich nods at my answer and turns to Amanda. I don’t remember what she said she liked. I do remember that not-a-one of the five of us sitting in that circle with Rich offered a single criticism of what we had just seen.
Rich then asks us to return to the scene in the car, which a number of us had mentioned liking for one reason or another. “So if you were before God for judgment, what would you say is the reason you should be admitted into heaven?” he asks.
Indeed, what would I say? Rich begins on the other side of our circle with RJ, who at first says he doesn’t really know, but recovers with something mumbled about Jesus. Rich then calls on us in reverse order from last time. Halfway around the circle, my friend Tim answers well: “I’ve got nothing but need, really.” I feel a little acid burn in my midsection as I say something about being “covered in the blood of Jesus.” In my defense, it seems like an efficient use of words to get out of the hot-seat at the time. And I do believe it. It’s just never felt so false in my own mouth before.
Rich is my enemy because Rich is familiar as family. I grew up in a midwestern evangelical church under the leadership of my father. He preached in the same denomination as Hope Community Church. Rich is someone I’ve met twenty times in twenty churches, and I’ve never not liked him. He is kind, he is sincere, and he loves the Lord. Rich’s faith is unimpeachable to me. In our post-judgment circle, Rich tells us about sending letters to his father-in-law because he loves him and wants him to be saved. His father-in-law burns the letters. Rich keeps writing them. Purity of heart is to will one thing.
After surmising that each of us is a believer, Rich asks, “How freely do you share Christ with others?” If we aren’t new candidates for salvation we might still be backslidden, or just shy about the Lord. Rich looks left and right for an answerer, says he is going to mix up the order, and instead picks RJ again. RJ doesn’t often share the Lord with his friends. None of us really does except Matt, who is involved with a Christian organization at his university.
Rich comes around to me again. “Well, my friends all know that I am a Christian, but we don’t often talk about my faith in terms of death and judgment. We do sometimes have conversations about first principles and what counts as sufficient explanation, that sort of thing.” This is probably my most honest moment of the night. Rich nods at me. “Okay,” he says. When he smiles, the lines deepen around his eyes. When he reassumes a neutral expression the lines are still faintly there.
Rich is the sort of person I love seeing at church. He has a solid presence; his aura calms me down and reminds me that there are still those who, by God’s grace, are steadfast in their faith. My own faith is bored, inconstant, and anxious next to his. But Rich, Hope Community, and Judgement House are wrong about the merits of what they are doing, their sincerity and earnestness in their pursuit of God’s will for humanity notwithstanding. Rich is my beautiful enemy because discerning in him a true heart for God makes me want to give up all my criticisms. If he’s here doing this, there must be something to it.
Rich mentions that “a recommitment is also an option” if we need to come back to God. As the conversation winds down he hands out comment cards on miniature clipboards for us to fill out. In one box there are four options: one to indicate that you gave your life to God, one to indicate that you recommitted your life to God, one to indicate that you committed to witnessing to at least one friend by Christmas this year, and one to indicate “other.” Tim later would tell me that, in a spirit of mischief, he marked “other” and wrote “I lost my faith a little bit tonight.” He didn’t realize that Rich was going to read each one on the spot. He stared as Rich studied his card. Rich didn’t look up.
There is a space at the bottom of each card for prayer requests. Rich collects our cards and invites us to bow our heads in prayer. I bow my head but keep my eyes half open. Rich leans into the circle and prays for our requests out loud, squinting down at the cards where they are written. Then, eyes closed, he remembers each of our names—“Lord, I’m so thankful for Marty, and for Amanda, and for Tim and Matt and RJ, Lord”—and accents each name with a chopping gesture in the direction of the person.
Rich’s heart for the Lord looms in the face of my critical spirit.
Pastor Jeff told me during our interview that thirteen years ago, a young woman gave her life to Jesus at Hope Community’s first Judgement House. The next year, she brought her father. He said “I’m not ready” to commit, but by Easter he was a born-again believer. That fall, the father and daughter brought the other daughter, and she also converted. A whole family came into the church by way of Judgement House, and stayed there.
This sort of anecdote can bolster a leader’s belief in the value and effectiveness of the program, but it leaves out a lot that’s important. What about those who cycle through Judgement House and feel totally alienated from the Gospel message and the church? How could we keep track of how many people leave their debriefing circle having “lost their faith a little bit,” but who perhaps remained reticent for fear of upsetting the group—for fear of upsetting Rich?
Pastor Jeff spoke some sound theology when he gave the Holy Spirit credit for moving people’s hearts and ascribed to humans a simple responsibility to proclaim the Gospel message. This is true, good, and beautiful, but can justify an approach to evangelism that isn’t. If I manufactured urinal cakes with “John 3:16” inscribed on them in dissolvable cerulean blue, chances are that someone, somewhere, would look up the verse after seeing it there and fall to pieces over the love of God for him, a sinner. But is that enough to justify the method? Judgement House is certainly nothing like a urinal cake. But I’m not convinced that even a compelling testimony is automatically sufficient to justify its approach to evangelism.
For believers who attend, Judgement House offers preparation for conversations they will never have. Taylor and Josh are not real humans speaking with one another about ultimate realities. Taylor and Josh are a straw-man and a worldview placed in imagined confrontation. If Christians keep contributing to this feedback loop of assumptions about the beliefs of those who are distant from the house of God, Christians will continue to find ourselves entering monologues instead of dialogues, repeating the act of compressing our interlocutors into our interpretive grids and failing to hear them when they say what we don’t expect them to.
There’s got to be a better way to bring the church together and reach out to a surrounding community than this. But that’s as substantial a point as I feel justified in making. At grips with Rich’s heart for God, Pastor Jeff’s belief in the importance of their message, and the family that now sits in his pews as a result of Judgement House, I begin to have doubts about my doubts. It’s hard to feel as though you have a leg to stand on when criticizing a church practice, when you are only privy to the measure of darkness in your own heart.
Rich’s final prayer is for Tim’s request. He prays for me to find my purpose for the piece I am writing, and to be bold in saying the truth.
With Rich’s “Amen” we are free to return to the lobby, where there are t-shirts for sale. We walk by a white painted cross that appears to have been strafed with thumb tacks. The tacks affix small slips of paper to the cross. There is a name on each slip of paper. I realize that they are likely the names of those who have come to faith so far this weekend.
Pastor Jeff finds me to say goodbye and shakes my hand warmly. I catch Sonya between rooms and verify the spelling of her name. When I tell her it’s for something I’m writing, she smiles and says “God bless you. Have a good night.”
Tim finds me in the lobby. “I don’t envy you,” he says. A few more pictures, and we leave.
Martyn Jones is a Chicago-area writer with abiding interests in phenomenology, reformed theology, and contemporary fiction. Since graduating from Wheaton College in 2010, he has worked for Apple, written for Groupon, and received his M.A. in philosophy from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. Marty writes sporadically for supercurriculum.blogspot.com, and you can follow him on Twitter: @martynwendell.
Photos by Matt Erickson.