Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
Every year Halloween comes on the calendar, Christians are faced once again with the decision of how they will respond. Will they celebrate the day or will they not? If they do, will they do so in an alternative way, e.g. harvest festival or Reformation day, or will they do so evangelistically?
Timothy George, in The Gospel of Ghoul, notes how Christians have used the day evangelistically. Prior to addressing this he states what he believes about hell.
I believe in hell. Not only the hell within, for there are those “private devils that hang like vampires on the soul,” to use the language of Thomas Merton—and not only the metaphorical hell around evident in war, violence, and destructive evil on a global scale—but also the hell to come. This orthodox Christian belief is firmly grounded in the teaching of Jesus, as well as in the inspired writings of the apostles. As Joseph Ratzinger said in a book on eschatology: “Dogma takes its stand on solid ground when it speaks of the existence of hell and of the eternity of its punishments.”
Using Lewis, George writes of two inappropriate responses to the doctrine of hell: disbelief and denial; an excessive and unhealthy interest.
C. S. Lewis famously described two equal and opposite errors into which people fall when thinking about things infernal. The first is disbelief and denial, a familiar pattern in forms of rationalist religion. The other is to cultivate “an excessive and unhealthy interest” in Satan and his pomp. The latter is on full display in what has become a thriving phenomenon within the subculture of American fundamentalist and evangelical churches: the seasonal appearance of a Halloween alternative known as Hell House or Judgment House.
Hell Houses, notes George, come in many variations. Primarily they follow the pattern of showing gruesome events and experiences of a person’s life revealing that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Following these events is a visit to hell. Finally, there is an opportunity to receive Jesus to save one from hell. This sort of outreach has become so large and popular there is a how-to kit for those who desire to use this evangelistic approach for Halloween.
As real as hell is, and as essential as it is to evangelize, for people to hear the gospel, being confronted with sin and implored to repent and place one’s faith in the Lord Jesus Christ for He is the exclusive way of and to salvation (Acts 4:12; Jn. 3:36; 5:12; 14:6; 1 Tim. 2:5), is this particular method appropriate? Is it reflective of the Bible’s teaching? Do the means matter as long as the gospel is presented and people are given an opportunity to repent, respond and receive Jesus? Is it truly reflective of the gospel?
The problem with this kind of approach to the afterlife is not that it says too much, but that it offers too little. It says what it does not know and thus falls prey to that most damning of theological temptations, what medieval scholars called vana curiositas. Theology should be done within the limits of revelation alone but what is shown in most modern-day Hell Houses is 90 percent speculation.
It may be that some young people will find their way to genuine faith through such ghoulish shenanigans, but their overall import is a distortion of the Gospel. Those who indulge in such displays are taking something serious, eternal, and consequential and treating it with a finesse of a butcher doing brain surgery. In the process, they trivialize evil and domesticate grace. I seriously doubt that the Old Fiend himself is much upset about how his wiles are portrayed in such faux-dramas. He knows that conversion without discipleship is not likely to be lasting or deep. He is well aware that evangelism as entertainment seldom, if ever, results in genuine repentance or transformation.
Thankfully, George concludes,
in the sending and self-sacrifice of his Son, God himself has absorbed not only the penalty of sin but also its eternal consequences, the “wailing and gnashing of teeth.” Jesus Christ has visited the original House of Hell, and this has rendered redundant all cheap imitations. As John Calvin said, “By his wrestling hand to hand with the devil’s power, with the dread of death, and with the pains of hell, Jesus Christ emerged victorious and triumphed over them, that in death we may not now fear those things which our Prince has swallowed up.
Paul reminds us of this incredible truth in 1 Corinthians 15:54b-58:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
On this day, celebrate Christ, His perfect fulfillment of the law, His triumph over death, and our victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. And grounded in these truths, abound in the work of the Lord!