I saw the documentary for Hell House last year and I was fascinated by the idea of it. I had never been to one before and it looked like a bizarre experience. So when a member of my Meetup group said that there was a similarly themed Judgment House in our area, we set off for Chesapeake on a Saturday night. What followed was part play, part hysteria, and all religious weirdness at its best.
During the actual event, I wasn’t allowed to take photos. Unfortunately. So when I describe something strange, just believe me. I promise, it really happened. We started off the evening as 7 skeptics with various backgrounds. Some of us were raised religious, others weren’t. One of our members, Liz, had gone to a Hell House as a child.
Once we got to the church and were asked to fill out cards with our information. Knowing that I would probably end up on a mailing list, I filled it out and completed the section on the back about why I came there for by assuring them that I was still going to be an atheist on my way out. Provided something miraculous didn’t happen, I was pretty certain that this wouldn’t change my mind about my religious views. But honestly, I’ve been doing so many religious things lately that I just wasn’t optimistic about this entire experience saving my soul.
When we got into the stairwell, we were told that the storyline all revolved around one family. The Endicott family was composed of a stay-at-home mother, Carol. Dad, teenagers, Abby and Jason, as well as youngest daughter, Lily. Our guides described them as a normal family, but missing something in their lives. Spoiler alert: It was Jesus.
Our first view into their lives started at breakfast. The actors all talked about their day. Jason has football practice, Abby is going to her friend Sara’s drama club, dad is going on a business trip, mom is going to work at the soup kitchen before picking everyone up. Standard family talk over breakfast. Before they finish breakfast, they decide to end their day with mom, Sara, Abby, Jason and Lily having dinner at the new sidewalk cafe. The scene is then over and we moved to the next room.
The second scene is Sara and Abby at the drama club. It’s a church drama club and the kids are putting a play on about getting right with Jesus. They present the ABCs of salvation. A is Admit that you’re a sinner and you’ve fallen short of god’s grace. B is Believe in Jesus as your personal lord and savior. C is Choose to follow him. Abby, who apparently lives under a rock and not in America, hears about god and salvation for the very first time and the wheels start turning.
The third scene is at Jason’s football practice where Abby and Sara sit and wait for him to finish. While they’re on the bleachers, Abby asks her friend some questions about Jesus and her relationship with him. Abby then decides that she wants Jesus to be her friend forever too. Just like the kids at the drama club were talking about. The young woman then prays and accepts Jesus into her heart. Glory!
Jason, finished with practice, comes over and asks the girls what they’re doing. Abby tells her brother about Jesus and his love for everyone and Jason is a little skeptical, but seems to be interested in hearing more. Just then Carol arrives to take all of the kids to dinner. Abby happily tells her mother that she just got a new god and Carol’s reaction is a slightly stunned, “Oh, that’s interesting.” Off they go to dinner.
At the sidewalk cafe, tragedy strikes! A 16-year-old girl, that was texting while driving, loses control of her car and it goes over the curb and crashes into the family. Carol, Sara, Abby, and a waiter named Greg are all killed. Jason is thrown from the wreckage and has only minor injuries. Lily was in the bathroom at the time of the crash and comes out to see her mother and siblings on the ground. Cue lots of fake-looking wounds, hysterical screaming and bad acting.
A police officer is first to arrive at the scene. For this section, the uniform and gear that the officer was wearing looked a little too realistic. He also sported a Virginia patch on his shoulder, which looked official. I’m not sure if this was a real uniform or not, but it looked entirely too good for such a simple production. Anyway, he interviews the teenage driver who insists that this wasn’t supposed to happen. The paramedics then arrive and take Jason off to treat him for his wounds. It’s too late for everyone else.
After the first three completely placid, rather boring scenes, it’s jarring to go to all of the screaming and hysterics. But that’s the point. It’s supposed to make you uneasy. Another way this is accomplished is by cramming far too many people into a room and causing everyone to intrude on other’s personal space and have their personal space intruded upon. The rooms became hot, stuffy, and you started to become intimately acquainted with whatever scents people were wearing or not wearing.
The next scene is at a funeral home. There are two coffins set out with fake flowers on them. People come and hug Jason and Dad and then leave the two there with some bearded creeper that just sat in a chair the entire time. Jason and Dad talk about their loss and what they’re going to do now. Dad mentions grief counseling, but that idea is passed off. You’re supposed to be thinking that these two need Jesus now, not some mortal counselor.
Jason starts asking big questions about death and why this happened to his family. Dad can’t answer any of his questions. The entire idea here is that secular families have no way of coping with loss or grief because they don’t have religion. But in reality, there are scores of organizations that can help them through this time. But no one mentions that. The only answer to any question posed here is supposed to be Jesus.
Next, we see the judgement. We filed into another small room and saw an older white man sitting on a throne. We later find out that Jesus is also an older white man. Of course.
Anyway, Sara is called up first. Her name is written in the Book of Life. I don’t remember ever hearing of this book in my religious upbringing. But I double checked with my Catholic parents and apparently I just wasn’t paying attention that day in CCD.
God welcomes Sara into the kingdom of heaven and she’s overjoyed about everything. The fact that she died as a teenager and will never see her friends, family or anyone else on earth again doesn’t seem to bother her. She’s chilling with Jesus and it’s all good. Abby goes right into heaven as well. Her conversion on the football field saved her skinny ass from eternal damnation and without a single thought to anyone or anything else, she goes into heaven to join Sara.
Then Carol is called up. Carol tells god that she’s excited to be here and can’t wait to join the girls in heaven. But her name isn’t written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. Carol protests. She says that she lived a good life, she was a good mother, wife, and even volunteered at the soup kitchen. But god tells her that that’s not enough. Without accepting him as her lord, nothing she did on earth matter.
He even goes as far to tell Carol that she did the right thing because it was the right thing, not to glorify him. Which is supposed to leave the viewer thinking that nothing matters in life by god. Not even doing the right thing. Which is total bullshit.
Then the devil appears. He’s dressed in a black suit with a red tie and the man they had playing him was so handsome I gladly would have walked into hell with him. No kidding, he was seriously cute. Anyway, the devil drags Carol to hell through a set of double doors to the left of the throne where she will spend eternity with everyone else who did good things because they were good people.
Then Greg, the waiter that died in the crash with the family, is called up. He was 18 and hadn’t made a decision about god or Jesus in his lifetime. His name is not written in the Book either. He argues that he wasn’t supposed to die this early and he should be given another chance to think about it. But it’s too late. God tells him that not making a decision is making a decision.
Greg is also dragged to hell. Then god addresses us. He makes it very clear that he accepts no excuses. You either commit yourself to him or you go with the handsome devil. Which, in my opinion, wasn’t much of a choice. Then he calls out our names and asks us to step forward as if we’re going to be judged. I stepped forward when my name was called. Some of the others in my group didn’t. Anthony politely said, “No, thank you” when his name was called only to have god stare daggers at him.
At the end of our group’s roster, he called out Ezekiel. I laughed as I knew that this was Aiden, who didn’t want to give his real information on the comment cards. Aiden told me later that the full name he had filled out was Ezekiel B. Elzabub.
Next we went to hell. Kind of. We were brought into a completely darkened room. There was only light from the dimly-lit hallway spilling in and I probably accidentally felt a few people up while trying to get into place. When the door was shut, a red light came on and illuminated the actor’s face and there was the devil. But it was a different actor and he wasn’t nearly as hot.
The devil spoke to us about how we could chose to believe that all of this was a fairytale and none of it was real, but that once we died, we would know the fiery agony of hell. He used a voice modulator to make himself sound more threatening, but really, this hell-fire talk wasn’t anything that I hadn’t heard before. The devil ended his speech by asking us if we wanted to take the chance of ending up in hell. Then the lights came on, revealing all of the kids and adult actors on the floor screaming in agony and pleading with us not to make the same mistake that they did.
Seeing that many people being so hysterical is more than a little unsettling. But really, I had just been to Howl-O-Scream a few months previously, and as easily as I startle, I did just fine. But what the devil was telling us was really just Pascal’s Wager. I’ve already outlined the problems I find in that, but I was wondering when we would hear something new. Just one new reason why we should convert instead of all of the same nonsense we’ve already heard.
Next stop was heaven. We were all given white pieces of fabric to put around our necks. Aiden tied his into a half-windsor knot. Then we entered a room that was covered in white plastic. It looked a lot like a Dexter kill floor, to be honest. In heaven an older white man sat on the throne with drawn in stigmata. Around him were men in goofy angel costumes with fake swords. People all dressed in white came out to flank the angels and lipsync a Christian rock song. There are few things in the world that I hate more than Christian rock music.
Jesus then went around to each person and welcomed them to heaven, telling them that it was good to see them. This is when I noticed that the man standing next to me was crying. Jesus shook my hand and welcomed me and I just smiled and nodded. Then he told us about how great heaven was and how we were welcomed there if only we accepted him into our hearts. Then Abby and Sara came up and Jesus greeted them. The girls thanked him for dying for their sins and, without a care, took their places beside him on his throne. On our way out, a woman holding the door offered us tissues.
Finally, we were taken to a small room and had a man with a Bible talk to us about what we just saw. He reiterated that we would all burn in hell if we didn’t become Christian and said a prayer about accepting Jesus as your lord and savior, encouraging people to say it in their minds along with him. Then he took those people who said the prayer and weren’t already saved out of the room and asked the rest of us if we wanted anyone to pray with us or counsel us.
One woman said that she just wanted to experience more of god, whatever that means, and he encouraged her to pray and read her Bible. The rest of us were then free to go. As we left we had the option of taking literature swag bags. I took one as I am total whore for any kind of swag bag. Inside was information on the church and their functions, service and event schedules, and a fold out pamphlet with entirely too much writing on it.
After we finished, an hour and a half from when our journey started, we all went out for dinner at the Wing King down the street. In my group of skeptics, no one felt moved or wanted to dedicate their lives to Jesus. We saw this for what it was; a trumped up scare tactic best used on those who were already predisposed to religion and never taught critical thinking.
A lot of people ask me why I go to religious things such as this when I’m an atheist and the answer is simple: I’m looking for evidence. If I just declared myself an atheist and never had anything to do with religion every again, I might miss some new piece of information or facts or reasoning that I hadn’t heard before. I am open to having my religious views changed.
But it’s got to be for something better than the fire and brimstone bullshit that I saw at Judgement House. Personally, I think I lead a good life and do good deeds because it’s the right thing to do. If that’s not good enough for a god, then that god is not good enough for me. If I die and come to judgement before a deity only to have them tell me that I didn’t worship him and fall on my knees for him enough, I would proudly walk into hell. I’m a good person because I am a good person. Not because I’m trying to impress a jealous celestial ruler that is responsible for genocide.
Read excerpt 1, Girls, R U Dateable? Probably Not
Read excerpt 2, The Cult of Suffering
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