Sympathy for the devilish

The day after Thanksgiving, I was walking around a track, listening to an episode of This American Life. It was broadcast a couple of weeks ago and one of the stories considered a “haunted house” put on by a Texas church called “Hellhouse.” The house features real-life horrors, including abortion, suicide, and, in possibly its most famous set, a version of the Columbine massacre. Over the course of that scene, a teenage girl confesses her newfound Christian faith, then two kids with guns run in, terrorize everyone, grab her, ask her if she believes in God, kill her when she answers affirmitively, and then kill themselves, egged on by the demons that walk around whispering to them. At that point, an angel shows up to take the girl to heaven and the two boys are dragged kicking and screaming off to hell.

When the story reached that point, I was stunned. The whole concept is strange enough, but I had a particularly strong reaction to those boys being dragged off to hell. I don’t have a particular interest in Columbine or its perpetrators; nor do I think that Dylan Klebold or Eric Harris are innocents in any form. But, for some reason, I had a strong visceral reaction to their being dragged off to hell. It made me very angry (angrier, I admit, than I’ve ever been about the actual events of the Columbine massacre). How dare these folks presume to judge those boys!

Of course, it’s easy to judge them. They killed a lot of people for no discernible reason. These aren’t acts to be lauded. They callously took lives, apparently for their own amusement, and the only reason that they didn’t kill more was poor explosives design. Like Hitler, we can feel comfortable and confident that they are, in the eternal sense, getting what is coming to them. And yet, I was (and am) clearly uncomfortable with their getting what is coming to them in hell.

I can’t say that I’ve always been this way. Just after 9/11, I read this famous Onion article well great relish (warning: could be very, very offensive). Clearly, I wasn’t filled with compassion then. So what is the deal, now? Why did their being dragged off hit me like a punch in the gut? This post is me trying to figure it out.

While I am not always convinced that human justice is efficacious, it, at least, always has an end. Evangelical notions of hell do not. Lacking D&C 19, eternal and endless mean only that it goes on and on and on ad infinitum. However, our notion of hell is equally unending. Whether you put the Columbine shooters into Outer Darkness or the Telestial Kingdom, they are both functionally cut off from God and, if it is correct to believe that there is no movement between the kingdoms, that is how they will remain. It just seems like such a waste.

In any case, what really offended me about Hellhouse was the presumption, obvious as it was, that these killers deserved eternal punishment (in the non-D&C 19 sense). While we are often justified in the punishments we meet out on earth, who are we to declare what God will do with a soul after this life? We are often told that God’s mercy will surprise us; will that be a disappointment? If God did find it in his heart to forgive the Columbine Shooters after some post-mortality repentance, would our response be to follow his lead or point out the injustice of it all to those who were hurt? Would those hurt even care after their death?

At the same time, for God to simply ignore or forgive human suffering seems arbitrary and sadistic. Dostoevsky considers the inhumanity of man in The Brothers Karamazov. He tells the story of a cruel lord who sics his fierce dogs on a naked young boy because of a minor trespass. The lord forces the mother to watch her own son be torn apart by dogs. Ivan, the teller of this tale, then moves forward to the judgment, where, some may argue, the love of God will fill all and we will embrace even those who persecuted and spitefully used us. Ivan suggests that for the mother to embrace her son’s killer in love is to render the pain and suffering of the son meaningless. Why allow human cruelty and frailty if God really is going to make it all better in the end? What lesson would be learned?

I suppose, in the end, I respect God’s ability to make these decisions. I suspect that he is just and that he is merciful and that if I don’t see it, it’s my fault (or my inadequacies). However, the cause of my reaction seems simply to be that I don’t trust the pastors at Hellhouse to make that decision. Luckily enough, I doubt that they will.


  1. This kind of thing makes me angry too. The whole idea of God literally torturing someone forever, with no end ever, just repulses me. In this case they are predicting this fate for murderers, but they also predict it for good people who do not happen to share their religious beliefs. What a horrible vision of god. I feel that I can tolerate and appreciate different religious ideas, but this is just an evil doctrine. It turns God into a monster.

  2. I heard that story on TAL, and had to turn the station a few times because the description of the entire “Hell House” concept was so repulsive to me. The audio reenactment of the “Columbine” scene was particularly disturbing. George Ratliff got it right when he said something to the effect of “Hell House’s purpose is to put the fear of God into teenagers”. Perhaps this is part of the revulsion I felt–it seems completely antithetical to Jesus’ message, and a poor motivator or deterrent for teenagers and young adults who deserve so much more from religion.

  3. My husband and I listened to the episode on TAL, then rented the documentary from the library. It was really interesting, but we felt the same way about how strange it is to immediately assume someone is going to be dragged off to hell. Like the girl who is drugged and gang raped in once scene, then commits suicide. Well it’s her fault, they say, for going to the rave in the first place. I agree–there was too much fear of a merciless god. I respect these people’s beliefs and their desire to share them, but I prefer to believe in a just and loving God who will show mercy, even to those who have never heard of Christianity or have been “saved” by accepting Jesus.

  4. We saw that documentary a few years back, and it’s horrifying. But then again, it’s not that different from the vultures eating liver and onions forever compliments of Prometheus, or the fascinating tortures of Greek hell.

    Maybe we finally have evidence that ultra-nutty evangelicals are actually Pagan. (note that by reference to “ultra-nutty” I am excluding the non-ultra-nutty evangelicals).

  5. Whew. That scene in Brothers Karamazov was super intense. Definitely the question that stuck with me the longest after reading it.

    But is there some truth to that notion? As I remember it, there is an argument that the little peasant boy should forgive the cruel landlord, but that the mother has an obligation to NOT forgive him. She can forgive him for the pain he caused her, but she should not forgive him for the pain he caused her son.

    We are to forgive those who hurt us, yes. But does our love/connection to others obligate us to hold a grudge on their behalf? Can we be pissed off on their behalf without holding a grudge?

  6. I too saw the Hell House documentary when it came out years ago at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. As I remember religion played a bit part in it: the central themes are class, education, and the vulnerability of those recovering from abuse or misfortune.

    The starkly binary beliefs expressed by the participants were not shocking in their extremism but in their simplicity: all or nothing, good or evil, saint or sinner. There are no shades of gray. Though superstition inspired them to paint as set dressing a satanic “pentagram” on the wall (in white spray paint, red paint might have summoned the devil for real), it was willful ignorance that made them draw not a 5-pointed pentagram but a 6-pointed Star of David. It would have been cleverly anti-Semitic to have done this intentionally, but the more probably explanation is the lack of Greek number prefixes in their primary school curriculum.

    The documentary does show a frightening truth, not of God or Satan, but of the inevitably central role that folk-religion plays among the credulous, undereducated, and culturally isolated.

    My idea of Hell is an eternity of mindless mediocrity with narry a book to read, the incessant prattle of the ignorant ringing in my ears. Strange that others seem content to live this hell while still on earth.

  7. I don’t have a problem with teenage serial murderers being dragged off to hell.

    But the question of God setting up a system where immortal souls/bodies are tortured forever and ever without end – that definitely comes across as unjust and sadistic.

    Considering God’s ability to comfort and heal victims and His ability to calculate and administer appropriate punishment – with eternity to work with – there should be an end to punishment at some point.

    Just the same, the Onion article was a delightful read. Thanks for the link.

  8. What a horrible thing these creedal Christian pastors are doing — it sounds truly aweful, manipulative, untruthful, reductive and banal, not to mention extremely distasteful.

  9. 8–are you cross-posting from an EFY thread?

  10. Not that I know of but put one up and we’ll see.

  11. Just teasing. I feel honor-bound to confess that I was an EFY speaker for precisely one “camp.” Let’s just say the match was imperfect, and at least it’s not quite as nauseatingly harsh as these hellhouses.

  12. Stephanie says:

    Um, wow, the whole thing sounds very disturbing.

  13. Reminds me: “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.” D&C 64:10

  14. I’ve heard of this Hellhouse before, and find the concept offensive. It’s the binary absolutism that bothers me; no subtlety, nothing to take into account any other factors that might shade the stark black/white right/wrong of their world view with any gray hues.

    This Calvinist take on theology is what condemns millions, who through “accident of birth” do not hear or know of Christ as Redeemer, to an eternity of Hell. But then, the Calvinists don’t believe in accidents of birth, I suppose, so it’s all figured out from the beginning as to who gets saved, and who goes to hell. Why, then, are they so bent on trying to spread this message, if it’s already all worked out?

    We’ve all suffered from some shock this last week due to the police killings here in the Seattle area. But even as I recognize the evil in someone who will shoot four police officers in cold blood, I certainly also recognize that I am not the final judge in these matters, and who knows what sort of environmental and genetic factors went into a process that would twist someone to the extent that they would commit a crime like this, or the Columbine shootings? The reasons for D&C 19’s “Eternal and Endless punishment” is to allow for sorting out of ultimate justice and ultimate mercy.

  15. Does it bother anyone that current reseach on Columbine suggests that the girl confessing God and being killed did not happen?I don’t have access to the reference right now.

  16. smb,
    After reading this post, I was sore tempted to bring up EFY, but hesitated. In that hesitation, I lost out to you again.

    In any case, I do find the emotional manipulation –> coerced testimony approach to be utterly deplorable, be it in this Hell House format, or in one laced with Michael Mclean music. I know many people have had wonderful experiences at such camps, and should not discount them, but I do…

  17. Wow, I’m glad I missed that episode of TAL… I really find that sort of thing disturbing.

    My question has to do with asking if there is no movement between kingdoms? Is that popular church doctrine? I don’t remember if this is what I was taught, or simply what I believe, but I’ve always assumed that part of an eternal progression included moving “up” in kingdoms to become closer to God. Am I in the minority view on that one?

    I don’t know that I could judge anyone for not being able to forgive another person when examples like the brothers karamazov are used, but I hope I would be able to. I wouldn’t want to live with the burden of still carrying that kind of hate. But it seems to me that part of forgiveness means that you stop expecting or demanding retribution. It seems wrong to me, for example, when my mother talks about my abusive father in the tone of “I can put up with it because I know God will *really* punish him for it.” That just feels wrong to me… (well, for a lot of reasons, but also because wanting someone else’s punishment seems kind of hateful to me.)

  18. How can we know that Hitler is comfortable in knowing that Klebold and Harris will get what they deserve? Wouldn’t that require that he also is comfortable in knowing that he’s getting what he deserves? At what point does he get over being so evil that he accepts his punishment as just?

  19. I’m reading this post while sitting in the courthouse waiting room serving on jury duty. And all day I’ve been thinking about what a terrible juror I’d be, mostly because I feel the way you do, John C. Determining guilt, fault, and appropriate punishment is a terrifying prospect, even in the case of homicidal teenagers.

  20. Personally, I have a lot of problems with Hellhouse, but none with with teens being dragged off to hell. I personally feel I have had a taste of hell now and again for things I’ve regretted, and I can’t fathom doing something so horrific and not suffering horribly for it. This doesn’t come from my sense of justice. I think it simply happens because the divine and the obscene can’t co-exist in the soul without great pain. Sure, one or the other can be repressed or minimized for a while, but eventually it’ll re-assert itself. The obscene can be cast out through the atonement of Christ, but I don’t think the divine can be completely cast out. Thus, those who nurture the obscene are doomed to suffer horribly. Not necessarily eternally (thank God), but horribly.

    And that’s part of why Hellhouse is so wrong. Those teens are being exposed to the obscene, presumably to innoculate them, but I don’t think it’s good. The TAL story talks about how all the teen actors want to be the bad guys and how they have their little Oscar award show afterwards and give awards to the best shooter, the best rape victim, etc.. I know I’m a goody-two-shoes, but I just don’t think it’s good to teach teens to comfortably accommodate the obscene in their psyches that way. Scenes like they were acting out are horrific, and feelings of excitement and jubilation shouldn’t be juxtaposed with them.

    With respect to a judgmental God: as a firm believer in the BOM, one of the most disturbing scriptures for me is Alma 14:11. Alma and Amulek are being forced to watch the destruction of the believers (most likely including Amulek’s family), and Amulek wants to invoke the power of God in their preservation, but Alma says “The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day”

  21. Terrakota says:

    Alma 14:11 is very disturbing to me, too. Is it why God does allow such horrible things to happen to good people, especially to innocent children? So that those who kill will not feel that they are being treated unjustly at the end? Seems like a very big price. Though who am I to judge, of course?

    We are often told that God’s mercy will surprise us
    Thank you for telling. I haven’t heard it in a long time. Somehow it’s always about the narrow path, ten virgins, and fairness.

    Though even people are capable of genuine mercy. We had a missionary killed in a car accident through the fault of the taxi driver. Missionary’s parents said that they will do everything in their power so that the driver will not be imprisoned, but will remain with his wife and children.

  22. twitterpated says:

    While it’s true that only Jesus Christ, the Judge of Heaven and Earth, can determine whether someone has sufficiently repented to merit mercy, I don’t at all object to the media portraying a cold-blooded murderer being dragged off to hell. Too often, the media portray wickedness as rewarding.

    I haven’t heard Hellhouse, so I don’t know why it was offensive, but I have seen the movie Ghost, which portrays a murderer being dragged off by demons and being consigned to hell. Frankly, it was a scary scene, but I don’t think it’s half as scary as the real thing. In other words, I prefer Hollywood to portray hell as something to avoid rather than a fable told long ago.

    I agree with Martin. We have a divine spark that causes us to suffer when we embrace the obscene. And, frankly, I think there’s far too much of the obscene in today’s society.