Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Revisiting Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames

Last night, my best friend and I attended a performance of a traveling evangelistic drama called Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames, presented by Reality Outreach Ministries. As I expected, I was somewhat troubled by what I saw and heard there. The general premise is simple. The show opens with a dramatic portrayal of the crucifixion and resurrection. An actor portraying Jesus stumbles up the aisle toward the stage, lugging a cross. As crowds gather at the foot of the stage, jeering the Messiah, Romans whip and crucify Jesus while an actor portraying a maniacally cackling Satan (complete with three demonic minions) eggs them on, handing them various implements. The effect is enhanced by strobe lights and music, of course. After all but Jesus (crumpled on the ground) and Satan have departed, Satan prods the body of Jesus with glee and then exits stage right. (I should mention that stage left is decked out in purple and gold to signify the gates of heaven, whereas stage right is decorated in glittering red to represent hell.) A short time after Satan leaves, Jesus rises slowly to his feet and likewise exits stage right, implicitly for a Harrowing of Hell sequence. (Not exactly a customary feature of evangelical thought.) As triumphant music plays, Jesus shoves Satan down a flight of stairs, tramples him at center stage, snatches a set of keys from him, and then sends Satan running back to hell as Jesus triumphantly displays the keys to the audience. It was a somewhat debased Christus Victor atonement model, I realized as I watched.

The bulk of the rest of the show consists in a series of skits in which assorted groups of characters (both Christians and non-Christians) die sudden deaths and find themselves in a sort of antechamber, faced with a cohort of angels, one of whom stands stoically on a dais behind a pedestal holding the Book of Life. All characters plead with that angel to find their names written in the Book of Life; the non-Christian characters, of course, are considerably more perturbed and panicked than their Christian counterparts. When the names of Christian characters are located, the angel points toward stage left, the lights get very bright, and Jesus appears at the gate of heaven to welcome the exuberant Christians in. On the other hand, when the names of non-Christian characters are not located, the angel points toward stage right, the lights grow very dim, other angels cross swords to block the path to heaven, and Satan and his minions emerge from stage right to taunt, mock, and drag the victim off to the fiery blazes of hell.

This occupies the bulk of the experience. After the final skit, in which a middle-aged mother is dragged off to hell in front of her crying daughter's eyes but the very young daughter is welcomed (rather somberly, I might add) into heaven, the drama itself concludes. At that point last night, a representative from Reality Outreach Ministries appeared on stage to summon people to come forth for an altar call. After continual refrains of "one more, just one more", the crowd was led in a "sinner's prayer" to "accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior". These apparent new converts were told that this would free them from their problems - most notably, a destiny of hellfire, but also of, say, the need to take medication - and, as an almost offhand comment, it was mentioned that they ought to seek out a "Bible-believing Christian church", begin reading the Bible, and find a Bible study to join. (Not, of course, that the apparent new converts were given any counsel on, say, identifying a "Bible-believing Christian church"...) And that was it.

I scarcely know where to begin in listing my objections to the evangelistic methods here portrayed. First, I deem it noteworthy that all characters were apparently either white American suburban evangelical Protestants or white American suburban non-Christians, with no middle ground or additional categories. In particular, I don't think it unfair to say that all Christian characters portrayed could justly be classified as Fundamentalist Christians, though the characterization typically underdetermined that. There were no clear examples of Roman Catholic Christians, Orthodox Christians, devout mainline Protestant Christians, or even non-Fundamentalist Evangelical Christians. Furthermore, all characters - including ardent non-Christians, once they arrived before the angels - spoke the same idiosyncratic dialect of Christianese. I have seldom encountered a group of Christians whose dominant imagery is that of the Book of Life, but here it was portrayed as the universal Christian language, since even 'informed' non-Christians had to explain to fellow non-Christians about the Book of Life, and several Christian characters mentioned having heard recent sermons devoted to the Book of Life.

In keeping with this particularly Fundamentalist vision of Christianity, the portrayal of the 'world' tended to be one that plays specifically to American Fundamentalist perceptions of culture. The first skit portraying non-Christians was one that depicted a raucous party filled with debauchery, frenzied dancing, heavy drinking, and ultimately use of powerful illegal drugs obtained by two naive and apparently promiscuous girls from a sleazy drug dealer offering "salvation" in "little white packages". Because, as we all know, most non-Christians are quite prepared to snort unidentified powder given to them by a complete stranger... right? Other non-Christians were portrayed as power-hungry, status-obsessed, materialistic, and complacent. And for many non-Christians, that may well be the case. (Painful to admit, the same is equally true for a great many Christians.) I noted with interest that not a single non-Christian was portrayed as having any intellectual reasons to disbelieve - say, a disbelief in the resurrection. No Christian ever had to defend their faith, nor did it seem likely that any of the characters actually could have, even within the context of the skits. That was somewhat disheartening. All the Christian characters ever had to do was reiterate that Jesus is the way and that he heals all wounds. For that matter, quite a few of the Christian characters came off as, well, jerks. And I'm saying that as a fellow Christian! Some of the Christians practically taunted non-believers with hell and judgment, and after death, they were so caught up in the excitement of their personal salvation and the beautiful place waiting for them that they just plain stopped caring about the plight of their non-Christian friends, sometimes even treating it somewhat flippantly. Not cool, guys. Not cool at all.

In a later skit, one woman put off a co-worker's evangelistic efforts by saying that Christians are hypocrites because she had seen some professing Christians in a bar doing a bit of "social drinking". Not to be outdone in judgmentalism, her Christian co-worker promptly retorted that not all professing Christians are really Christians, with the implication that any true Christian would never be seen in a bar with friends. The same message was reinforced in other skits later by Christians who had visited bars before their conversion but never after conversion. In short: any alcohol use at all is an evil, evil sin that shows that you aren't truly a Christian. Ye shall know them by their complete and utter abstinence from the stuff Jesus provided at Cana, after all. This, of course, is just plainly wrong. The Bible urges sobriety and responsibility to be guiding principles. The Bible warns against the very real dangers of abusing alcohol and allowing ourselves to become impaired. It says nothing against genuinely responsible use of alcohol... which even the perfect Son of God drank. But, of course, surely the characters in this drama have Jesus beat when it comes to holiness.

Another observation: the understanding of the Christian narrative itself here was radically askew, though (alas!) not in a way totally out of keeping with lowest-common-denominator American evangelicalism. The destination of each character was to be either in a seemingly self-absorbed heaven or an everlasting burning hell. Everything in this life was reduced to just an opportunity to decide between one of those two entirely unearthly destinations. Resurrection of the dead? Absent. New heavens and new earth? No. God's kingdom? Gone. Any task for the church other than offering cosmic fire insurance policies? None whatsoever. This is not the teaching of Jesus. This is not the teaching of the apostles. This is not the faith delivered once for all to the saints. This is not the Christianity for which martyrs gave their lives. This is a borderline-Gnostic concoction of our own devising, and it is a massively truncated version of the Christian story. And that's even apart from the massively crude visions of both heaven and hell! (Seriously, people, Satan does not rule over hell, and he does not get the opportunity to personally micromanage every single person's case. He is not God's opposite-but-equal force, nor is he - or any particular view of hell itself, for that matter - a core component of the gospel, as a perusal of the ancient creeds will bear out.)

Indeed, not only was the Christian narrative misrepresented, so was the Christian life. Every Christian character was effectively portrayed as fully sanctified. No Christian character struggled with faith. No Christian character doubted. No Christian character sinned. Nor did the evangelist afterwards give the impression that things would ever be difficult. The message was one of "accepting Jesus into your heart" and thereby being set immediately and miraculously free from every struggle and every hardship. Including, as I indicated earlier, the need to use any prescription drugs. I would love to believe that the evangelist was talking about prescription drug abuse. But how can I believe that, when the consistent portrayal of Christians throughout the entire performance was people who live blessed lives without any struggle? What, for Christ's sake (literally!), of the cross? Did the evangelist have any idea just what damage he could be doing, by (hopefully inadvertently) encouraging people to needlessly reject a God-given provision for healing?

Christianity was reduced to a simple formula and a panacea, where all one has to do is pray a simple prayer and then just... wait to die? There was no portrayal of baptism, for one. Or of the eucharist, for another matter. And that is just plain wrong. Not a single character ever mentioned either, nor did the evangelist. What's more troubling, there was no hint whatsoever that "accepting Jesus into your heart" is merely the beginning of a journey of discipleship. This right here is what terrifies me, for the sake of all those who came forward for the altar call last night. Are these people being prepared to be disciples, or merely statistical marks in a heavenly ledger? Are they being equipped? Do they even know that there's more? How can they grow in grace if they don't? How are they being prepared to stand firm, if they don't know that there will be storms? How can they not fall away easily? And how can those who do this sort of evangelism stand with a clear conscience before the judgment seat of God when their failures lead to the stumbling of so many babes in Christ? While they all prayed the simple (simplistic) "sinner's prayer", I prayed that God might in his grace direct these people to local churches that can supply the dire, dire lack in this drama's presentation of the gospel.

A number of times in the performance and in the evangelistic message afterwards, one encounters a very annoying yet obscenely popular Christian maxim: Christianity isn't a religion, it's a personal relationship with Jesus! This always gets on my nerves. A great deal. Christianity is a religion. Period. The only way to escape that conclusion is to define religion in a highly self-serving way that characterizes it as, for instance, an exclusively human, ritual-laden, impotent striving to reach out to God in unauthorized ways. But that simply is not the definition of religion! "Religion" and "relationship" are not utterly separate categories. In the first-century Mediterranean world, religions were all about the relationship between divine benefactors and human clients. The same was true of Zeus-worship, of the imperial cult, of Second Temple Judaism, and, yes, of early Christianity. And so it remains today. This may not be a "personal relationship", whatever is meant by that. (I suspect that the phrase had its origination for a good purpose - to insist that one cannot delegate one's need to serve the Lord to someone else - but twenty-first century models of 'personal relationships' carry a lot of baggage that's quite foreign to anything that the apostles would have experienced.) But it is a relationship - and it is religion. It's time to get over our allergies to the word.

Another concern: the evangelist and some of the Christian characters mentioned "God's love" quite a few times. But from the warped presentation of the Christian story that they offered, I had a hard time seeing where it fit in. The depiction of God was hardly a very loving one - or, at least, that was not made clear to the audience. See, no explanation was ever offered of why anyone would go to hell. All that was said is that it's for everyone who doesn't "accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior". Vague mentions were made by a few Christian characters of having been forgiven of their sins. But what is sin? Why does it need to be forgiven? Why does it merit hell - particularly the grotesque notion of hell depicted on stage - when unforgiven? And how is Jesus and his death on the cross relevant to dealing with it? The drama didn't say. Neither did the evangelist, to my recollection. And without that crucial context, God hardly seemed loving at all. He seemed capricious, harsh, and perhaps insane. That may be why I inadvertently found myself silently cheering for the Satan character by about the middle of the performance. Tip: If your evangelistic drama makes it even possible to root for Satan, then you might be doing something wrong.

Think I'm blowing the portrayal of God's character a bit out of proportion? In one of the earlier skits, a non-Christian woman falls at the feet of Jesus, repents of her sins, and begs him to be her Lord and Savior. And Jesus turns and promptly walks away without so much as a clear look of compassion on his face. This is a caricature of even much conservative evangelical thought on the afterlife. Many conservative evangelicals would be more inclined to say that repentance simply isn't a possibility after death. That wasn't what was portrayed here. Rather, a person's apparently sincere repentance and faith were outright rejected by Jesus. The idea represented is one that exists in conservative evangelical Christian thought, but even there, it seems quite hard-line. (Also, the depiction of young children being sent screaming and crying into hell did not exactly help.) While the words "God's love" showed up quite a bit, the dominant atmosphere of the whole performance was fear and terror, designed specifically to coerce conversion as a 'get-out-of-hell free' card.

The evangelist's methods after the drama also rubbed me the wrong way. While I saw no reason to believe that he wasn't quite sincere, his tactics for badgering people into making a 'decision for Christ' reminded me of two things: Elmer Gantry, and Charles G. Finney's Lectures on Revival of Religion. Right on the heels of a tearful separation of mother and daughter in the afterlife, he specifically addressed his message - numerous times - chiefly to "moms" and "dads", and also "teenagers". In addition, I lost track of how many times he urged that there would surely be just "one more person" needed to come down before they could proceed. I also noticed quite a number of Mennonite girls in bonnets going down for the altar call. I couldn't help but wonder how many of the people going down front were really doing this for the first time, and really were not Christians before, or really were making a decision to become Christians on this occasion - and, furthermore, would really stick with it and become disciples. Plausibly, only a fraction of the crowd.

Now, please do not misunderstand me. It's easy to read everything I've just written and think that I've completely written off this ministry and its efforts. It's easy to take all my criticism and think that I'm dismissing the possibility that some people will really begin their journey of authentic discipleship and true love for God at an event like this. But that's not true. I know that that can happen. I know it because I am one of those people. I became a Christian at a local performance of Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames in or around the year 1998. That is where my Christian journey began, and had I not attended it, I can't really say for sure when or even if I would have come to Christ. I remember that it was the final skit that got to me. I didn't want to go to hell. The fear of hell, moreso than the fear of God, gripped my heart. And I resolved in that moment that if turning to Jesus was what it would take to get some heavenly fire insurance, then it would just have to be worth it. So that is precisely what I did. If God hadn't led me to a nurturing church, it would have been so easy for me to simply fall away and never grow. Or, if my fear of hell hadn't been transformed through gratitude into a real love for God, it would have been easy for me to be spiritually infantilized at best or to simply apostatize at worst. Or, if I hadn't eventually attained a greater (though of course imperfect) theological maturity to see beyond the immensely crude half-gospel portrayed in the drama, much the same could have been the result. Nevertheless, God can work through ignoble means and base motives - if that's all we're willing to offer him. I'm grateful to have heard the Christian message, even in a distorted and garbled form, and to have been spurred to act on it, even through shoddy and shameful motives. So yes, real good can be done by Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames, and if even one of those conversions was authentic, then I truly believe that the angels in heaven rejoiced over it. But I still can't help but wonder, given how rightfully offputting a crude threatening with hellfire is when stripped of context, whether the net effect is positive or negative for the goals of God's kingdom.

I am no advocate of a Christianity that pretends that there is no hell, no devil, no sin, no judgment, or anything of that sort. Far from it. I do advocate a Christianity that hews closely to what the Bible says about those topics without proclaiming as gospel truth more than we really know. And I do advocate a Christianity that keeps a sense of balance while presenting the real gist of the Christian story, the story of God's love and justice and his righteous kingdom and the need for discipleship that doesn't kowtow to popular ideologies of power but that shows forth a Christian life that's really shaped by the cross and by the resurrection. I advocate a Christianity that would hopefully be recognized by Jesus, by Peter, by Paul, and by the blessed men and women who came after them and strove valiantly for the faith. I advocate an evangelism that can actually prepare new Christians for discipleship, not mislead them and strand them and leave them as though stillborn. And in that, I fear that I'm an advocate for something that Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames just doesn't deliver, to its detriment.

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