An eternity of torture, pain and damnation await the vast majority of the Earth’s population.
That is the belief held at Sinking Creek Baptist Church, which has its vivid, come-one, come-all performances every Saturday night in October at 6, at the church on the Old Elizabethton Highway.
Judgement Houses — or Hell Houses as they’ve been called — are hosted primarily at fundamentalist churches throughout the country each fall, often leading up to the Halloween season. The premise is to scare visitors into compliance with strict interpretations of the Bible with horror stories of those who fall from grace and wind up in a hellish afterlife.
Other regional Hell Houses can be found in Greeneville, Morristown, and Sevierville for East Tennessee, Morgantown, N.C., and Fancy Gap, Va.
This year’s performance at Sinking Creek was themed “Masquerade,” where a tale was told of a just man who was helpful and considerate of others, even talking a co-worker into going to his church with his family. The co-worker found his path to Jesus Christ through the considerate man despite having had lost touch with Christianity after his family died in a car accident years before.
As the story unfolded, both men died an untimely death in a car crash together. The co-worker, who had claimed Jesus Christ as his savior, bought himself a ticket to heaven. The considerate man, who was portrayed as a sound family man who attended church constantly and was helpful wherever he could be, was sent to an eternity in a physical hell, where he would be tortured, which members of Sinking Creek called “indescribable in horror,” due to his never having accepted Jesus Christ the proper way.
Hundreds of all ages went through the Judgement House to see the options of choosing heaven or hell for their afterlife. In the final scenes, they were taken through hallways resembling hell, where the screams of the tortured couldn’t be ignored. The considerate man from the story was screaming in agony and begging for forgiveness. A resemblance to the Christian heaven was the final scene, where the co-worker was enticed by alluring dancing angels in sheer clothing, before making his way into heaven.
Recent numbers show that just less than 70 percent of the world’s population does not identify as Christian, earning them an eternity of torture in hell, as shown at Judgement House. But there’s a way out — one way.
Pastor Keith Weatherly casts off all other options of getting to “paradise.” When presented with the idea of indigenous groups of people across the globe who would never come in contact with Christianity in their entire life, Weatherly said they, too, would end up in hell if they weren’t able to deduce that Jesus Christ is their ticket to eternal salvation simply by the beauty of nature around them.
“Around the world, they say ‘it doesn’t matter which religion,’ ” Weatherly said of those who take a more generous view of “eternal salvation.” “But it’s only through Christ.”
Youth Director Phil Harris said they have no issues with showing the dramatic, torturous scenarios to those who attend the performances, because they didn’t make the rules. God did, and it’s in the Bible, he said.
“They need to know there’s a hell,” Harris said.
Teaching the children their message at the right time is something Weatherly sees as important.
“Kids are at that key stage in their lives,” Weatherly said about the crowds of children who go through the performance scenes. He said they had around 1,700 people at last year’s Judgement House, and doesn’t see any reason why numbers would be any lower this year.
After the performance had concluded, those who attended popped out of a back door to talk about what they’d seen.
”I thought it was good,” 11-year-old Jonathan Rice said. “It was a good thing for non-believers to see what heaven and hell are.”
His sister, 13-year-old Courtney, agreed, saying how important it was to plan ahead.
Local churches and groups brought in children like the Rices by the bus load for the Oct. 5 event. They were lined out the door for their chance to see the show.
Sinking Creek Baptist, which happens to be the oldest church in the state of Tennessee, founded in 1772, teaches of a definite physical hell, as opposed to a mental hell, where the damned will simply be kept away from the Christian God. The church, led by Weatherly, who is a self-described young earth creationist who calls the theory of evolution as mathematically impossible, sees such teachings about hell as beneficial.
But not all scholars agree.
East Tennessee State University psychology department Chairman Dr. Wallace E. Dixon Jr. said long-term damage is possible after being exposed to certain frightening imagery.
“Depending on the severity of the imagery, language and situations that children are presented in the events you describe, there is even the risk that children can become severely traumatized, and experience serious trauma symptoms like nightmares, hypervigilance, extreme anxiety and depression; especially if they already have a history of abuse or witnessing of domestic violence,” Dixon said in an email in response to the local Judgement House.
Dixon said the damage is hard to quantify, but says it’s unlikely that there’s any benefit to these kinds of dramatic displays.
One ETSU graduate, Beth Presswood, from Cleveland, Tenn., who earned a master’s degree in microbiology, had been to many Judgement Houses when she was a Christian in her earlier years, and after, when she considered herself a non-believer. She went on to become a nationally known atheist activist and public speaker around Austin, Texas, as a member of the Atheist Community of Austin and with various appearances on the local television show “The Atheist Experience.”
Presswood said Judgement Houses are damaging and said she knows a lot of religious people who won’t take the route of fear-based faith with fellow followers for that reason.
“If a parent goes to a haunted house with their children, and the children have nightmares, a parent can comfort and calm the children by telling them that the monsters aren’t real,” Presswood said. “You can’t do that with Hell Houses.”
Weatherly disagreed that events like Judgement House could be damaging to children, saying they are, in fact, able to comfort any worries by teaching them about heaven. Weatherly said he checked with Harris’ father, Reece, who was a pastor at the church for 51 years and had never heard of children having nightmares or trauma from their teachings about hell. But Weatherly doesn’t completely rule out the possibility.
“We’re trying to give a comfortable experience while getting across our message,” Weatherly said.
He said they were considering addressing concerns about the performance being too intense without some kind of warning, and the appropriateness of the provocative underage dancing angels as they moved toward the remaining two Judgement House displays this year.