When I was 11 years old, I discovered that hell was a real place and that I was going there.
This was in 1998—the year "Titanic" won 11 Oscars and the year I spent six months trying (and failing) to hit the high note in "My Heart Will Go On." For Halloween, I was invited to go to Judgement House. I had no idea what it was, but I liked how ominous it sounded. I pictured a gothic house on a hilltop lit by bolts of lightning, scored with spooky organ music.
Instead, I arrived at an overcrowded megachurch parking lot.
Judgement House is an immersive church play about death, judgment and the afterlife. Think "Sleep No More" meets Dante's "Inferno," as interpreted by Franklin Graham. Today, there are at least 25 different trademarked Judgement House scripts, but they're all basically the same. A character faces a crisis in their lives and receives the chance to accept Jesus as their Lord and savior. Shortly thereafter, they die and face judgment. Death, in a Judgement House, is never a quiet or peaceful thing. Characters die in car crashes, drug overdoses, mass shootings, and bombings. They die during kidnappings gone wrong, natural disasters, and home invasions. They die by cancer, carbon monoxide poisoning, and house fires. Yet what comes after death is far worse—unless the character chooses to accept Jesus.
I grew up in a small, predominantly evangelical community in Alabama. But my parents weren't religious, and I wasn't raised in the church. Whatever ideas I had about religion came from pop culture—Whoopi Goldberg teaching choir in nun's robes, those angels who loved baseball in "Angels in the Outfield." I believed in God, but in a general sort of way. To me, God was like Santa Claus—a benevolent bearded man who monitored whether I cleaned my room and made good grades. But by the time I left the Judgement House, I was a true, born-again zealot.
Inside the Judgement House, the story began with death. Our guide, a reedy-voiced woman with a flashlight and glow-in-the-dark sneakers, led us into a room done up like a funeral parlor—a casket on a bier, a spray of potent-smelling flowers. The guide told us that inside the casket was a young man—17 years old, a high school senior—who had died in a car crash the night before. Actors playing his parents entered the room accompanied by other characters—their pastor, their younger daughter, and several of the dead boy's friends. They talked about what kind of person the dead-boy character had been—a good student, a star athlete, a leader in his youth group. After the funeral service, when everyone else had exited the room, the dead boy emerged from the casket. An angel arrived to escort him to the gates of Heaven to be judged.
We followed the boy and the angel into the next room, where a robed and bearded man stood at a podium with an enormous book. A film of fog unfurled over the floor. The bearded man announces that the boy's name is not in the Book of Life. The boy protested—he's a good person, he goes to church every week, he even volunteers with the homeless! None of that matters, the man told him. He never sincerely accepted Jesus into his heart, and so he cannot enter the Kingdom. With a bang, a pair of black-hooded figures appeared to drag him away.
As theater, it's remarkably bad—heavy-handed, comically melodramatic, hackneyed. But to my 11-year-old self, it was electric. I sprinted to the front of the group as we followed the boy and his infernal guards down a dark corridor. Up next was the showstopper moment of every Judgement House production: Hell.
Here's how I remember it: a vast black room, punctured by flashing lights and shrieks. A cold gray smoke swirled around me, obscuring the walls, my feet. The ceiling was so high I couldn't see it—high enough to magnify every sound, every scream. The noise kept building and building until it was part of the fabric of the room, inextricable from the air and the smoke. Satan—horned, hooved—strode across a dais, backlit in red. He looked right at me. When he spoke, his voice seemed to come from everywhere at once—rough and strangely intimate. I felt it in every part of my body. He said that I already belonged to him. He said that he had been waiting for me for a long time.
By the time our guide led us toward a softly lit staircase, I could hardly breathe. More than once I nearly tripped and my friend had to support me up the steps.
Our final stop was a Sunday school classroom, where a team of "Christian counselors" stood at the ready. They all wore matching neon green t-shirts with the church's name and logo printed over their hearts. A man with a neat, ice-gray beard and pastorly air about him stepped forward. He asked us what he called the single most important question of our lives: "Where will you spend eternity?"
* * *
After that night, I joined a church and started reading the Bible every day. I wore my WWJD bracelet to school and prayed before unwrapping my Lunchable in the cafeteria. My parents were perplexed by my conversion, to say the least. Still, every Wednesday night, my mother drove me to youth group and waited in the car with a stack of Sudoku puzzles until I came back out again, flushed with the Spirit and still humming "Shout to the Lord."
Over the next few months, my beliefs grew more and more extreme. I became fixated on the apocalypse and the Second Coming. I devoured the Book of Revelation. I looked for clues and ciphers, hoping for proof that Jesus was coming back soon. I convinced myself that the world would end in the year 2000, which meant that the Rapture would happen any day now. I was so certain that I even wrote a letter to my parents for them to find after I disappeared. In it, I explained that Jesus had taken me up into Heaven ahead of the end of the world. I told them how to get saved so that they could join me after the Great Tribulation. A few days after I wrote the letter, I destroyed it—I was starting to sound unhinged even to myself.
Of course, I wasn't raptured. The year 2000 came and went and the world didn't end. I started to question the literal interpretations of the Bible that I was taught in church. What if all the talk about angels and trumpets and fire from Heaven was meant to be symbolic? What if it was just another parable like the mustard seed or the pearl of great price? What did that mean about the Hell portrayed in the Judgement House? Around the same time, I also started to notice some of the un-Christian words and actions of my church's ministry team. Like when youth leaders shamed girls who didn't live up to exacting purity standards, but never the boys. Or when the pastor preached a fiery sermon against homosexuality, with thinly veiled references to my gay best friend, who happened to be sitting in the pew next to me. After that, I stopped going to church altogether. I still believed in God, but my faith's intensity was gone. Not because I stopped believing—but because I no longer felt at home with other believers.
A few years later, when I went to college, I found a community where I did feel at home, a mix of campus queers, sci-fi geeks, goth club kids and literature nerds. Like me, a lot of them had come from fundamentalist religious backgrounds and had also rejected their faiths' hardline doctrines. Most of them had renounced religion altogether, seeing it only as a tool of fear and oppression. After my own experience with my former church and the Judgement House, I had to agree with them. Whenever religion came up as a topic of conversation, I would jokingly call myself a "recovering Southern Baptist." Of course, behind the joke was a kernel of truth—I still felt the pull of the divine, a yearning for it, but regarded it as something that, like an addictive substance, held destructive powers for me. With no real models for a healthy spiritual life, I decided it was better to do without religion altogether.
Yet even after I had given up on Christianity, the old fear of the Hell I'd seen in the Judgement House still had a way of popping up again at critical moments of my life. During the months when I started to figure out I was queer, I heard snatches of my old pastor's homophobic sermon in my head. The first time I flew in an airplane after I came out, every time turbulence rattled the cabin I had to fight back the wild thought that because I was gay now, God would cause the plane to crash. Rationally, I knew that was nonsense, but everything I learned in church told me that if I embraced my queer identity, I would face some kind of punishment. It was a night flight, and I can still remember looking out of the window at the glowing patchwork of cities and highways down below. The captain kept climbing higher and higher, looking for smoother air. I was about as close to the mythic heaven as one can get this side of the grave, and instead of wonder or excitement about my life's new possibilities, all I felt was fear of divine recrimination. I knew that something had to change. I didn't want to have to choose between living authentically as myself and having a fulfilling spiritual life anymore.
I started looking for an alternative to the fundamentalist doctrine of my former church. After a lot of research into the histories and beliefs of various church denominations, I decided to visit a Quaker meetinghouse one Sunday morning. I grew curious about Quakers—also known as the Religious Society of Friends—after I learned that Quakers have openly affirmed LGBTQ rights and equality since at least 1963, making them one of the earliest denominations to do so. When I arrived, I found a small group of people gathered together in a small, upstairs room overlooking an oak-lined avenue. The meeting had already started, and everyone sat in a circle of metal folding chairs, eyes closed in silent meditation. Most Quaker services are "unprogrammed," meaning that there is no sermon, or readings, or hymns. Instead, members sit together in silence to listen for the "Inward Light." Anyone who feels moved to share something that comes to them in the silence is free to do so. There is no designated preacher; everyone shares in ministry when they are called to do so. During my first visit, only one person spoke during the silence. A tall man with a thick red beard and a gentle voice stood and briefly shared an image that he said had kept coming back to him all morning, of "a mother bird, gathering her chicks under her wings to protect them from the rain."
His message, as simple as it was, couldn't have been more different from the message of the Judgement House. Instead of threats of damnation and punishment, here was an image of comfort, protection and care. I knew right away that I had found a new spiritual home.
Recently, I Googled Judgement House to see if it's still around. As it turns out, it is—and like every other terrible thing, it's made its way onto YouTube. I watched clips from various productions and was shocked at how little they held up to my memory. Hell isn't a nightmare chasm, I could see now, full of souls in torment. It's a church basement rigged with strobe lights and a fog machine. Satan is just a sweaty man with a neckbeard and cheesy blacklight contacts. It's hard to believe I let something so cheap and cruel scare me away from a meaningful spirituality for so long.
As an adult, it's much easier to spot the zipper on the monster's costume. While it's tempting to laugh at it, it's hard not to feel angry on behalf of my younger self—and on behalf of any kid, queer or not, who's had the life scared out of them in a cynical bid to "save their soul." The marketing material on the Judgment House website measures the program's efficacy in the number of people who either commit or rededicate themselves to Christ after viewing the production. The site claims that Judgement Houses are "one of the only evangelistic tools to see 10% of its participants make a first time profession of faith." Basically, Judgement House uses the framework of capitalism as a model for spiritual life: manufacture fear of Hell, then sell salvation as the way to get to Heaven.
Setting aside the emptiness and moral bankruptcy of such an approach to spirituality, the present world can be frightening enough on its own, without adding in the specter of eternal damnation in the afterlife. Climate change, the violence of systemic racism, the pandemic—these real threats facing us are much more terrifying than anything in the Judgement House. Of course, not everyone turns to faith during times of difficulty, but my hope for those who do is that they're able to find a practice that is not steeped in cruelty, judgment and fear. Religion at its worst has the power to add to the sum total of fear and suffering the world. But at its best, it can be a source of comfort and solace, like a mother bird spreading her wings over her chicks.
S.J. Stover is a writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. He holds an MFA from Hunter College and his fiction has appeared in Crazyhorse magazine. He's currently working on a novel. Follow him on Twitter @sj_stover.