Weekly Edgework #63 - September 13, 2005

Camping in Hell

Last night I listened in pained silence as a fifteen-year-old boy told his aunt about his experience at a summer Bible Camp my church supports. I listened quietly as I took my turns drinking the Yerba Mate that was repeatedly passed to me in turn. When the story was over we turned to discussions of more earthly matters. But my heart had turned heavy and sad.

I didn’t arrive in time to get the first details, but I surmised from the telling that all teen campers were asked to participate in “The Game of Life” or a game by some such title. Every camper was given a candle that they took to the starting line. At the first station the campers where asked if they had ever received Jesus into their hearts. If the answer was “yes” their candles were lit. If the answer was no, they had to proceed with an unlit candle. The next station was a judgment chamber of sorts where you had to register. Campers with lit candles were registered in the Book of Life and those whose candles remained unlit were registered in the Book of Damnation.

Those with lit candles were then ushered into a room prepared for a party. Drinks, chips and other munchies to satisfy their appetites and lots of fun things to do. Those whose candles were not lit were escorted by hooded camp counselors (read demons) into a cold dark room where they were forced to sit on the floor in silence. The air was filled with the shrill sounds of ringing telephones, alarm clocks and other devices that created scary sounds. Above the din, however, they could hear the partygoers in the other room having a blast. But they were camped in hell! Forced to sit on the floor to think about life and death. A re-enactment, I suppose, of the story of the “Rich Man and Lazarus” – although with a few contemporary twists.

Camping in hell is no fun. Nevertheless, the young lad reported that one of his friends managed to stay put on the floor for a whole hour. Less determined youngster gave in long before the hour was up. Indicating to the hooded guards that they actually wanted to go to heaven, they were escorted out of hell, their candles were lit, and they were on the way to join the party in the adjoining room. The young storyteller told his aunt that after he could stand it no longer, seated as he was on a cold-air register, he gave in and chose to go to heaven. Through participating in this game he had become a Christian. Next year, he exclaimed, I will be old enough to be a Counselor In Training (CIT) and then I can help direct this Game of Life for other campers!

So, what’s the big deal? Why my heavy and sad heart? What is wrong with putting a little pressure on these damned campers to make a decision in the context of a game that would have implications for all of life and for eternity?

First of all, it represents a flawed theology of childhood – a theology touted by other organizations working with children such as Awana and Child Evangelism Fellowship. It holds that since all children are born in sin they are bound for hell – at least from the moment they consciously choose to disobey mom or steal a chocolate-chip cookie. There to suffer untold misery for eternity because of their Godless lifestyle. Their first conscious act of sin betrayed their damned state of lostness, but they had no one to blame for it but themselves. According to this view, the most urgent task of Christian adults is to “scare the hell out of them” as soon as possible. If it hasn’t worked by the time they enter their early teens, turn up the pressure until they break. It may sound cruel, but at least you get them into heaven!

Turn back the clock a few millennia and walk with Jesus on the dusty roads of Galilee. When adults wanted to push children back, Jesus rebuked them and then opened his arms to invite the children to come to him. He placed them on his knee, hugging them no doubt, and letting them know they were loved. And then he said to those gathered round, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4). Can you imagine Jesus orchestrating a “Camping in Hell” game for the children in his presence to compel them to come sit on his knee? Neither should we.

Second, I have witnessed over the years how decisions made in such contexts of psychological terrorism seldom lead to a lifetime of healthy discipleship. A decade or so ago a local church tried a similar technique in its evangelistic efforts. Since then I have heard numerous persons tell of how that experience was in fact detrimental to them in the long run. The basic problem is that it is highly unlikely that a person will develop a loving and life-giving relationship with someone who first terrorized him or her with mind-numbing fear and peer pressure. If decisions made in such a context actually “hold”, it is small wonder that for many who made them it will always be difficult to appreciate the realities of grace, wonder, mystery and unconditional love.

Perhaps I am more sensitized than others to psychological terrorism inflicted on children because I suffered untold misery and agony in its clutches myself for much of my childhood. Some after-effects continue to hang around the edges of my spiritual pilgrimage. I have, however, come to the conclusion that there are gentler and more humane ways of inviting children to sit on Jesus’ lap.


I think “Camping in Hell” games should be banned from Christian camps. At least I will do all within my power to ensure that my grandchildren do not attend camps where such terrorism takes place.

Find a "Postscript to Camping in Hell" in the 9th entry on the Discussion Forum related to this article.