What is the Heaven Or Hell Machine?

The sun has long ago sunk below the horizon. Teams have scattered out onto the boardwalk, and the prayer team is behind the Chapel on the back porch, petitioning God for the night’s work. The Boardwalk Chapel door is wide open, and a group of four surrounds the Heaven and Hell machine. One staff member, and a member of the church group pause to hand out tracts to those walking by, and invite them to play a game.

Most nights you can find a similar scene. While other teams go and traverse the boardwalk, we keep one team behind at the door, with an odd-looking machine plugged into a nearby outlet. Supported by a basic frame of wood, the Heaven and Hell machine resembles an old pinball machine.

You may be as curious and perplexed as the stranger who stops to check it out. What is the Heaven and Hell machine?

It’s a conversation starter. In fact, it’s one of the best conversation starters we have! There are seven true-or-false questions for passersby to respond to. Of course, it’s usually necessary to explain that the machine can’t send you to heaven or hell—but most people are curious to see where their responses land them. If all are answered correctly, heaven lights up on the screen, and if one or more is answered incorrectly, hell will light up on the screen. Then a staff member will walk them through each statement, simultaneously explaining the Gospel.

In the early 1980s, John Stevenson, the previous Chapel director, received a call from an evangelist. “William Hart had built this ‘Heaven or Hell’ machine, and he would take it to county fairs, using it to do evangelism,” said Chris Byrd, who directs evangelism at the Boardwalk Chapel. “He said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this tool you might be interested in borrowing for your ministry this summer.’ We used it for the summer. He didn’t come back to collect it, so they used it for one more year. Two years after he had lent them the machine, he passed into glory. His widow called John Stevenson, saying, ‘My husband passed away, so I want you to keep using the machine for your ministry. Just put a little plaque on the side— ‘In Memory of William Hart.’ It’s been a staple of the Chapel ever since.”

It has seven statements that are either true or false. As someone goes down through the questions, it gives you a glimpse as to where they are coming from and what their religious background is. These are the seven statements:

  1. There are many ways to get to heaven. It doesn’t really matter what religion you follow as long as you are sincere.
  2. God cares about right and wrong.
  3. God will punish sin.
  4. Hell is not real. God would never send anyone to such a terrible place.
  5. Everyone who has ever lived will one day stand before God to be judged.
  6. All humans are born with a sin nature, and because of sin, are headed for hell.
  7. If a person does his best to live by the 10 commandments and does more good deeds than bad deeds, he will go to heaven.

    “Most people who come here are cultural Roman Catholics who believe in God, believe that there’s such a thing as sin and judgment, but kind of believe that if you do your best to be a good person, you’ll go to heaven,” said Chris. “Most people will at least get one or two wrong, and hell lights up. We then ask if they have time for us to walk them through the correct responses.”

    The machine ultimately is an outline for sharing the Good News. Once someone has finished (if they’ve gotten any questions wrong) a staff member will go through and explain the answers, usually starting with statement number two— that God does care about right and wrong.

    Since God cares about right and wrong, he will punish sin (Statement 3). The way God ultimately punishes sin is in hell (Statement 4), and therefore we will all have to stand one day before God to be judged (Statement 5).

    “The final two statements are the ones people usually get wrong,” said Chris. Most people who stop tend to think we aren’t all headed for hell, and that our good works can save us. “That’s when we can explain that we’re all born with a heart that’s corrupt to the core, and because of that sin nature, we love sin. And because we love sin, we break God’s law. And breaking God’s law, we deserve death. So we need to be cleansed through His blood, the perfect offering, and we need a heart transplant and a new spirit to enter into heaven. That’s why God sent his son Jesus.”

    It all ties back to the first statement, which is false. No, there are not many ways to get to heaven. Jesus is the only way.

    “In my thirty-something years here, all my best conversations started at the Heaven and Hell machine,” said Jim Zozzaro, the current director of the Chapel. Jim is sitting in his chair by the open door of the Chapel, just a few feet away from the machine, doing security. “That’s because the Heaven and Hell machine elicits dialogue, and especially because I like an apologetic approach. A lot of people have objections to things as they’re going through. It lets me work in my wheelhouse a bit more. I’ll just be sitting here, and if I see it starting to get heated on the machine or becoming an apologetics issue, I’ll go over to work my way into the conversation. Far and away, my best conversations over thirty years now have been at that machine.”

    “The first time I came to the Chapel, I saw that thing and I thought, ‘Oh, man. People are going to find this offensive, and it kind of looks a little hokey,’” Chris Byrd concluded. “But after my first summer, I saw how many great Gospel conversations get started by that machine. In fact, there’s a family that goes to Christ the King church, who are now in that church because they’re locals. They were walking by, and one of the daughters saw the game. She wanted to play. A staffer who was here at the time shared the Gospel with them. They called on the name of the Lord. We picked them up for church the next Sunday, brought them to church, and they eventually became members of Christ the King—all through that machine.”

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