Do all unregenerate souls go to hell? This is the central theological question raised by the Netflix film Come Sunday. Based on actual events, the film centers on dynamic evangelical preacher Carlton Pearson (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Pearson loses everything—his church staff and friends, congregation, home, livelihood, and reputation—after declaring from his televised pulpit that there is no hell (or that if there is, nobody will end up in it).
Come Sunday effectively sets up a dichotomy of two types of Christians. On the one hand are the hell enthusiasts—those who revel in the doctrine of hell, confident that it will be full of people rather unlike themselves. On the other hand are the cheap grace universalists—those who believe that everyone is going to heaven no matter what, Hitler happily marching hand in hand alongside Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Charles Manson. Pearson’s shift along this spectrum from the former toward the latter comes about after watching footage of the horrors of the Rwandan genocide on television. Imagining the many dead and “unsaved” Africans—men, women, and children—he questions God, “And when they die, you just suck ’em down into hell?!” This scene is absent of light except for Pearson’s shadowy figure. Praying desperately behind the black, wrought-iron bars of the staircase in his home, it’s as if he’s imprisoned by his own incendiary dogma.
“But then I heard a voice,” Pearson says, as the scene morphs to Sunday morning, where he stands bright behind his transparent, plexiglass pulpit, thousands of parishioners eagerly awaiting his sermon. He shares that the voice told him he didn’t need to worry about saving those who had never heard or accepted the gospel: “They’re already saved … they will all be with me in heaven.”
Pearson’s new universalism generates strong reactions from his staff, mentors, and congregation, all of whom anticipate a recantation the following week. The next Sunday, Pearson does admit regret for springing his new ideas on everyone so suddenly. He considers turning to Romans 10:9: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” But he stops short and instead cites 1 John 2 as a proof text for universal salvation: “He [Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” Pearson goes on to say that “the God who sends people to hell … that God is a monster. That God is worse than Hitler … worse than Saddam Hussein!” Silence punctuates his words, as the camera shifts back and forth from Pearson to multiple members of the congregation, each expressing their outrage and disgust with distorted faces. Large numbers of them stand up to leave in protest, despite his pleas for them to stay and hear him out.
Come Sunday effectively sets up a dichotomy of two types of Christians.
Come Sunday sets Pearson up as a hero and living martyr for his theological convictions. In doing so, it also highlights the limitations of proof texting, by making both the hell enthusiast and universalist positions seem equally valid. This suggests that Christianity is at its core helplessly self-contradictory and in need of new interpreters such as Pearson, who will lead the way with new revelations and knowledge for an enlightened age.
Pearson rises to the role—and he didn’t stop with the doctrine of hell. The film nicely depicts his fall from popular televangelist to isolated loner, “from hero to zero” as the real-life Pearson himself has put it. But what the film does not show is that denying the doctrine of hell was just the beginning. Pearson continued down a path that within a few years led him all the way to Unitarianism and beyond. Now, some 20 years after the events depicted in Come Sunday, he has become a celebrity speaker who proclaims a gospel of personal development based on scientific knowledge (not faith), declaring that everything a human needs can be found within themselves.
Come Sunday is a story about judgment and division among Christians as Pearson’s life and ministry fall apart. What we don’t see is the potential for Spirit-led wisdom, discernment, and reconciliation. I recently spoke with a wise bishop who discussed his method of dealing with divisions in the church. His strategy involved three steps. First, to unite in faith in Jesus Christ. Second, to gather as the body of Christ in prayer, worship, and fellowship. And third, to engage the word of God, seeking wisdom of discernment and interpretation through the Holy Spirit.
This doesn’t always happen of course, as Come Sunday clearly demonstrates; sometimes anger and division take the day. Further, it reveals that flimsy proof texting (along with dangerous personal revelation) is no substitute for the deep and communal reflection on Scripture that has been required of the church for more than 2,000 years. If we stick together—in faith, prayer, and the Spirit—we can stay true to an authentic expression of the gospel, avoiding the pitfalls of a false dichotomy which would have us choose between “hell enthusiasm” and “cheap grace.”
Pearson was partially right: as 1 John 2 states, Jesus’ atoning sacrifice is for the whole world. But that fact doesn’t negate God’s righteousness and justice, nor does it eliminate human freedom and accountability. Hell has indeed been conquered, but it remains a destination for those who reject the love of God in Christ.