“Come Sunday” confronts the American fascination with hell

Come Sunday is a Netflix film based on the true story of Bishop Carlton Pearson, formerly one of the most celebrated Black Pentecostal preachers in America.

It is actually a movie about hell.

More specifically, it is about the role the hell-concept plays in American evangelical religion and what happens when a member of that tribe says “no”.

For a long list of reasons, Hollywood doesn’t do religion well.  Few producers live close enough to grass roots religion to understand its appeal or its endearing, and disturbing, quirks.

Come Sunday gets it.  Tulsa’s  Higher Dimensions Evangelistic Center, the megachurch Pearson pastored before his fall from grace, looks and feels like a Black Pentecostal church in the Church of God in Christ tradition.

More importantly, the reaction of the faithful to Pearson’s doubts are handled with sensitivity.  Pearson’s critics aren’t fundamentalist caricatures; they come off as real people who grew up on a hell-centered gospel and are suddenly being told something very different.

Most evangelical preachers get around the hell-question by ignoring it; the emphasis is on getting saved for heaven and the unfortunate alternative is more implied than stated.  But hardcore American revivalism has always placed the fires of hell front and center.

Millions of Pentecostals, Southern Baptists and other conservative evangelical Christians, have been raised on a diet of fear.  Children are taught to be afraid of hell, and in Come Sunday, that fear is palpable.  God is angry.  God is angry at sin.  God is so angry at sin that every single man, woman and child is born under wrath.  And only the shed blood of Jesus can save you from a date with destruction.

And if that doesn’t scare the hell out of you, the phrase “conscious eternal torment” is pressed into service.  Image the worst possible pain (mental and physical), multiply that by one hundred, and stretch it into all eternity.  That’s hell.

And you don’t want to go there.  So come forward right now and plea the blood of Jesus.

And you don’t want your friends and family going there either, so get out there and witness to the grace of God.

Come Sunday gets the theological focus right.  A God who would consign the unsaved to eternal punishment, even if they had never heard the gospel, comes off looking like a monster.  Or so Bishop Pearson thinks.  When we’re talking about hell, the character of God is the real issue.

Churches respond to the hell-concept in one of three ways.  They affirm and preach it; they make it a back-burner issue that is rarely mentioned from the pulpit; or they reject the idea and make a big deal out of that rejection.  The third category is occupied by Unitarian Universalists and the most liberal 10% of American Protestant mainline congregations.

If you attend a church where hell is a central focus, alternative positions can’t be mentioned, still less considered.  As Bishop Pearson discovered, the subject is verboten.   To question hell is to question every bedrock tenet of the Christian faith because, if there is no hell to save sinners from, the Bible crumbleds sand the gospel crumbles with it.

If you attend a church where the hell-concept meets with embarrassed silence, the subject can’t be considered for a different reason.  Talking about hell exposes the fact that the congregation has no shared understanding of the gospel.  A third of the congregation believes sinners go to hell if they don’t get “saved”; another third believes that God forgives everybody (with the possible exception of Hitler and child molesters); and a final third doesn’t know what to believe and, frankly, doesn’t want to talk about it.

Only those churches that reject hell, proudly and without apology, are free to speak freely about the concept.  Which explains why a Pentecostal preacher like Carlton Pearson ended up hanging with the Unitarians.

Come Sunday leaves out a lot of things out of the story.  Of necessity, every “real life” movie does.

Pearson’s current views are a mixture of positive thinking and nineteenth century “New Thought” (a close cousin of Christian Science).  In his wonderful book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James uses new thought as the ultimate form of “healthy-minded” religion.  We all bear the image of the divine, God loves everybody, and this good news constitutes the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The downside of New Thought is that you get what you want.  Envision health, wealth and prosperity and that’s what you get; turn your thoughts to fear, calamity and failure and disaster is on the way.  Ergo, if you find yourself in a living hell, guess who gets the blame?

I’m with Pearson on the damnation issue; but I can’t buy his rosy assessment of the human condition.  We are every bit the jumble of contradictions the Bible says we are and are thus in desperate need of salvation.

Carlton Pearson’s break with hell-based theology was inspired by a TV story about Rwandan genocide.  The Bishop couldn’t believe that a loving God would consign the victims of the slaughter (children included) to hell if they hadn’t “accepted Jesus”.

But how, I wonder, does Pearson reckon with the Rwandan genocide?  Or the holocaust?  Or American lynch law?  Or the current plight of the Palestinians or those caught in the crossfire of Syria?  Examples could be multiplied endlessly.

We need a gospel that wrestles with the depths of human depravity, individual and corporate.  As I put it in a song several decades ago, “Why are we so blind, why are we so cold and unkind, why do we, casually, lose our way in the gathering night?”

People like us need a Savior, not to save us from hell, but to save us from ourselves.