“I can take that Bible and denounce what I’m teaching.” – Carlton Pearson, NPR
I don’t write a lot of movie reviews, at least not anymore. I used to write a ton. But I’m taking it back up because “Come Sunday,” a new movie on Netflix, challenged me, my heart and my faith in a way only one or two movies ever have.
The story follows Carlton Pearson (played by the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor), a popular evangelical Pentecostal preacher in Tulsa, Alabama. His church, affectionately referred to as “Higher D” by members and staff, is growing and popular. It’s fully integrated, with blacks and whites worshipping together in harmony. Pearson is counseled by Oral Roberts (Martin Sheen, who plays President Bartlett in The West Wing) and supported by his right hand man Henry (Jason Segel from How I Met Your Mother) and wife Gina (Condola Rashad).
But one night while watching a television broadcast about the suffering in the Rwanda genocide of 1994, Pearson hears from God. Hell can’t be real, because why would God let children who’ve never heard of Jesus go to hell? That God would be worse than Hitler, Hussein. He forms what becomes known as the “Gospel of Inclusion” — there is no hell, everyone goes to heaven when they die because Jesus died for all.
The film explores how Pearson responds to this new belief he has, how those around him react and the decline of his church. Come Sunday is based on a “This American Life” episode titled “Heretics,” which you can listen to here. I listened to the episode, and it seems that the filmmakers captured actual events pretty well.
This will not be a traditional film review. That being said, I enjoyed the performances, particularly of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Condola Rashad. It was fun to see Jason Segel in something like this, and Lakeith Stanfield — appearing as Reggie, a worship team member struggling with homosexuality — was great.
I want to dive into a couple of the themes throughout the film and how they affected me as a Christian, a person and someone interested in the culture of religion and the church.
‘The Gospel of Inclusion’
The crux of the film’s story is Pearson’s acceptance of what he later terms the “Gospel of Inclusion.”
He explains it using the Bible. He points to verses like 1 John 2:1-2, which say, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Based on the text of that Scripture, he says, how does the blood of Jesus not cover everyone’s sins? Who are we to say that the blood is not that powerful?
I think it’d be easy for us to just write off this theology as obviously flawed. There are so many biblical passages that preach the need for repentance and belief in God — the film particularly cites Romans 10:9 — that contradict Pearson’s view. Even the original Greek of 1 John 2:2 states that “the whole world” referred to Gentiles, or anyone besides Jews. It means the forgiveness of the Gospel is available to all, not just freely given to all without repentance.
But can we for a minute try to understand where Pearson is coming from? It’s obviously a more appealing message, for one thing, and from our human understanding, it seems to be more reflective of the God we worship. Why would a good God send people to hell, goes the common question.
But for us to solely focus on the “goodness” of God in His grace and mercy is to leave out his passion for justice and righteousness. He will not let sin go unpunished, unless it’s taken on by Jesus on the cross. Then it is still punished in the form of Christ’s death.
I sympathized tremendously with Pearson and his search for understanding God. He just missed one of the biggest parts.
The Interior Turmoil
Pearson wrestled with this change in his theology. He said he heard from God directly that what he had believed all his life was in error, and that he needed to change.
In the evangelical Pentecostal vein of Christianity Pearson operated, hellfire and brimstone were as common as speaking in tongues and shouts of “Hallelujah” during worship time. The acknowledgement of sin of any kind would be replied to with, “It’s gonna send you to hell.” In his interactions with Reggie, who’s told his hero Pearson about his struggle, the pastor says he can’t “save” Reggie until he gives up his homosexual leanings.
It’s in this background that Pearson’s change of heart is explored, and it’s tough for him. He knows that he’s bucking years and years of church tradition and what he’s believed. He’s concerned about people leaving his church. He’s worried about how it will be taken. But it’s his new heartfelt belief that everyone goes to heaven, and he can’t ignore the strong conviction in his heart.
If we are unable to sympathize with Pearson, even while disagreeing with him, we are lacking. He just wants to love people, and based on what he believes God told him, this is how he can love people. There’s a couple times he almost changes his mind because of how those around him react, but he sticks to what he believes.
As Christians, we are called to love those around us with what we believe to be truth, just like Pearson. We might face backlash for our stances and what we believe, but it’s our call to stick with what God has revealed to us in Scripture.
The External Backlash
The climactic scene of the film is Pearson’s appearance before a council of charismatic bishops who are deciding whether or not to allow him to continue as one of their members. Pearson speaks passionately, even directing some words straight to the chairman of the group. I won’t spoil the scene because it’s powerful and you need to watch it on your own.
But he’s in a room full of people who are ready to crucify him. And that’s after months of criticism — to his face, on television, at the grocery store to his wife, everywhere. He loses the blessing of his mentor Roberts, the support of his ministry partner Henry and the large majority of his congregation.
How many of us Christians have lost friends and seen family abandon us based on what we believe? I hope no believer who sees the film is able to watch that and not feel sympathy. Just because we don’t agree with the reason for his change in belief doesn’t mean we can’t feel for Pearson.
It’s heartbreaking, honestly, and Pearson takes it hard.
Church culture usually doesn’t take too kindly to people who rock the boat. I understand the need for correction for incorrect theology, but the way we often go about it is displayed near-perfectly in Come Sunday. There are some in the film, particularly Henry, who do approach Pearson the right way, the biblical way. But for the most part, people speak about Pearson in a harsh, negative, unloving manner.
And that’s not what God would have wanted.
I don’t believe God would have wanted Pearson’s change of heart either. But I understand where he’s coming from.
And that’s what makes Come Sunday a compelling watch. Agree with him or not, Pearson and his quest for what he believes is truth is incredibly relatable, and I think it would be good viewing for all believers. Not just as a movie, but as a learning experience.