“Come Sunday” asks: what about hell?

If there’s one movie that I have to recommend watching this year, it’s “Come Sunday” (premiered on Netflix just last Friday): the real-life story of the crisis-of-faith experienced by Carlton Pearson, a highly successful Pentecostal Bishop and preacher, and which asks some really important questions for the church/believers today. Anyone who’s serious about their faith and willing to be challenged needs to see it. And for those who are interested in knowing where the story has gone since then, check out this follow-up documentary put out by This American Life.

[The few “spoilers” I’ll give will be in this paragraph only, so some might just want to jump to the next paragraph. But these details come out in the first five or ten minutes of the movie anyway, and most readers will likely have already encountered them from movie reviews, movie trailers, and “water-cooler conversations.”]   Carlton’s faith was rock solid, but began to splinter when he heard about the death of an unbelieving member of the family, right at a time when he and the rest of the world were also beginning to process the genocide of thousands in Rwanda (the story takes place a couple decades ago).  Heart-wrenching memories and images force some very tough questions about hell in the preacher’s mind: his rock solid theology left no room for grace when it came to unbelievers (his uncle) and Muslims (many of the Rwandans). The rest of the movie takes us on a walk through his angst over those questions, and shows us where he ended up theologically.

By coincidence, I had just started reading Brian Zahnd’s book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, in which he looks at the sensational fire-and-brimstone sermon (“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”) given by a very exuberant Protestant preacher (Jonathan Edwards). In Zahnd’s words, this eighteenth century sermon “left its mark on the religious imagination of America. It’s generally regarded as the most important sermon in American history.” Just like Carlton did, Zahnd asks some really tough questions about this darker side of Christian theology.

And in yet another coincidence, one of the courses I’m taking had me looking at the Old Testament understanding of “Sheol,” and how that was transformed a hundred and eighty degrees into the concept of what the ancient Greeks called Hades and what we today now call Hell. Even in one of the opening scenes of Genesis — where Adam and Eve directly disobey an explicit command of God — God simply says “from dust you became, and to dust you will return.” No mention of flames or torture or eternal anguish. As you continue flipping through the Old Testament, you find many of the great patriarchs and leaders breathing their last and then simply “sleeping with his fathers” in Sheol: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Samuel, David, Josiah … and many others. On the other hand, many truly nasty leaders are mentioned, but never once does it say anything like “King Billy was a wicked man; he died and went straight to Sheol.”  It was a real eye-opener for me to learn how that whole concept of a very uneventful afterlife evolved during the Exile and with a lot of cross-pollination from Greek thinking —including images of flames, torture, demons, and judgment— before we get to the time of Christ.

I know some claim that Christ preached more about Hell than about Heaven, and that’s reason enough to make it a center point of conversation. But check for yourself … go through the gospels (it’s your responsibility if you’re going to be dogmatic on this thorny subject) … you’ll find that claim to be blatantly wrong. I was surprised to find how infrequently he referenced hell, and how most of those passages really aren’t “proofs” for the classic picture of hell.

Some references are clearly not intended to be taken literally:

  • being sent to hell for calling someone a fool (Matt 5:22)? Or was Jesus actually making a different point here? You’ll need to do some careful thinking.
  • Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16:19-31) … will it really be possible for someone in heaven to strike up a conversation with someone suffering forever in hell? Would you really want to be sitting there comfortably in full view of those suffering? Or is this story really about something else?
  • cutting off limbs and plucking out eyes because “it would be better to enter heaven maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire” (Matt 18:7-9, Matt 5:27-30; Mark 9:42-48) … if one takes the eternal fire imagery literally, then they need to also acknowledge that a substantial number of people in heaven will be blind or missing limbs because they made the right choice. Or, again, is this story about something completely deeper?

As an aside, those who vigorously resist the idea that everyone goes to heaven (“Universalism”), and do so because of their interpretation of carefully selected verses, should consider whether they then need to support the idea that everyone goes to hell (“inverse Universalism”?), because the passage I quoted above about cutting off limbs in order to avoid hell and “a fire that is not quenched” has Jesus finishing off with: “Everyone will be salted with fire” (Mark 9:49).  Notice he said “everyone”!  Not just “everyone who goes to hell,” but “everyone” period! How does one interpret that?

Other references are given in the context of a metaphor — “it’s like a sower who went out to sow seeds” … “it’s like a net full of fish” … “it’s like a king who prepared a wedding banquet” — and you need to be really careful about how far you stretch a metaphor.

Finally, some of his references need some very careful unpacking:

  • the story of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46) is a well-known passage … another metaphor by the way … but that one certainly pushes the idea of salvation by doing good works, which directly contradicts a theological cornerstone.
  • Be afraid of the one who can destroy body and soul in hell” (Matt 10:28) is not about any kind of eternal judgment, but instead about getting your perspective right: the whole context is about not being afraid of circumstances or persecution, because you’ve got an ally on your side so much bigger than your adversary (someone who even pays attention to sparrows dying and the number of hairs on your head).

One needs to dig more deeply than just a surface reading of the text; this question is just too nuanced to give it a casual treatment.

I fully expect some Christians will react quite negatively to “Come Sunday,” and to the conversations that it triggers. It’s almost as if some people need Hell to be filling up quickly … as if they would be somehow personally wronged if it were to sit empty. In the movie, Carlton asked a very poignant question: “What is it about loving each other unconditionally that scares us so much?”

Zahnd called my attention to people responding the same way when Jesus took his turn to read from the Scripture in the synagogue, and left his Jewish listeners hanging just short of the bloodthirsty ending they were waiting for.  How so?  Jesus started reading from Isaiah … “The Spirit of God is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” … before rolling up the scroll and sitting down. Up until that point, his listeners were nodding approvingly. But then they started looking puzzled, and leaning forward in their seats waiting for the last line that Jesus had omitted. Zahnd compared it to a performance of the national anthem: someone singing “O’er the land of the free…”, pausing, and then calmly putting the microphone down and leaving the stage.

What was the last line that Jesus left off?  “… and the day of vengeance of our God.” He was making it clear that blood-lust was not part of the new mission/movement he was starting. After their stunned silence, his listeners turned vicious and nearly threw him off a nearby cliff. What a scene! I had to put Zahnd’s book down for a moment when he summed up that incident: “It’s amazing just how angry some people can become if you try to take away their religion of revenge.” Why does de-emphasizing hell in today’s setting evoke the same response?

So why am I blogging about this?

Certainly not so I can pontificate on my own view of hell. I certainly haven’t come to the point that I dismiss the whole idea of hell. But I certainly have set aside a lot of the gory details that I grew up with. Exactly what it is … where it is … what are the entry requirements … who’s in there … all of these look very different to me now.

Instead, I’m writing because it unnecessarily turns off many unbelievers and terrorizes some believers. Why do we have to draw such an elaborate picture … best epitomized by the famous (infamous?) one drawn by Dante … in which many people only see lurid suffering and injustice? Why not just say we can’t really know in this life? Some will answer: “because that sabotages evangelization.” If your view is that Christianity is simply a “get-out-of-jail-for-free card, then you’re right.  But if you focus on Christ’s mission … undeniably about loving, helping, healing, giving, and not at all about vengeance … then the carrot is much more effective than the stick. That kind of a life gives meaning and is worth living for, irrespective of what happens afterward. And here’s a surprise for some: Christ never told us to use that stick!

I’d encourage people to watch a movie like “Come Sunday,” or read a book like Zahnd’s (or a similar one in Rob Bell’s Love Wins, or NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope [which gives a very different perspective on what heaven’s really all about]), and explore those tough questions. Figure out what they really believe, and why: confirm for themselves if the Bible really says what they think it says. And if they find themselves getting upset at where the thought process and conversations lead, perhaps try to assess honestly why.

Let me know what you think …


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