Last week, Netflix released a drama about Carlton Pearson, a black minister and former bishop who rejected the doctrine of hell. He preached universalism, that all people will be saved and go to heaven. The movie, “Come Sunday,” recounts Pearson’s rejection of hell and his church’s rejection of him, presenting his universalism as a superior doctrine, despite the fact that it contradicts biblical teaching from Jesus Himself.
“The God that we worship, from the parts of this Bible that we focus on, that God is a monster,” Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Pearson in the movie, declares at a pivotal point. “If we’re really saying that God sends billions of people to burn in hell for eternity for missing the mark, or missing the point, or being born someplace else, well that God is a monster, that God is worse than Hitler, that God is worse than Saddam Hussein.” This is blasphemy, but it is also supporting a heresy.
This declaration came from Pearson’s own words. “The way the God of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is presented, he’s a monster. The God we’ve been preaching is a monster. He’s worse than Saddam. He’s worse than Osama bin Laden,” Pearson said. “He’s worse than Hitler the way we’ve presented Him, because Hitler just burned 6 million Jews, but God is going to burn at least 6 billion people and burn them forever.”
In the movie, the bishop cites two verses to overcome the general testimony of the New Testament. First, he references 1 John 2:1-2: “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.”
“It means Jesus died for everybody,” Pearson explains. “Everyone’s included in the redemption, even people that never accepted Christ, never heard the word of God, never set foot in a church, all those people in Africa and everybody else. Everyone’s already saved. And that is the finished work of the cross.”
The few verses right before this verse reveal just how egregious this twisting of 1 John really is. John opens his letter with a powerful call to walk in the light: “But if we walk in the light as [God] is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleans us from all unrighteousness.”
First John 2:1-2 does not contradict 1 John 1:9. Confession of sins is necessary for the forgiveness of sins, and 1 John 2:1-2 does not give Pearson grounds to say that “everyone’s included in redemption,” because it explicitly excludes people who do not confess their sins. Furthermore, John’s letter is directed toward Christians, those who have already accepted the gospel. The cleansing from sin discussed in 1 John 2:1-2 is restoration for Christians who sin.
Pearson also twists 1 Corinthians 15:22 (“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive”) to preach universalism. When Saint Paul wrote that verse, he defended the doctrine of resurrection of the dead. In Christian teaching, all people will rise from the dead and be judged at the last day. Salvation in Christ is not based on anyone’s moral merits (Ephesians 2:8-9), for all people deserve hell for rejecting God, but those who belong to Jesus Christ will be saved.
In the very next verse, Paul emphasizes a distinction between humanity and those who believe in Jesus Christ. After saying that all shall be made alive in Christ, Paul writes, “But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” First Corinthians 15:22 cannot be a universalist verse, because the very next verse suggests that not all people belong to Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, rejecting the notion of hell pits any Christian against the clear words of Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself clearly taught that most people would not be saved. “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14).
In Matthew 25, Jesus says that He will come in glory and judge all people. To those who help the poor and needy, Jesus will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). Those who do not help the needy “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46).
Jesus also taught, “if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched'” (Mark 9:43-48).
Even so, Pearson rejects Jesus’s clear teaching, and pushes others to also reject it. In an interview with American University Radio, the pastor on whom “Come Sunday” is based said, “We are dealing with at least 2,000 years of entrenched indoctrination.”
In that interview, Pearson suggested that rejecting hell would make Christianity more palatable to non-believers. “We’re not really winning ‘lost people,'” he said. “And I said to my people: You’re not really witnessing, you’re afraid to. So stop telling people they have to get saved — tell them they’re already safe with God, that any issue between them and God was resolved in Christ. Don’t impose sin, don’t ask them/tell them that they’re on their way to hell and all that kind of stuff.”
This teaching contradicts Romans 10:9, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” It also contradicts John 14:6, in which Jesus declares, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
God is a merciful God, but He is also a just God. Each person, in his or her heart, has rejected God, and in Christianity there is no greater crime than rejecting the God who made you. This violates the “great and First Commandment,” “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). God does not willy nilly send people to eternal torment (Revelation 21:8, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, Jude 1:7, Revelation 20:14). Indeed, He has offered a way out, but it is only through Jesus Christ.
Telling everyone they are already saved would be spreading a false hope, according to the Bible. This message is very tempting to many people, however. Universalism overlooks the horrid nature of sin, and it relieves Christians of the burden of sharing the saving love of Jesus Christ with the world.
In one essential way, Pearson is right, however. “Come Sunday” opens with Pearson feverishly preaching to everyone he can, getting people to “pray the prayer” to “close the sale” and get someone “saved.” This hyper-evangelism often drives people away from Christianity, and ignores the heart of Jesus’s Great Commission.
Jesus did not tell His disciples to go out and just make converts, He told them to make disciples (Matthew 28). He also did not tell them to get “sales,” but Paul did tell Christians to “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is in you. But do so with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that when you are slandered, those who revile your good name in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:15-16).
Christians should plant the seeds of faith in other people’s lives, enabling people to understand the gospel, and trusting that the Holy Spirit will bring God’s people to Himself. Christians do not save people — only God can convince someone of the gospel (1 Corinthians 1:8). It is also important for Christians not to think their work is done when someone “prays the prayer” to accept Jesus. Discipleship is a life-long process, and the presence of God that defines heaven is available to the repentant in this world through the Bible and the Holy Spirit.
Pearson was right to reject the sales-focus of modern evangelization. Getting someone to “pray the prayer” is not the end-all be-all of a Christian witness. Churches should learn from Pearson’s example that this kind of conversion culture drives people away and arguably harms the gospel message.
God isn’t a moral monster like Adolf Hitler, but He isn’t the great cosmic salesman either. Christians should reject the sales mentality of modern evangelization without also rejecting the clear teaching of the Bible. In addition to making movies about Pearson, perhaps Netflix should make a movie about preachers like Billy Graham, a man who held faithful to the gospel until the end. Why should heretics get all the attention?
Watch the trailer below.