What is a Heretic? Netflix’s ‘Christian Film’ Come Sunday

A heretic is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a person who differs in opinion from established religious dogma.” Of course, that begs the question of, “Established religious dogma according to whom?”

In the Christian traditions, Roman Catholics say that dogma is established by the Roman Catholic church’s decrees and councils. The Orthodox Church says that dogma was established by the seven ecumenical councils held between 325 and 787. Protestants say that dogma is established primarily by the word of God. At the very least, all three traditions believe that the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed are basic standards of orthodoxy.

I have always been very careful about throwing around the words heresy and heretic. Those words are used way too quickly and frequently in debates, both in person but probably more frequently online, and are often just code for ‘someone who doesn’t agree with me.’ Still, the Bible calls out false teachers and therefore calling out false teachers seems to be at least one aspect of what it means to be a faithful church leader today.

‘Heretic’ was the name of a story broadcast on the NPR show This American Life in 2005 about the crisis of faith that Pentecostal Bishop Carlton Pearson went through in the late 1990s. A new Netflix film, Come Sunday, is based on the NPR show, liberally quoting from it, and from Pearson’s life.

The crisis of faith that Bishop Pearson (as he’s referred to in the film) went through is a fairly common one for many people, and a similar story could have been told about Rob Bell and probably Brian Mclaren. Confronting the news about a genocide in another country, along with coming to grips with his unbelieving uncle’s suicide, Pearson begins to question how a loving God could send somebody to hell. As he wrestles with his previous beliefs about the afterlife and passages such as 1 John 2:2 and Romans 5:18, Pearson believes that he hears the voice of God saying that people don’t need to be saved, because they already are saved. Essentially, Bishop Pearson became a universalist, a position he still holds, by all accounts, today as he ministers at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, OK.

The way that the film treats these new beliefs is interesting. Though it seems to have been made by those outside the Christian community, it is respectful of Christian faith. The film doesn’t set up obvious good guys or clear bad guys, but has empathy for all the main players, from Pearson (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his wife (Condola Rashad) to his mentor Oral Roberts (Martin Sheen) and his assistant pastor Henry (Jason Segel) who leaves Pearson to start a new church. In the end, the film certainly sides with Pearson, but shows the difficult toll his theological change made on him, as well as on those around him.

The problem with universalism, the idea that there is no hell and everyone is going to be saved, is that it has no respect for human choices. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Hell is God’s great compliment to the reality of human freedom and the dignity of human choice.” It also completely undermines the work that Jesus came to do. After all, if we’re all fine, why would Jesus have to come to earth, be put under the law and be put to death? If we’re all going to heaven, why would Jesus say that we must be born again to see the kingdom of God? If sin has no eternal consequences, why would the Bible be so explicit about the dire need of justification for sinners before God? And, as a few different characters in this film say, if there is no hell or punishment in the next life, why would the Bible talk about hell and punishment so much?

Sheen’s Oral Roberts speaks clearly but sympathetically to Pearson in a memorable scene, “[Your teaching that everyone is saved] is heresy. Are you certain it is God’s voice you heard?… Satan is a snake and he chose to speak through you.” Roberts distances himself from his protege Pearson, but holds out an olive branch, that if Pearson will repudiate his false teaching, then there will be a place for him at Oral Roberts University. Pearson cannot go back on what he believes God has told him so he is, in effect, shunned by the charismatic evangelical community in which he had been a star. However, since that time, he has found some measure of new fame in the liberal mainline church and on shows like The Edge with Paula Zahn and Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher.

The confessions of the church objectively show that Carlton Pearson is guilty of heresy, that he has stepped outside of the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. That doesn’t mean that his story is not worth watching. Come Sunday is a thought-provoking film that asks us to walk a mile in the shoes of a conflicted man and to consider whether and how we should judge him. It’s not as easy as the heresy hunters on the internet would have you believe.

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  • Salvatore Anthony Luiso

    I first learned of Carlton Pearson from a report of the television program Dateline NBC, which is entitled “To Hell and Back”, and which was first broadcast in 2006. After I saw the report, I did not have much sympathy for him. From it I got the impression that, even though Pearson was a graduate of Oral Roberts University, he had never had the grounding in the Scriptures that one should expect a minister to have. If I remember correctly, he says in the report that when he believed in Hell, every time he preached on Sunday he tried to save everyone in attendance again–which I understood to mean: every week he preached to make everyone in his congregation feel the same way they felt at the moment they were converted. As a formally educated minister, he should have known that he should not have done that. It is a shepherd’s responsibility to feed His flock with the Word of God: not to be an agent of emotionalism. I think he may always have had more faith in his feelings than in the Word of God.

    Warning about and calling out false teachers are aspects of being a faithful church leader.

    Universalists vary in their beliefs. It is my understanding that some believe that there was indeed a “dire need of justification for sinners before God” and for Jesus “to come to earth, be put under the law and be put to death”. These believe that through the Crucifixion, Jesus made atonement for all people, and so eventually all people will be with God in Heaven.

    Regarding Chesterton: Here is an excerpt from the introduction of his book Heretics (1905):

    The word “heresy” not only means no longer being wrong; it practically means being clear-headed and courageous. The word “orthodoxy” not only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong.

  • Ken Abbott

    I’d add the Definition of Chalcedon to the universally-received standards of the Christian faith.

    The words “heresy” and “heretic” can certainly be abused, particularly in debate. Not all “heretics” are wrong–Martin Luther was certainly correct in any number of teachings for which he was categorized as a heretic in his day (and still by many today). But I hazard to guess that few Christians in any of the three major branches of Christianity would deny the label to plain and simple Arianism or Pelagianism or some of the varieties of modalism that persist to this day.

    Postscriptively, why do we not get more well-produced and thoughtful cinematic treatments of heroic men and women of orthodox persuasion? With apologies to Larry Norman, why do the rebels get all the good movies?

  • Al Cruise

    “no respect for human choices”. This describes Calvinism. Calvinism is very subtle in approach however by placing the responsibility of choice on God first, that way the Calvinists can cover their free will sins.

    • Tom Christian

      IMO, Calvin was only half right.

    • Jack Lee

      This does not describe calvinism at all.

      • Al Cruise

        You’re partly right, it describes the TGC and neo-Calvinism.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    You are a heretic by the standards of
    both the western Catholic and eastern Orthodox church. No Protestant can sensibly start bandying about words Luke “heretic” without simply using an emotive way of saying “I think you’re wrong”. Christian universalists believe their views compatible with the Bible and they do not contradict the creed.
    It may be that Pearson’s views are oversimplified in the film (I haven’t seen it) but some brief checking and it is apparent that Pearson, like most Christian universalists, does not believe that there are no consequences to sin, or that repentance is unnecessary, still less that there are unrepentant sinners in heaven, and you have gravely misrepresented his views. The Christian universalist belief is that God will eventually procure that everyone repents and is saved (even if this means after they die) not that repentance is unnecessary for salvation.

  • Richard Green

    I would point out that the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed are not explicitly contradictory to universalism and that many Christian universalists confess one Creed or the other.

  • Marcus

    Quite a few if not all universalists ascribe to both the idea of God’s punishment and the idea of “hell”: except that the former is corrective in nature and not merely retributive and the latter is temporary and not a condition of eternal conscious torment.

  • John T. Mullen

    It is somewhat curious that Universalism and Unitarianism are so often found together, and (perhaps for that reason) often conflated. But they are clearly distinct. One can be a Universalist without being a Unitarian, and vice-versa. Pearson seems to be both. The author (Dorst) calls him a heretic, but is the label prompted by Pearson’s Universalism, or his Unitarianism? It’s not obvious which is the case. Unitarianism entails a denial of the Incarnation, which makes it very hard to deny that Unitarianism is a heresy. But as some others on this blog (Marcus and Richard Green) have already pointed out, it is nowhere near as obvious that Universalism should be called a heresy. One can believe in the Incarnation, the Atonement of Christ as a necessary condition for salvation, and the Resurrection (in the body) of Christ, and still consistently think that everyone eventually will be saved. Does heresy really extend beyond those boundaries? I’m worried that the author has labelled Pearson a heretic because he denies the Incarnation, and then illegitimately extended the label to his Universalism. Probably he (the author) is persuaded that Scripture teaches that Universalism is false, but that hardly makes it a heresy. That would be just another instance of calling anyone who disagrees about theology a heretic, a practice the author said he wants to avoid.

    • soter phile

      Except that it requires ignoring Jesus’ clear & repeated teaching on Hell… a topic he raises more than anyone else.

      Christian Universalists would have us believe Hell had a very brief population of 1.
      Never mind what Jesus said blatantly to the contrary or the urgency with which he said it.

      That’s why the bigger problem here is the hermeneutic necessary to ignore clear & repeated teaching.
      In an attempt to ‘rescue’ God from his own Word, universalists fashion a god of their own liking.
      Problem is, it is not the God who reveals himself in the Scriptures – even uncomfortably so.

  • Pilgrim

    When clarity is needed, the primary source is recommended. Jesus is the primary source of authority on the topics of hell and judgment.
    Jesus preached and warned against hell–many times, more than all the other prophets combined. The doctrine of Soteriology is the study of the doctrine of salvation. Soteriology discusses how Christ’s death secures the salvation of those who believe. It helps us to understand the doctrines of redemption, justification, sanctification, propitiation, and the substitutionary atonement.
    Despite God’s love for and patience with sinners, it is a horrid mistake to dismiss the Bible’s clear teachings on hell. Richard Niebuhr characterized the ongoing attempt of liberal Christians to deny hell as “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”Jesus said more about hell than about any other topic. Amazingly, 13 percent of His sayings are about hell and judgment; more than half of His parables relate to the eternal judgment of sinners. ‘Since we have now been justified by his [Jesus] blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!’ (Romans 5:9) Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. –Jude 7 Nowhere does the bible speak of Annihilationism.

    • Rod Bristol

      Punishment of eternal fire is annihilation. The consuming fire and the consuming worm are eternal; the one condemned to destruction is not eternal.

      • soter phile

        Jesus: “And these [wicked] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Mt.25:46)

        The Greek here does not help your case much. It rather clearly says “everlasting chastening,” with even the much rarer, alternate interpretation being “practically forever/for an age/eons (literally).”

  • Though he wasn’t a personal friend, I knew Carlton Pearson from my days at ORU. And I know what it was like to have a one-way conversation with Oral. And I can certainly agree with the need to lovingly confront Carlton over his descent into universalism. At the same time, Oral succumbed to certain ambitions in how he ran the university and he, himself, succumbed to his seed-faith gospel. So Oral also needed loving confrontation.

  • Tom Christian

    If God is “Sovereign” as Augustine and Calvin assert, could not such a sovereign God at any moment change his own rules (or what some perceive as rules) and say, “Ok, everybody’s in free–that’s really what it’s all about anyway.” Something like that sounds a lot like several of Jesus’ well known parables.

    • Jack Lee

      He cannot change rules that are in violation of his character – which is both loving and just. If God were leave sin unpunished that violate His being.

      • Tom Christian

        “Even if we restrict our inquiry into the nature of God to the Bible, we are likely to find
        just the kind of God that we want to find. If we want a God of peace, he’s
        there. If we want a God of war, he’s there. If we want a compassionate God, he’s
        there. If we want a vindictive God, he’s there. If we want an egalitarian God,
        he’s there. If we want an ethnocentric God, he’s there. If we want a God
        demanding blood sacrifice, he’s there. If we want a God abolishing blood
        sacrifice, he’s there. Sometimes the Bible is like a Rorschach test — it reveals
        more about the reader than the eternal I AM.”

        – Brian Zahnd, from his forward to A More Christlike God by Brad
        Jersak
        _______________________________________

        In the NT there is no statement that “balances” God’s love and/over against his “justice” which you interpret as “punishment”. There is one definitive ontological statement as to the nature of God, “God is love.”

        If God is indeed “sovereign” he can at will change whatever rules he wishes. But, perhaps, the term “sovereign” doesn’t even apply?

  • Sergio

    Most assuredly, Jesus Christ came as the one perfect sacrifice for our sins. Yes, I would always desire to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every person, because the understanding that we are all sinners, the knowledge of that fact, the belief and trust in the Gospel and the repentance that comes by way of one’s acceptance of the Gospel leads to a life filled with hope. Simply put, salvation in this life makes living easier. So believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ!

    That said, God’s mercy and grace has no expiration date.

    Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon ALL men unto justification of life.

    Who will have ALL men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.

    The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that ANY should perish, but that all should come to repentance.

    Suppose you had the power and ability to take an inanimate substance (dust) and create an animate being, and should make one, at the same time knowing that this creature of yours would suffer everlasting misery? Would your act of creating this creature be an act of mercy?

    The scriptures, where we find the truth, without the personal opinions and beliefs of humankind, gives us a clear understanding.

    Yes, those who did not accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ in this life will be cast into the lake of fire as punishment for that sin.

    But…there is not a verse that explicitly tells us that sinners remain there forever. So who does remain there forever and ever? Again, the scriptures give us the answer. There are only three that remain in the lake of fore forever and ever.

    And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone. And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

    Imagine you are a lost sinner, Upon your death you stand before God and discover your name is not written in the Book of Life. Then you are cast into a lake of fire. That reality of pain and suffering for your sins would make any lost soul cry out to God, repent of their sins and plead for mercy. And that is amazing thing about a long-suffering God whose mercy and grace does not have an expiration date.

  • Tom Christian

    “Pearson believes that he hears the voice of God saying that people don’t need to be saved, because they already are saved.”

    And, that begs the questions, saved how/from what/to what doesn’t it?

    “All men are Christ’s, some by knowing him, the rest not yet. He is the
    Savior, not of some and the rest not. For how is he Savior and Lord, if
    not the Savior and Lord of all?”

    ~ Clement of Alexandria

  • Rodolfo Samaniego

    Rather just read the Bible, as it His word rather anyone’s claim of having heard Him speak. If it’s not in the Bible and if the one who speaks live inconsistently with what is taught therein, sorry. Another distortion.