Why Do Christians Love the Idea of Hell? Part One

I do not think Pearson’s spiritual journey is uncommon. Many have formerly held tight to the idea that God, without compassion, purposes that most of humanity, the creme-de-la-creme of creation, will suffer their afterlives in hell, a conscious, unending torment.

Eventually, they realize that this idea makes no sense. What’s uncommon is how publicly this particular theological move was played out in Pearson’s life and the soundness of the rejection he experienced.

Bishop Carlton Pearson renounces the doctrine of hell
Carlton Pearson, expertly portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave star), in Netflix’ Come Sunday

So what is it about hell that makes so many Christians giddy with anticipation?

Do we carry that much animus against our neighbors who are just not quite up to snuff (as we define it) that we need to know with surety that we will not have to see them again in the hereafter?

Do we nurture such a desperate need to control the behavior of others that we need fear to ensure their compliance?

Why must we exclude the majority of humankind, either past or present, from the hope of eternity with God?

The even bigger question: why are Christians terrified of those who don’t believe in hell but still proclaim both Christian faith and biblical justification of their beliefs? Must we cast them from the camp to keep ourselves and our beliefs safe?

All these questions came to mind as I previewed a soon to be released Netflix original called COME SUNDAY, directed by Joshua Marston. Made in conjunction with This American Life, where this story had previously been told, viewers enter a compelling, even mesmerizing, depiction of the fall of Bishop Carlton Pearson, a Tulsa megachurch pastor, and successful, much in demand, traveling evangelist. He had so much to lose, and so little to gain by speaking out his truth.

And this is a true story.

A true story of Pearson’s fractured home life, always subordinate to the never-ending focus on the church.

The true story of his eye-opening moment when he hears God tell him that God will not, absolutely not, send the starving children of Africa to hell for their salvation is safely in God’s hands.

The true story of the pronouncement of his powerful revelation to his church and the shock of his congregation.

The true story of his associate pastor Henry (played by Jason Segel), and founding partner in the church who plants a new church (taking most of the congregation) just a short distance from the current one.

The true story of Pearson’s rejection at the hands of Oral Roberts, his 25-year father in the faith.

Mostly, it is the true story of one man wrestling with God and emerging crippled–and ultimately better.

Underlying Pearson’s own tragic story is the equally tragic story of the treatment of gay men at the hands of these church leaders.

Oral Roberts (so well played by Martin Sheen that viewers could be excused for thinking that Sheen was channeling Roberts) soundly rejected his gay son, Ron, as forever without hope of salvation. Not long after, Ron committed suicide.

Pearson’s music minister, Reggie (played by Lakeith Stanfield), who sticks with Pearson, is a troubled young gay man. He is also sure of an eternity in hell should he act on his inborn nature. Even so, and utterly guilt-ridden, he does find someone to love. And he eventually develops AIDS.

Director Joshua Marston masterfully takes the viewers on Pearson’s inner journey. We watch with his eyes the rapidly emptying church, the increasingly bare parking lot, the confrontation with his former associate, the sad auction of church furnishings that ends with Pearson weeping uncontrollably in the church parking lot–and we weep with him.

I do not think Pearson’s spiritual journey is uncommon. Many have formerly held tight to the idea that God, without compassion, purposes that most of humanity, the creme-de-la-creme of creation, will suffer their afterlives in hell, a conscious, unending torment. Eventually, they realize that this idea makes no sense.

What’s uncommon is how publicly this particular theological move was played out in Pearson’s life and the thoroughness of the rejection he experienced. In one searing scene, we see Pearson’s wife, the former reluctant First Lady transformed into his champion after his conversion to mercy, in the grocery store having a former member pray over her that demons of deception would leave.

Ultimately, Pearson discovers redemption in the midst of ministry to the gay community after he reconciles with the dying Reggie and recognizes his own blindness to grace. It struck me how often it is in the utterly marginalized that we finally hear the gospel.

Netflix will release the film in mid-April. I hope many will watch it. I hope it will open discussion to how beliefs change over time. I also hope it will help us to stop labeling people as heretics, outside hope of salvation. God is bigger than this.

Photo: Screenshot from COME SUNDAY, preview provided to the reviewer by Netflix.

Read Part Two of Why Do Christians Need to Believe in Hell (with special emphasis on the situation within The United Methodist Church).

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  • Phenomenal post! I grew up in Pentecostalism, in a group that was into Oral Roberts. I have been questioning hell since 2003 (age 18), and concluded it was a cruel, obscene idea. I have started looking into universalism, and a couple of weeks ago, told someone for the first time IRL that I no longer believe in hell. (I had previously mentioned it online.)

    • Richard Worden Wilson

      Is not believing in hell not equivalent to not believing that God will never judge people, that he isn’t actually the judge of what is right and wrong?

  • Tim

    If you actually read the bible carefully with open eyes and an open heart, it is quite easy to see in the overarching narrative that God’s intention is to redeem the entire creation, not just some of it. I have been a universalist since 2007 when I had an experience similar to Pearson’s. The difference is that I didn’t have a large ministry to lose.

    Also, my opinion of Oral Roberts is that he is a theological hack with questionable motives, so it doesn’t surprise me that he rejected Pearson. All of the biblical prophets were rejected by their peers as well.

    • Richard Worden Wilson

      Eyes and heart open but mind possibly blinded by presumptions about what must be true puts false constraints on the truth. God will redeem the entire creation but not all parts of creation–those committed to rejecting and opposing God will not be a part of the renewed creation (at least that is what my eyes and heart and mind find scripture to say). Reading out of scripture only what one finds acceptable can lead to all kinds of mistaken conceptions–reading all of scripture giving particular attention to the teaching of Jesus and his apostles will give a rather different picture. I may not like everything I read in the Bible but it is not my place to pick and chose what I want to believe from what it says.

  • Agni Ashwin

    The movie is to be released Friday, the 13th of April, 2018. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

  • Timothy Weston

    Hell does two things:
    1. It sates man’s desire for rfevenge
    2. It exposes God as unjust

    • Richard Worden Wilson

      Actually it does neither. Hell does nothing, but God will judge all in the most purely just manner that will ever exist. Your judgements of God will vanish when the one who exists as truth takes the throne of judgment and does what is right and true and just.

  • Clayton Gafne Jaymes

    You know, it is interesting that even many nonChristian don’t like the idea of ‘hell’ but yet they themselves tell all kinds of ppl to go there. I don’t get that one. So apparently even nonbelievers like the idea of it on some level for ppl they on’t like for a justifiable reason or not.

    That all said, I as a Christian understand the teaching of ‘hell’ to be a matter of the ‘second death’. This is the death that comes with absolutely no hope of resurrection from the dead. It is a matter of complete nonexistence and that certainly would include unconsiousness. Dead means ‘dead’, not dead but yet alive in some other place as many so called Christians wrongly and falsely believe about the exernal death they know as ‘hell’.

    • Illithid

      I wouldn’t read too much into it when nonbelievers say things like “go to hell”, or “oh, my god”. It’s part of a cultural vocabulary we aquire from the people around us, usually without being aware of it. I’ve been trying to weed such expressions out of my speech, along with words like “retarded”, and it’s really difficult. “Go to hell”, in particular, is likely an expression of momentary anger rather than a considered wish for someone’s eternal conscious torture.

      I find it amusing that some Christians have come up with a final destination for nonbelievers that’s actually what I’d ultimately want. I’m not thrilled about dying in a few decades, but I really don’t want to exist forever.

      • Richard Worden Wilson

        You might find it amusing but I don’t think it is such when Christians read scripture and understand what it says apart from “traditional” distortions of it. I pray you will some day find the non-existence you now experience less attractive than the eternal existence that can only be found in Christ.

        • Illithid

          Umm… no. I’m currently experiencing existence. Nonexistence will be my state after I die, but I won’t experience it because I won’t exist then. Hope that clears things up. And it doesn’t matter whether the afterlife you imagine is attractive or not if I have no reason to think it true. Thanks for the kind wishes, though.

    • Richard Worden Wilson

      In my reading of scripture this understanding makes the most sense.

  • Craig

    Scene: ” Before the Foundation of the World ” —

    God has an idea of creating and bringing into existence person A.

    Person A will have certain thought processes and desires.

    Person A will have a certain personality.

    Person A will want to freely say and do certain things ( Like M, N, O, P, and Q )

    Person A will fit best in the period of 1920 – 1950. They will influence persons X, Y, and Z.

    Person A will freely reject God and not respond positively to God.

    Person A will sin for all of eternity future in their rejection of God.

    Person A will be separated from the presence of God for all of eternity future

    Person A will suffer in eternal torments for all of eternity future.

    Ok… it is now 1920. Time for you ( person A ) to be birthed by Parents J and K.

    “ All Knowing “ and “Morally Perfect God” “wilfully” and “Intentionally”” brings person A into existence ALREADY knowing the full ramifications of what it will mean for person A.

    How is “Morally Perfect God” being morally good TO person A to bring them into existence ?

  • Great post. I came to believe in Christian Universalism/Universal Reconciliation about 8 years ago.

  • ElsieAnne

    Thank you for posting this. It’s about time Christians started putting the concept of hell into it’s gruesome and completely human perspective. No one knows what happens after death, so humans over the last few thousand years have created their own images. The Jewish people who wrote during Biblical times lived hard lives of oppression, war, starvation and slavery. To these people, it was natural to believe that good people who had struggled throughout their lives on this earth would be rewarded after death, and that the cruel individuals who had oppressed and enslaved them would be brought to justice. Whether or not this actually happens is a question that none of us can really know. But once the assumption was made, the story, like all other stories, took on a life of its own. Each religion and generation tried to refine and define the requirements for heaven, excluding more and more people as they went along. Unsurprisingly, it got to the point where anyone they didn’t like, anyone who was different, or anyone whose religious beliefs varied from their own, was, according to human judgment, heading for eternal doom. Early church leaders discovered that this was a great way to control their congregations (and bring in new congregants) so the concept stuck. Fundamentalists of today, whether they are Christian fundamentalists or fundamentalists of other religions, seem to take self-serving pride in believing that they have found the one true answer, and that all others are headed for eternal doom.
    Jesus himself rarely, if ever, mentioned hell, and spent much of His brief adult life trying to convince His followers to put their differences aside and unite in love for one another. He said such things as: love your neighbor; forgive your enemies; judge not lest ye be judged; let he who has not sinned cast the first stone; do unto others as you would have them do unto you; and my personal favorite, the parable of the good Samaritan. Jews hated Samaritans, so Samaritans made an excellent example for Jesus’s point, namely that we should evaluate people based on their actions rather than their beliefs.
    Jesus also said, “My father’s house has many rooms.” Not one big room for people who are all the same. Many rooms, for people from many different groups. May His teachings help us to be as inclusive as He was.

  • Matt Agajanian

    Frankly, from my vantage point, extremesist, Fundamentalist, Conservative, Evangelical, and Born-Again Christians have focused so intently on Biblical Literalism that homeless housing, universal healthcare, any LGBT persona, Afro-American, Latino, Asian American equality, equal rights for women flies straight in the face of their own homo/trans-hatred, sexism, racism, nationalism so as to call any of these groups who are LGBT, African-American, Latino, Asian, etc. has threats to God’s kingdom and thus deserve the worst, Hell.

    Put simply, Republican Christianity caters and feeds these Fundamentalist, Born-Again, Evangelical prejudices in such a way that to these people the Republican Party agrees with their perverse adaptation of Christianity. Put another way, these Chnristians have made God in their own image and the Republican Party is that God.

  • Cliff

    Rob Bell said as much a few years ago in his book LOVE WINS….and he was kicked out of the fundamentalist flock. too….Yes, the traditional Christian Hell is nonsense, but so is much of Christianity’s doctrines and creeds….Christianity needs a serious revisioning/redrafting, a new start…It went off the rails with Paul…