Last night I logged onto Netflix and immediately saw a new release to the streaming service - a movie called "Come Sunday." I watched the trailer for the movie and was intrigued. It's a true story about a Pentecostal minister named Carlton Pearson who eventually adopted a universalistic theological stance and was subsequently excommunicated from his church and denomination. I clicked "Play" and found the movie engaging and intriguing. Although Pearson eventually comes to adopt what I would consider to be an unorthodox and heretical theology, I thought it was a good movie and one that is worthy of being watched. In fact, I would recommend that parents of high school-aged children watch the movie and work together to think biblically about how Pearson comes to his conclusions outside of the guidance of the Bible and against the counsel of close and trusted godly friends. If anything, the movie is a fantastic example of how man's wisdom fails and the wisdom of God as found in his word holds true. (Note: the movie contains a couple of "mild" swear words and some discussion of homosexuality).
Pearson starts out as an orthodox Pentecostal minister who consistently and persuasively preaches the biblical gospel to his church and to all those who will hear. As time goes on, however, he becomes increasingly disturbed by the plight of Africans - particularly Rwandans - who are dying as a result of war and atrocity. He cannot bring himself to understand how God - a loving God - would condemn to hell those who have not heard the gospel due to no fault of their own, and who are condemned to perish forever in hell simply because they were unfortunate enough to be born in a country where Christianity is not prevalent, and ruthless violence is a regular part of life and death. Pearson is torn by what the Bible teaches about the punishment of hell for unbelievers, and the plight of his unevangelized fellow human beings.
Later, Pearson tells his church that he has had a direct revelation from God - hearing a voice "as clear as my own" - that those who die without ever hearing the gospel are already saved and in heaven. In short, Pearson adopts a universalistic soteriology, meaning that he believes that all people will be saved, regardless of their knowledge or belief. When members of his church - including trusted friends - push back against his newfound universalism, Pearson clings to the personal revelation he received as his reason for not being willing to recant. After all, why would God have told him that all people would be saved if it weren't true? Even when encouraged to consider the possibility that the devil told him this, and not God, Pearson balks, and holds that his personal revelation is from God and is true.
The rest of the film deals with the consequences of Pearson's new beliefs (such as losing his church, his excommunication, strained family relationships, etc.). The movie is superbly acted, especially by its star (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who was heretofore unknown to me, and is entertaining and engaging to the end. I especially appreciated how the movie was fair and balanced to the different stripes of Christian belief that were present. In other words, none of the characters were made to seem as Bible-thumping crazy religious people, even though they held very different views. Additionally, the movie's treatment of homosexuality was good and balanced. It's refreshing to watch a movie with religious themes that doesn't make you feel like your beliefs are getting picked on.
Although the movie is indeed entertaining and engaging, it is worth noting that the primary issue that it raises (Pearson's struggle over how God can allow people to go to hell who have never heard the name of Jesus, and his eventual embrace of universalism) is not new, nor is he the first to succumb to its draw. This is a question that honest believers have wrestled with - and provided solid, biblical answers to - for centuries. In fact, one of the characters in the movie (Pearson's closest friend and advisor, Henry) gives Pearson a solid biblical answer to his questions. He says that everyone has exposure to God, regardless of their geographical location or cultural eccentricities (Romans 1.19-20) according to what has been made (creation), and are therefore responsible to seek him. Indeed, even God's invisible attributes are made known to all people. Those who seek God according to his natural revelation will find him, as Henry says, "...through a missionary, or through a dream or a vision." This answer, however - both generated from scripture and from the mouth of a wise and godly friend - is not enough to persuade Pearson.
Perhaps the biggest warning given by the movie to Bible-believing Christians is the danger of so-called personal revelation. After all, Pearson's persuasion to universalism is primarily and almost completely founded on "hearing God's voice." The foundation for Pearson's move to universalism is that he allegedly heard God speak to him and tell him that all people are saved. To be fair, Pearson does use 1 John 2.1-2 as a proof text for his newfound beliefs, but his argument from scripture for universalism takes a far back seat to the personal revelation he received from God (not to mention that 1 John 2.1-2 is not even close to teaching universal salvation, nor does the film portray Pearson dealing with the immensity of scripture that teaches individual salvation).
This is the danger of "hearing" from God outside of his word. We have no objective way of knowing that the voices, impulses, or feelings that come and go in our hearts and minds are from God, or are from the undigested bit of pepperoni pizza I ate last night. If we regard personal "revelation" and feelings from God to be authoritative in our lives, a large number of people would venture out on all sorts of crazy crusades. Indeed, a brief observation of history yields a myriad of examples of people who have done just that!
Instead, we must trust that God has spoken to us through his word, and that his communication to his people in these last days is limited only to his word. We know that God has spoken to us through the Bible; we are very much less certain about feelings and hearing voices in our heads.
Moreover, to suggest that in order to answer life's difficult questions we need personal revelation from God, the implication is that the Bible is not enough to answer those very same questions. Pearson had a very legitimate and honest question: "What happens to people who die who have never heard the name of Jesus? Will they go to hell?" To find answers to that question, he relied on a "voice from God." What Pearson apparently didn't know was that God has already answered this question with the voice of his word (see Romans 1.19-20). If Pearson believed that he needed a personal revelation from God to answer his question, then he (either knowingly or unknowingly) implied that the Bible was not sufficient to answer his question.
Bible-believing Christians reject this notion. In his word, God has given us everything we need for life and godliness. If we were in need of additional revelation from God to be able to think, live, and answer difficult questions in life, then by necessity the Bible is insufficient. And, as Pearson's story so vividly and painfully illustrates, when we elevate personal revelation above the revelation of God in his word, we are very easily drawn away from the true and saving message of the gospel.
The Bible is enough. Know it. Love it. Live it.