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The Evangelical Bishop Who Stopped Believing In Hell, Now On Netflix

In <em>Come Sunday, </em>Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Carlton Pearson, a real-life megachurch leader who experiences a crisis of faith.
Tina Rowden
In Come Sunday, Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Carlton Pearson, a real-life megachurch leader who experiences a crisis of faith.

About 15 years ago, Carlton Pearson had what you might call a revelation.

It occurred to him that ideas that had informed his entire adult life — about heaven and hell, and what it takes to avoid one and enter the other — were just not true. What was a big deal for his personal faith became a much bigger one in his professional life, because Carlton Pearson presided over one of the country's biggest Pentecostal congregations in Tulsa, Okla., and his rejection of that theology for what he calls the "gospel of inclusion" would cost him just about everything he had.

His story was the basis for a segment on the public radio program This American Life, and is now the subject of the new movie Come Sunday,now out via Netflix. (It stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, who we also talked to about his role.) Pearson says he wantsCome Sunday to make people examine their faith:

"I just want them to rethink," he says. "I want them to ask themselves: What do I believe and why do I believe it? What is the difference between what I believe in my head and know in my soul? Because I think there's a difference."

Interview Highlights

Bishop Carlton Pearson attends a special Los Angeles screening of <em>Come Sunday</em>, which is based on his life.
Michael Kovac / Getty Images for Netflix
Getty Images for Netflix
Bishop Carlton Pearson attends a special Los Angeles screening of Come Sunday, which is based on his life.

On growing up in the church

I'm fourth-generation classical Pentecostal minister: my dad, his dad, my maternal great-grandfather and several of my uncles on both sides. And it kind of [was] something that always fascinated me — I just loved preaching, and felt an urge when I was as young as 5 years old. ...

My parents would punish me by not letting me go to church. That's how badly I wanted to go. I knew the songs, I knew the "saints." All of our family on both sides — all cousins, all relatives — our lives literally revolved around the church.

On Higher Dimensions, Pearson's former megachurch in Tulsa, which was known for its diverse staff, choir and congregation

And under an African American's leadership. Black people have always integrated somewhat to non-black churches or churches that are predominantly white, but not under a black man's leadership. Usually whites don't come to a black person's church as much. We made sure that our leadership was visibly integrated. When I was very young when I started in my 30s, so we attracted a lot of young, curious, eager people that didn't want a traditional church, that wanted something a little bit different ...

We had a high music content — I mean, the band was slammin'. Of course, I was single in those days, and I didn't realize that there were a lot of single women who came, until I got engaged, and the balcony emptied out.

On arriving at the pivotal moment where he doubted his previous beliefs

I was frustrated that we as Christians — we had traffic jams every Sunday morning, and I kept saying: We're not really growing, we're just getting fat. It's spiritual incest here — we're seeding into ourselves. We're not really winning "lost people." They don't know we exist. I went to the city, to the town carnival, and I took my kids. And that's the first time I'd been since I was a freshman in college. And I noticed that — I'd been on nationwide television for years — nobody at that place recognized me. I didn't see people I knew. And I thought: Well maybe – who are these people? We're not reaching this element of our Tulsa community. ... I just thought: I don't think these folks have a clue of what we're talking about.

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. Come in another way.

On the millions who still believe what Pearson used to believe, and the millions who believe it to be total hokum

We are dealing with at least 2,000 years of entrenched indoctrination — at least 2,000 with Christianity, 6,000 if you include Judaism. The concept, though, of a god who has terrible anger management problems, freaks out with these tantrums and throws earthquakes and volcanoes and tsunamis and cancer and AIDS on people, is a very frightening presupposition. It worried me for years. Not the love of God, not the cross of Calvary, but that eternal torment, not just punishment for the time that's worth the crime, but that you eternally ... How can mercy endure forever, and torment endure forever? One would cancel out the other.

And I believe that I'm actually trying to correct the thinking of my people, God's people, the Christian church, Judeo-Christian ethics — change our belief about a God who is angry and who we need Jesus to protect us from. Now that's radical, it's revolutionary and it's evolutionary. Now the same people who watched this movie and said "but he lost everything" are forgetting that 117 million people may get to hear this message. What am I doing in the movie? I'm not dead yet.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.