If God is loving, why is there a hell? If salvation is only granted by the Church, what about those who have never encountered Christ? How can a just God allow that? 

Seven centuries ago, the poet Dante asked himself these questions. In one of the most wildly imaginative and theologically profound pages from his “Paradiso,” Dante stands in front of a gigantic eagle formed by all the souls of the saved, a symbol of justice. 

And it is looking in the strange animal’s eye — from Dante’s perspective, that means looking into God’s eye — that Dante gets to ask the question that has been consuming him for a long time: “A man is born in India, and all his deeds are good, he has never heard of God or baptism … why do you condemn him?”

“Come Sunday” (directed by Joshua Marston and streaming now on Netflix) asks the same questions. Pentecostal pastor Carlton Pearson has it all: a church full of worshippers, a beautiful wife, a comfortable life and terrific success in his ministry. 

He preaches to enthusiastic multiracial congregations and saves lost sheep, including a woman he sits next to on a plane, whom he convinces to pray with him and be saved on the spot.

Then something takes place: His uncle Quincy asks him a favor from prison. His parole has been denied on a charge of drug possession, and he needs Pearson to plea for him with the prison board. Pearson denies the request, disappointed that Quincy has not summoned him to finally convert and be saved. Quincy hangs himself a few days later. 

One night Pearson stumbles upon a TV show showing the death of children in Rwanda’s catastrophic civil war. There it dawns on him that, no, it can’t be right. A loving God cannot have condemned all those children to hell, and thus, he should not despair about the salvation of his uncle.

What follows is Pearson’s courageous struggle to be faithful to what he believes God has told him. In the process, he loses everything he has: his friends, his full-house Sunday preaching, his money and his prestige –– until the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops declares him a heretic.

There is much to be praised about this movie, besides Chiwetel Ejiofor’s (Pearson) stunning performance. The movie has compassion for all its characters, even the friends who abandon Pearson as soon as he announces his new perspective. 

And the plot defies cliché: this is not a feel-good story of a man who fights a blind and corrupt establishment, suffers but comes out successful at the end. Pearson’s church never becomes full again. 

Rather, the movie’s trajectory follows Pearson’s internal change. At the beginning he is self-assured, self-absorbed and estranged from his wife. There is something too mechanic and legalistic in the way he thinks he can dispense salvation, and he lacks compassion for the humanity of his uncle and others around him. 

At the end of the movie he has become more understanding and compassionate. He reconciles with his wife. He tearfully embraces his dying homosexual friend and tells him that there’s no longer any need to resist his impulses because he will be saved regardless of when death comes.

The problem with this movie is how this internal trajectory is tied to a dangerous doctrinal swing from one extreme of the spectrum to the other.

In the 14th century, the eagle graced Dante with an answer. Non-Christians may indeed be spared eternal damnation and be saved. Their salvation may still happen through Jesus Christ, but in a mysterious way whose details and complexity cannot be fathomed by human intelligence. It would be like trying to see the bottom of a deep ocean. 

The movie does a fine job of helping audiences understand how limited and narrow Pearson’s initial position is, but the pendulum swings too far away from the truth when the pastor convinces himself that hell does not exist, and that everyone is already saved regardless of their actions.

This surprising conclusion is tied to the internal trajectory in the protagonist’s life in a troubling way. It seems as though someone who claims that hell exists will always be intolerant and incapable of mercy. It is only when Pearson understands that everyone is saved that he becomes fully capable of love. 

The difficult problem of how to reconcile God’s love with the existence of hell is solved in a brutal manner by erasing the latter. The mystery is no longer there. Pearson’s God shrinks to a size narrow enough for human understanding, one small enough for man to live happily without.

To put it one way, “Come Sunday” replaces Dante’s deep ocean with a bathtub. You can easily see the bottom of a bathtub, but the space is limited, so small that you are hardly free to move. 

The film seems to forget that one basic reason for the existence of hell is human freedom. Pearson’s new theology leaves no freedom for the soul to reject God. 

That means some serious problems with the seating arrangements at the heavenly banquet. To their own disappointment, generations of atheists will be forced to sit at table with God for eternity. 

Victims will have to sit with their tormentors, as if nothing happened, while the still-living child-torturers of this world can happily continue with their lifestyle, which may not make them happy, but will not exclude them from eternal bliss.

Ironically enough, an initial demand for divine justice ends up making God responsible for the worst injustice of all: that of leaving unnoticed the blood of the innocent. 

Dante’s underworld journey in “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso” is constellated by encounters with horrible sinners who converted at the last minute, but none of them found purification without profound suffering. Catholic doctrine on salvation entails a delicate balance between justice and grace. 

If you emphasize justice too much you end up with a legalistic and narrow view of the possibilities and mysteries of divine grace. If the pendulum swings too much in the other direction, you end up, as in “Come Sunday,” with a God who is deaf to mankind’s cry for justice.

Stefano Rebeggiani is an assistant professor of Classics at the University of Southern California. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children.

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