Come Sunday is the most striking film I’ve seen this year. The movie tells the story of Carlton Pearson, a Pentecostal megachurch pastor who declared God would never send people to hell and that everybody was saved. But more than that, it tells the story of Pearson’s community and the fallout of his proclamation. Like Silence, it’s a movie about devout Christians which doesn’t claim to have the answers. It’s an empathetic film about a theological debate, to which both sides have compelling points.
The acting and direction is uniformly terrific. Chiwetel Ejiofor shines as Pearson, expressing his deep doubts, convictions and fears with just glances. Lakeith Stanfield, Martin Sheen and (surprisingly) Jason Segel all turn in terrific supporting performances as well. I felt the segments about Pearson’s home life were a bit too on-the-nose and maybe the least compelling parts of the film, but boy does the rest of it deliver.
The film grapples with the question of God’s love and mercy and the existence of hell. Full disclosure: I do not take Pearson’s side on this debate. But as I watched Come Sunday, I was able to empathize with why he believed everyone was saved while still disagreeing. I also expected Sheen and Segel to become the movie’s bad guys, heartless Puritanical church leaders whom Ejiofor would get to rage against. But they’re not. Instead, they’re loving, human beings. They act exactly like almost any of my Christian friends would. They’re confused and heartbroken when Pearson declares his universalist beliefs and try repeatedly to (lovingly) show him his error. But Pearson believes God has spoken to him, and their arguments fall on deaf ears. They are forced to leave him, eventually, but even flashforwards demonstrate their ongoing love for him and their hope for his reconciliation to the larger body of Christ. They’re not perfect, and Segel’s character falls into the (all-too-real) trap of believing that Pearson’s wrong because their congregation has left. But it was a relief to see a movie where characters spar with Bible verses as they wrestle with a thorny issue, while still remaining compassionate and loving toward one another. Only a late scene with an elder board gets fiery, and it’s understandable in the context.
Come Sunday, depending on your worldview, is either the Job-like story of a man who loses everything because he stands by doing what’s right, or it’s the tragedy of a man, deceived by his own emotions, slowly losing and alienating everyone he cares about. That impression will be crystallized by the film’s final scenes, with Lakeith Stanfield’s character, in which he begs for Pearson to lead him to salvation. He pleads he doesn’t know how to stop sinning but says Pearson can save him; Pearson responds he is already saved. For this hell-believing reviewer, it’s a heartbreaking twist on an earlier scene in which Pearson refuses to lead his uncle (played by Danny Glover) to salvation because he feels it won’t be genuine. Here, he has a beloved, dying friend who genuinely seeks salvation, but Pearson refuses on the basis that it’s unneeded. If hell isn’t real, neither is a tragic; it doesn’t matter what Pearson does. If hell is real, Pearson’s stubbornness–manifest both ways–carries eternal consequences for both men. Which means, in some ways, that Come Sunday becomes even richer viewed through a traditional Christian framework: here is a man who quite literally paves the road to hell with good intentions.
The film is alternately devastating and beautiful, bursting with empathy for every party involved. I sincerely hope more movies about complicated religious subjects are made, because Come Sunday proves it doesn’t have to be about the triumph of one side or another; there’s beauty in understanding. Maybe that’s what we need more of today.