Come Sunday

Come Sunday—streaming now on Netflix—recounts a period in the life of Carlton Pearson, a charismatic (no pun intended) pentecostal preacher of renown who, in the late 90s, came to believe that there was no inherent need for anyone to make a conscious decision to follow Christ in order to be saved from eternal damnation. For many, this denoted him a universalist and a heretic. His church in Tulsa atrophied. His friends and mentors abandoned him. His fame was tainted. Eventually, he found new community among the Christ-confessors who believe as he does. This is history. It’s not a spoiler.

Come Sunday doesn’t get into the particulars of what Pearson comes to believe. His come-to-a-more-accepting-Jesus moment is quickly sketched. Pearson loses his uncle to suicide and then sees a special on television about people dying in Africa, ostensibly without ever hearing the name of Jesus. The movie is admirably unclear on which of these two precipitating events finally prompts Pearson’s conversion to a form of universalism. Maybe it’s guilt. Maybe it’s compassion. Maybe it’s both. You decide. Letting it be ambiguous complicates the character. In any case, Pearson goes on the next Sunday to preach that God doesn’t damn those unconfessed masses to hell, and all hell breaks loose in his life. Most of the movie concerns him reckoning with the fallout and being tempted to recant on his new belief.

This is the primary concern of the film – the communal cost of stepping outside the bounds of conventional creeds. What Come Sunday lacks in theological nuance, it makes up for in communal stakes. The scenes where Pearson has to decide between being true to his beliefs or keeping a dear friend are heart wrenching. Come Sunday doesn’t do quite enough to develop these relationships ahead of these scenes, but the actors do a fine job imbuing the moments with real emotion.

I am unfamiliar with Pearson, and I haven’t looked into Pearson’s actual beliefs since seeing the film, so I can only comment on the character’s beliefs as presented in the film. I find it fascinating that he switches from one kind of dogmatism to another. At first he believes that you must say a prayer of salvation in order to be saved. Then he believes that you don’t have to at all. On both sides of his soteriological chasm, he is an absolutist. There’s even a scene where he preaches the more open New Testament passages, the ones that suggest Christ’s sacrifice covers all, as a defense against the passages that suggest the opposite, as if the more open passages supersede the others. Clearly, the Bible includes both kinds of salvations. Yes, you must confess to be saved, and yes, Christ’s sacrifice covers all. Those statements are mutually exclusive, and they’re both in the Bible. More interesting than which is true is the fact that the Bible claims both.

The more pertinent question is, do you yield to the sovereignty of God? God will save whom God wants how God wants. Can you love God and each other in the midst of the ambiguity? In Come Sunday, neither Pearson nor his critics can. They all fail.

Fortunately, where performance and pretense and preaching fail, songs persist. And when Come Sunday comes up against the impenetrability of the true nature of things, it defers to song. So I’ll close this review with a favorite of mine that touches on this subject, Rich Mullins’ “The Love of God.” It gives me solace when I am distressed by our inability to know or to be kind to each other in our collective unknowing:

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy we cannot find in our own,

And he keeps His fire burning to melt these hearts of stone,

Keeps us aching with a yearning,

Keeps us glad to have been caught

In the reckless, raging fury

That we call the love to God


Now, we’ve seen no band of angels, but we’ve heard the soldiers’ songs

Love hangs over them like a banner, love within them leads them on

To the battle on the journey

And it’s never gonna stop

Ever widening their mercies

And the fury of His love


Oh, the love of God

Oh, the love of God


Joy and sorrow are this ocean, and in their every ebb and flow

Now, the Lord, a door has opened that all Hell can never close.

Here we’re tested and made worthy

Tossed about but lifted up

In the reckless, raging fury

That they call the love of God