Last week I watched the recently released film, Come Sunday, on Netflix. The movie is about COGIC bishop, Carlton Pearson’s, slow but sure movement toward what is identified as universal reconciliation.
What is universal reconciliation?This belief can be conflated with general universalism, but it is different. Universal reconciliation (UR)—or Christian universalism—is the belief that all things will ultimately be reconciled to God through Christ. Not some things, not most things, but all things—including all of humanity. On a side note, one of the stronger theological works to present this view is The Evangelical Universalist, authored by Gregory MacDonald (pen name for Robin Parry).
Following our watching of Come Sunday, my wife and I had a great conversation about the topic of “hell” and, so, I wanted to offer some brief thoughts here on the blog.
I will say up front that I don’t personally believe UR is tenable from the Scriptures. [Whew, I may have just avoided the casting of stones from some readers!] But, what is understandable is that UR, on some level, is probably a reaction against what we might call the “traditional view” of hell. This view is known as eternal conscious torment (ECT).
ECT is the view that all sinners who do not believe in Christ will be sent to a specific place called hell (wherever that place may actually be) and it is there that unbelievers will receive conscious punishment for their sin for all eternity. It will never stop, but will go on and on.
And on and on.
And on and on.
Proponents of this view would offer that God has the right to do such, for a) he is perfectly holy and b) we are deeply wicked and sinful. Thus, the only way to appease God’s wrath for our wickedness is either 1) to believe upon Christ and his sacrifice for sins on the cross or 2) receive our due punishment of being consciously tormented forever.
That’s the traditional and more prevalent view of the day.
What Pearson and many others are reacting against is this idea of torment forever. How could the one true God, ultimately revealed in Jesus Christ, torment people forever? How could the God whom is Love not make a way for all people at all times to repent of sin and enter into his joy, even after death?
And that’s what we get in Pearson’s story told in Come Sunday.
However, there is a small (or large) problem here.
I don’t believe UR is unbiblical because I can, subsequently, find enough verses across Scripture to support the traditional view of hell. Rather I see this view—along with the traditional view of ECT—as falling short of Scripture for one major reason: we fail to read and study the Scriptures within their ancient narrative context.
That’s the biggie for me.
For both the UR view that Pearson holds to and the ECT view that so many evangelicals espouse, I believe these views work within a more modern framework rather than those of the ancient biblical text we have. What I mean is that we fail to grasp what certain words and concepts meant for the writers back then, terms as such as sheol, hades, gehenna, destruction, lake of fire, and others.
This is important when engaging with both UR and ECT views, mainly because ECT carries such weight in the church and UR comes as a strong reaction against it. Yes, both look to work from Scripture. But I believe if we get into the nitty-gritty details of the Bible—with help from some solid resources that help us understand the ancient context—we will find both views fall short of what is presented in Scripture.
In adjusting our study, we’ll start to uncover that sheol and hades do not refer to a place of punishment, but rather to the grave itself, the place of the dead. That’s because death was the punishment pronounced on man in the beginning—when you eat from it [the tree] you will certainly die (Gen 2:17).
Not only that, but in studying the word gehenna (the word we translate as “hell”), we might be surprised to note that the word shows up all of 12 times in the the New Testament – 11 by Jesus in the synoptic Gospels, 1 in the epistle of James. And, what’s of even more interest may be that the Valley of Gehenna was an actual place existing just outside the city of Jerusalem, a place where the city’s waste was burned. All of a sudden the phrase “fire of gehenna” makes sense in passages like Matt 18:9. This fire was unending and it destroyed all that was thrown in it.
Sheol (Hebrew) or hades (Greek) was a reality for all humanity. All would die (and we are grateful for resurrection through Christ!).
Gehenna was a real place where the unfaithful would find themselves burning as Rome ransacked the city and destroyed the temple in the late 60s AD (in the same vein that the unfaithful experienced under Babylonian destruction).
The lake of fire, which I believe is different from gehenna, is the final reality for unbelievers. But it is called the second death for a reason (Rev 21:8). The first death, of which we all partake, does not involve conscious torment. The second death will neither.
If interested, I have a short series on my blog that expounds on these details more.
In all, Come Sunday was a good film (taking some license around the actual events of Carlton Pearson, as all films will). I find myself hurting with Pearson as he grapples with the biblical text, considers pastoral questions in the midst of his congregation, and feels the searing pain of losing his closest friends. And there is an honest pull in me at times that desires universal reconciliation to be a real possibility.
But I think our better option is to grapple with the ancient text of Scripture as it comes to us from the authors and form our views on their grounds rather than our own. This also includes a guard against swinging the pendulum so far to the other side in reaction to a prominent position that doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of Scripture.
If we do this, I believe both eternal conscious torment and universal reconciliation will not be plausible.
Check out the trailer to Come Sunday.