One reviewer summarized this movie that recently appeared on Netflix: “The preacher preaches that he no longer believes in hell, and he loses his church.” That covers the facts, but it misses a lot of complexities of the story:
- His ego was so strong that he was convinced the congregation would follow him no matter what he said or did.
- He challenged one of the fundamental beliefs of the evangelical church.
- He left no options open other than to follow down the new direction he had chosen or to recant.
- He made no effort to be diplomatic or transition this change; he simply said, “I have had a message from God,” i.e. he claims a higher power.
- If there is no hell, then there is no heaven - the basic promise of salvation.
In the movie he dramatically makes this statement from the pulpit without warning his staff or giving any indication that he had been considering this drastic change. In reality, it probably happened over a period of time even though he made not have been conscious of his doubts. He is portrayed as a hero for standing up for his new beliefs, but he may have just been stubborn in asserting that he was right and no one else was wrong. You can’t challenge people’s fundamental beliefs and not expect a blow-back. It was as if Billy Graham said you no longer need to be saved.
He starts out as the pastor of a bi-racial megachurch in which his associate is white. This is hard to accept given the chasm in the cultural experiences of the races. He was a protege of Oral Roberts, and this public split makes Roberts look bad. The movie plays up the idea that Roberts had a gay son. The preacher ends up as a part-time pastor in a gay church. This implies that he also has come to accept homosexuality, which is another hot button issue in the evangelical church. The two issues in theology do not necessarily coincide. One is left wondering how much of the story is biographical and how much is fiction. If you claim that homosexuality is not a sin, that does not also claim there is no heaven or hell or that you do not need the salvation of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, some theologians debate what salvation really means. Is it more than just a one-time public declaration of faith? The teachings of Jesus are simple but not direct; they have been open to interpretation throughout the centuries. He lived in another world with a very different culture and tradition. In fact, he was a Jew.
The basic premise of the movie is not theological but demonstrates the fact that so many of these mega churches become cult followings of a personality who is only human. The church is “his” church and not the creation of the congregation or a part of the Christian tradition. When some expectations are not met, the magic disappears. The services are more entertainment than worship so when the theme is changed, the “experience” is lost. Some focus on a gospel of prosperity, and others on a gospel of a wrathful God. Are they really churches or just a TV show?