Steppenwolf ensemble member Tom Irwin as Pastor Paul in Lucas Hnath's The Christians. Credit: MICHAEL BROSILOW

(This essay contains spoilers.)

Popular culture often portrays the Christian pursuit of faith as a naive desire for clarity and certainty in an unsympathetic world that offers neither. Those depictions typically show Christians deluding themselves with simplistic stories about a heavenly father figure for the sake of a childlike version of happiness. But it’s a rather cynical view, and one that fails to understand that faith is actually a more difficult road than it may seem. It demands you set aside your own desires and submit to a mysterious power beyond human control—a humbling practice that continually invites fear, doubt, and self-loathing.

“There are long periods in the lives of all of us, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive,” Flannery O’Connor once wrote. “Witness the dark night of the soul in individual saints . . . ”

Part of what makes Chicago playwright Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, being performed at Steppenwolf Theatre through January 29, so remarkable is that it explores this rugged underbelly of faith and demands—uncomfortably so—that we stare into the interior lives of its doubting, yet devout characters.

[content-1]As a former fundamentalist Christian and missionary, I’m one of the few people in the audience during a recent performance that may have needed something akin to a trigger warning in advance of the G-rated trauma portrayed in The Christians. Indeed, after reading a review of the show, which is about an evangelical church divided against itself, I nearly decided to skip it because of my deeply personal connection to the material. It isn’t mentioned in the promotional materials, but The Christians seems to be an almost a blow-by-blow dramatization of the real-life account of Oklahoma minister Carlton Pearson—a story that had a profound impact on my own spiritual struggles.

The main character in The Christians is Pastor Paul (Tom Irwin), the patriarch of a thriving megachurch. During an otherwise ordinary Sunday sermon, he tells a story about a seven-year-old boy, a non-Christian, in a third-world country who died in a house fire while saving the life of his sister. Paul questions what he sees as the inhumane orthodoxy of Christian salvation: why would a child who just died in a fire performing the ultimate act of love and sacrifice be sent to burn in the flames of eternal damnation just because he’s not “born again”? He follows up the story by renouncing the idea of a loving God sending anyone of any faith to hell. This radical change to his beliefs—and, by proxy, his congregation’s—creates a great schism in the church.

Carlton Pearson’s story is remarkably similar. (For his part, Hnath says The Christians isn’t a fictionalized version of Pearson’s biography, but he admits the pastor’s story was part of his “research.”) Pearson was a star in the evangelical world in the 90s and early 2000s, counseled presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and was one of a handful of African-American pastors with a nationally televised show. One night Pearson watched a documentary about the horrors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and received what he believed was an epiphany about the true nature of hell: It wasn’t some supernatural prison that God sentenced sinners to after they died; hell was here on earth in the form of the pain and anguish we cause one another.

This isn’t an easy philosophy to accept when you’ve been so deeply invested in the idea of a literal hell, as Pearson found out. In 2002, when he began preaching to his ever-growing Tulsa church a variation of universal reconciliation that he dubbed “the Gospel of Inclusion,” his followers and other pastors began to shun him. The Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops, the organization that ordained him as a minister, deemed Pearson a heretic and thousands of members of his flock began to flee the congregation. By early 2006, he lost his church building to foreclosure and later left Oklahoma for Chicago as he traded fundamentalist Christianity for more tolerant branches of religion—unitarianism and universalism. He’s still preaching his Gospel of Inclusion today and leads a monthly gathering in the South Loop called New Dimensions Chicago, which is billed as “the friendliest, trendiest, most radically inclusive faith consciousness in the Chicagoland area!​​”

Pearson’s story hit me like a lightening bolt in 2007 when I first heard it on an episode of This American Life called “Heretics.” A year prior, I’d left my job as a crime reporter in Jefferson City, Missouri, and moved to the Los Angeles area with about 20 members of my evangelical church to serve as a missionary and start a new congregation called Kairos on the west side of the City of Angels. The philosophy behind Kairos was hopelessly idealistic: If LA is the epicenter of American popular culture and we could somehow influence the culturemakers, the thinking went, we could cause a nationwide, even worldwide impact for Jesus.

I’m not sure I ever believed wholeheartedly in this mission, but I came to LA desperately searching for purpose. Instead, I found the opposite. My once robust personal faith had eroded slowly over the previous decade, after I escaped the downstate Illinois bubble I was raised in for a college life that exposed me to different people, philosophies, and religions. My beliefs weakened further when—like in The Christians—my church in Missouri endured its own small-time schism. Some of the more conservative members left for other churches when a small faction of staff members began adopting the theology of a trendy kind of alt-evangelism known as the Emerging Church. I felt caught in the middle of the divide and began doubting everything.

By the time I listened to the “Heretics” episode of TAL while strolling the iconic oceanside path in Venice, I was practically begging for a reason not to believe that the devil was literally out there in the world devising ways to steal my soul and drag me to hell. Listening to Pearson describe his poignant epiphany, I decided to adopt it, even if it meant I might share a similar fate—rejection from my own community.

Pastor Paul (Tom Irwin) has a theological debate with an associate pastor (Glenn Davis) in <i>The Christians</i>.
Pastor Paul (Tom Irwin) has a theological debate with an associate pastor (Glenn Davis) in The Christians.Credit: MICHAEL BROSILOW

And that’s more or less what happened. A few days after soaking up “Heretics” for the third time, I was sitting in the backseat of a car, cruising on I-10 with my twentysomething pastor named Andy and a few of my churchmates as we headed to a service in Hollywood. It was at that moment that I finally spoke up: “I don’t think I believe in hell anymore.” An awkward hush fell over the group until Andy told me this “wasn’t the right time” to talk epistemology. “Why don’t you form a study group with others and discuss it?” he suggested. It was weak—a pooch punt that strengthened my conviction and helped foster additional uncertainty: If hell is a lie, why isn’t heaven? Can I trust anything the church says?

After unpacking my Russian nesting doll of doubt, I abandoned my mission and moved to Chicago a few weeks later in the fall of 2007, leaving my faith basically drowned in the Pacific. In the nine years I’ve lived here, I haven’t joined another congregation or offered up a single prayer, and I’ve barely exchanged a word with my former brothers and sisters beyond a few Facebook comments.

I’ve considered this a generally positive shift. I adopted a more epicurean life, one focused more on my own needs. Those include knowledge grounded in rationality and science rather than in ridiculous ancient myths about demons and angels and virgin births. And I’ve become more comfortable with the uncertainty that sometimes creeps up, because it now seems there’s less at stake: no heaven, no hell, nothing eternal on the line. And yet . . . am I happier? I’m not sure.

My heart dropped as I watched the end of The Christians Paul unfold. Sure, I knew what kind of ending to expect. I’d heard Ira Glass narrate Pearson’s pain as people he loved coldly turned away from him simply because he changed his mind about the concept of hell. It was nonetheless wrenching to see it play out on stage—to witness Pastor Paul’s world literally shrink as his associate pastors, his most loyal members, and eventually his wife leave his side. At the play’s close, a spotlight narrows and focuses exclusively on Paul. He’s almost certainly right about the nature of hell, but the truth has left him sitting alone in the dark with no one to turn to.

I slowly shuffled out of Steppenwolf in a daze, alone in the dark but for a street light on Halsted shining above, when a terrifying thought crossed my mind. By refusing to believe in a literal otherworldly hell that unbelievers are sent when they die, maybe I, like Paul, have banished myself to a version here on earth. Sartre is right: Hell really is other people—and somehow that’s no more comforting than the idea of eternal damnation.