Most religions need a hell. Worshippers want assurance that bad people will be punished and good ones (meaning themselves) rewarded. They demand human-style justice in a celestial court, with redemption and banishment dependent on belief in the one true deity. For if there is no hell, and we’re all going to be embraced eternally by a loving and forgiving God, why be virtuous on Earth?
A character asks that unanswerable but not unreasonable question in Lucas Hnath’s play “The Christians,” which runs through Oct. 1 at Booth Playhouse.
Hnath likes to provoke thoughts (and maybe people) with his dramas, as the Tony-nominated “A Doll’s House Part 2” revealed on Broadway. Characters in “The Christians” can’t resolve their central dispute. They spin round and round in argumentative circles, clinging to prejudices or inspirations (presumably from the Lord) in matters that can be “settled” only by belief. But their arguments sustain this 95-minute, intermissionless play and send us away cogitating.
The dispute arises from a sermon preached by Paul (Brian Robinson), the charismatic pastor of a megachurch that has just paid off its oppressive mortgage. He announces that financial good news shortly before telling parishioners he’s had a revelation: Hell is unreal. Threatening sinners with it serves no purpose, because we’ll all be reclaimed by God.
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Associate pastor Joshua (Jonavan Adams) can’t buy this notion. He insists every non-believer from Gandhi to Saladin roasts in Hades, however holy their acts were on this planet. He quits the church, taking like-minded people with him. The schism threatens its finances and Paul’s marriage to traditional Elizabeth (Chandler McIntyre). The board of elders, represented by Brother Jay (Graham Smith), wants to support not only a beloved pastor but a balanced budget.
The character who most represents all of us, a single mom who attends the church with her son, wants to be open-minded about Paul’s message but can’t stand up to religious bullying from her friends and the abuse her son gets from classmates. She suspects Paul waited to drop this philosophic bomb until the church was paid off, knowing people would leave as soon as he did – and she may have a point. (April C. Turner plays her with special poignancy.)
Christian thinkers have wrestled with the idea of hell for centuries. Shallow ones thump the Bible and say, “I just follow the rules.” Deep ones such as C.S. Lewis, whose “The Great Divorce” remains the most cogent picture of damnation I know, go further. Lewis imagined a spiritless afterworld full of gray people who chose not to submit to God; eternal separation from the Lord’s love represented a punishment as tragic as any that could be devised.
Hnath mostly sidesteps that aspect of the debate to consider why we need the concept of hell in the first place. He gives every character but Jay a full philosophic say, even if proponents of a fiery eternity have to fall back on the claim that “God says it’s so.”
Director Steve Umberger directs a fast-moving production that leaves breathing space for moments of heartbreak. Robinson so perfectly embodies the pastor that audience members bowed their heads when he said “Let us pray.” His sermon captures the cadences, the pauses, the sudden flashes of insight that aren’t really sudden at all in a canny preacher.
A 15-voice choir, enlivened by three unnamed soloists and directed by keyboard player Dareion Malone, proves a tremendous asset in three hymns, whose texts flash up on video boards alongside the stage.
The last one, Charles Tindley’s “By and By,” sums up the essence of the play: “By and by, when the morning comes/When all the saints of God are gathered home/We’ll tell the story of how we’ve overcome/For we’ll understand it better by and by.” That’s the only answer, in this life, we can hope to have about heaven or hell or anything spiritual in between.
When: Through Oct. 1 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday,8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Booth Playhouse, 110 N. Tryon St.
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.