COMMENT:

It was a year ago, almost to the day, that Netflix screened a movie called Come Sunday. Israel Folau needs to watch it.

It's the true story of Carlton Pearson, formerly a bishop and giant attraction in the US Pentecostal and Charismatic Christian movement which espouses similar beliefs as in Folau's tweets about gays and others going to hell if they don't repent.

The movie traverses Pearson's transformation from a Christian very much in sync with many of Folau's extreme beliefs. Pearson was a damnation and hellfire preacher in religious circles which embraced harsh, biblical, Pentecostal fundamentalism coupled with the power and big business properties of American TV evangelism.

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In the early 2000s, Pearson watched a documentary about the Rwandan massacres — realising that, according to his beliefs, the babies being slaughtered would go straight to hell as they had not embraced Christ. That changed him overnight, bringing on the revelation there is no hell and God is not Christian, Jewish, Muslim or whatever. Just God.

He opted for inclusion, dismissing beliefs that non-believers and sinners end up in flames being tormented by a demon with a trident; rather that all people — regardless of colour, creed, gender, political and sexual persuasion — come to God through divine mercy.

It cost him everything — his church, his congregation and millions of dollars as fundamentalist Christians turned on him.

He rebuilt himself, his church and congregation; his profile is smaller but he says he found peace with his new beliefs. On gays, he said: "If every gay person in our church just left or those who have an orientation, or preference, or an inclination, or a fantasy, if everyone left, we wouldn't have a church."

Folau's social media utterances have sparked countless references to Voltaire's "I don't agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it" maxim, and debate on whether it was free speech or hate speech.

It's effectively the latter, in my view, and has now been delivered twice — and this time seems more cynical. Folau went to ground after his latest views went public. So he is committed to his views, but not to standing up in the face of criticism and defending them.

Israel Folau pointing to the heavens. Photo / Getty
Israel Folau pointing to the heavens. Photo / Getty

Folau has just turned 30; a world-class rugby, league and Australian Rules player, he was a Rugby World Cup shoo-in but is closer to the end of his career than the beginning.

There are rumours he's done this to get out of his current contract so he can play in France. But that seems wrong — there are plenty of ways to weasel out of a contract without playing the Jesus card. It may be he has decided he has a new calling — and his latest outburst against the damned seems deliberate, certain to end his sporting career. Even the NRL say they wouldn't have him back.

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The word "martyr" leaps to mind. According to the Daily Mail, Folau was filmed recently giving a sermon in a Sydney church where he criticised Christians for celebrating Easter and Christmas, saying they were for "heathens". He accused Catholics of turning Mary into an "idol" and said wetting babies' heads during christening was wrong.

That was followed a few weeks later by his latest contention that all "drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters" are sinners.

When Come Sunday was launched, Pearson said the passionate belief that sinners would go to hell unless they accepted Christ drove him. He would walk past someone smoking or drinking a beer and think they were going straight to hell — and he would try to convert them, to save them. If he didn't, he felt he was abandoning that person to the fires of hell.

The charitable explanation of Folau's tweets and beliefs is that he feels the same way. The cynical view is that he is slipping off his rugby jersey and slipping on religious robes to build or join the same sort of a fundamentalist movement that earned Pearson fame and riches.

Whatever the truth, there's no place for this in rugby or any other sport.

Everyone is entitled to their beliefs, but forcing it down the throat of others — and using a sporting pedestal of fame to do it from — is simply wrong.

Pearson's new view is that hell is right here on earth and heaven is for everybody. Surely that's the way to go if you are subject to heaven and hell and other religious contentions; surely the world is a better place if we are all more accepting of one another. Can anyone seriously say it's preferable to have a superior minority who believe the rest of us are damned?

Time for Folau to go. Many won't miss him and he has sadly managed to colour his sporting prowess with cruel bigotry.

It's likely Wallabies coach Michael Cheika agrees with Pearson that hell is found here on Earth — his best player is disappearing in a cloud of controversy.

The Waratahs might also miss him but then they lost to the Sunwolves recently. Maybe a sign from above.