Hell? No. We Won’t Go.
On December 5, 2008, Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life aired an episode called Heretics, which may be streamed here. The entire episode focused on the story of Tulsa Pentacostal Bishop and Oral Roberts protégé Carlton Pearson, a fundamentalist preacher and political rising star with a 5000-member megachurch who lost nearly everything when he stopped believing in Hell and started preaching a Gospel of Inclusion.
In true American fashion, Pearson’s Damascus Road moment happened while he was stuffing his face in front of the TV. As he told This American Life interviewer Russell Cobb,
When my little girl—who will be nine next month—was an infant, I was watching the evening news. The Hutus and Tutsis were returning from Rwanda to Uganda and Peter Jennings was doing a piece on it. Now, Majesty was in my lap—my little girl—and I’m eating a meal and I’m watching these little kids with swollen bellies and it looks like their skin is stretched across their little skeletal remains, their hair is kinda red from malnutrition. These babies, they’ve got flies in the corners of their eyes and their mouths. They reach for their mother’s breast and their mother’s breast looks like a little pencil hanging there. I mean the baby’s reaching for the breast and there’s no milk! And I, with my little fat-faced baby and a plate that’s full and a big-screen television, I said, “God: I don’t know how you can call yourself a loving, sovereign God, and allow these people to suffer this way, and then just suck them right into Hell” which was what was my assumption. And I heard a voice say within me, “So that’s what you think we’re doing?”
And I remember I didn’t say yes or no, I said, “That’s what I’ve been taught. We’re suckin’ them into hell.”
And God said “Yes. What would change that?”
“Well, they need to get saved.”
“And how would that happen?”
“Well, somebody needs to preach the Gospel to them and get them saved.”
“So, if you think that’s the only way they’re gonna get saved is for somebody to preach the gospel to them, and we’re suckin’ them into Hell, why don’t you put your little baby down, turn your big screen television off, push your food away and go get on the first plane to go get them saved?”
And I remember I broke into tears. I was very upset. I remember thinking, “God, don’t put that guilt on me. I’ve given you the best forty years of my life and besides, I can’t save the whole world. I’m doin’ the best I can. I can’t save this whole world.
And I remember—I believe it was God—saying precisely, “You can’t save this whole world. That’s what WE do. You think we’re suckin’ them into hell? Can’t you see they’re already there? That’s Hell! You keep creating and inventing that for yourselves. I’m taking them into my presence.”
In one sense, Pearson hasn’t proposed anything new. His Gospel of Inclusion closely resembles the doctrine of Universal Reconciliation, which has surfaced in liberal Christianities for centuries. And for those of us schooled in things like comparative religion and secular humanism, it’s basically a minimum requirement for taking people of faith seriously. But Carlton Pearson is no mainliner. Part Quincy Jones and part P.T. Barnum, he is perhaps first and foremost a consummate entertainer. His target audience, at least before his heretical revelation, was the Pat Robertson/Jerry Falwell crowd—people whose interest in learning about the roots of their own faith is largely confined to the memorization of apologetics in order to defend their rigid and brittle literalism to naysayers.
To me, what’s interesting about Pearson’s revelation isn’t so much what he’s saying as who he is saying it. As much as any of us liberal intellectual types may wish to free the hearts and minds of American evangelicals from their destructive cycles of fear, hatred and denial, our best efforts will always be dismissed as the critiques of outsiders. Carlton Pearson is an insider. He was once described as a “GOP stalwart” and famously counseled George W. Bush on African-American issues. His experiences are those of a “fourth generation classical fundamentalist Pentacostal” and his conclusions spring forth like blossoms from the compost of that history.
By freeing evangelical Christianity from the shackles of sin and hell—teaching his congregants to use it as a blueprint for spritual self-actualization rather than a tool for dividing and conquering (both onesself and others!)—Carlton Pearson has stumbled upon the necessary first step toward carving out a positive role for Christian faith to play in a truly ecumenical global future. True, he has alienated many of his old associates, but he has planted a mighty seed among those who choose to stay and listen.