Checking in with Carlton Pearson – who doesn’t believe in hell – in Tulsa
Carlton Pearson doesn’t believe in hell. And he’s pretty uncertain about heaven as well. Which wouldn’t be all that exceptional, really — except Pearson is an ordained Pentecostal minister and a former protégé of Oral Roberts, the Tulsa-based televangelist. So when the Route 66 Team passed through Tulsa this week, we spent an hour with Pearson in his offices on the 29th floor of a downtown skyscraper.
Pearson, 54, wasnt always so unsure about core doctrinal issues. In the 1980s and 1990s, he ran Higher Dimensions Family Church, a Tulsa-based megachurch that hewed to a much more unforgiving and traditional view of the afterlife.
He also served on Oral Roberts Universitys board of regents and was one of the first African-Americans to be a regular guest on mainstream religious TV programs.
But Pearson tells Reuters that while he was a successful conservative evangelical, he was an unhappy man. “I was hating, hurting and hitting and being mean,” he says today. “That’s the way you function in that religion.”
Then, Pearson had what he characterizes as an epiphany and he began preaching something new: God, he told anyone who would listen, had already forgiven everyone Christians, Jews, Muslims, Mormon, Hindus, Buddhists — for their sins. No one — not even Adolf Hitler or the devil himself needed to worry about eternal damnation.
I dont think theres an eternal consequence for doing wrong, he explains today. There are immediate ones. Pearson also backed off the idea that the Bible was the word of God. I take it seriously, he says. But I dont take it literally. I dont believe it is the inspired word of God. I believe it is the inspired word of man about God.
The response from the general public was remarkably positive. “I got tens of thousands of letters,” he says, “from gays, Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, Jews and atheists. Some of the most profound letters about God came from the atheists.”
But this gospel of inclusion, as it came to be known, wasn’t so popular closer to home. Pearson’s fellow Pentecostal bishops and other conservative Christians denounced him as a heretic. His congregation melted away. Weekly offerings tumbled. The bank foreclosed on his church.
Today, Pearsons new church — New Dimensions Worship Center — has a fraction of the members of his old one and is forced to borrow space for its services from an Episcopal church in downtown Tulsa.
Im 54 years old and Im somebodys foster child, he jokes.
But Pearson is unbowed. He continues to preach his gospel of inclusion and make pronouncements about the concept of hell that are likely to raise the hackles of his one-time friends in evangelical community.
He bristles, for instance, at the idea that God is a vengeful being who holds grudges for 6,000 years — not only because it flies in the face of his belief in a merciful God but because it also creates a rationalization for vengeance and punishment here on earth.
“When you worship an angry God,” he says, “you make anger good. That’s what creates a Saddam Hussein or a George Bush.”
The flipside of Pearson’s hell-doubting theology, however, is that he sounds awfully skeptical about the existence of heaven. “We don’t know what happens after this life,” he says. “But we presume something good happens. So we’ve come up with these thrones and gates and virgins … But the closest to God you’ll probably ever get is you.”