“But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!” Galatians 1:8
On the return end of a business trip in January I had to drive three hours through a blazing snowstorm. I used part of the time listening to a This American Life Podcast about a modern day heretic. It was so fascinating I barely noticed the road conditions for the hour long that it played. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
This American Life is a weekly Chicago Public Radio broadcast offering an amazingly rich variety of uniquely American stories. This particular one was simply called “Heretics” and was the story of Bishop Carlton Pearson, a once influential rising star in the evangelical Christian world.
Here’s what happened in a nutshell: During the 1990s Pearson was the charismatic pastor of one of the largest churches in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He traveled in the highest echelon of religious and political circles including the White House. Pearson always stood for traditional Christian doctrine until one night when he watched the evening TV news about the genocide in Rwanda. That’s when everything changed.
According to Pearson he was holding his little girl on his lap as he watched emaciated children trying to escape the terrible disaster. He thought of this happening to his own daughter and cried out: “God, I don’t know how you could allow these children to suffer and then suck them into hell.” He said this because of the realization that these innocent children had never heard the gospel or been given a chance to accept Jesus and be saved and go to heaven. Not fair!
The Voice - but who's?
Immediately a voice, which he took to be God’s responded; “So that’s what you think we’re doing? If you believe that why don’t YOU go and save them?” Despair and rage filled him. He’d felt guilty all his life with the impossible burden of taking the gospel to every creature so they wouldn’t end up in eternal hell fire. He shot back: “God, don’t lay that guilt on me. I’ve given you the best 40 years of my life. I can’t do it.” Then God said to him, “Precisely! You can’t do it.”
For Pearson it was an epiphany moment and it changed his fundamental beliefs. The implication of his so-called conversation with God was that he (and all of traditional Christianity) had been barking up the wrong theological tree all along. Hell did not exist in the afterlife—hell was here on earth. God was not condemning people to hell for not accepting the gospel; people were doing hell to each other.
Carlton Pearson began to preach his new understanding of universal salvation in what he calls the “Gospel of Inclusion.” The crux of it is that Jesus died to save all people whether they ever accept him or not or whether they even know he exists. ALL would go to heaven, no exceptions. NO ONE goes to hell because there is no hell.
It took a little while for his congregation and then the wider Christian community to realize he had left the building so to speak. After appealing to him to correct his error, most major Christian leaders eventually disavowed him. His associate pastors left and the congregation finally dwindled to a handful. He was labeled a heretic--one whose religious opinion is contrary to church dogma. That’s where things stand today. He still espouses this other gospel with deep conviction and sincerity.
How did he get off track?
What a tragedy. I found listening to his story fascinating yet puzzling. How did he get so far off track? The Bible speaks about hell often and in much detail. Remember that it was Jesus who said, “If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, then, having two eyes, to be cast into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”(Mark 9:47-48)
Bishop Pearson openly admits the scriptural support for hell but says he now has a deeper understanding about what those passages mean. He’s rejecting the simple literal reading of the Bible in favor of a voice heard during a TV news program. Was that voice really God? Impossible. God doesn’t contradict himself or his Word. Surely the highly biblically trained Reverend has read the passage mentioned from Galatians. So why was he taken in? More importantly, how can we make sure something like it doesn’t happen to us?
I believe Pearson was primed and ready to be hoodwinked into “a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you” for two reasons. He had been having nagging doubts for a long time but he pushed them down. It seems to me he couldn’t reconcile “the kindness and severity of God” (Romans 11:22) which might cast innocent people into hell without ever hearing the gospel.
Well, it doesn’t seem right or just, does it? But let’s not push our doubts and questions aside where they can simmer into poison. It’s safer and more honest to bring them to the light of day. If this particular question is not on your mind there is probably some other conundrum about God or his ways that you go in circles over.
Who do YOU trust?
Do you trust God beyond what you don’t understand? That’s what it comes down to. If not you are an easy mark for any strange voice that comes along. Isn’t Satan diligently observing our theological dilemmas in order to whisper a lie to us at an opportune time? I like what a pagan king said about God’s trustworthiness: “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise, exalt and honor the King of heaven, for all His works are true and His ways just…” (Daniel 4:37) When my mind can’t wrap itself around God’s mysterious ways I always end up back at that scripture. It’s my bottom line!
Secondly, Pearson was raised in a very strict legalistic emotionally based faith with a devil behind every rock. Bible centered but without strong theological underpinnings. Guilt was a given in that environment which is why I believe he felt such guilt that he could never work hard enough to save everybody before they died and went to hell.
Misplaced guilt set Pearson up to explode against what he perceived as God’s unfairness. I would imagine the freedom to not believe in hell anymore must have felt pretty good. He was no longer personally responsible for the whole unsaved world. What a relief! The truth is that “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him…” (John 6:44) Only God saves. Our obedience may contribute to the process but our guilt does not.
I wonder if Carlton Pearson will ever come back. I pray he does because he clearly had a high call on his life. Actually, doesn’t each of us have a high call and a unique destiny from God? Therefore it would be brazen to believe that Pearson could be fooled but never us. It would be foolish to think that Satan doesn’t have a voice up his sleeve that we might fall prey to.
“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” (Colossians 2:8)
Who’s voice will you hear?