A Glimpse of the Garden

By way of Pandagon, I came across this incredible story from NPR’s This American Life, an hourlong report on, and interview with, the evangelical pastor Carlton Pearson.

Pearson was once one of the rising stars of the religious right: a hardcore Pentecostal preacher, head of an Oklahoma megachurch, a protege of Oral Roberts and a spokesman for George Bush’s faith-based initiatives who had the ear of the White House under three different presidents. He preached alongside Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker, Pat Robertson and other leading lights of the evangelical world, hosted his own show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, and founded Azusa, a wildly popular Christian festival that combined ministry and gospel music. He had it all, and could have kept it all, except for one thing: a rebellion of conscience which convinced him that the Christianity he was teaching was morally wrong. And for the sake of that conscience, he lost nearly everything.

I’ve written before about fervent believers who’ve become atheists, like the former Pentecostal preacher James Young (An Inspiring Story), or the religion reporter William Lobdell (Nothing Behind the Altar). Pearson hasn’t gone that far – he’s still a Christian, though he now holds a universalist view he calls “the gospel of inclusion”. But he’s eliminated eternal damnation from his theology, and even that small step towards freethought was enough to get him branded a heretic and earn the scorn and exclusion of his former colleagues and friends.

In his youth, Pearson was a fiery Pentecostal; he was hailed as a hero by his congregation after he exorcised demons out of his girlfriend at a revival meeting. Of these days, he said in the interview, “I expected demons. I saw them everywhere, so that was part of my life… The Devil was as present and as large as God. He had the people. He was ultimately going to get most of the people. Demons were all over, in the church, in the schools, in the neighborhoods. Everything was a devil. So if you believe it, you experience it.”

Pearson attended Oral Roberts University, where he joined the World Action Singers, a student choir that Roberts groomed to perform on the networks and other mainstream media. He became a friend and protege of Oral Roberts himself, who called Pearson his “black son”. He ultimately quit the group after battles with Roberts’ son Richard Roberts, though he and Oral remained close.

After leaving ORU, Pearson founded his own church, Higher Dimensions. Powered by his undisputed charisma, the church flourished and grew, reaching a membership of around 5,000. Other, still-influential megachurch preachers such as T.D. Jakes owe their success to Pearson’s initial mentoring.

The turning point came in the late 1990s. Pearson, until then, had preached a conventional evangelical theology – eternal damnation for sinners, hellfire and gnashing of teeth, and being born again in Jesus as the only way to be saved. But a small seed of doubt was growing in him, and eventually it began to bloom. In the interview, he describes his moment of epiphany while at home one night watching television, a news report about war and famine in Rwanda:

“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 kind of red from malnutrition… the babies have got flies in the corners of their eyes and mouths, and they reach for their mother’s breast and the mother’s breast looks like a little pencil hanging there, and the baby’s reaching for the breast, there’s no milk…

“I said, ‘God, I don’t know how you could call yourself a loving, sovereign God and allow these people to suffer this way and just suck them right into Hell,’ which was my assumption.

“…The way the God of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is presented: he’s a monster. The God we’ve been preaching is a monster. He’s worse than Saddam, he’s worse than Osama bin Laden, he’s worse than Hitler, the way we’ve presented him. Because Hitler just burned six million Jews, but God’s going to burn at least six billion people, and burn them forever. He has this customized torture chamber, called Hell, where he’s going to torment, torture. Not for a few minutes or a few days or a few hours or a few weeks. Forever.”

Many Christian believers experience these flickers of conscience, but in Pearson’s case, they became a full-blown crisis of faith. Under the pressure, the content of his faith changed, and when he returned to his church, he brought a different message. Now he said the Bible was “not necessarily infallible or inerrant”, that there was no eternal damnation, and that Jesus’ sacrifice had redeemed all of humanity – Christians, atheists and everyone else – whether they believed in him or not.

Pearson’s new gospel received a frosty reception. Higher Dimensions’ congregation dwindled from 5,000 to just 200. The church’s other pastors resigned in protest. Oral Roberts University removed him from its board of regents, and influential evangelicals across the country denounced him. Pearson became persona non grata with his own friends and colleagues; to them, he says, it’s “like I died”. Even his parishioners – the ones who stayed – describe being accosted on the street or in the supermarket by friends or neighbors demanding to know why they were still attending a church that teaches such heresy.

Today Pearson is a minister in the United Church of Christ, using the rhythms and cadence of Pentecostalism to preach a new message of tolerance and unity. His preaching attracts a new crowd – more liberal, more gay-friendly – and slowly, attendance has begun to inch upward again.

Pearson’s story shows that the evangelical church, in its essence, is based on fear of Hell and not love of God. Had he preached that some other church was not strict enough – that God was withholding salvation from some group formerly believed to be saved – I doubt anyone would have batted an eye. But to widen the circle of the saved was, for his brethren, an intolerable heresy. Theirs is a theology that elevates wrath over mercy, punishment over grace, and judgment over love. One of Pearson’s associate pastors admits as much, candidly saying that teachings about eternal torment and the Rapture did far more to fill the pews than teaching about love and forgiveness ever will.

More than anything else, evangelicals are united and motivated by belief in Hell. Eternal torment lies at the heart of their faith; it defines their self-image and forms the lens through which they view the world. And there’s a reason for that: in their theology, God’s love is indiscriminate, but God’s salvation is highly selective. Their belief that they are saved and most people are not gives them a sense of privilege, of sanctification – a feeling that they possess something rare and precious. Taking Hell out of the equation directly threatens this belief – it threatens to make them no different from anyone else – which explains why the denunciations of Pearson by his fellow evangelicals were so swift and so vehement.

But despite its superficial advantage in motivating the flock, belief in hellfire more than loses out due to its horrendously evil implications. Carlton Pearson has glimpsed a better way – rejecting the moral absurdity of a God who permits innocent humans to suffer indescribably, then casts them into eternal damnation. He ought to take the next step and ask himself: why believe in a God that permits people, like those people in Rwanda, to suffer so terribly even during this life?

The answer that humans do this to themselves is too facile. Even if that is true, it would not excuse a deity with the power to help from the moral obligation of aiding the innocent. Pearson has already had the strength of conscience and the basic honesty to reject so many of the old, inadequate apologetics. Now he has the opportunity to go just a bit farther, to leave behind just a few more unnecessary beliefs, and follow many of his former colleagues into a better place: a garden of free thought and clear air, where all the supernaturalisms that plague us are finally left behind.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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