If you’re a regular listener to This American Life, then you already know this story. But if, like me, you have a huge backlog of TAL podcasts you’ve been meaning to get around to some day but haven’t yet, then this story may be news to you too.
Here’s TAL’s intro to the story of the Rev. Carlton Pearson, which they have titled simply, “Heretics“:
That didn’t go over too well in the Pentecostal/evangelical circles in which Pearson used to be a rock star. It got him officially branded as a heretic by a Pentecostal bishops group. His congregation dwindled to a fifth of its previous size and its makeup changed to include all sorts of dubious types, like Episcopalians, homosexuals and Unitarians.
Wikipedia has a brief but useful entry on Carlton Pearson, the site for his New Dimensions church has a bit more information, and Selwyn Crawford of the Dallas Morning News fleshes out the story in his article, “The fall and rise of Carlton Pearson.”
What I find most interesting in this whole saga is that Pearson was never condemned for his earlier heresies, which strike me as more extravagant. He began his ministry, after all, as a protege of Oral Roberts and for years taught a variant of Roberts’ “prosperity” doctrines. Going around and telling people that serving Mammon is the same as serving God apparently doesn’t get you in hot water with the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops. Denying the existence of Hell does.
That’s curious, since the Bible spends much, much, much more time on the dangers of chasing money than it ever does on the subject of eternal torment. The Bible’s priorities, however, have been inverted by evangelicals, for whom Hell has become a central, essential doctrine.
I’m not sure how that happened. St. Paul had precisely nothing to say on the subject of Hell. He had a lot to say about death, resurrection and the kingdom, but not one word about Hell. The Nicene Creed, similarly, mentions heaven three time, but never mentions Hell at all. The Apostle’s Creed mentions it. Once. It says Jesus went there. (Yes, that Jesus).
Yet ask any evangelical Christian about their faith and Hell is one of the first things they’ll mention. And they know all about the subject. They can describe Hell, earnestly providing details from Dante or Fantasia while dimly believing these come from the Bible (you know, the Epistle to the Ghibelines or something).
So let’s take a quick look at what the Bible actually does have to say on the subject of Hell. Specifically, let’s look at three passages that Carlton Pearson has been condemned for not “interpreting literally.”
1. Luke 16:19-31 describes a soul in agony in “Hades.” He is described as being “in fire” and “in this place of torment.”
2. Matthew 25:31-46 says that the unrighteous “will go away to eternal punishment” sent “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
3. Revelation 20:11-15 describes the judgment of the living and the dead. “The lake of fire is the second death,” it says. “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
That’s three separate mentions of eternal, fiery torment. Sure sounds a lot like the Hell all those evangelical preachers love to talk about.
And yet this doesn’t fully convey how deeply, deeply weird it is for such preachers to turn to these three passages and to come away from them with nothing other than a belief in hellfire and torment.
That’s not what these stories are about. The preachers seemed to have latched on to the descriptions of hellfire and torment in these stories because those tangential details seemed less troublesome and dangerous than the central themes of the stories. Those central themes may be more threatening than anything Carlton Pearson has ever had to say.
So let’s look at each of those passages again. This time, instead of looking exclusively at what they describe Hell as being like, we’ll look at what or who they describe Hell as being for.
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.”
But Abraham replied, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.”
Evangelical preachers say a “literal interpretation” allows them to claim this story as a source for their doctrine of Hell. That gets tricky, because at the same time they want to insist that this story’s description of heaven is not to be taken literally. And that this story’s explanation for who goes where is just plain wrong.
Lazarus, we are told, was hungry and covered with sores. We are not told that he did good deeds, or that he had faith in God, or that he accepted Jesus Christ as his own personal Lord and savior. We are simply told that his life was nasty, brutish and short, and that when it was over “the angels carried him to Abraham’s side.”
The rich man, we are told, dressed really nice and ate well. We are not told that he refused to accept Jesus Christ as his own personal Lord and savior. We are simply told that there was a beggar at his gate with whom he never seems to have shared his food. And that, the story says, is damnably wrong.
Which is the entire point of the story. It’s not about who goes to heaven or who goes to Hell. And it’s certainly not intended to provide cartographic detail about the afterlife. It’s about ethics — about the obligation we have to the beggars at our gates. Heaven and Hell appear in this story only to make this point more emphatic. To decide that its description of Hell must be taken “literally,” while simultaneously ignoring the reason it mentions Hell at all, cannot be described as a “literal interpretation” of the story, only as an illiterate one.
This is nearly the same story. This famous passage about the sheep and the goats is, again, primarily a story about ethics and the obligation to meet the needs of others.
Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”
They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?”
He will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
There’s nothing subtle or ambiguous about that central theme here. Every detail in the story points to this same idea. The sitting on the throne with all the nations gathered is not the main point here. It is, again, an emphatic device to draw attention to the main point. So too are the cheers and jeers of eternal reward or punishment presented here. There’s one and only one distinction that matters, Jesus is saying, how do you respond to the needs of the least of these?
To miss that, perceiving nothing from this story but an affirmation of one particular notion of Hell, seems perverse.
This, too, is nearly the same story as that of the sheep and the goats. The context is different, though, coming at the end of John’s eschatological, once-more-with-feeling retelling of the Exodus. Here God’s people arrive at the Promised Land from which they can never be taken into exile. And Pharaoh and his soldiers? Once again the horse and rider are hurled into the sea. This time for good.
But it’s not just the bad guys who get thrown into “the lake of fire” here. “Death and Hades” are cast in first. (Yes, the same “Hades” in which the rich man received his fiery torment in the first story.) So if you want to insist that this reference to a “lake of fire” must be interpreted “literally,” then you’re going to have to explain to me what it means for the abstract concepts of death and Hades to be literally thrown into it.
And if you’re a Protestant, you’re going to have to explain why “lake of fire” is literal, but “each person was judged according to what he had done” is not.
These three passages aren’t the only basis for the belief in Hell as eternal fiery torment, but they provide the strongest evidence to support the idea. And as you can see, this evidence is not really that strong. These passages certainly don’t provide any sort of basis for the idea that Hell ought to be a central or essential core belief that shapes our faith, or our concept of God, or our concept of one another or of the meaning of our lives. That’s not what these stories are about.
That’s not what our story is about.