>The Orthodoxy of Eternal Torment: HELL NO!!

Posted: 14/05/2010 in carlton pearson, hell, problem of evil

>At no point in my life would I have ever thought that I would write in the defense of an old-school, Bible belt, TBN-Pentecostal minister -who is deeply rooted in Oral Roberts University. I would have given a strong no if asked to do this a few weeks ago. Amazingly, the story of Carlton Pearson has inspired me to do just this.

Feel free to listen to the entirety of the radio. It is rather interesting. But here’s the skinny: Pearson was born, bred, and thriving in Bible-belt, turn-or-burn, Pentecostalism. Getting other people away from hell was his job. He had full-time mega church ministry complete with a spot on TBN. He was a spiritual protégé of Oral Roberts and mentor to T.D. Jakes. One day, Pearson had a mystical experience and realized that he could no longer believe in Hell. He abandoned this doctrine in favor of Universalism (everyone goes to heaven. There is no hell.), and consequently found himself ostracized by his congregation and his peers. He was branded a heretic, and is regarded as such today.

I should probably remove any doubts or confusions about what I am actually defending here. I am not, of course defending TBN itself or Oral Roberts University. This will become even clearer later. Furthermore, I am not defending universalism itself. Neither am I defending Pearsons current ministry at a Unitarian church. I think Unitarianism is silly. One of my favorite stories, that turned into running joke, was the dead-locked Unitarian church meeting: they couldn’t agree to a statement of faith. What I am defending is premise that universalism (whether right or wrong) is not a heresy, or a violation of faith. Conversely, I am saying that a belief in hell is not an essential for Christianity.

Now back to the story. Pearson was a successful, humorous, and loved minister. He, a black man, lead a church that integrated both black and white people in a place like Tulsa. He rubbed shoulders with the best of the fundies. He also was not dumb. He was well read and understood Greek. However, not everything was right. In the late 1990s he had particular experience. In Pearson’s own words:

I was watching the evening news [covering conflict in Rwanda] I’m watching these little kids with swollen little bellies, it looks like their skins is stretched across their skeletal remains, their hair is kinda red from malnutrition the babies are got flies in the corners of their eyes and their mouths. They reach for their mother’s breasts and the mother’s breasts looks like a pencil, hanging there…there’s no milk…and I say, “God, I don’t know how you can call yourself a loving sovereign God, and allow people to suffer this way and then suck them right into hell.” (which was what my assumption) and I heard a voice within me say, “So that’s what you think we’re doing?” [I answered] “That’s what I’ve been taught.”

Pearson felt that God asked him, rhetorically, if you think they’re going to hell, then why not go preach the Gospel to them? This was too much for Pearson to accept, as he had already been a minister for forty years. He knew he couldn’t save the whole world. What he believed, after this short conversation with God, was that humans make their own hells –but God eventually brings everyone into his presence. God’s work of salvation and atonement applies to everyone. He said, “for the first time in my life I did not see God as the inventor of Hell.”

This led to some problematic conclusions. If there is no hell, there is no need to accept Jesus to escape it. Likewise, there was no need to go to church. Everyone is going to heaven. This led to some serious problems. His church attendance shrank. Pearson and his pastoral staff parted ways, because they could no longer understand each other. Those who followed him were considered damned by many. He eventually moved his church, where his congregants are accosted by others who feel like they still need to be saved. Oral Roberts became silent on his association with him now. T.D. Jakes became distant.

Why believe in hell? There were a number of answers that kept coming up in the radio show. One of them was that even though believing in hell is an offense, people needed to remember that God makes the rules. Even if we don’t like it, we must not re-write the Bible whether we like it or not. This is not a good reason to believe in hell. First, no one is re-writing the Bible. Pearson and many universalists believe that their interpretation of the Bible is right. It is no more of a re-writing of the Bible than anything else that Pentecostal movement has done. Secondly, “God makes the rules” is an idiomatic way of saying, “Things are right or wrong because God says so.” This is one answer to the Euthyphro question. It is not an premise that all Christians accept. It has to be decided before people feel they can use it to brute force a belief in Hell’s orthodoxy.

There is another reason why it is really important to believe in hell: it keeps people coming to your church. This was clear, as when Pearson denounced hell, many people left. One youth pastor, who still attends Pearson’s church, commented that a fear of hell is one of the first things he remembered learning. It was through this fear that he kept going. Later, he said that if you remove the “requirements” and the threat of hell a church will thin out and some people will be “out of a job.” Even as he described all this, he chuckled at it.

Why does this not strike more people as absurd? Hell is the appeal to fear that keeps people loving God? Personally, I cannot imagine serving God out of a fear of hell anymore. I will say this of fear appeals: If your church needs a cosmic appeal to fear to keep people motivated to attend, serve, and evangelize, than you need to really re-think the church and what the Gospel is. Christianity is supposed to offer good things to the world. Faith is to be sustained by love and hope. Appeals to fear will eventually wear off, but a church that offers love to the world will be sustained and fulfill its mission for the Gospel, and no The Gospel is not simply “keep people out of hell.”

What about the alternatives? What about people who still attend Pearson’s church? What I have noticed about both Pearson and his one of his congregants is that they seem sensitive to Christian charity. Pearson’s experience with the Rwandans on TV was motivated out of a need to understand God’s love in the face of evil. His church, right now, has opened the door to people who were ostracized by their families and the charismatic Christendom of Tulsa. When one of his congregants was accosted by those who criticize Pearson and his church, she realized how insensitive such kind of evangelicalism really is. Though it irritates her, she feels compassion for the people who still are motivated by a fear of hell.

There is another irony. People who ostracize Pearson and his followers are still following one of his former protégés, T.D. Jakes. T.D. Jakes still holds the to the doctrine of hell, but his oneness Pentecostal background has made him hazy on the Trinity. Though Jakes says he believes in the Trinity, his descriptions sound more like modalism to me and many others. This really bothers me. How is it that a belief in hell is considered an essential for faith, but the Trinity can be replaced with modalism in everything but name? This demands an entire blog in itself, but I am still stunned that dogma about hell is more important too many people than The Trinity.

Now is Pearson a wrong or right in his universalism? That’s not the point of this blog. The point of this blog is to show that I think there is a serious problem. Dogma about hell should not be not an essential for the Christian faith if its justifications are fear appeals or “God says so.” Furthermore, those who insist on it hurt their case when they fail to show Christian charity, whether that be by ostracizing people like Pearson or accosting members of his church. Hell is not an essential Christian doctrine. Let no Christian worship because of fear of it.

  1. Rick Lannoye says:

    >If there is any doctrine we can be 100% sure is false, it is the belief that God intends to torture billions of people for eternity. For those who truly belief in the original teachings of Jesus, this is a no brainer, because EVERYTHING he said about God's nature makes Hell impossible.I've actually written an entire book on this topic–Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There's No Such Place As Hell, (for anyone interested, you can get a free ecopy of Did Jesus Believe in Hell?, one of the most compelling chapters in my book at http://www.thereisnohell.com), but if I may, let me share just one of the many points I make in it to explain why.If one is willing to look, there's substantial evidence contained in the gospels to show that Jesus opposed the idea of Hell. For example, in Luke 9:51-56, is a story about his great disappointment with his disciples when they actually suggested imploring God to rain FIRE on a village just because they had rejected him. His response: "You don't know what spirit is inspiring this kind of talk!" Presumably, it was NOT the Holy Spirit. He went on, trying to explain how he had come to save, heal and relieve suffering, not be the CAUSE of it.So it only stands to reason that this same Jesus, who was appalled at the very idea of burning a few people, for a few horrific minutes until they were dead, could never, ever burn BILLIONS of people for an ETERNITY!

  2. Eric Gregory says:

    >I completely agree:"Hell is not an essential Christian doctrine. Let no Christian worship because of fear of it."

  3. Jin-roh says:

    >I'm glad you two gave a positive response to this post. I honestly was not sure what to expect from this blog. Thanks again.

  4. Anonymous says:

    >Rick, I went to your website and as soon as I read this:"It was long after his death that some scribes, probably Greek converts to Christianity who brought with them their belief in Hades (named after the pagan god who they believed ruled over the underworld) inserted statements into the gospel texts to make it seem as if Jesus believed in Hades’ Realm too."I realized I wouldn't be reading anything else.

  5. Jin-roh says:

    >Anon, I haven't taken the time to read Rick's site. Is is saying that the early Greek converts inserted statements in the Gospels, or only that terms like "Gehenna" were later translated into "hell" or "hades"?

  6. weatherbill says:

    >I have struggled with this subject for some time. I love the church and the people of God, but this doctrine has turned many away from King Jesus. My struggle is, do we ignore this doctrine so not to divide ministries who are not necessarily emphasizing this, because many churches talk of "eternal separation", which is just a nice way of agreeing with the eternal torment doctrine…LOL. So I don't want to be a cause of division in the body over this. I think if I wen tot a hell fire church, I would be provoked to get angry over hearing the doctrine, but alot of churches today ignore it. its amazing how there are several doctrines that seem to be a "requirement" for eternal life in some of these churches. Its amazing how the church ha snot changed any of its dotrines sinc ethe 1800s. Has not more light been given? Its only gotten worse with pre trib rapture – a whole nother topic of frustration – thanx for this blog. Now if I can only find a church who does not beleive in eternal torment but does believe in the gifts of the Spirit and is not cultish and controlling….ahhhh! God! Give ma brethren who believe your word more clearly!

  7. Anonymous says:

    >Another point is all these books out of people supposedly visiting hell. My take is these people's near death experience had them gripped by the demons whoo masqueraded the whole hell fire thing to bring them back to spread this lie of eternal torment. Another is that maybe some have visited tartarus, the holding place for demons (not the lost) and came back to tell us that was the hell God sends all those people without Christ to. Another is that the richman in Luke 16, there was no time frame given on his punishment in "hell" "being in torments". Jesus never gave a forever time frame on that in the parable.

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