Hell: It’s a dreadful thought — horrific frightening place to which many of us may well be bound. Or is it a place at all?
You’re about to meet a man who came face to face with his own hell and though he lived to tell his tale.
His name is Carlton Pearson — an American success story if there ever was one. Carlton climbed so high it felt he had the ear of God and more temporal commanders, too.
Carlton Pearson, preacher: I wasn’t there to clean the floors. Now, I’m there to meet the president. You can’t go any higher than that.
But something happened to the man who flew so high.
Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: Did you have any idea before you began to speak what—the events you were gonna set in motion?Pearson: Didn’t have a clue.
But there was one thing everybody knew from the very beginning: Carlton would become a preacher.
Pearson: Four generations. I’m the fourth generation classical Pentecostal preacher. (chuckle) I started with a little trash can turned over and my two little sisters sitting out in front a me and literally when I was five years old in the back porch of our home—five and six years old preaching to them. Couldn’t even read hardly.
And all around him were joyful Bible-believing, disease-healing, talking-in-tongues, throwing-hands-in-the-air sort of Christians.
Pearson: Church was our life. It’s all I’ve ever known.
They were too poor to be fancy; too enthusiastic not to try to look grand. Like the sheets of colored plastic they’d tape to their meager windows, pretending they were stained glass.
Pearson: It was real popular in the ghettos. In the little inner city store front churches. It was so much for us to go buy this plastic—it’s really ugly. We glued it on the windows. It gave us a little more validity— a stain glass window. We were so proud of that. I can’t tell you how proud we were.
And something else — they were very serious about some issues a lot of the more mainstream denominations often soft pedal... like hell.
Pearson: We were told not to laugh. Stop all the jesting and joking. You know we heard all that stuff. “God gonna get you. The devil gonna get you…” So we had all that mentality. Be good. Be Godly. Be right. Be holy. Morrison: Or else what?Pearson: Or else you go to hell.
But he was a kid who so sparkled with promise. He couldn’t wait to begin. He was preaching at 15, ordained at 18, and then he went to college. And it wasn’t just any college. He went to Oral Roberts University.
By the time Carlton came to Oral Roberts, that great evangelist that claimed to heal believers by the thousands.
Pearson: If you knew him at his prime, he was just one step under the Holy Ghost, for me. When I shook his hand, this man could clear his throat and I’d get chills.
So imagine what it was like, when Oral Roberts himself recognized the promise of greatness in Carlton and took him under his wing.
Carlton sang in the Oral Roberts Gospel choir in those days, and he was good. But as a preacher, he had the magic.
His first little church in Tulsa grew so rapidly he couldn’t help but know how good he was.
Pearson: You had to get the people happy. You had to sweat, and shout, and spit, and get emotional. But if you don’t perform in that pulpit, you’re a dead man.Morrison: How good are you at that?Pearson: I’m good—I’m one of the best of them.
He bought land in a Tulsa suburb and opened a big new building. The crowds got bigger. There were thousands now, every week.
Pearson: I know that we had about 5,000 – 6,000 people come through there every week. And every seat would be filled.
Collection income was up to $60,000 a week. And during the nineties, Carlton put on huge revival meetings. He called them Azusa conferences, “Azusa” after the name of the original Pentecostal crusade 100 years ago.
At Carlton’s Azusa, as many as 40,000 people would fill the bleachers over seven days, and sell out all the hotels in the city.
Morrison: This was a significant enterprise you were running.Pearson: It was a business, it was my business. It was my baby. It was my body.
He brought in the big names, including his old mentor, Oral Roberts who predicted that Carlton would be the next great leader of his people.
Oral Roberts: The next great revival would be initiated by the black people, and that he was going to have a leading part in it.
Everything Carlton did seemed blessed. He married a beautiful woman named Gina. Oral Roberts baptized one of his children.
In 1997, they made him a bishop. His influence even spread to politics. In 2000, he campaigned for George W. Bush. He was invited to the White House.
Morrison: This is more than just making it.Pearson: Yeah, that was pretty big stuff.
But, even as all that success smiled down on him, one unspoken knot of trouble brewed way down in Carlton’s soul. It was a topic central to his own preaching: the idea of hell.
Pearson: I was angry that people go to hell.
In fact, for Carlton, it was personal. His own grandparents had been preachers once. But then they “backslid,” as Carlton puts it... had committed adultery, had learned to love booze and must therefore be in hell. So he was mad at them. But also...
Pearson: I was resentful of God. See, if you fear God the way we’re taught to fear Him, you’ll serve Him, you’ll believe in Him, you’ll worship Him—but you probably will never really love Him.
And then one day, it happened. Bishop Carlton Pearson was sitting in the living room of his big house in Tulsa having his dinner in front of the TV set.
There was a news story on about the refugee crisis in Rwanda.
Pearson: And you saw these African people—mostly women and children walking slowly back trying to come home. There was no light or life in their eyes. It was a horrible thing for me to see. Swollen bellies and skeletal bodies, emaciated... and then the babies looking at the mom and the mama looking out in space. It was sad. And I’m sitting there with my little fat-cheeked baby and my plateful of food, watching my big screen TV. A man of God, a preacher of the Gospel, and Evangelist, and I’m looking at those people assuming that they’re probably Muslim and going to Hell. “’Cause God wouldn’t do that to Christians,” I’m thinking...Morrison: They deserve hell.Pearson: They deserved hell.
And then, right at that moment, Carlton had his revelation.
Pearson: And I said, “God I don’t know how you’re gonna call yourself a loving God and allow those people to suffer so much and then just suck them into hell.” And I believe it was the Spirit of God in me saying, “Is that what you think we’re doing?”Morrison: You heard this voice.Pearson: Yes, sir. And I said, “That’s what I’ve been taught”
He talked back, he says, at that voice in his head.
Pearson: “God, I can’t I can’t save the whole world.” And that’s when I heard that voice say, “Precisely. That’s what we did. And if you’d tell them that they are redeemed, you wouldn’t create those kinds of problems. Can’t you see they’re already in Hell?”
Clear as a bell, says Carlton, he heard god telling him to preach this new message that hell is a place in life, and that after death. Everybody is redeemed. Everybody.
Pearson: I immediately started thinking about my grandparents. “Well, maybe they’re not in Hell. Maybe if they’re already saved, if the cross and Christ and all that stuff really happened and is really spiritual—which I believe it is—then—if He came to save the world, then the world is saved unless he’s a failure.”
This was powerful stuff. Though dangerous too.
Morrison: You mean Hitler’s in heaven?Pearson: You think Hitler’s more powerful than the blood of Jesus? I mean, I got a hell to put a lot of people in. I’d sent Hitler and every slave trader straight to hell and a few deacons in my church if you wanna know the truth—I’d send people to hell, but I’m not God. He’s the atoning sacrifice for our sins and not ours only, but the sins of the whole world.
Then Carlton started preaching what he’d come to call “The Gospel of Inclusion.” He told his big congregation that Hell doesn’t exist in the way the church has taught and that all people will eventually be reunited with god.
Pearson: For the first time in all my life as a Christian, I really not only love God, I started liking God...
Christians of all stripes have come up with widely varied definitions of hell.
So how would Carlton’s new idea go down? Not very well at all.
Pearson: I didn’t think it would be anything like it was.
Carlton Pearson, Pentecostal bishop and preaching phenomenon, had experienced what he believed was a genuine revelation. In one crucial way, he now believed, the church had in all wrong when it warned of hell as a place of punishment after death. So he began to preach that all people will eventually be reunited with God.
Carlton Pearson: So is it really authentically Biblical to believe in the hell we’ve been taught?
But just who did he think he was? Hell has been a crucial fixture for Bible-believing Christians for millennia.
Ted Haggard, who happens to be an old school friend of Carlton’s, is also one of the most influential Christians in America. And Ted Haggard made it crystal clear: Carlton Pearson’s new idea about hell was not right at all.
Ted Haggard: I think Carlton’s a good man. He’s made a horrible mistake, a grievous mistake.
Does hell exist? You bet it does...
Haggard: Oh, yeah, its a place.Morrison: An actual physical place?Haggard: It’s a physical place, yeah. It’s not just a state of being. The scripture’s perfectly clear about judgment.
As Carlton preached, the word got around. His mentor, his father figure, Oral Roberts was, by all accounts, Ted Haggard’s included, crushed...
Haggard: Oral used to love him.Morrison: Exactly. Haggard: I’m sure Oral still does..
And it was more in sorrow than in anger that the old evangelist sent his favorite student a long letter of rebuttal.
“This doctrine is as dangerous as any I’ve come in contact with in 66 years of ministry,” wrote Roberts. “Give it up, I pray, I beseech, I plead.”
Haggard: Oral tried to get him to change his position. And many others have tried to get him to change his position on this subject.
But it was the old man’s censure that so cut deep.
Pearson: I’m bothered by the fact that he doesn’t understand what I’m saying and I’m a disappointment to him. I love him. (he cries)
And then, it was an avalanche. His great army of friends and colleagues departed.
The massive congregations melted away. Within a few months, the 6,000 who had crowded the pews on a Sunday had shrunk to a cold and lonely few hundred. Of course, collections dried up, too.
He couldn’t meet the payroll. The Azusa conference dwindled away too. The big Gospel singers, who’d once clamored to perform on Carlton’s stage, now shunned it. In 2004, the conference sputtered its last and died.
Haggard: It’s no different than you running and show and people don’t like it and people don’t believe it, and so they watch another show. It’s the market.
Carlton Pearson simply “disappeared.” especially after he was declared to be a heretic.
Pearson: It’s death. It’s humiliating. It’s—hell. Well, yes. And one I helped create. (Chuckle) It’s hell.
And then, though it hardly seemed possible, things got worse. The church mortgage couldn’t be paid.
And this past Christmas season, on the very last night of the old year, Carlton led his final service at the church he had worked so hard to build.
The next day, he lost the building. Dateline was with him during his first time back.
Pearson: I had to ask permission to come in.
It was one day, when things were at their bleakest, Carlton got a phone call.
It was an invitation to be guest speaker at a small church in San Francisco at a place full of outcasts: lesbian pastor, a Church of gays, AIDS patients, abused women.
Morrison: The rejected of the world?Pearson: Yeah. The people who had experienced what I was experiencing. They were pros at it. Gays are pros at being rejected.
Carlton explained to them his new ideas about hell, his notion that heaven was waiting for everybody— even them.
And when he was done, the minister invited him to sit down, take off his shoes, and she got out a bowl of water…
Pearson: And she knelt. Now I was hurting, man. Everybody I knew had thrown me away. And they were singing and weeping and washing my feet. Talk about a holy moment. The room began to spin. And everybody in there suddenly became an angel. Everybody was Jesus. It was so powerful. These people have been so hurt and so broken and so rejected and so bruised, they just healed me. They literally healed me.
Strange how fortune can change when things seem darkest. It was back in Tulsa where a second invitation came along.
One was from the old Episcopal Church downtown. No one was using the sanctuary Sunday afternoons. Did those few people who had stuck with Carlton want to worship there?
And by the time we met Carlton Pearson, the broken remnant of his old church that gathered in this borrowed splendor had begun to grow.
And now, on any given Sunday afternoon, the old stained glass windows rattle with the kind of noise only a crowded church of Pentecostals can make. It’s no where near what it was before—it’s hundreds instead of thousands, but Carlton says he’s never been happier.
And the boy who was born to preach belts out a message about hell— which is, according to millions of well-meaning, Bible-believing Christians, dangerous and illegitimate—but it’s also given the man who lost it all... a reason to believe.