By Aimee Byrd
Sometimes I enjoy listening to the This American Life podcast on my road trips. It is a secular podcast that provides storied snippets portraying all kinds of different thoughts and experiences within American life. Although I often am saddened by the typical narrative that follows the current secular worldviews and portrayals of the Christian faith. And yet it does help me to see how the world sees and that can be profitable in strengthening the church’s witness.
This American Life is debuting a movie on Netflix called Come Sunday, which covers the life of Pentecostal Carlton Pearson, his rise to fame, and sudden downfall. So they are rerunning an older podcast called Heretics
, where Ira Glass describes Pearson as a “rising evangelical megastar” that “at the height of his popularity, became involved in a scandal: He didn’t have an affair, he didn’t embezzle money, he didn’t admit an addiction to prescription painkillers—no, no, none of that. He stopped believing in hell.” He explains that this is “the kind of thing that happens from time to time here in America, even now. He became a heretic. A very prominent heretic….it didn’t end with the Salem witch trials.” As you can see by the language used, the church is not painted in a positive light. We are still hunting witches; they just look different.
Reporter Russell Cobb narrates the story in the podcast, along with many excerpts from his interviews with Carlton Pearson, who grew up in a “strict Pentecostal denomination: no smoking, drinking, cursing, or dancing. But there was lots of church going.” Pearson elaborates, “The devil was as present and as large as God. He had most of the people. He was ultimately going to get most of the people.” He explains how demons were all over the neighborhoods, the churches, and the schools. And “if you believe it, you experience it.” So naturally, Pearson cast out his first demonic spirit, from his own girlfriend at that, at a church revival when he was a mere 17 years old. He made a name for himself as he cast out several demons during that 3-day revival.
And yet Pearson recalls how he was smothering in the black, anti-intellectual ghetto and found a way out by attending Oral Roberts University. Oral Roberts changed the image of Pentecostalism with a more positive message that reached a wealthier class. He also took Pearson under his wing as a sort of “second son.” By joining Roberts’ World Action Singers (with Kathy Lee Gifford), Pearson found a sanctified way to travel the world. However, tension with Roberts’ son caused Pearson to branch out on his own.
As Pearson found his preaching voice, congregants flocked to him. He was funny, taught them about some of the Greek roots in his talks, and therefore was seen as giving a scholarly, in depth analysis of Scripture in an entertaining fashion. “He flew around the country guest preaching with some of the biggest names in the evangelical world. People like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. He was in and out of the White House, under both Bushes and Clinton. And when George W. Bush started his faith based initiative program, Carlton sat on an advisory panel and became a spokesman for the plan. He hosted a show on TBN, Trinity Broadcasting Network, a Christian cable channel. He was appointed to the Board of Regents at Oral Roberts University and made bishop in 1995 by the International Communion of Charismatic Churches. And he started a revival called AZUSA, a modern day evangelical festival.” Pearson gave TD Jakes his break, introducing him to an international audience. Attendance to the church he founded, Higher Dimensions, grew to regular attendance of 5,000 people in Sunday service, successfully integrating a diversity of race. He was well loved, even as he continued to preach about hell with all the supernatural flair of the Pentecostal faith, rebuking the devil and speaking in tongues.
But in the height of his career, Pearson has a heart-to-heart with God that changed everything. He began to have doubts about the message he was preaching, Russell Cob sets it up that all his Hebrew and Greek studies were leading him in a different direction. Pearson recalls a moment of clarity when he was watching a TV program showing the images of starving children in Uganda. And he said to God, “I don’t know how you can call yourself a loving, sovereign God and allow these people to suffer this way and then just suck them right into hell.” And God replied, “So that’s what you think we’re doing?” Pearson answered, “That’s what I’ve been taught.” In this conversation with God, Pearson says that he has been taught all these people need to get saved. And then he lamented that he can’t do it all: pastor his huge church and go save all these people by preaching the gospel to them. He remembers thinking “God, don’t put that guilt on me…I’ve given you the best 40 years of my life, besides, I can’t save the whole world. I’m doing the best I can.” That’s when God agreed with Pearson that he can’t save the whole world, but that they (because apparently God calls himself they to Pearson) are not sucking all these people in hell—they’re already there. Hell is something we invent for ourselves and God is going to take everyone into his presence. And God wants Pearson to “represent him to the world.” This is when Pearson began preaching his “gospel of inclusion.” Everyone is going to heaven.
This American Life sums up what followed like this:
Once he starts preaching his own revelation, Carlton Pearson’s church falls apart. After all, when there’s no hell (as the logic goes), you don’t really need to believe in Jesus to be saved from it. What follows are the swift departures of his pastors, and an exodus from his congregation—which quickly dwindled to a few hundred people. Donations drop off too, but just as things start looking bleakest, new kinds of people, curious about his change in beliefs, start showing up on Sunday mornings.
The story turns sad, as Pearson laments about his friends leaving the church, the leaders not being on board with the gospel of inclusion, and all the beautiful babies he baptized moving on. His offerings dropped $40,000-$50,000 a week. His important friends abandon him. He misses not being celebrated by all these people who adored him. Now it’s like he died and they moved on.
It was important for these people to keep believing in hell for some reason. Hey, they might not like it, but they didn’t make the rules, as Cob explains. Pearson was formally denounced as a heretic, as he was “assaulting 1,500 years of tradition.” It’s “hard giving up hell after a lifetime of believing in it.” And so many still believe in a salvation based on scaring people with hell to lead them to Jesus.
Although he has to eventually close the doors of Higher Dimensions, Pearson’s gospel of inclusion attracts a new crowd. Muslims and gays stand and applaud him after he preaches his gospel of inclusion. Finally he is getting the notoriety he deserves. One of the holiest moments of his life was when a same gender leader washed his feet. Ira Glass concludes, “When it comes down to it, it’s a lot easier to believe in a world without hell. For one thing, you don’t have to worry about saving everybody.” Pearson is relieved that he doesn’t have to deal with the guilt of not saving every person he meets. He doesn’t need to talk for 2 hours on the plane insulting people by telling them they are going to hell (violin music playing softly in the background). It was all very virtuous of him to follow God in this way. What a martyr.
I was moved too, but not because of the violin music. I’m sad that an episode about heresy and an inclusive gospel never gave the true gospel. A false gospel was presented as the traditional Christian message, and then so-called better news was offered that was pronounced a heresy. Both were centered on the self-importance of the celebrity pastor. The bad news isn’t that the devil is behind every rock trying to pull us into hell, but that our own sin has condemned us and separated us from the holy God. The sensationalism of casting out demons left and right, speaking in tongues as “true believers,” and scaring people into some sort of salvation from the devil is just as bad as the universalism (which still involves tongues, I believe) that Pearson is now preaching, because God still isn’t represented to the world. Pearson’s message leaves people in their sin.
Our Triune God has created us for holy communion with him. Our sin, that saturates us in body, mind, and soul, separates us from God and condemns us to his just wrath. Hell isn’t the place the devil drags us, but the eternal presence of God’s wrath for sin. His wrath is just. Our sin enslaves us. We will never be free under it. We will always serve sin. The devil always serves sin, so yes, he is happy to help us join him. I don’t want anyone under that kind of inclusion. But the devil is not as present and as large as God—not even close.
And God’s love is greater than our sin. He sent the Son to live the life that we cold not live and die the death under the curse of sin in our place. In Jesus, and only in him, we are given God’s very own righteousness and saved from the curse of sin. Death no longer has its sting. Jesus doesn’t just pull us out of hell; he gives us righteousness. All those in him are no longer under the reign of sin, but rather serve in the reign of grace as we are being transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ. By faith we see that Jesus is Lord and we repent of our sin as we turn to him. Without repentance there is no salvation. How could we embrace a holy Lord in our sin? But there is forgiveness and restoration. The Lord Jesus, who triumphed over the rulers and authorities, making a public display of them by disarming them, doesn’t leave us in our sin! (Col. 2:15)
And it’s not about us. Or celebrity pastors. It’s all about him! Jesus is the one to be celebrated! And we long for that great day when we will be resurrected in new, eternal bodies to reign with him on the new heavens and the new earth in that blessed eternal communion, to God be the glory!
The call to Christ is inclusive. But it is exclusively in him that we can repent and have eternal life. God will reach all of his people. Christians are privileged to be included in sharing that message as we live a life of faith and obedience. We love to introduce sinners to Christ the Lord. And we don’t have to wait for Carlton Pearson to do it.
Maybe this movie will gain popularity on Netflix. And the false gospel that keeps people in their sins will further spread. But let the church use this to reaffirm the true gospel and stir us to share it all the more until our Lord returns.
Come Sunday, Oh come Sunday.
That’s the day.
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