My concerns with the fire and brimstone messages of the Church have led me to follow the work of Carlton Pearson.Pearson was a star among Pentecostal Christians. He was an advisor to President Bush, served as a guest host on the Trinity Broadcast Network, worked as a member of the Oral Roberts University board of trustees, and led a 6,000-member megachurch before his theological shift.
On September 7, 2009, Pearson preached his final sermon at New Dimensions. The church has been folded into All Souls Unitarian Church-the largest church in the Unitarian denomination. Before closing their doors, New Dimensions was billed as the friendliest, trendiest, most radically inclusive worship experience. Pearson tried to prove that hell doesn’t exist.
“I wanted a place where my people could find safe harbour,” Pearson told the Associated Press after closing the doors at New Dimensions. “They’re already outcasts in the evangelical-charismatic community.” They are outcast because they have embraced a “gospel of inclusion” that asserts all people will go to heaven. The rise and fall of Pearson brings to the forefront an intense theological debate that is deeply rooted in the need to delineate those who make it from those who don’t.
The “gospel of inclusion” is more about affirming God’s love and work in securing the salvation of the world, versus a concentration on the limits of those who find themselves ousted due to their works and thoughts. The “gospel of inclusion” seeks to love people to the kingdom rather than to scare them to the cross.
The debate on the validity of Pearson’s claims has far reaching impacts in reaching the outcast of the world. The theology of hell asserts an obligation on the part of the sinner to: (1) confess sin, (2) accept Christ and (3) change their ways as a measure of their faith. Hell becomes the place assigned those unwilling or incapable of abiding by the expectations of the Church.
That’s when things get s tricky and contentious. Hell theology grants the community of believers the right and power to determine who gets in and who is cast to eternal damnation. Faith is subverted by works. The traditional contention is that one is “saved by faith, not works”; however, works, in the theology of Hell, are used to determine faith.
The language of the Church becomes muddled in relating its position on Hell. The role of grace depends on the time in which it is used. Grace applies to those who have no relationship with God and come to Christ-by faith. Upon coming to Christ judgement settles in. It is works, not grace or faith, that assigns ones position in the kingdom.
All of this talk about Hell leaves me frustrated on the work that goes undone due to our obsession over the wrong message. For me, it doesn’t matter if hell exists. I don’t spend much time dealing with the furniture in heaven or the temperature in hell. What concerns me are matters related to life in the here and now. Things like the academic performance of youth. Things life the economic conditions that hinder so many around the globe and the existence of structures that oppress men and women. I worry about those who are left out due to the mean spirits of those who believe they are the holders of truth.
I’ve kept my eyes on the ministry of Carlton Pearson for other reasons. Like me, he stands outside the box. He took a risk. He stood for the validation of those who came seeking spiritual truth. He refused to cast them out, force them to be like others, and to keep them hiding due to the judgments of others.
New Dimensions had to close their doors. Is this the fate of those who refuse to think like other Christians? I Hope not.