Sunday, July 15, 2007

hell, yeah

ABC News 20/20 reports on the remarkable "conversion" of Rev. Carlton Pearson, a man who went from preaching fire and brimstone to questioning the existence of hell (the link with pictures is here). Pearson experienced a crisis of faith, one that included an interreligious aspect:

Through the years, as Pearson studied the ancient Greek and Hebrew Scriptures, he developed a crisis of faith.

"I couldn't reconcile a God whose mercy endures forever, and this torture chamber that's customized for unbelievers," Pearson said.

And he often agonized over the fate of his non-Christian family members. According to his faith, they were doomed to hell.

"How can you really love a god who's torturing your grandmother? And that's what I went through for years."

The more he studied, the more Pearson saw the Bible not as the literal word of God but a book by men about God -- primitive men prone to mistranslations, political agendas and human emotions. And one night, as he watched Peter Jennings' report on the parade of suffering in Rwanda, he had a revelation.

"I remember thinking that these were probably Muslims because God wouldn't let that happen to Christians," he said. "Unbelieving Muslims, little starving babies and that they were going to die and go to hell."

"And that's when I said, 'God, how could you, how could you call yourself a loving God and a living God, and just let them suffer like that, then to suck them into hell?'" he continued. "And that's when I thought I heard an inner voice say, 'Is that what you think we're doing?' I said, 'That's what I've been taught. You're sucking them into hell.' And that voice said, 'Can't you see they're already there? That's hell. You created that.'"

Pearson believed that God was telling him hell is the creation of man on earth.

"The bitter torment of the idea of an angry, visceral, distant, stoic, harsh, unrelenting, unforgiving, intolerant God is hell. It's pagan, it's superstitious, and if you trace its history, it goes way back to where men feared the gods because something happened in life that caused frustration that they couldn't explain."

Pearson had some guts. He began preaching a different message, one that rejected hell. As a result, he began to lose his followers by the thousands, and also got cancer during that time. But his persistence has paid off: his cancer is in remission, and his base of followers has begun to build back up, though he now attracts a very different sort of crowd.

The sad part of all this is how his previous followers, upon hearing his new (in my opinion, more sensible) message, turned on him in hatred. Such behavior isn't surprising, of course; this is the reaction of people in the throes of attachment, people with no understanding of what true religion is.

The internal move Pearson has made here-- the move away from a poisonous idea-- is the sort of thing I'd like to see more of in the Muslim world. I can't help thinking, as I have for a long time, that Muslims in the West are the answer to this, that they are the ones most likely to experience just this sort of internal jihad (struggle), and then share it with their community. The fact that outspoken Muslims have already tried this in places like Europe, at the risk and cost of their own lives, gives me hope. It also keeps me from hopping in with the far-rightist crowd that presume Islam itself is inherently twisted. As I always say, religions are as they are practiced. They are not fundamentally one thing or another, not fundamentally violent or fundamentally peaceful. Traditions mired in violence are not irredeemable. It's simply a matter of finding the way that leads out of the cauldron of pettiness, hate, greed, selfishness, and attachment.

While I might not share Reverend Pearson's overall theology, I think he deserves praise for having the guts to bring a better message to the people than the ancient, stunted one we so often hear.



Anonymous said...

"Through the years, as Pearson studied the ancient Greek and Hebrew Scriptures, he developed a crisis of faith."

I identified with that completely! This happens to pretty much anyone who studies the Bible in an academic environment. Some shut out the academic insights, some try to reconcile them with faith, as I did for a time, and others simply outgrow faith altogether, as I ended out doing. Interesting posts, Kevin.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to add one more thing: my crisis of faith started with hell, also. That was the first element to go.

By the way, it's worth noting in this context that a Lutheran ordained minister was quoted as saying "There is no God, there is no resurrection, there is no eternal life"--he was defrocked, of course.

Anonymous said...

I've been a big fan of Pearson's for years. Before his coming forth with ruling out the idea of hell, I was enamored with his idea with the idea that Jesus came for everyone, not just those who accepted him (which makes sense, or at least to me it makes sense in the way that "preaching to the choir" doesn't make sense). As a matter of coincidence, I had left a link to Pearson's site at a relatively new blog I've been reading to find out what this newish blogger thinks of Pearson. Gotta open up the dialogue.

Personally, I do not understand the hatred that is generated when someone opens up a dialogue. If someone has faith, I don't understand how it can be so easily threatened by a simple, civil discourse, a giving and a sharing on theological differences. Isn't that how we all end up forming our own opinions of what is right or wrong for ourselves instead of being mindless sheeple blindly following whomever is yelling the loudest?

It is times like these that I am glad I was born in the 20th century and not several hundred years before; surely I would have been burned at the stake for being a freethinker.