The particular program which prompted Pastor Thorn to recommend This American Life revolved around the Tulsa-based Pentecostal pastor “Bishop” Carlton Pearson. Pearson was a big deal here in Tulsa in the 80’s and 90’s, but fell from favor in a big way when, a few years ago he denied the existence of Hell and embraced Universalism. His racially integrated congregation of five thousand on the affluent south side of Tulsa rapidly shrunk to just a few hundred. And then he was officially declared a heretic for his views by the body of African-American Pentecostal bishops that he was affiliated with.
The program was worth listening to, as Pastor Thorn suggested. I found parts of it quite interesting. Living in Tulsa, and knowing a bit about the story I found some of it quite revealing. I found it sad, as did Pastor Thorn, but in a very different way. I too am sad over the personal losses described in this documenting of the rise and fall of a prominent Pentecostal pastor. I am sure Pearson’s views came from pure motives, in search of the truth, but the hard fact of life is that there are consequences to ideas. What “breaks my heart” most of all is the fact that public radio did this piece at all. That is one reason, I think, why many are and will be mostly affected by the personal losses, because the program was written to elicit empathy, to paint Carlton Pearson as a brave maverick, become martyr, who stood on his convictions and paid a high price. You know this is the direction the piece is going to go from the very beginning by the tone set in the introduction:
“Every century in our country there have been heresy trials. And people have been cast out of their own communities. It didn’t end with Salem witch trials.”
It is a shame that this piece will possibly be heard by millions of “spiritual” unbelievers, and this program will even further solidify their moralistic therapeutic deistic spiritual unbelief.
I am sure that Joe Thorn’s comments in this post were not intended to be a full commentary on the program, so I am not being critical of him in this post. Having a closeness, community-wise, to this story, I felt I needed to say something. What did trouble me a bit about Pastor Thorn’s brief comments, and, again I am sure he had more thoughts on the subject than he revealed in his post, was the lack of a sense of anger over the reproach brought upon the Gospel. This man, as Pastor Thorn pointed out, has jettisoned a vital aspect of the Gospel. I can understand sadness over the man’s soul, for it is in grave danger, but our love for the Gospel should cause us to rise up as Paul did and say:
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:8,9, ESV)
All is not lost, however, in the airing of this piece on Carlton Pearson. God can draw a straight line with a crooked stick. There are some positive things to say about this piece:
- It is encouraging to see that Pentecostals do have a sense of orthodoxy. There are limits to their nonsense, after all. The Word-of-Faith gospel, the Health-and-Prosperity gospel, and the Turn-or-Burn gospel are bad enough, and they are bad, two out of three coming very close to heresy in their own right, but at least most Pentecostals won’t go for the gospel of Inclusion.
- This story is a prime example of the importance of a high view of Scripture. Not far into the program it is made quite evident that in order for Pearson to hold his view on Hell, he had to abandon an inerrant view of Scripture. It is not clear by the story which view fell first, but it is obvious that a high view of Scripture was not a non-negotiable in Pearson’s world view.
- I think it is fair to say that the overall body of Pentecostalism embraces a man-centered Arminian theology. As was pointed out by Ascoll and White in their recent “debate”, Universalism is the logical, thinking conclusion of a man-centered Arminian system. Carlton Pearson was simply being consistent. If Jesus died for every soul that has ever lived or ever will live, then no one will go to Hell. The blessed thing about most in the SBC is that their Arminianism is not nearly so man centered in its emphasis, and their theology is largely compartmentalized (non-systematic). Very few Southern Baptists, clergy or lay, ever come to the conclusion of Universalism. Care needs to be taken, however. The conservative resurgence has brought new emphasis on the importance of Scripture, and as time goes by some who are serious to study and try to be systematic in their theology may very well come to embrace Universalism.
- Hell is real. We need to preach it. I was listening to the White Horse Inn podcast from last week entitled Smooth Talk Flattery, discussing Romans 16, and one of the things they emphasized was that you don’t have to quit believing in something to deny it. You just have to quit preaching it. In their discussion the scandal of the cross was the object, but the same principle easily applies to the doctrine of Hell. Again we need to preach on Hell. The good news of the Gospel means nothing apart from the anger, wrath, and righteousness of God, which finds at least part of its expression in the doctrine of Hell. You pastors, preach it, and then preach Christ.
All in all, A Modern-Day Heretic was still a very worthwhile piece to listen to. On the other hand, I wouldn’t recommend just anyone to listen to this far-left-leaning piece. If anti-Christian propaganda makes you see red and want to throw things, then don’t listen to it. Just one last caution: caveat emptor.