I grew up Baptist. Aside from appreciating their music ministries, most of us thought holiness and apostolic folk were weird. I will never forget sitting in Driver’s Ed when a girl came across the library and laid hands on me because she said God told her to pray. God didn’t tell me she was coming so I was a bit confused. But keeping our worship distance from them, there were a few in the Pentecostal ranks that we followed and admired. Bishop Carlton Pearson was one of them. I personally loved his Azusa revivals and the CDs he produced from them because hymns and the old songs of the church are my absolute favorite. To this day, I play Azusa 2: Precious Memories and Azusa 3: Reminding the Saints of the Hope like they were released yesterday. Bishop Pearson pretty much instituted TBN’s Negro Night and we watched as he preached and generously shared his platform to introduce emerging Pentecostal preachers and vocalists. There are many who owe their ascent onto the world’s stage and prominence in part to Bishop Pearson’s kindness. And we never saw them publicly return the favor when he was made a leper and cast away.
In case you forgot or didn’t know, Bishop Carlton Pearson became pariah when he preached that Hell, as we understand it, does not exist and that Jesus’ death and resurrection saves everyone. He didn’t abuse his wife. He never harmed his children. There weren’t multiple women in the congregation receiving late night calls from him. He did not finesse the church out of millions of dollars. He just dared to say that God loves us all so much that God would not condemn anyone to an eternity of torment.
Following the April 13 release of Come Sunday, a film depicting his rise and fall, folks have been talking about the movie, what actually happened and if Hell is real. I was in my twenties when Bishop Pearson made his theological about-face. I heard that he’d been ex-communicated from the Pentecostal church and ceremoniously uninvited from pulpits. While I grew up in a Baptist church, I attended a Pentecostal one in college. I remember both of my pastors making it clear that Bishop Pearson’s theology was incorrect. They reiterated that, in order to be saved, we must confess our sins and ask for salvation. The members of the Pentecostal church I attended said that Bishop Pearson allowed the devil to take hold of him. And the Baptists back home said that’s what he gets for letting White folk make him forget he was Black.
Though hindsight is always perfect vision, I can’t imagine that we ever believed the way we treated Bishop Pearson was right. The church was mean; there’s no way around that. He was vilified by men who defended the existence of Hell while they pretended like the hell they were putting their own families through behind closed doors wasn’t real. There were instructions for pastors, former friends and church members to keep their distance. People were literally told to stay away from him. If we believe that the gospel of Jesus saves and God has called us to spread that message across the world, how do we reconcile demanding that Bishop Pearson exist outside of our Christian community? If scripture teaches us that the strong should bear the weak’s infirmities, wouldn’t that mean that we should have brought Bishop Pearson closer to us? How do we sit with the fact that, in Christ’s name, we treated him much differently than Jesus ever would? We knew Bishop Pearson but treated him like we didn’t. He loved us. He loved the history and traditions of our church. He ensured that we didn’t forget the older saints when the tides of ministry were turning. We knew him because he prayed for us, our family and our wellbeing but we treated him like he was the personification of evil. We didn’t allow the fact that this was the same man who labored alongside us in ministry to count for anything. Instead, we let him lose everything.
Although Bishop Pearson was severely mistreated, a beauty of Come Sunday is that it does not present him solely as victim but shows missteps as he transitioned his theology. Watching the film depiction of his pronouncement, I side-eyed the good reverend. You can’t just get up and say Hell doesn’t exist when you preached that it did the week before. Granted, I assume that creative license was taken for dramatic purposes and Bishop didn’t flip the script without preparing the congregation through bible studies and other teaching moments. However, it’s possible that it happened just like that because, often, pastors make unilateral decisions and statements that lack accountability and have little to no consideration for its impact on the congregation. I’ve witnessed pastors make tone deaf remarks and announce institutional changes without care. I’ve also sat at Bojangles’ and Golden Corral dinner tables afterwards when members shared their disappointment and feelings of disrespect. I know pastors want to believe that they don’t owe their congregations everything and, by virtue of being the senior pastor, they are afforded executive privileges. That may be true. Still, that doesn’t alleviate them of the responsibility to prepare their congregation for wherever direction they intend to take or decisions made.
There were a few times in the film when Bishop Pearson struck me as arrogant. It seemed that he was more invested in getting his former congregation and status back than he was moving forward with those who remained and pledged their support. But, completely reducing that to arrogance negates the complexity with which so many of us navigate the tension between our inherited theologies and our personal relationships with God. I’m sure to him, losing everything signaled God’s displeasure. After all- isn’t that the litmus test? If the things we hold dear are taken away from us, doesn’t that mean we are outside God’s will? If the gospel of inclusion is correct and Bishop Pearson actually heard from God, why did he lose everything? If he was right, why didn’t God add to his church daily and enlarge its territory? If this is how we measure God’s presence in our lives, then Bishop Pearson most definitely should have worked hard to get his prominence back. That doesn’t mean his intentions weren’t rooted in an arrogance but it does mean that we can’t ignore the reality that we have been immersed in doctrines that preach a punitive relationship between God and us. Though he was walking away from certain aspects of problematic theology, Bishop Pearson was still held captive by other parts of it too.
…and this is precisely why pastors need therapists. Let’s get real: many a pastor has bled all over their congregation because they refuse to consistently do their own emotional work. Bishop Pearson stood in the pulpit preaching a whole new theology that freed dying people in Rwanda but hadn’t even worked through how his old theology kept him from helping his uncle when he needed it. Firsthand, pastors see the depths of the world’s evil while also wrestling with their own stuff. The comments they make that have us calling each other before we get out the parking lot, the unilateral decisions and conclusions they come to all on their own, and their insistence on pastoring with a false authenticity for the sake of self-preservation signal things that can only be worked through with an outside party. Healthy congregations are led by healthy pastors and healthy pastors have therapists.
…and pastors need friends. All week, my friends and I have talked about this movie and how it resonates with us. But we are always talking to each other. They talk through their sermons with me; I talk through my essays with them. Many times, we’ve had to say to each other “you need to sit with that a little longer before you share it.” And a few times we’ve even had to say, “you just need to keep that one between you and Jesus.” We’ve laughed at how far we’ve come but, more than anything, we’re grateful to have the safe space. Watching the film, we were all struck by how lonely Bishop Pearson must have been not to have many (if any) who were open to processing with him. One of my friends remarked that it was likely Bishop Pearson didn’t have many clergy friends to help him think through his emerging theology because most clergy relationships are superficial and transactional rather than authentic and intimate. Whether this was the case for Bishop Pearson then, it is for many preachers now and it makes it hard to find safe space for mentorship, professional and personal growth.
Come Sunday also forces us to see how the desire for White acceptance is intentionally mistaken for God’s goodness. One cannot deny that race was a significant factor in Bishop Pearson’s ascension and his fall from grace. He was supposed to represent the lie that American Christianity is post-racial. For White evangelicals, interracial worship spaces are considered to be a sign of God’s providence and Bishop Pearson’s charismatic leadership became proof that, by transcending race, the true kingdom of God could finally be reflected in the earth. But that isn’t true. What Bishop Pearson’s ministry reflected was the way Black pastors don’t end up pastoring multicultural congregations but churches where Black aesthetics are used to prop up White theology. These spaces never honestly engage issues fundamental to racial and class divides. Even now, when I listen to those Azusa albums, Bishop Pearson made comments about the Black church and liberation theology that he never made about White religious identity. He made White evangelicals feel good about themselves because they took a Black kid from (what they considered to be) a rough environment, educated him and showed him what he could be. If we told the truth, Black people didn’t lose Bishop Pearson when he began to preach the gospel of inclusion. When he campaigned for George Bush in 2000, we knew he was long gone. And that’s why White folk were so disappointed. How dare preach a gospel that made everybody automatically equal to White people without having to perform the extra efforts of salvation?
The gospel of inclusion is primed with hope and possibility- pointing us in a different direction. Essentially, it exists on the premise that God’s love is more powerful and expansive than we can conceive, and we should honor that love in the way we move through the world and treat each other. That shifts us from a punitive understanding of our relationship to one that sacredly roots our accountability to each other. And, unfortunately, because so much of our doctrine is rooted in Whiteness, many Black Christians are just as resistant to it as White folk are. The way that we have accepted the construction of sin and Hell fundamentally works to diminish who we are as God’s beloved. While scriptures speak of Hell, our understanding of it as a place where people eternally pay for their sins only really took hold during the 16th Century because the Catholic Church rebuilt St. Peter’s and needed to sell indulgences to pay for it. Those who could afford to pardon their sins had the benefit of being considered righteous while those who could not afford it inevitably faced judgement. Consequently, capitalism and the construction of class ground our modern theological understanding of Heaven as reward and Hell as consequence. In order to go to Heaven, we have to expose the sinful one to prove that we are righteous. And those with the ability to ensure their presence in Heaven have the power to dictate who is going to Hell.
This is precisely why many in our community will never abandon Hell. By social construction, they are able to “afford” the inheritance of Heaven because their status as male and/or heterosexual purchased it. Being able to suggest that someone else has offended God in a way that they can/have not provides a power and social capital that they do not want to relinquish. But the problem with that is simple: Black folk can never fully benefit from these structures no matter how hard we try to adjust them to fit us. Whiteness will always build something bigger and more powerful that will always seek to swallow us whole (hello prison industrial complex). This is why we must walk away from those systems altogether and think from a theological perspective that is committed to affirming God’s unconditional love for all of Creation and does not make God out to be a vindictive avenger.
I fully understand Hell’s appeal for people who have experienced persistent oppression and marginalization. Somebody should pay for the hell on earth they’ve been put through. All my life, I’ve heard that Hell is a real place because it’s where all the White people are going when this life is over. If I believed in that kind of eternal damnation, I wouldn’t be mad if the only people condemned to it were men who broke hearts and trifling parents. Holding Hell as the just reward for those who have hurt us helps us cope and, in some ways, can be therapeutic. In what world should rapists, child abusers, racist bigots, homophobic and transphobic assailants inherit the kingdom of God? As my friend asked this week, how are we to understand being in Heaven with a man who killed 9 people in bible study and caused a child to lay in a pool of blood and play dead? It doesn’t make sense.
But what if that is the foolishness of the Cross?
What if Christ’s blood covers absolutely everything?
What if Hell is a place where only evil is banished while our fully redeemed bodies are taken into the presence of God?
What if, because the evil he committed has been sent to Hell, Dylan Roof will be in Heaven?
What if, because he has been fully redeemed, he will not be known by any of the horrible things he has done?
What if, because the evil I committed has been sent to Hell, my former friend will not know me as the one who hurt her and betrayed our friendship when we both come into the New Jerusalem?
What if God sees no difference between Dylan Roof and me?
This does not negate the horror of his actions or minimize that my offense had a different impact in comparison to his. It does, however, leave space that God considered both of our actions to have violated God’s intention that Creation be interdependent. And it also suggests that, when we both gave in to sin and broke God’s heart, God did not allow our actions to separate us from the redeeming, unconditional love that came to set us free. I do not have Hell as a reality for anyone because it contradicts what I believe about God. I reject it because I cannot say that anyone has done anything to deserve eternal damnation when I am unwilling to say that I deserve it myself. And I refuse to say that I deserve Hell because, when I fall short and know that I have disappointed myself and God, the one thing that can bring me comfort is scripture’s reminder that God does not treat me as my sins deserve or repay me according to the level of my iniquity.
I don’t have all the answers. I have more questions than anything; we all do. We don’t know everything because we can’t know everything. Because we are not God. We see through a glass dimly and we make a mockery of our faith when we refuse to be honest about that. None of us know for sure what awaits us on the other side. At best, we hope and have faith that what will greet us there looks nothing like what we are experiencing here. That we believe Christ did something for us that ensures this life will one day be over and we will live again is a beautiful hope and triumphant faith. A hope and faith upon which conversations about our vast theological differences can lovingly and respectfully take place. It is possible for us to recognize our differences, talk through them and actually reflect the rich diversity of thought within our faith tradition. It is necessary that we do that. If Come Sunday taught us anything, it is that lives and real relationships with each other are at stake