Carlton Pearson and Christian universalism: appreciations and concerns

Netflix have just released a new movie about the story of Bishop Carlton Pearson—a wonder-kid Pentecostal preacher and Gospel singer who gave it all up when he came out as a universalist. I have not seen it (as I do not subscribe to Netflix), but it does look good.



Pearson's story is very interesting and I have always felt that I would like him as a person. There is much about him that I admire. However, I also have some significant reservations. I am posting here a review of his book. I wrote it in 2007 and it appeared in a significantly shortened version in Pneuma in 2008. It contains some criticism of Pearson. I have never published it before because I have been reluctant to be seen as 'going after' a man who is sincerely seeking to serve God and the world. It is not my intention to 'go after' anyone. However, as a Christian minister and teacher he is accountable, as we all are, to the Word of God and we must all be open to dialogue in our pursuit of a wise understanding of that Word. So in the spirit of iron sharpening iron I offer a few reflections on Bishop Pearson's book.

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Bishop Carlton Pearson, 
The Gospel of Inclusion: Reaching Beyond Religious Fundamentalism to the True Love of God 
(Azusa Press International, 2006)
vi + 246 pp. $24.95 hardback.

Carlton Pearson was an ORU board member and well respected Pentecostal pastor in Tulsa with his own TV ministry and a church of over 5,000 people. Then he started preaching his ‘gospel of inclusion’ and was branded a ‘heretic’ and ostracized from the community that had esteemed him. This book is Pearson’s explanation and defense of his controversial new message.
        It all began with a charismatic experience in 1996. He had been watching the TV news when an item about suffering Rwandans came on.  Pearson was angry with God for letting these people suffer and then sucking them into Hell. He felt God’s voice within him say that God had already done what needs to be done to save all people – they simply do not yet realize it. God is not sucking people into Hell – they are already in a manmade Hell and God is working to get them out of it.
        This experience led to a radical and instant shift in Pearson’s thinking and he began to rethink the theology he had held for the past 40 years. This book is the fruit of several years’ reflection on Scripture, reason, experience and tradition in the light of that life-changing moment. There is no doubt that Person is a man of integrity and conviction. He has paid a heavy price to proclaim this message.
        Rather than describing the argument of the book chapter by chapter (it is not easy to find a clear train of thought running through the book) I plan to summarize what I think is the heart of Pearson’s current theology. Now the book is not entirely self-consistent but what follows is how I understand Pearson’s new position. The gospel of inclusion involves:
1. A high view of creation and humanity. Humans are created in God’s image and thus have an inestimable value. We come from God – indeed he speaks of us ‘made of the very substance of God’ (a somewhat unorthodox notion but I hope that it is a rhetorical flourish rather than a piece of metaphysics). The human family is a unity in creation because it comes from the one God. And this is the root of human unity now and the ground of God’s universal love and salvific plans.
2. A high view of divine love. Pearson’s God loves and desires to redeem all that he has created. It would be true to say that divine love is at the heart of his vision of God.   
3. A high view of God’s redemption in Christ. Bishop Pearson is emphatic that salvation is only achieved by God through the work of Christ on the cross. Christ died for all people and his death brought reconciliation with God for all people. He did not die so that all might have the possibility of being saved – if they do their bit. He actually saved them! This is the central idea in Pearson’s theology. The world was saved from sin, death and Hell 2,000 years ago and we cannot make it more saved than it already is.
4. A high view of divine grace. We are saved by God’s grace alone. Faith does not get us saved but simply helps us to enjoy the benefits of our already-saved status. There are indeed benefits to having faith – it removes the illusions we have about our situation – but faith is not needed to get us redeemed. If it were then faith would be a good work contributed by us to earn salvation and grace is undercut.
5.  A new view of mission and evangelism. Preaching the gospel is not about calling people to be saved for that would imply that Christ’s cross had not done its work. It is not the duty of the Christian to save the world – God has already done that in Christ. Rather evangelism is telling people the good news that they are already saved. When people grasp this their Christ-consciousness is awakened. This is an innovative rethink of mission.
6. Rethinking Hell. It is clear that Hell as eternal torment is not part of the gospel of inclusion and that some new understanding of Hell is required. However, it is not easy to see with clarity what Pearson’s revised view of Hell is. Sometimes he speaks of Hell as a temporary stage of suffering that follows death – a loving chastisement – before those in it enter heaven (the classical Christian Universalist view). Mostly he seems to prefer to speak of ‘Hell’ as the human-created nightmares of this present life and that none will face any more Hell after the Day of Judgment. I suspect that he inclines to a no-Hell-after-Judgment-Day view but retains the temporary-Hell view as a fallback position. Or perhaps Pearson’s theology is still in a state of flux on the issue.
        Before considering some shortcomings of Pearson’s theology it is worth pondering its strengths.
        First, Pearson is exactly right to say that all humans are of profound spiritual status and value (God’s own image). I may not feel comfortable with the way he expresses this at times but he is spot on. He is right that humans are fundamentally good in creation and that sin is secondary rather than fundamental to our identity. Second, Pearson is quite correct to emphasize God’s universal love and his desire to redeem his whole creation (human and non-human). Third, Pearson’s emphasis on the power of the cross for salvation is deeply Christian and his faith in God’s ability to get his purposes achieved in the end is inspiring. Fourth, Pearson’s trouble holding together a belief in eternal conscious torment in Hell with God’s love is indeed understandable. Whilst I don’t agree with his conclusions his objections are mostly well made.
But there are significant problems with the book. First, Pearson engages in several dubious argument strategies. There is, for starters, some argument via false dilemmas. We are sometimes told that we must choose between x and y, that y is false so we must choose x. But in many of these instances either, (a) x and y are compatible and no choice need be made, or (b) x and y are not the only options so rejecting y is not a choice for x. An example: we are told that must choose between Religion which has rules and spirituality which is about union with God (p. 52). Really? Why must we choose? Can’t we have both?
Another dubious argument strategy is the caricaturing of the views of his opponents. For instance, he thinks that the motive of those who say that some are saved and some are lost is ego (p. 56). Apparently, traditional Christians like to think they are special and hate the idea of equality. That is simply not true! Again, he speaks of the preponderance of Christian leaders who espouse hatred, prejudice, terrorism, arrogance, ignorance and oppression (p. 51). He seems to think that if one believes that some will end up in Hell then one must think that God hates them and one will thus imitate God by hating them too (p. 121). But traditional theology simply does not have such implications (even if there may be some Christians who act that way).
Pearson also has a habit of reacting against the type of Christianity in which he grew up but then generalizing the critique to apply to all Pentecostalism, all evangelicalism and all Christianity. For one such as me, who has not lived in that particular Pentecostal stream, these critiques can often feel wide of the mark.
Finally, Pearson mounts regular attacks on ‘Religion’ (including institutional Christianity) but fails to see that he himself is subject to some of the same objections. For instance, ‘Religion’ is castigated for being intolerant and excluding what it sees as heretical views – but Pearson himself is doing exactly the same thing in this book and arguably falls foul of his own objections.
        Second, there are points in the book where he advances distinctly heterodox ideas. For instance, his deeply confused and disturbing argument that evil is part of the divine nature and that moral goodness and evil only exist in our perceptions (chapter 5). Apart from the fact that the arguments for these conclusions are weak, their implications are disturbing in ways Pearson seems not to have thought through (evidenced by the fact that other parts of his book flatly contradict these ideas). Also his suggestion that as Trinitarians we Christians are polytheists and that it is only cultural chauvinism that stopped the Trinity being a quartet with God the Mother (p. 183). This reflects a very basic and disturbing misunderstand of the Christian view of God. Also his periodic (and fortunately inconsistent) flirtation with pantheism (e.g., p. 147) and his very unPentecostal proposal that the second coming be demythologized to refer to the arising of Christ-consciousness in people (p. 195). On all these matters Pearson has moved beyond the bounds of biblical and orthodox Christian faith. He is saved by the fact that none of these ideas has been properly thought through and integrated into his systematic theology. I would urge Pearson to reject them because he can still be true to his gospel of inclusion without them and they are genuinely unChristian ideas.
        Third, an inadequate view of sin. In his understandable desire to shift the emphasis away from a Christianity obsessed with sin-consciousness Pearson ends up with a Christianity that seems to seek to convince people that they do not need to be concerned with sin (chapter 4). Pearson rightly sees humans as created fundamentally good and not as fundamentally evil. Evil is a corruption of our primal goodness. He rightly reacts against the judgmental attitudes that Christians can have towards those who fail. He seems to be saying, like Jesus to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you.” But he is most uncomfortable about adding the exhortation, “Go then and sin no more” lest it come across as judgmental. And that, to my mind, is as much a failure to love the sinner as is the condemnatory attitude of the crowd.
Fourth, I think the major problem in Pearson’s theology is not that he thinks that everyone is saved in Christ. In fact, I am convinced that he is correct about that. But does it follow that everyone is therefore saved? Yes and no. Christ represents the whole of humanity in his death and resurrection so in Christ all humanity is saved (rightly Pearson, p. 100). But from a NT perspective (and pace Pearson) not all humanity is in Christ. Currently humanity is divided into those who are united to Christ by the Spirit and those who are not. The former group participates in the salvation of humanity already achieved in Jesus and the latter group does not. Consequently showing that all people are saved in Christ does not show that all people currently experience salvation, nor that all will ultimately experience it (although it does not rule that out). So, in terms of mission, our message is ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (rightly Pearson) but it is also ‘therefore, be reconciled to God’ (contra Pearson). And it certainly involved calling people to repent and to acknowledge Christ as Lord and Savior. Pearson’s attempt to get away from evangelism as calling people to conversion is not simply contrary to the NT but also seems to me to be contrary to the logic of his own theology. If Pearson proclaims to people that they are already saved in Christ he is presumably inviting them to believe that this is indeed so (which would require them to hold a whole network of Christian beliefs) and to live in the light of that. If that is not conversion then what is? He might not be saying that if they fail to believe they will burn in Hell but he is surely inviting them to become Christians in order to enjoy the reality of their salvation through an awakened Christ-consciousness.
Sixth, Pearson is going to have to do a lot more work on showing how the biblical text is consistent with his thesis. Traditional Christians are a people of the book – and evangelicals and Pentecostals especially. To persuade that audience to take the route of inclusion needs him to show how the Bible as a whole fits it and this Pearson signally fails to do. There is a regular ad hoc dipping in to biblical texts but no thorough look at the Bible. So by the end of the book one is still left asking the most basic of questions such as, “What about the biblical passages about Hell?” Pearson’s periodic comments on such passages for the most part fail to convince.  Indeed, it is not always clear whether Pearson sees himself as offering a correct interpretation of the Bible or demoting the message of the Bible in favor of his ‘new message from God’ (e.g., the book of Revelation is written off because its author was stressed out by persecution). Pentecostals would be open, in theory, to new light on Scripture but will simply not be able to embrace his willingness to dismiss inconvenient parts of the Bible

Comments

Nicolas said…
This is the man that preached at the Royal Wedding -- No?
Nicolas said…
..... is the correct answer!
Looks a bit like him thought

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