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304: Heretics

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Prologue

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life.

Larry King

Mrs. Treanor, can you hear me OK?

Kathleen Treanor

Yes, I can.

Larry King

What were your in-laws doing in the building?

Ira Glass

This is The Larry King Show the day after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. His guests are a young couple, the Treanors, who lost their relatives in the bombing, and a young charismatic preacher.

Larry King

Joining us from Tulsa is Reverend Carlton Pearson, who spoke at yesterday's very moving prayer service. What do you say to people like the Treanors?

Carlton Pearson

Well, Brad already mentioned his faith in God. And I said yesterday that experience is not only what happens to you, but what you do with what happens to you.

Ira Glass

Carlton Pearson, at the time that he talked to Larry King, was a rising evangelical megastar, a Republican activist who prayed in the Bush Senior White House, a guest on The 700 Club. Host of a national TV show, he traveled all over the world in chartered jets, lecturing to fundamentalist gatherings. But at the height of his popularity, he became involved in a scandal, though not in the kind of scandal that you usually think of when you hear the word scandal.

He didn't have an affair, didn't embezzle money. He didn't admit an addiction to prescription painkillers. No, no, none of that. He stopped believing in hell. And what happened to him next was the kind of thing that happens from time to time here in America, even now. He became a heretic, a very prominent heretic in the middle of a religious community, in the middle of our country.

Every century in our nation, there have been heresy trials and people who've been cast out of their own communities. It didn't end with the Salem witch trials. And things happened to Carlton Pearson. He had an experience that most Americans do not imagine still happens today in modern America. We're devoting our entire show today to his story.

We first broadcast today's show back in 2005. And we're rerunning it this week because we just made a new movie about Carlton Pearson's life. We're excited about that. It's on Netflix, called Come Sunday.

Our reporter for the radio story is Russell Cobb, who's from Tulsa where most of the story takes place. And when you look at the rise and fall of Carlton Pearson, his rise is almost as remarkable as his fall. And that's where Russell Cobb starts his story.

Act One: Rise

Russell Cobb

Carlton Pearson says there are two kinds of people in his family, preachers and convicts. He grew up in an all-black ghetto in San Diego in a strict Pentecostal denomination-- no smoking, drinking, cursing, or dancing. But there was lots of churchgoing.

And church is where the really wild stuff happened. People spoke in tongues, got slain by the Holy Spirit. And they definitely believed in hell, to the point where even the faithful could get possessed by demons. Carlton's father and grandfather were ministers. And at an early age, he was following in their footsteps.

Carlton Pearson

Well, the first time I ever cast the devil out of somebody, I was like, 17 years old. 16, maybe. And the girl was my girlfriend.

Russell Cobb

This was a tiny storefront where the church was having a youth revival.

Carlton Pearson

She just let out this scream. And it startled me and everybody else. She fell to the ground. I looked at the pastor, and he just stood there. And nobody else moved. So I started rebuking the devil, and binding the devil in the name of Jesus, and commanding him to come out, and pleading what we call plead the blood. The blood, the blood, the blood, the blood, come out. You lying wonder, in the name of Jesus I command you to cease and desist. Loose her. Come out in Jesus-- Come out. Come out now.

The things we'd been taught to say. My grandfather used to do that. She kind of thrashed a little bit. And she's, I'm not going out, you know, talking back to me like this. So I was freaking out. But I was the leader of the meeting. It was my revival. So I couldn't-- I had seen people cast devils out before. I never expected that, certainly not from a girl I was dating.

It took me probably an hour, maybe an hour and a half, before she got through thrashing and talking back to me and screaming. And then it went out of her into another person, supposedly. And they-- the whole pew hit the floor. And there were all these crazy things happening in that little storefront church.

It was very frightening, very serious. And that kind of thing happened every night for three nights in a row. And I became a hero after that because Carlton Pearson cast the devil out of people three nights in a row.

Russell Cobb

Looking back at this episode right now, I mean as you're telling it, how do you think about it right now?

Carlton Pearson

Well, I expected devils. I expected demons. I saw them everywhere. So that was a part of my life. The devil was as present and as large as God. He had most of the people. He was ultimately going to get most of the people. Demons were all over-- in the church, in the schools, in the neighborhoods. Everything was a devil. So if you believe it, you experience it.

Russell Cobb

Carlton was still curious about what went on beyond the world of devils and demons. But intellectual curiosity wasn't really encouraged where he grew up. This wasn't a place where church leaders had PhDs in divinity.

Carlton Pearson

All my pastors but one were janitors. They cleaned banks and restaurants. And I'd sometimes go with them. A lot of them couldn't read. They had no formal education, certainly not seminary. And so we were trying to fit into a big, broad world that we didn't understand, that we felt was basically hellbound, and we were to reach them, but we couldn't relate to them. They couldn't relate to us.

So my world was getting smaller. And the world was getting larger. And I was smothering. But I had to find a way to get out of that world and still go to heaven. And ORU offered that to me in a sanctified way.

Russell Cobb

ORU was Oral Roberts University. Roberts was one of the few outside influences that made it into the Pearson home. He had a TV show, and Carlton's mother loved it. And I'd like to take a moment here and talk a little bit about Oral Roberts and the school he founded because it forms a backdrop for much of what happens later.

Oral Roberts was a half-Cherokee charismatic preacher who claimed to heal disease with the touch of a hand, sometimes even through the TV screen. He was one of the first preachers to take TV seriously, the first televangelist the way we think of them now. And his weekly show, The Hour Of Healing, reached tens of millions of viewers. And he tried to change the image of Pentecostals from dusty tent revival Holy Rollers into something respectable and higher class.

Oral Roberts

I grew up in the Christian faith and was taught to give, but was told not to expect anything back. And we listened. And we gave, and received nothing back. We had old rattletrap cars, many times no place to live.

Our clothes were not fit to wear, and mete out trying to tell people the good news. And people out there saying, yeah, to be like you? No.

Russell Cobb

He also tweaked the Pentecostal message, making it more optimistic. His catchphrases-- expect a miracle, God ain't poor no more, plant a seed and it will grow-- were all about the idea that faith would lead to wealth and happiness on this earth. He called donations to his church investments. And he guaranteed a high rate of return.

Oral Roberts

God said return unto me, and I'll return unto you.

Congregation

That's right. Amen.

Oral Roberts

When you give to God, you're putting money into your account.

[MUSIC - WORLD ACTION SINGERS]

Singer

You won't believe it's true, how the bank of life pays interest. Amazing what a little love can do.

Russell Cobb

You're listening to another front in the Oral Roberts campaign for mainstream acceptance, the World Action Singers. They were sort of musical emissaries, a group of about 20 Oral Roberts University students who traveled around the world performing Christian-themed variety shows to religious audiences. Carlton joined the group when he first arrived on campus at ORU in 1971. By this time the singers had already started to cross over to a more secular audience.

Carlton's freshman year, he went with the group to the headquarters of NBC in California to appear on a prime time Oral Roberts special. 37 million people watched it. For a kid who wanted a sanctified way to see the rest of the world, it couldn't have been better.

Carlton Pearson

I remember going to NBC, and Johnny Carson had a star, Redd Foxx had a star. They all had-- and Oral Roberts was a star on the-- and he would come in a Rolls Royce. And here we are, the Pentecostal kids, singing on nationwide television, sometimes with Johnny Cash, or Pearl Bailey, or Robert Goulet, and movie stars. And we saw Dale Evans and all that kind of thing.

So it changed my worldview pronounced. He brought an elegance to the Pentecostal expression, a dignity to it, that we had not known in California. I was elated.

[MUSIC - WORLD ACTION SINGERS]

Singer

It'll come back to you someday.

Russell Cobb

Through all this, Carlton was getting closer to Oral Roberts. He'd go to dinner with Oral and his wife, Evelyn. Oral and he would talk for hours. But it wasn't until a problem arose with Oral Roberts' son, Richard, that Carlton realized how close they'd become.

Richard Roberts ran the World Action Singers when Carlton sang for the group. They butted heads on a few occasions. And Carlton decided he'd had enough. At the time, coincidentally, Kathie Lee Gifford was also a World Action Singer. And she and Carlton decided to quit together. Word of all this made it to Oral, and Carlton got called into his office.

Carlton Pearson

To my surprise, when I went in the office, Richard was sitting in there. And he had explained to his dad that Kathie and I were getting out. And he was sitting there in front of his father and me. And it was like whatever the son had done to make us not want to be in there was not good.

Because Oral didn't want particularly his two favorites, one of his two favorite singers, me and Kathie, to leave. That's the impression I got. I could be wrong, but I think that's what was going on. And so Richard was the heir apparent, the likely successor. It never crossed my mind that it would be any different than that.

I just was close to his father. His father was intrigued with the fact that I was from the ghettos of San Diego. Oral was always for the underdog. He saw me as pulling myself up by my own bootstraps. And so he said, "We like you around here. 25% of my support is consistently African-American." He would've said black in those days.

And he said, "I need a black son. Richard is my biological son. He has the indispensable name of Roberts." I remember him using the term indispensable because I didn't know what that meant, indispensable name of Roberts. "But you are my black son, and I need you by my side."

Russell Cobb

Carlton still decided to leave the group, but he stayed Oral's black son. And let's put this in context. Civil rights came late to Tulsa. Schools weren't desegregated until the 1970s. South Tulsa is still almost all white, North Tulsa almost all black.

But Oral Roberts had always been sympathetic to the plight of black people. As early as the '50s, he integrated his tent revivals. And he was sincere about his feelings toward Carlton. The two were very similar. Because of their sheer charisma, they could walk in seemingly contradictory worlds-- black and white, religious and secular-- which explains what happens next.

Carlton, with his best friend and roommate from ORU, a white man named Garry McIntosh, started a church. They called it Higher Dimensions. And it was different from all the other churches in Tulsa. Here are some early members. First, Jeff Voth.

Jeff Voth

The church can be really, really a cloistered place. You know, white folks kind of worship the way they do. And people of color worship the way they do. And never the twain shall meet. And Higher Dimensions, it really blew that stereotype away.

Russell Cobb

And here's Martin Brown, who joined Higher Dimensions right after it started in 1981.

Martin Brown

It was very integrated. And that was one of the things that I really respected him for, and I was really proud of him as an African-American man to have accomplished in South Tulsa. And I had never seen it before. I had never seen it in a black church or a white church.

Russell Cobb

One of the things that made the integration possible at all is a characteristic everyone points out about Carlton Pearson. He's a very funny man. Here's a sermon from 1998 where he starts off talking about the need for strong discipline with children.

Carlton Pearson

Sometimes she was a sweetheart. No, darling. That don't work. Not with coloreds, it don't work. It may work with some of you Anglos. No, I'm kidding. The coloreds are becoming more like the Anglos, and the Anglos are now starting to whip their children. Isn't that a blessing?

[LAUGHTER]

Carlton Pearson

All this soft talking ain't working no more. So you finally convinced you going to have to beat them like we beat ours. Strike that from the record, please.

[LAUGHTER]

Russell Cobb

This one's from 2001.

Carlton Pearson

They started saying I was the most available bachelor. Church was full of beautiful, Holy Ghost filled women. Everywhere I traveled, the place was packed. And I thought it was my anointing and the blessing of the Lord all over me. And then I got married. And the balcony cleared out. I went and messed up my whole ministry.

[LAUGHTER]

Carlton Pearson

First time I had an argument with her, I knew she was of the devil. He done tore up my life and my ministry. Satan, the Lord rebuke you. Hail Mary, whatever works. One time, we was both trying to cast the devil out of each other. Have I ever told you that story?

[LAUGHTER]

Carlton Pearson

Can you imagine two folks in love? Satan, the Lord rebuke you. Satan, the Lord rebuke you. I command you to come out of here, you foul, tormenting spirit. I command him to come out of you.

[LAUGHTER]

Carlton Pearson

Look at me. I don't care whether you're homosexual, heterosexual, or asexual, or bisexual, or try-- trying to have sex.

[LAUGHTER]

Carlton Pearson

Whatever it is, if it's unclean or unholy, you need your mind renewed. The renewing, everybody say the renewing.

Congregation

The renewing.

Carlton Pearson

Anakainos in Greek, and ana meaning back or again, kainos meaning new, not recent but different.

Martin Brown

It felt good to go to church and have someone who could give you more than just a cursory explanation of scripture.

Russell Cobb

Martin Brown says another thing a lot of people mention, that Carlton's sermons weren't just funny. They were scholarly.

Martin Brown

I mean he could give you an in-depth analysis of the scripture. He could tell you what the Greek of this word meant and so forth. And I really appreciated that because it gave me the sense that you cannot take everything at face value. You have to study it and know it for yourself.

Carlton Pearson

Say it with me. Demons, daemon, it is an inferior deity. Dae meaning to distribute. It also in Greek means a knowing one. So these are little spirits that supposedly have a certain knowledge, a secret knowledge.

Russell Cobb

Things kept growing. Higher Dimensions built a mega church on the predominantly white south side. They hired more pastors, formed a youth group. There were plans to build a ranch and a hotel. And Carlton Pearson's profile was rising as well. He flew around the country, guest preaching with some of the biggest names in the evangelical world, people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

He was in and out of the White House, under both Bushes and Clinton. And when George W. Bush started his faith-based initiatives program, Carlton sat on an advisory panel and became a spokesman for the plan. He hosted a show on TBN, Trinity Broadcasting Network, a Christian cable channel.

He was appointed to the Board of Regents at Oral Roberts University and made bishop in 1995 by the International Communion of Charismatic Churches. And he started a revival called Azusa, a modern-day evangelical festival, which was sort of like a South by Southwest for evangelical preachers and singers.

Brother Alvin

Once again, we are live at Azusa. Come on. Let's praise God and put those hands together for our bishop and doctor, Carlton D Pearson.

Carlton Pearson

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Brother Alvin. And hello, Azusa. We have come this far by faith. Let's sing it. (SINGING) And we've come this far by faith.

Russell Cobb

Carlton would pack out the Mabee Center, the convention hall at ORU, for his conference and bus in 30,000 people from all over the country.

Carlton Pearson

(SINGING) I'm trusting in his holy word. Trusting in his holy word.

Russell Cobb

He introduced new talent, bringing up other preachers. One of the most famous is T.D. Jakes, who Carlton introduced in 1992. Jakes went on to found a church in Dallas called The Potter's House, which has over 28,000 members.

He also has a TV show and might be the most important black preacher today. President Bush very publicly sought his support and appeared by his side in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In 2000, eight years after Carlton introduced Jakes to a national audience, Jakes welcomed Carlton to The Potter's House.

T.d. Jakes

Let's clap our hands for the visionary Bishop Carlton Pearson and his lovely wife Gina. My, my, my, my, my, my, we salute you. And we celebrate you. We celebrate you for being a trailblazer, for your conviction, for your tenacity, and for your relentless spirit. We celebrate you, you lion.

Russell Cobb

And attendance at Carlton's own church continued to grow. Higher Dimensions added new seats, a balcony, and bought state of the art audio and video recording equipment.

Carlton Pearson

I used to worry that it would ever be filled. We could seat about 1,200, and it was full. Then we put the balconies in, another 800 seats. We're running about 2,200 per service, 5,000 on a Sunday.

And every person in my position wonders each week, will they come back? And after a few years of driving up here, and there's police directing traffic, and parking attendants, and crowds, and security meets my car, and I go in my garage-- and one day, it dawned on me. And I said, I guess this is the way it's going to be. We are there.

Russell Cobb

So here he is at the top of his game. It's the late 1990s. But something didn't feel right. Carlton had always preached a pretty conventional evangelical theology. Hell was a horrible place-- weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth for eternity. And the only way to avoid it was to accept Jesus.

But he was always reading and studying the Bible's origins, boning up on the original Hebrew and Greek. And he'd begun to doubt some of the stuff he'd been preaching. And it all came to a head one evening in front of the television.

Carlton Pearson

When my little girl, who'll be nine next month, was an infant, I was watching the evening news. The Hutus and Tutsis were returning from Rwanda to Uganda. And Peter Jennings was doing a piece on it. Now, Majesty was in my lap, my little girl. I'm eating the meal, and I'm watching these little kids with swollen bellies. And it looks like their skin is stretched across their little skeletal remains. Their hair is kind of red from malnutrition.

The babies, they've got flies in the corners of their eyes and in their mouths. And they reach for their mother's breast. And the mother's breast looks like a little pencil hanging there. I mean the baby's reaching for the breast. There's no milk.

And I, with my little fat-faced baby, and a plate of food, and a big screen television-- and I said, God, I don't know how you could call yourself a loving, sovereign God, and allow these people to suffer this way, and just suck them right into hell, which is what was my assumption. And I heard a voice say within me, so that's what you think we're doing?

And I remember I didn't say yes or no. I said, that's what I've been taught. We're sucking them into hell. I said yes. And what would change that? Well, they need to get saved. And how would that happen? Well, somebody needs to preach the gospel to them and get them saved.

So if you think that's the only way they're going to get saved is for somebody to preach the gospel to them and that we're sucking them into hell, why don't you put your little baby down, turn your big screen television off, push your plate away, get on the first thing smoking, and go get them saved? And I remember I broke into tears. I was very upset.

I remember thinking, God, don't put that guilt on me. I've given you the best 40 years of my life. Besides, I can't save the whole world. I'm doing the best I can. I can't save this whole world. And that's where I remember-- and I believe it was God saying, precisely, you can't save this world. That's what we did.

You think we're sucking them into hell? Can't you see they're already there? That's hell. You keep creating and inventing that for yourselves. I'm taking them into my presence. And I thought, well, I'll be. That's weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. That's where the pain comes from.

We do that to each other. And we do it to ourselves. Then I saw emergency rooms. I saw divorce court. I saw jails and prisons. I saw how we create hell on this planet for each other. For the first time in my life, I did not see God as the inventor of hell.

Here's what makes me right. I'm sitting next to a little Tibetan monk. He's been a Tibetan monk for the fourth generation. Here's a monk that all he does is every morning, he takes the goats. He milks the goats, takes them to another pasture.

He works in the garden. He says some prayers. He burns some incense. He never married. He doesn't kill, cuss, fight, lie. He never heard the gospel. Never seen a television or a radio or a tract. He lives way up there in the cold.

He's taking goats to one pasture, slips off a cliff, falls into a valley, and dies. Is there a Jesus anywhere? To receive that man? Or is the devil there, sucking 'em all into hell? And I would say, no, no, no, my God loves you.

The way the God of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is presented, he's a monster. The God we've been preaching is a monster. He's worse than Saddam. He's worse than Osama bin Laden. He's worse than Hitler, the way we've presented him.

Because Hitler just burnt six million Jews, but God's going to burn at least six billion people-- and burn them forever. He has this customized torture chamber called hell, where he's going to torment, torture, not for a few minutes, or a few days, or a few hours, or a few weeks-- forever.

Russell Cobb

The more Carlton started to think about it, the further away from conventional teaching it led him. If there was no hell, then you didn't need to accept Jesus to avoid hell. And if you didn't need to accept Jesus, it didn't matter if you were a Christian. It didn't even matter if you came to church. Everyone in the world was saved, whether they knew it or not.

And at first, Carlton didn't understand just how problematic this would be for pretty much everyone in his life. Remember, he had a 5,000-person congregation and eight pastors on staff, all of whom believed that hell was real. And the only way to avoid it was by being reborn in Christ, as they'd been told all their lives. So he had a series of meetings with his pastors, saying he wanted to rewrite the theology of the charismatic world. This turned out to be a pretty tough sell.

Carlton Pearson

They were asking me questions. And I couldn't answer them to their satisfaction, and neither to mine. I knew it spiritually, but I couldn't answer it theologically. Because the Bible clearly-- I can take that Bible and denounce what I'm teaching. There is plenty of scriptures that say that salvation is limited to only those who confess Christ. The Bible clearly says that.

Hell's enlarging its borders. And that, depart from me, workers of iniquity. I never knew you. Jesus said that. And he will separate the wheat-- the goat from the sheep. And Jesus makes several references to Gehenna, which is translated hell and fire and all that stuff. If you take it literally, Jesus preached hell-- the way King James translated is translated, which is inaccurate.

Russell Cobb

Jeff Voth was an associate pastor at the time.

Jeff Voth

We would talk about his perception of scripture. And he had begun talking about just that scripture had mistakes and errors. And so the demeanor of the conversation would get heated at times. Because it was apparent that we were on two different pages.

Carlton Pearson

Open to Matthew chapter five. The average person, even preacher, that you approach and ask, where did we get the Bible? Most of them can't tell you that. Men sat around tables in rooms for weeks drinking wine, eating and taking breaks, fussing and sometimes cussing, arguing over what would be in the Bible and what would not. So I won't get into great detail. But I'm just saying that which we revere as the most sacred lexicon of truth on the planet is not necessarily-- and any true scholar will tell you-- infallible or inerrant. The logas, the logic of--

Russell Cobb

For all the scripture that doesn't support Carlton's ideas, there are passages that do, like first Timothy, chapter four, verse nine, which says that God is the savior of all men, especially those who believe. Or there's this.

Man

First John, chapter two. My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin.

Carlton Pearson

My dear children-- watch this-- I write this to you that you don't sin.

Man

But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the father in our defense.

Carlton Pearson

But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the father in our defense.

Man

His name is Jesus Christ, the righteous one.

Carlton Pearson

Read on.

Man

He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Carlton Pearson

He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Man

And not only for ours.

Carlton Pearson

And not only for ours.

Man

But also for the sins of the whole world.

Carlton Pearson

But also-- look at me, babies. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins-- but not only ours, but for the sins of the whole world.

Russell Cobb

He started formalizing his thinking into an actual doctrine, what he calls the gospel of inclusion. Everyone's going to heaven. Atheists, Muslims, gays-- Jesus died for them all. For people like Martin Brown, who'd been at Higher Dimensions since it started in 1981, this was a pretty confusing switch. Here was their pastor-- who'd married them, baptized them, counseled them, and advised them for decades-- all of a sudden saying that the premise of their faith was wrong.

Martin Brown

It got to a point where-- and I remember the day my wife and I decided to leave. We were sitting in church. And I can't remember the particular scripture. But I remember the scripture said faith in Christ. And he looked at the congregation. And he said, that does not mean faith in Christ.

It was written in ink in black and white. And he looks us in the eye and says, that's not what it means. I felt insulted by that. And he could tell by the looks on the members' faces that he had stepped into something. And so he said, wait a minute. Before you react, let me explain. And he gave an explanation for it which I didn't buy. And I think that was the time where we decided, OK, well, we need to find another church that's solid in the word because this is not-- we don't believe what he's telling us.

Russell Cobb

Around this time, a lot of people were making this decision. And the congregation was shrinking. Word started getting out around town that something funny was going on with Bishop Pearson. His own pastors had reached a breaking point.

Carlton Pearson

Four of my pastors-- all white-- my four pastors left here at once. And almost all my white members-- at least 85% of the white, non-black members left when they left. It was just a mass exodus. And we were at this table. And they came.

I thought they were coming to tell me that they were recommitting themselves to me and to my wife. They had called a meeting, and for me and my wife to come. But I thought when they asked us, they were going to reaffirm. So we're going to pull together and make this thing happen, pastor. We know you're going through a lot of criticism and a lot of judgment. And we just want you to know we got your back. That's what I was expecting.

But they came totally different. They said we-- very calm, they just said, we just wanted to tell you that we love you. But we've prayed together. And we've talked. And we've decided that we are going to resign our positions and start our own church. And would you be offended if we started one close? Because we can't find a building far away. We can only find a building down here close.

And of course, me being the Christian pacifist, I said, oh. I mean I burst into tears. My wife did too. We were just crushed. I was just devastated that these guys were going to do this. It just totally caught me off guard.

Those guys have had nothing to do with me since. They didn't ask me to come to any dedication. They've never asked me to speak. They've never come to anything I've had. They don't even like for people to know they were here. They just--

Russell Cobb

You don't talk to them at all?

Carlton Pearson

No. Well, if I see them around town or something like that, we hug and shake hands and grin like nothing. But there's still a lot of pain there.

Russell Cobb

Again, here's Jeff Voth.

Jeff Voth

There was a lot of crying, and it was difficult. I mean we didn't know. Like I said, it was emotional for us on many fronts. He was a dear, dear friend. And we loved he and his wife and kids and the church. And we'd spent a decade there almost and raised our kids there. And to be thinking that we were going to-- what's going to happen now?

Ira Glass

Coming up, what does happen next and the actual price in dollars and cents of heresy. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: Fall

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. We're devoting our entire program today to the story of Carlton Pearson, who was declared a modern-day heretic. These things do still happen in various denominations. We first ran today's story back in 2005.

And we're rerunning it today because we just released a film based on today's show-- not a documentary. We have actors playing everybody in the story. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Carlton Pearson. Martin Sheen does this amazing job playing Oral Roberts. Jason Segel, Danny Glover, Condola Rashad, and Lakeith Stanfield also star. Joshua Marston directs.

And one of the things that was exciting about making this into a movie is that Carlton spent hundreds of hours, literally hundreds of hours, talking to the screenwriter, Marcus Hinchey. And so the film covers way more of the story than we get into in the radio show. And especially fascinating, I think anyway, are the private conversations that Carlton Pearson had with his mentor, with Oral Roberts, about everything he was saying from the pulpit and what he was doing with his life. And we put those into the film.

It's also very dramatic what all this did to Carlton's marriage. We also have the meeting where Carlton appeared before the Pentecostal bishops and made his case. And they declared him a heretic. That's in the movie. Anyway, it's emotional and very different from the experience of listening to the radio show. Again, the film is called Come Sunday. It's on Netflix.

OK, back to our story. People stopped coming to Carlton's church. They were upset about his teachings. They stopped coming. Word spread about what he was saying. Russell Cobb takes it from there.

Russell Cobb

After that, the floodgates opened. A series of negative articles came out in Charisma Magazine, an evangelical monthly-- headlines like "When Heresy Goes Unchecked." "In the case of Carlton Pearson's universalist doctrines, we can't soft-pedal. We must confront." Evangelicals from all over the country piled on, denouncing him, saying he was mistaken or even possessed by the devil.

Even people whose careers he'd launched attacked. TD Jakes was quoted as saying, "I believe his theology is wrong, false, misleading, and an incorrect interpretation of the Bible." One especially negative article came out just weeks before Carlton's big conference.

Carlton Pearson

We had like 10,000 rooms booked every year for this conference. And 350 busloads I think canceled on us just two weeks before the conference. We'd already put the money on the rooms. And so I was left with that bundle. So things start really getting fast.

And then the Charisma wrote another article, and another one, and another one. And it didn't stop for about a year, a solid year that Charisma was on us. And then there were other-- then it became a topic of conversation around the country in that evangelical, charismatic community.

Russell Cobb

The one person who could've helped him, his white father Oral Roberts, remained silent. Privately, Oral told Carlton that he loved him. And he still considered him part of his family. But Oral's university forced Carlton to step down from the Board of Regents and banned him from holding his Azusa Conference on campus.

By this time Oral was in his 80s, and had retreated from the spotlight. His son, Richard, was the university's president, and Oral Roberts' ministry's public face. Richard, much like he had done 30 years before in the World Action Singers, became Carlton's nemesis. He denounced Carlton's gospel on TV. Here's that disastrous Azusa Conference in 2002.

Carlton Pearson

A strange thing to go from a very popular, sort of loved person that everybody seems to like, and everybody wants you, and then overnight, your name is a scandal. Overnight, you are suddenly a pariah. And you adjust.

And you wake up one day, and the headlines are different. And people don't like Carlton Pearson. And they're saying things. And fathers who've been precious to me suddenly are not as close. And people that I know love me, and I love them, but there's a silence going on.

And I'm not saying something you're not aware of. Or someone will tell you what I'm thinking, because you're going to have to go home, and they're going to tell you that you were stupid for coming, and why did you come? And just the things I've heard the last few weeks, I'm not concerned about me. But I want you to be all right.

I can handle my stuff. OK? I know what God spoke to me. So I'm cool. God said, in order to get attention, you might have to create some tension. Because I want you to represent me to the world.

He said, y'all have not done it accurately. You've not done me justice. People don't like me because of the way you represent me. And he said, you're not preaching me like I am. And that's why Trade Towers will continue to fall. And religious wars will fight.

Russell Cobb

Finally, in 2004 in an official ceremony, the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops formally named him a heretic. Carlton's congregation, once 5,000 strong, dropped to around 200 people, with some very worldly consequences.

Carlton Pearson

I mean I couldn't-- my offerings dropped 30,000, 40,000, 50,000 a week.

Russell Cobb

$30,000 $40,000 $50,000 dollars?

Carlton Pearson

Yeah, my offerings. My Sunday morning offerings. I have a million dollars a month almost-- I mean, it's a couple hundred thousand dollars a month. How can you operate if I'm paying $100,000 a month in salaries?

Russell Cobb

More than anything, it was just painful. In the middle of the denunciations, with his congregation leaving, Carlton turned 50 years old.

Carlton Pearson

And my 50th birthday was the one birthday I was looking forward to. It was the saddest of my whole life. Everybody was gone. I was in debt. They tried to have a birthday celebration for me, but it was just so sad for me. I just didn't enjoy it all. I wish they hadn't done anything.

I miss ORU. I miss the board. I miss being Bishop Pearson, the celebrated preacher. I miss my people that packed this place out and came by the thousands. And I baptized them, and dedicated their babies, and saw them play together. Ran into them at theaters, and saw them in the mall. They'd hug my neck, and the babies would kiss me.

And I would hold their little babies, and preach to them on Sundays, and pray with them on Saturday nights. I'd have been studying right now, getting ready for them in the morning. Built this whole place for them, and I miss being able to pick up the phone, and call my friends all over the country, and say, I'm going to be in your city in a couple of weeks. Let's get together. Oh, would you come and speak for us?

And that whole world, that's all gone. At least, it appears like it is for me. I'm not celebrated among those people. They don't think about me anymore. It's like I died, and they mourned my death. And they're pretty much over it.

Russell Cobb

I only got a sense for how complete the break was when I tried to get people in Tulsa to talk about Carlton Pearson. Only two people who left the church, Martin Brown and Jeff Voth, were willing to talk about the gospel of inclusion. Nobody else. None of the professors at Oral Roberts University, Oral Roberts' own son, or ex-parishioners, would talk on tape.

But I asked the people who did talk to us, why is it so important to believe in hell? They said they didn't want to sit around thinking about God condemning people to writhing and gnashing of teeth. They didn't want to think people like me, people who aren't born again, are bound for eternal damnation. But that was just the point. They didn't make the rules. God did. And he put them in the Bible. Belief in hell was just a test of faith.

Carlton received hundreds of letters from around the country making this point, like this one. "Dear Bishop Pearson, You are playing right into the enemy's hands. With all due respect, you can't rewrite the Bible and put it the way you think things ought to be. Stick to the scriptures because that's the way it is, whether we like it or not."

Carlton Pearson

Who do you think you are? That's what basically they're saying to me. Who the heck do you think you are? I mean Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, the whole charismatic church, the whole Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, TBN-- you've been denounced, dude. Don't you know you're wrong?

Or, you're so arrogant to think that you're right, and all these people are wrong. They're absolutely right. I'm being grandiose, way out of-- I'm saying what we were taught was wrong. We've been sold a bill of goods. I'm assaulting 1,500 years of tradition.

Russell Cobb

That tradition is powerful. People told me it was hard giving up hell after a lifetime of believing in it. Steve Palmer is still with Higher Dimensions. He's a youth pastor. He says hell is one of the first things he learned about as a young person, growing up in an evangelical church.

Steve Palmer

The approach was, let's see. What's the best way that we can get the kids' attention? I know. We'll scare them. We'll say, do you like to burn? No. Do you want to spend forever in darkness? No. Well, then you better turn. And that's how most of us got saved was we chose because the alternative was just scary.

And there were movies and things like that. I remember a movie called A Thief in the Night. It was some low-budget, B Christian-- I don't even know if B. It would be like C or D Christian movie that came out in the '70s with this real weird, funky music. And it was a dramatization of what would happen if the rapture happens.

Russell Cobb

When the rapture happens, of course, all good Christians get lifted to heaven, leaving us sinners here on earth.

Steve Palmer

Of course, there's this whole big series out now. And there's movies that have been much milder even than what we saw. But it scared the fire out of me when I was a kid. Because they had these images of a kid walking across the street with a pound of butter that she borrowed from the neighbor. And then the next scene is the butter's laying there on the street.

And kids are screaming. And people are panicking. And there's this world order with this police and choppers and things like that. Man, it scared me because every time-- and I lived in the country. If we're out pulling weeds in the garden, and all of a sudden I turn around, and Mom's not there anymore, I'm thinking, rapture.

And sure enough it'd get dark, and Mom and Dad weren't around. I'm looking-- I had my list of people that I could call that I knew would-- I knew they would get Raptured if it ever came to that. And sure enough, I actually put it to the test a couple of times because I thought the rapture had happened.

So I went to the phone, and I'd call just to hear their voice answer. I was like, oh, good. She's there. OK. The rapture didn't happen. Because she's my Aunt May. And she was a missionary in Haiti for 28 years. She's definitely going on the first round.

Man

At this time, has everyone gotten a plate? Because we have plenty of food and plenty of service.

Russell Cobb

It's September 2005 at the Higher Dimensions 25th Anniversary Banquet. It's a big meeting room packed with 100 people or so. Despite a huge cake and colorful streamers and children running around popping balloons, it doesn't exactly feel like a celebration.

Carlton hadn't been looking forward to it, thinking it was going to remind him too much of what he'd lost. There's something melancholic in the air. I wander around and talk to people.

Most of the people here have stuck with Carlton through the whole controversy. It wasn't easy for anyone. Youth Pastor Steve Palmer jokes, this is what happens to a church when you get rid of hell.

Steve Palmer

Threat of judgment day sure is easy to pack a church out. That and a good fried chicken meal, you will get people to come. That fear factor is definitely effective. And I think if we take away the requirements of coming to church and paying your dues and say that that's nice but it's not necessary, you can put some guys out of a job. Here I am. I'm believing this stuff, and I may be putting myself out of a job.

Russell Cobb

I've heard newcomers say that the first question they get asked when they move to Tulsa is what church do you go to? The question isn't meant to be confrontational. It's like asking someone what they majored in in college. But when your minister's a heretic, you're a heretic too.

Teresa Reed is a longtime member of Higher Dimensions. She used to believe it was her duty as a Christian to save everyone from hell. Now she can't talk to her family about church. Friends have stopped associating with her. Even going outside is dicey.

Teresa Reed

One time, we were out just for a walk, minding our own business. And some neighbors down the street, they knew that we went to Higher Dimensions and the theological shift. They came. They knew that was their opportunity. So they came, and they kind of accosted us on our walk and asked us what our beliefs were.

Only in Tulsa, right? They stopped us and asked us. They said, you guys still go to Higher Dimensions? And we said, yeah. And they said, and your pastor doesn't believe in hell anymore? And I said, well, we have questions about it. Oh, we think that's a really dangerous thing. You shouldn't tamper with hell.

And they wanted to have a conversation with us. They wanted to stop us in the middle of our Sunday afternoon walk. We're in our subdivision. And so I was pretty ticked at that. And I said, look, let's talk about this another time. We're out having our walk.

And we just sort of brushed them off. But they felt no inhibition about letting us know that we were going down the wrong path. I've had that experience in the grocery store.

Russell Cobb

You're kidding. In the grocery store?

Teresa Reed

Yes, at Walmart going to get groceries.

Russell Cobb

And how did that make you feel? I mean your neighbor comes up to you and basically tells you you're going to hell. I mean what's your reaction?

Teresa Reed

It makes it seem even more ridiculous to me, the whole mindset that I grew up with. When I look at it and I experience it from the other side, as the target of the proselytism, it makes it that much more clear to me that what we have done from my background to people of other faiths has been really pretty insensitive and pretty mean, even though we did it in the name of God and even though we meant well. When someone comes up to me and tries to tell me that I should change or else I'm going to hell, I kind of have compassion on that person because they don't really know how that sounds.

They don't realize how mean-spirited that sounds. It kind of pisses me off sometimes. I'm not going to lie about that. But I understand where they're coming from. And I'm thinking, oh my god, did I ever do that to anybody?

Russell Cobb

It's not all bad. People here say the church is a freer place than it once was. And there are some new faces. One thing Carlton's learned is that if you say gay people can go to heaven, gay people start coming to your church.

And he's not in a position to turn anyone away. On the day I saw him preach, several people in Muslim dress sat in the pews. A man from the United Church of Christ, the only denomination to openly accept gay marriage, gave a guest sermon. All of his detractors-- who predicted that once you stop believing in hell and sin, you start down a long, slippery slope to decadent universalism-- were wrong. It's a lot faster than they could have imagined.

Carlton Pearson

My friend, Bishop Yvette Flunder of Fellowship International in San Francisco, is a same gender loving female who has been with the same partner for about 18 years. I spoke for one of her conferences two or three years ago. And they're mostly-- most of the people that were there, if not all of them, were gay, but followers of Jesus-- and Spirit-filled, tongue-talkers-- you know, deliverance. The whole thing.

When I finished speaking-- and this has never happened to me in the history of my life-- when I finished preaching, they stood and applauded me. And I preached the gospel of inclusion. They stood. And she asked me to walk down through the center aisle and let the people hug me. Because she knew I'd been bruised from my other people that had kicked me out, the charismatic world.

So these people start hugging me, and holding me, and loving me, and shaking my hand. And everybody was crying and stuff. And when I turned around, she had come off the-- from where she was. And they had a little vat, a container with warm water in it. And they asked me to sit down and take my shoes off. And they washed my feet. She washed my feet. That's one of the holiest moments of my life.

When we finished, they brought in her vestments-- African-style things-- The guy that was in front, it was a dancer, a male dancer. And he was very, very flaming gay, just very feminine. And this guy was dancing conspicuously. Beautiful music was playing. This guy was dancing down.

But he never looked at anybody but her. He just looked straight at Yvette. And he got all the way down to her, like this close, and their eyes locked. And for a moment, there was nobody in the room but that man, that woman. And I heard the spirit of God say inside of me, she saved his life. And you saw nothing but incredible love.

When the service was over, I went back to my room. And she called. How'd it go, Bishop? How are you? Are you-- everything OK? I said, oh, it was wonderful. It was wonderful. And I told her some of what I just told you. And I said, now, tell me about the young man who danced in front.

I said, Yvette, when he got down to the front, you guys, your eyes locked. And there was nobody in that room but you and him. And I heard the Holy Ghost say, you saved his life. And she started crying. Because he walked over and whispered something in her ear and then kissed her. And that's what he said.

She told me on the phone in my room that night. She said, he kissed me and whispered in my ear, you saved my life. And she said, that is the son of a preacher, Pentecostal preacher, whose dad won't talk to him, and won't receive him, and has rejected him totally. He came to me dying. He's dying of AIDS now, she said.

He was supposed to be dead. When he came here, he was just gaunt and nothing. But we've been ministering to him and nurturing him and what have you. And he's still here. And when I saw-- I spoke for them last summer. He's still there.

Russell Cobb

Carlton Pearson says that if he'd known when he first started preaching the gospel of inclusion that it would cost him so much, he would have never opened his mouth. To the man he was then, the life he leads now, consorting with sinners and gays and Unitarians, was terrifying. But he says that God doesn't show you everything at once for a reason.

And now that what's done is done, there's no way he'd go back. After all, when you get down to it, it's a lot easier to believe in a world without hell. For one thing, you don't have to worry about saving everybody.

Carlton Pearson

The guilt of not witnessing to every single person you meet-- I'd get on an airplane-- having preached my brains out, stayed up all night, worked the altar, then ate with the preaches, and got up early in the morning to get a flight. I get on the plane. I need to go to sleep.

But I should witness to the guy next to me. Somehow, I have to figure out a way to open up a conversation. So I need to put my Bible on my lap so he can ask me about the Lord, or wear my cross, or something to open up the door. Or either, I have to basically confront him and say, well, how are you doing, sir?

Do you know where you're going to spend eternity? You're probably going to hell, but I can help you. Then I have to talk for two hours on a plane and either tick the person off, or be insulted by the person, or insult the person. It's horrible, guys.

Russell Cobb

In a way, what Carlton's doing isn't so different from what Oral Roberts, the man he calls his mentor and tormentor, did half a century ago. Roberts took Pentecostalism and made it mainstream by emphasizing the positive and downplaying the hellfire. Carlton took it to the next step and got rid of the hell.

It's unclear whether there's a market for Carlton's new gospel. There are liberal wings of many Protestant denominations, and the Unitarians stopped believing in hell a long time ago. So for evangelicals looking for a more inclusive message, there are plenty of other places to go.

But these places don't deliver the message the way evangelicals are used to hearing it. Carlton still preaches that the blood of Christ is the way to heaven. He just says it covers everyone.

Carlton Pearson

Listen to me when I tell you this. God is not angry with humanity. He said, I'm not going to strive with them, because they're mortal. So Jesus, fix it. You're the only-- as my dad would say, you're the "onliest" perfect one I could find. You are the lamb without blemish or spot. Go down there and cover them.

I've got to see them through you. I see them all through the blood. Glory to God. He doesn't just see Americans through the blood, or Tulsans, or people living in the western hemisphere. He sees them all through the blood. That is the gospel of Jesus Christ. (SINGING) All you gotta do is know the truth. The truth you know will set you free.

Credits

Ira Glass

That story by Russell Cobb. He's a professor at the University of Alberta in Canada. In the years since we first broadcast today's story, Higher Dimensions Church went through foreclosure and shut its doors. Carlton Pearson does still preach in Tulsa at All Souls Unitarian Church.

And he travels, lecturing and speaking. He's written a book outlining where his beliefs have landed and explaining his reading of the scripture. It's called The Gospel of Inclusion.

Carlton Pearson

Look at somebody and say free.

Congregation

Free.

Carlton Pearson

From all of my bondage. Free--

Congregation

Free.

Carlton Pearson

From all of the hangups. Free--

Congregation

Free.

Carlton Pearson

In my mind. Free in my spirit. Free in my body. Oh, yeah. I know I'm free.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Alex Blumberg and myself with Diane Cook, Jane Marie, Sarah Koenig, Amy O'Leary, and Lisa Pollak. Our senior producer for this episode was Julie Snyder. Our technical director is Matt Tierney. Production help from Alvin Melathe. Musical help from Jessica Hopper.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where we have links right now to the trailer for our Netflix film, Come Sunday, and really entertaining video of the real-life Carlton Pearson. Again, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia, who is always saying to me--

Carlton Pearson

"We like you around here. You are my black son, and I need you by my side."

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.