Playing With Fire, Hell Fire

<%image(20051222-bishop_pearson.jpg|236|192|pearson)%> This American Life reported the story of Bishop Carlton Pearson who dropped the doctrine of hell, preached a Gospel of inclusion, and then was promptly dropped by just about everyone he knew. To hear it, look under the 2005 archives for the story labeled “Heretic.”

It’s extremely thought-provoking to hear his journey and the ways that he believes God led him to the Gospel of inclusion. While dropping hell altogether does not strike me as being particularly faithful to historic Christian Orthodoxy, the story of Reverend Pearson reveals some major problems in how the chruch handles theology and our subsequent relationships.

– First of all, everyone is deeply concerned about their image. No one wants to be seen with a heretic. No one wants to look bad. Friendships are disposable if it means we can save face. The way people fled from Rev. Pearson like rats from a sinking ship is inexcusable. Sure there is room for discipline, correcting errors, and so forth, but wholesale abandonment over theological scruples is extreme overkill.

-Secondly, let’s face it, we don’t know as much about hell and salvation as we think we do. There are some things that are mysteries. While scripture seems pretty clear about there being some kind of judgment, some kind of punishment, some separation of sheep from goats, and some designation of the saved from the unsaved, we don’t have a clear handle on it.

While I think that Pearson is wrong, I wonder how precise we have to be in our doctrine of hell. Where do we draw the line between orthodoxy and heresy? Can we perhaps be more charitable in the doctrine of hell than in essentials such as the humanity and divinity of Christ?

And with that in mind, here’s my own bit of heresy:
What if God told Pearson to preach the Gospel of inclusion?

The story of Pearson’s switch over to the Gospel of inclusion is moving. His heart for the Gospel and for people is unmistakable. He truly wanted to do God’s work. He believes that God spoke to him very clearly about the Gospel of inclusion. So what’s the deal?

Did he hear what he wanted? Possibly. Maybe his emotions just played with him and his burdened conscience has driven him to preach inclusion and lose all of his friends.

But I don’t know if someone would willingly endure so much loss and pain just for a relief of conscience. I wonder if God really told him to preach inclusion in some form. Perhaps he partially heard God. Perhaps he got off track at some point along the way. But I think that he heard something from God that truly changed him.

And why would God do this? Why would God plant thoughts in his mind that seem to run counter with the Bible?

Because both sides are wrong. No one in the church has the “correct” view of hell. No one sees eternity and salvation the way that God does. Even C. S. Lewis left the door open for “pious pagans” to be saved by Christ, even if they did not possess orthodox views attained from scripture.

I personally think that God is sickened by our high-minded theological reasoning that claims absolute knowledge and purity in orthodoxy. When he hears us proclaim the doctrine of hell as the last word and absolute view, he has to do something. But how can he get through to us? How can he swerve us away from error? Will we listen to him? Can we be reasoned with if we are convinced that we have the truth and can proclaim it for all to hear?

Maybe we cannot be deterred, but I think that Rev. Pearson is one example of God’s call to his church to drop the charade of absolute knowledge. He is testing our hearts to see if we can “live” like him, even if we are convinced that we “think” like him. So he lays a burden on a man in the spotlight and reveals how mean and rotten and unChrist-like we really are. How uncharitable and simple minded and closed minded and deceived we really are. Pearson is wrong, but he’s only in more error than ourselves (who consider ourselves the defenders of orthodoxy).

Maybe the heart of God in this matter led to the following: drop this bomb of heresy on Pearson and then have open dialogue envelope the church. In the end the traditional view of hell is modified, but Pearson’s inclusion is dropped as well. We learn from each other, God is able to reveal himself in new ways, and we live the love of Christ with each other. It’s hard, painful, and may tarnish our reputations, but it’s the way our relational God wants us to live with one another.

Instead of working things out in relationship, we banish one another to the polarities of the theological spectrum and talk past each other. Neither side represents Christ, neither side has the whole truth, and both are the losers. My more exclusive views of the Gospel need to be challenged by the Gospel of inclusion. I may be banishing people who should not be on the outs. In addition, Pearson really needs to be in relationship with people who are more exclusive to challenge his views.

But of course our evangelicalism is a package deal. It’s all or nothing. Take the doctrine of hell just as we’re selling it, or get the hell out. There is no room for discussion. Discussion is too messy, too costly, and too hard. We like our doctrines just as they are.

Surely we do not want to kick out 2,000 years of history, but I think we have gotten far too prideful and exclusive in our theology. We need room to discuss messy issues that may damage our reputation. That’s the cost of following Jesus.

2 thoughts on “Playing With Fire, Hell Fire

  1. qqq

    When I checked out Dr. Pearson’s site and other Inclusion sites it linked to, I found it stated in several places that they *do* believe that hell exists, just that souls cannot dwell there eternally, they’ll eventually be saved. "Will Hell for some people last 10 minutes or 10 million years…we don’t know."

    "…Inclusion is not a license to sin. Sin will cost you. Sin is still Sin, still wrong, still a bad idea and not what you want to do. Sin will destroy you, your family, your finances, your health and more. Don’t sin. You will regret it."

    "…a Hell filled with souls lost for eternity would have to stand as proof positive that God is not all powerful (he couldn’t save those souls) and that God’s efforts in redemption failed to achieve it’s purpose. It would appear, from the viewpoint of Evangelical Christianity, that for the souls lost forever in Hell, Jesus died in vain."

    So Ira Glass was mis-stating Dr. Pearson’s position… I thought it was suspicious that Pearson never said anything about hell not existing himself. So much for the media not having a liberal bias.

  2. Ed Post author

    Thanks for the correction on Pearson’s doctrine of hell.

    Even if This American Life got the details wrong, I still think this is a good story to discuss.

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