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The Evangelical Bishop Who Stopped Believing In Hell, Now On Netflix

Apr 15, 2018

About 15 years ago, Carlton Pearson had what you might call a revelation.

It occurred to him that ideas that had informed his entire adult life — about heaven and hell, and what it takes to avoid one and enter the other — were just not true. What was a big deal for his personal faith became a much bigger one in his professional life, because Carlton Pearson presided over one of the country's biggest Pentecostal congregations in Tulsa, Okla., and his rejection of that theology for what he calls the "gospel of inclusion" would cost him just about everything he had.

His story was the basis for a segment on the public radio program This American Life, and is now the subject of the new movie Come Sunday, now out via Netflix. (It stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, who we also talked to about his role.) Pearson says he wants Come Sunday to make people examine their faith:

"I just want them to rethink," he says. "I want them to ask themselves: What do I believe and why do I believe it? What is the difference between what I believe in my head and know in my soul? Because I think there's a difference."


Interview Highlights

On growing up in the church

I'm fourth-generation classical Pentecostal minister: my dad, his dad, my maternal great-grandfather and several of my uncles on both sides. And it kind of [was] something that always fascinated me — I just loved preaching, and felt an urge when I was as young as 5 years old. ...

My parents would punish me by not letting me go to church. That's how badly I wanted to go. I knew the songs, I knew the "saints." All of our family on both sides — all cousins, all relatives — our lives literally revolved around the church.

On Higher Dimensions, Pearson's former megachurch in Tulsa, which was known for its diverse staff, choir and congregation

And under an African American's leadership. Black people have always integrated somewhat to non-black churches or churches that are predominantly white, but not under a black man's leadership. Usually whites don't come to a black person's church as much. We made sure that our leadership was visibly integrated. When I was very young when I started in my 30s, so we attracted a lot of young, curious, eager people that didn't want a traditional church, that wanted something a little bit different ...

We had a high music content — I mean, the band was slammin'. Of course, I was single in those days, and I didn't realize that there were a lot of single women who came, until I got engaged, and the balcony emptied out.

On arriving at the pivotal moment where he doubted his previous beliefs

I was frustrated that we as Christians — we had traffic jams every Sunday morning, and I kept saying: We're not really growing, we're just getting fat. It's spiritual incest here — we're seeding into ourselves. We're not really winning "lost people." They don't know we exist. I went to the city, to the town carnival, and I took my kids. And that's the first time I'd been since I was a freshman in college. And I noticed that — I'd been on nationwide television for years — nobody at that place recognized me. I didn't see people I knew. And I thought: Well maybe – who are these people? We're not reaching this element of our Tulsa community. ... I just thought: I don't think these folks have a clue of what we're talking about.

And I said to my people: You're not really witnessing, you're afraid to. So stop telling people they have to get saved — tell them they're already safe with God, that any issue between them and God was resolved in Christ. Don't impose sin, don't ask them/tell them that they're on their way to hell and all that kind of stuff. Come in another way.

On the millions who still believe what Pearson used to believe, and the millions who believe it to be total hokum

We are dealing with at least 2,000 years of entrenched indoctrination — at least 2,000 with Christianity, 6,000 if you include Judaism. The concept, though, of a god who has terrible anger management problems, freaks out with these tantrums and throws earthquakes and volcanoes and tsunamis and cancer and AIDS on people, is a very frightening presupposition. It worried me for years. Not the love of God, not the cross of Calvary, but that eternal torment, not just punishment for the time that's worth the crime, but that you eternally ... How can mercy endure forever, and torment endure forever? One would cancel out the other.

And I believe that I'm actually trying to correct the thinking of my people, God's people, the Christian church, Judeo-Christian ethics — change our belief about a God who is angry and who we need Jesus to protect us from. Now that's radical, it's revolutionary and it's evolutionary. Now the same people who watched this movie and said "but he lost everything" are forgetting that 117 million people may get to hear this message. What am I doing in the movie? I'm not dead yet.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now we visit with the man, himself. Bishop Carlton Pearson is with us now from our studios in Washington, D.C.

Bishop Pearson, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

CARLTON PEARSON: Thank you, Michel. Happy to be here.

MARTIN: Can we go back - and I understand that it's always a complex and long story - but can we just go back and ask, how did you receive your call to ministry to begin with?

PEARSON: I'm a fourth-generation classical Pentecostal preacher. My dad, his dad, my maternal great-grandfather and several of my uncles on both sides. And it kind of is something that always fascinated me. I just loved preaching and felt an urge when I was as young as 5 years old.

MARTIN: I guess, it was kind of a river that pulled you along, and you felt comfortable.

PEARSON: My parents would punish me by not letting me go to church. That's how badly I wanted to go. I knew the songs. I knew the quote-unquote "saints." All of our family on both sides - all cousins, all relatives - our lives literally revolved around the church.

MARTIN: And tell me about higher dimensions. Your church in Tulsa - what was unique about it, by all accounts, is that, first of all, it was truly diverse. A lot of people think a ministry is diverse if, you know, there's maybe three black people in it or, you know, whatever. But this was truly diverse. You had a diverse staff. You had a diverse choir.

PEARSON: Yes. And the congregation was.

MARTIN: And the congregation, and that was considered quite remarkable, particularly in Tulsa at that time.

PEARSON: And under an African-American's leadership. Black people have always integrated somewhat to non-black churches or churches that are predominately white but not under a black man's leadership. Usually, whites don't come to a black person's church as much. We made sure that our leadership was visibly integrated. When I was very young when I started in my 30s - so we attracted a lot of young, curious, eager people that didn't want traditional church. They wanted something a little bit different.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you what do you think was drawing them in?

PEARSON: The music. We had a high music content. I mean, the band was slamming. And of course, I was single in those days, and I didn't realize that there were a lot of single women who came until I got engaged and the balcony emptied out. That was a big insult because I thought they were there for my anointing (laughter).

MARTIN: Well, let me play a little bit from the film. This is Chiwetel Ejiofor playing you. OK here, let's just play a little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "COME SUNDAY")

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: (As Carlton Pearson) Look at somebody and say this is what we do.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (As characters) This is what we do.

EJIOFOR: (As Carlton Pearson) Because the world needs to get saved.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (As characters) The world needs to get saved.

EJIOFOR: (As Carlton Pearson) Left them up and say hallelujah.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (As characters) Hallelujah.

EJIOFOR: (As Carlton Pearson) Say I'm a soldier.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (As characters) I'm a soldier.

EJIOFOR: (As Carlton Pearson) Say I'm a soldier.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (As characters) I'm a soldier.

EJIOFOR: (As Carlton Pearson, singing) And I'm a soldier.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (As characters, singing) In the army of the Lord.

EJIOFOR: (As Carlton Pearson, singing) I'm a soldier.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (As characters, singing) In the army.

EJIOFOR: (As Carlton Pearson, singing) I'm a soldier.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (As characters, singing) In the army of the Lord.

MARTIN: Well, there it is (laughter). There you go. The pivot in this story in your life came when you believed that this kind of focus on hell and damnation and avoiding hell was wrong, that if the central message of Christianity is true - that Jesus died for the sins of the world - then all this focus on hell and damnation is not right because that work has been done, right?

PEARSON: Finished.

MARTIN: And so - finished. So I wanted to ask you when you came to that, was it, like, a physical thing in your body? Like, how did it come to you?

PEARSON: I was frustrated that we, as Christians - we had traffic jams every Sunday morning, and I kept saying, we're not really growing. We're just getting fat. It's spiritual incest here. We're seething into ourselves. We're not reeling - winning quote-unquote "lost" people. They don't know we exist. I went to the city to the town carnival, and I took my kids. And that's the first time I'd been since I was a freshman in college. And I noticed that I'd been on nationwide television for years. Nobody at that place recognized me. I didn't see people I knew. And I thought, well, maybe - who are these people? We're not reaching this element of our Tulsa community. Many of them had come from outside cities, and I just thought, I don't think these folks have a clue of what we're talking about. And I said to my people, you're not really witnessing. You're afraid to, so stop telling people they have to get saved. Tell them they're already safe with God, that any issue between them and God was resolved in Christ. Don't impose sin. Don't ask them - tell them that they're on their way to hell and all that kind of stuff. Come in another way.

MARTIN: Well, you know, that's interesting because one of the things that reviewers have said that they like about this film is that it shows genuine love. It shows genuine love for a point of view that people who aren't in that world don't often get - right? - from outside of it. But I just want to play you a clip that intrigued me. This is from the film "Come Sunday." This is when your associate ministers came and told you they were quitting because they were not in agreement with your point of view. And this is Jason Segel playing your associate minister, Henry. I just wanted to play that here.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "COME SUNDAY")

JASON SEGEL: (As Henry) It wasn't God's voice you heard, Bishop.

CONDOLA RASHAD: (As Gina Pearson) Now, how do you know?

SEGEL: (As Henry) How do you...

EJIOFOR: (As Carlton Pearson) Gina, it's OK.

RASHAD: (As Gina Pearson) Come up in here, ganging up on him.

SEGEL: (As Henry) What if he's wrong? You don't know. None of us - none of us knows. But you want me to just trust you, and you want me to go out and tell people it doesn't matter if they accept Christ, it doesn't matter if they go out there and sin. Well, what if it turns out that you are wrong and there is a hell and we are responsible? Even if I thought that you might be right - which I don't - it's not a chance that I'd be willing to take.

MARTIN: You know, what about that? You know, millions of people believe what you used to believe, and millions of people believe that that is bunk, it is utter hokum, and it is just a way to scare people into giving money to edifices to sort of - for the glorification of self, OK. What do we do with that? What do we do with that?

PEARSON: We are dealing with at least 2,000 years of entrenched indoctrination - at least 2,000 with Christianity, 6,000 if you include Judaism. The concept, though, of a God who has terrible anger-management problems - freaks out with these tantrums, and throws earthquakes, and volcanoes, and tsunamis, and cancer and AIDS on people is a very frightening presupposition.

It worried me for years - not the love of God, not the cross of calvary, but that eternal torment, not just punishment that you eternally, while mercy endures forever - we love to quote that scripture. His mercy endures forever. How can mercy endure forever and torment endure forever? One would cancel out the other. And I believe that I'm actually trying to correct the thinking of my people - God's people, the Christian church, Judeo-Christian ethics - change our belief about a God who is angry and who we need Jesus to protect us from. Now, that's radical. It's revolutionary, and it's evolutionary.

Now, the same people who watch this movie and say but he lost everything are forgetting that 117 million people may get to hear this message. What am I doing on the movement. I'm not dead yet.

MARTIN: Well, what are you hoping people will get from the film?

PEARSON: I just want them to rethink. I want them to say - ask themselves, what do I believe and why do I believe it? Where do I get these ideas from? And what is the difference between what I believe in my head and I know in my soul? Because I think there's a difference.

MARTIN: Carlton Pearson is the subject of a new Netflix film, "Come Sunday." It premiered Friday. He is on the pastoral staff at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Okla. And he was kind enough...

PEARSON: Who would've believed it? Jeez (laughter).

MARTIN: (Laughter) And he was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C. Bishop Pearson, thank you so much for speaking with us.

PEARSON: Pleasure. Thanks for having me on, Michel. This is important. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.