Virtually every religion throughout human history has some notion of a horrible life after death. And though the threat of fire and brimstone is not preached as fervently in this age of reason, one man in Tulsa, Okla., knows just how hard it is for modern believers -- and their religious institutions -- to let go of the medieval vision of hell.
"If I say everybody's going to heaven, then I can't raise money from you to get me to keep people out of hell," Carlton Pearson said with a wry smile.
He knows firsthand that when it comes to filling pews, hell sells. And when he stopped believing in it, he lost an evangelical empire built over a lifetime.
Carlton Pearson was born to work a pulpit.
"My dad was preacher, his dad was preacher," he said. "Tongue talkin', pew jumpin', holiness, hellfire and brimstone."
Pearson began casting demons out of people at age 16, and he couldn't wait to go to Oral Roberts University. Once there, his love of the Scriptures and his stage presence was so obvious, the renowned televangelist took him under his wing and took him on the road as one of the World Action Singers.
"Oh man, that was heaven on earth for me," Pearson said. "In our opinion, Oral Roberts was the third cousin to the Holy Ghost."
After years preaching to crowded arenas and television audiences, he built the Higher Dimensions church in Tulsa and soon became an evangelical megastar with a megacongregation -- up to 6,000 people would attend his services each week, and he was in high demand in the Christian world, sharing pulpits with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.
After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, he was called to lead the grieving in prayer. And he counseled both President Bush and President Clinton on faith-based initiatives.
Throughout his rise, Pearson preached the fundamentals: Everyone is born a sinner. Everyone is going to hell … unless they accept Jesus Christ as lord.
One sermon from the late '90s displays his passion: "Thank God, I don't have to go to hell, even though I deserve hell," he shouted. "But Jesus vicariously substituted for me, took on death, hell and the grave, and I have the victory today."
Through the years, as Pearson studied the ancient Greek and Hebrew Scriptures, he developed a crisis of faith.
"I couldn't reconcile a God whose mercy endures forever, and this torture chamber that's customized for unbelievers," Pearson said.
And he often agonized over the fate of his non-Christian family members. According to his faith, they were doomed to hell.
"How can you really love a god who's torturing your grandmother? And that's what I went through for years."
The more he studied, the more Pearson saw the Bible not as the literal word of God but a book by men about God -- primitive men prone to mistranslations, political agendas and human emotions. And one night, as he watched Peter Jennings' report on the parade of suffering in Rwanda, he had a revelation.
"I remember thinking that these were probably Muslims because God wouldn't let that happen to Christians," he said. "Unbelieving Muslims, little starving babies and that they were going to die and go to hell."