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."
A Crisis of Faith
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."
"And that's when I said, 'God, how could you, how could you call yourself a loving God and a living God, and just let them suffer like that, then to suck them into hell?'" he continued. "And that's when I thought I heard an inner voice say, 'Is that what you think we're doing?' I said, 'That's what I've been taught. You're sucking them into hell.' And that voice said, 'Can't you see they're already there? That's hell. You created that.'"
Pearson believed that God was telling him hell is the creation of man on earth.
"The bitter torment of the idea of an angry, visceral, distant, stoic, harsh, unrelenting, unforgiving, intolerant God is hell. It's pagan, it's superstitious, and if you trace its history, it goes way back to where men feared the gods because something happened in life that caused frustration that they couldn't explain."
Losing His Followers
Pearson began sharing this message, and it wasn't long before Christian magazines demonized him. The denomination that made him a bishop officially labeled him a heretic. His assistant pastors quit, and his congregation dropped from 6,000 to fewer than 300.
"When people leave by the thousands, it's like pulling clumps of your hair out at one time," Pearson said. "It was hell. Now that's hell. The people who created hell for me are people who used to love me and will call themselves followers of Christ. It wasn't some secular, atheist, God-hating infidel that denounced me … my own brethren, with whom I sat, and ate, whose babies I dedicated."
As his life came apart, he agonized over his new belief.
"If you think I haven't sat and asked God, 'Am I crazy? I see you bigger and better but am I, am I gonna lead people to hell?' Kill me God."
It seemed like that prayer might be answered when his doctors found cancer.
Life After 'Hell'
Pearson stuck with his new message, even after losing his church altogether. He now rents space from the Episcopalians across town. And his congregation is growing. Slowly, people from all faiths are adding to the few who never left, despite being labeled heretics themselves.
"I think hell is a state of mind," said Teresa Reed, a music teacher, stuck with Pearson throughout the turmoil. "And if my family heard me say this, which they probably will, there will be fasting, prayer and sack cloth and ashes for my damned soul."
After the avalanche of hate mail and all the rejections, Pearson says people are slowly warming to his ideas. His cancer is in remission, and he doesn't regret his difficult path.
"Religion won't let you love yourself. Religion is the accuser of the brethren, that's what the devil is. It's legal systems, religious dogmas that say you're not good enough, you're not God enough," he said. "People who believe in hell create it for themselves and others. People who believe in devils and demons become that in consciousness, and they act it out."
Pearson said he firmly believes, as he told his congregation one recent Sunday, "We may go through hell, but nobody goes to hell."
But his current message does not focus on hell, even the hell that humans sometimes create here on earth.
"My hope is that, that people will learn to love themselves, accept themselves and celebrate themselves. That's pretty dramatic, but I think it'll save the planet."