"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."
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.
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."