A Question Of Hell

Recent years have provided plenty of church scandals, but an unlikely one has occurred in the Bible belt. A prominent Tulsa, Okla., minister was scandalized not by sex or embezzlement, but by his belief in hell.

When Carlton Pearson began wondering if modern believers still need a medieval pit of fire, it cost him his congregation.

Watch "Hell: Our Fear and Fascination" Friday on a special "20/20" at 10 p.m. EDT

He shared pulpits with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. He counseled presidents at the White House. And after the Oklahoma City bombing, he was called to lead the grieving in prayer.

Throughout his rise, Pearson preached the fundamentals: Everyone is born a sinner. Everyone is going to hell, unless they accept Jesus Christ as Lord.

"Thank God I don't have to go to hell even though I deserve hell," Pearson preached. "But Jesus vicariously substituted for me -- took on death, hell and the grave -- and I have victory today."

But through the years, as he as he studied the ancient Greek and Hebrew scriptures, Pearson developed a crisis of faith.

"I couldn't reconcile a God whose mercy endures forever and this torture chamber that's customized for unbelievers," he said. "You can't be happy. And how can you really love a god who's torturing your grandmother?"

The more he studied, the more he saw the Bible not as the literal word of God, but a book by men about God, with primitive men prone to mistranslations, political agendas and human emotions.

And one night, as he watched ABC News' Peter Jennings report on the parade of suffering in Rwanda, he had a revelation. He questioned how a God who calls himself loving could let people suffer so badly and then suck them into Hell.

"That's when I thought I heard an inner voice say, 'Is that what you think we're doing?'" he said.

Pearson believed God was telling him there was Hell on earth.

"The bitter torment of the idea of an angry, visceral, distant, stoic, harsh, unrelenting, unforgiving, intolerant God is Hell," he said. "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."

Pearson 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," he added.