TULSA, Okla. – Bishop Carlton Pearson, the nationally prominent evangelical preacher, has already stirred one controversy for preaching the doctrine of inclusion - that everyone is saved no matter what they do.
He’s about to light another fuse.
Pearson, founder and pastor of Tulsa’s Higher Dimensions Family Church, now says he believes “it is reasonable” that Satan himself will go to heaven. It’s possible, he says, that God could have made a mistake in condemning Satan to eternity in hell.
“Is God not big enough to change the devil?” Pearson said in an interview. “I can conceive of the devil bowing down and repenting to God, saying, ‘I competed with You, but I was wrong. I’m sorry.’ “
Asked if that “confession” would be enough for God to forgive Satan and allow him into heaven, Pearson replied, “He (the devil) came from heaven.”
“He’s crazy,” said Bishop Clifford L. Frazier, pastor of The City of Life Christian Church in St. Louis. Frazier wrote a scathing response to Pearson’s doctrine of inclusion after the Oklahoma preacher in March presented his views at a conference of the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops.
The organization is in the process of deciding whether to declare Pearson a heretic. Frazier is a member of the organization, but Pearson is not.
“Even people who renounce Christianity but are familiar with the sacred text would realize that some fundamental problem exists here,” Frazier said. “For him to hold that view would mean that he is contra-biblical. To call what he has theology is really a malapropism. To espouse what he has is not theology, nor Christian. It is sheer, wild imagination.”
Pearson’s theory alarms other evangelicals because of the following he has gained over more than 20 years of ministry. In the 1980s, he became one of the country’s first black televangelists, leading the way for others, including Creflo Dollar, Eddie Long and T. D. Jakes.
His popular Azusa Conferences, which began in 1988, have attracted as many as 20,000 people of all races. The weeklong conferences have been hurt by the current controversy.
His view that the devil could go to heaven follows an avalanche of criticism he’s received since he began preaching his doctrine of inclusion, or universal reconciliation as it is sometimes called, in the late 1990s. That doctrine holds that Jesus’ death on the cross provides everyone with an ironclad ticket to heaven, regardless of the lives they lead.
In his view, “hell is not a permanent place,” but rather like being sent to jail, or to your room. “If anything, hell is a place of correction, not eternal punishment,” he said. These beliefs leave him at odds with most Christians – and in particular, some say, most black Christians.
“In the black church and community, we have some strong ideas about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell,” said Dr. Cheryl Sanders, pastor of Third Street Church of God in Washington and a professor of Christian ethics at the Howard University School of Divinity.
Pearson and his views have been repudiated by some of America’s most prominent evangelists, including Bishop G. E. Patterson of Memphis and Bishop Charles Blake of Los Angeles, the two highest ranking bishops of Memphis-based Church of God in Christ, the denomination in which Pearson was raised; and Richard Roberts, son of Oral Roberts and president of the Oral Roberts University.
Even as a child, he had questions about a vengeful “God of torment” who banished people to eternal damnation for one mistake. He found it hard to believe that his grandparents, founders of a church in California, wouldn’t be in heaven because they were backsliders when they died.
“My grandmother played the dogs the night before she died,” Pearson said.
Pearson said his teachings have cost him friends, members and money. Oral Roberts University in 2000 refused to allow him to use its facilities for his Azusa Conference. His church, which once claimed more than 5,000 members, has shrunk to about 1,000, and weekly offerings have dropped from $50,000 to $30,000. At least four associate pastors have left. He has cut his staff of 100 down to about 15.
“I’ve had some very, very painful separations over the last few years,” Pearson said in a March sermon. “But what sustains me is that I know the truth about me.”