Dressed casually in an open white shirt and no clerical collar, the Rev. Carlton Pearson was relaxed recently as he sat in his office at Higher Dimensions Family Church and discussed a controversy that has rocked his world.
His alma mater, Oral Roberts University, has denied him use of the ORU Mabee Center for the Azusa Street Conference and forbidden his church buses to pick up students for services. He has resigned from the ORU board of regents.
Several associate pastors have left his church, and attendance has fallen off.
National Christian publications and leaders have criticized him.
He believes the controversy undermined his support among evangelicals in the mayoral primary earlier this year, and possibly cost him the election.
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Even his dry cleaner refuses to do business with him.
Pearson’s troubles began as word got out in the Christian community that he was teaching a form of universalism — that everyone will be saved.
That theology put him at odds with evangelical churches and the many mainline Christian denominations, which teach that Christ’s death and resurrection make salvation available to all people, but that each person must accept that salvation.
In a two-hour interview last week, the 49-year-old Pearson did not back down from his position, which he calls the gospel of inclusion.
“My posture is that all will be saved, with the exception of a few,” he said.
“I believe that most people on planet Earth will go to heaven, because of Calvary, because of the unconditional love of God, and the redemptive work of the cross, which is already accomplished.”
He said that includes sincere people who do not directly acknowledge Christ — Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists.
The traditional evangelical view, he said, is that all will be lost with the exception of a few — those evangelical Christians who have accepted Jesus Christ.
“They think that salvation is triggered by an act of faith on the seeker’s part,” he said.
“I say, is it more important that you accept Christ, or . . . that Christ accepts you? Which is the gospel?”
Pearson said he still believes in heaven and hell, and that there will be souls in both places. But hell will be for those few people who “deny in their hearts that there is a creator; who have a disrespect for the deity.”
And his concept of hell differs from evangelical orthodoxy.
“I don’t believe in matching eternities, endless torment for billions of souls. I don’t interpret hell that way any more,” he said.
“I believe that view (incorrectly) puts hell on the same level as our (heavenly) eternity.”
Pearson said he doesn’t believe a 16-year-old who has not accepted Christ, and is killed in a car accident, will be tormented forever in hell.
“That’s inconsistent with the nature of God,” he said.
“I’m re-evaluating that; I’m re-evaluating everything.
“We’ve taken a very narrow view of everything in Scripture, rather than a broader, more inclusive view.”
Pearson said he still believes in the authority of Scripture.
In defense of his position, he listed numerous Scriptures that state that Christ is lord of all, not just of Christians, and that he is the savior of the world, not just of Christians.
He said the Bible states that God determined the exact habitation of all people.
“He knew there would be billions of Muslims, billions of Chinese.”
Why would he give them life, and then only give salvation to those few who were born in the right place, and at the right time, to hear the message of Christ?
Pearson said he’s been an evangelist for years and will remain one.
The message the world needs to hear is not that they need to accept Christ to be saved, he said, but that God loves them and has already reconciled them to himself.
The job of “the elect,” or Christians, is to tell the world the good news that they are heaven-bound, so they can begin in this life to enjoy their salvation.
He said he has been formulating this message for seven or eight years and teaching it in his church for several years.
It became more public recently when he said on the Trinity Broadcasting Network that “the world is already saved, they just don’t know it.”
Since then, according to information from his publicist Vincent Young, local pastors have rejected him, and his congregation, one of Tulsa’s largest, has begun to dwindle.
National television preachers John Hagee and Marilyn Hickey confronted him over the teaching, and his mentor, ORU founder Oral Roberts, denounced him in a 12-page letter, Young said. ORU president Richard Roberts criticized him on his national television show.
Four associate pastors have left the church, at least in part because of his new teaching. Two of them contacted by the World this week would not discuss it.
Pearson’s longtime friend Bishop T.D. Jakes, pastor of the 26,000- member Potters House church in Dallas, told Charisma Magazine that Pearson’s theology is “wrong, false, misleading and an incorrect interpretation of the Bible.”
Oral Roberts University spokeswoman Jessica Hill said that ORU has had a long- standing relationship with Pearson and Higher Dimensions, but that his gospel of inclusion “eliminates the redemption that Christ bought on the cross and contradicts the Bible.”
She said Oral Roberts Ministries did not renew Pearson’s Azusa contract “so as not to give the indication that we are in support of this teaching,” and asked Higher Dimensions to stop picking up students on campus.
Gilbert E. Patterson, presiding bishop of Pearson’s Church of God in Christ denomination, issued a statement formally distancing the denomination from Pearson’s teaching.
Pearson said he respects those who have come out against him, but was disappointed they had publicly denounced him without first privately talking to him.
“None of them has studied what I’m saying, or had (an in- depth) conversation with me, opening up the Scriptures,” he said.
“I’ve been hurt by the attitude of friends, who have demonized me, and disappointed in the vicious reaction of some of the brethren.
“I love ORU, and I’ll always be supportive of it,” he said. “I’ll always love (Oral Roberts). I’ll always revere him, and I’ll never abandon him.”
While Pearson has said he is open to counsel and correction, he believes his theology is right.
He told Charisma Magazine that a careful study of Scripture will reveal that his position is “entirely scriptural, logical and theologically sound.”
He said that during the first 500 years of church history, universal reconciliation was an accepted doctrinal truth.
Pearson does not intend to drop the matter.
He is planning a conference in October to openly discuss the doctrine, and is considering a book to explain it, possibly called, “God is not a Christian.”
“I’m going to make an issue of it,” he said. “We’ve presented an inaccurate gospel.
“I will vociferously oppose this religious, arrogant, ignorant, spirit of self-righteousness, bigotry and intolerance, and it is rampant among us who call ourselves evangelicals.
“If I’m thinking soberly, this message will bless millions.
“I’m going to win because it’s the will of God, and I’ve got the guts to take the heat.”