One new entry into my pantheon of heroes is a preacher I recently heard about named Rev. Carlton Pearson. (You can hear his story told on the radio program, This American Life (www.thislife.org) Carlton was the rising star of the American Pentecostal movement, an African American dear to the heart of Oral Roberts who a couple of years back had grown a church in Tulsa, Oklahoma that packed in 5000 congregants on a Sunday, a unique blend of Black and White together.
Then one day Carlton experienced God speaking directly to him while he was watching the nightly news. He beheld images of starving, disease-ridden Moslems, adults and children in Africa. Along with the compassion he felt towards their suffering, Carlton felt anger towards God. After a lifetime of suffering like this, how can You then funnel these poor, sad people into the eternal torments of hell? This was the traditional teaching he had learned and passed on about God: that those who did not accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ were doomed by God to hell for eternity.
Carlton heard God clearly speaking to him. No, you’ve gotten my Gospel wrong. I consign no one to hell. The only hell is the one human beings create on this earth in the ways you treat one another.
Searching the Scriptures, Carlton found ample passages that supported this point of view; where Jesus’ saving death on the cross is described as having accomplished salvation for all people, not just for some people. Yes, there were other passages that contradicted this notion, which led Carlton to see that “the inerrancy of Scripture” simply wasn’t an accurate doctrine. He recognized that much of what the church had been preaching for so long was designed to manipulate people, getting them to fill the pews of churches and fill the offering plates with money.
Carlton began preaching a radical Gospel of inclusion in Jesus Christ, and that there is no hell, and suddenly he became a pariah in the American Pentecostal/fundamentalist fellowship, condemned as a heretic by the very persons who had once praised him. (Interesting footnote: Rev. Ted Haggard, an old seminary friend of Carlton’s was one of the person’s who condemned Carlton’s new preaching. See my November 3rd blog, “On Eternal Torture Chambers.”) Carlton’s assistant pastors resigned, and his congregation dwindled down to 200 faithful members. Unable to make mortgage payments, they were evicted from the big church building that had been built to hold the 5000 who had once come to worship.
The congregation began worshiping in the afternoons in a downtown Episcopal Church, and once more began to grow, more truly inclusive than ever, with many gay and lesbian persons among the congregation, heartened by the message that heaven might well have a place for them. The numbers have not, nor are they likely to, approach the kinds of numbers Carlton once enjoyed. But Carlton feels a freedom in Christ he had not known before.
Here’s what I believe regarding such matters.
First, when we’re talking about what happens to us after death, we speak of a great mystery that demands great humility on our part. I love old Thomas Aquinas’ words late in his life after he had some sort of direct, mystical encounter with God: all the words he had written (and he had written a lot of them as the greatest of all medieval theologians) were just so much straw, and he refused to write any more thereafter. Better not to speak rather than to speak of things of which we really don’t know what we’re talking about.
Nonetheless, I plunge ahead.
Second, in regard to Scripture, whether we acknowledge it or not, all of us who call ourselves “Christian” emphasize certain scripture passages above others. We choose certain passages to become the key by which we interpret the rest of the Bible. Even people who claim “the inerrancy of Scripture”, (that every verse in the Bible is God’s inspired Word, exactly the way God wants it, so don˜t question it,) choose to give certain passages more authority than others.
So the question becomes: why did I choose certain passages to have more authority for me than others? It seems to me that self-examination will lead in a couple of possible directions:
First, I chose to exalt certain passages because I was told to do so by authority figures I trusted unquestioningly.
Second, I made my choices because these verses reinforce certain positions I already have, and are advantageous to me in regards to where I find myself in life (as in, it makes me one of the “saved”, certainly a superior class of person in contrast to those who are “damned”. )
The third possibility that occurs to me, which is often difficult to distinguish from the other two, is that inwardly we sense God speaking more clearly in these verses — like Carlton, it rings true in the depths of our souls.
For me, two passages that I exalt above others are stories Jesus told: the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25 – 37), where the man who asked what must I do to inherit eternal life? is told, in essence, go forth and practice compassion, with a particular emphasis on compassion on those who are different from yourself. The other story is that of the Good Shepherd (Luke 15:3 – 7) who seeks out the one lost sheep until he finds it, bringing it home on his shoulders, throwing a great party to celebrate the lost being found.
From these stories there are two things I trust to be true.
One, that compassion of heart and action is far more important than belief. The best way to prepare for our deaths is by living our lives as a journey of compassion, in which, despite our many stumblings — or perhaps because of our many stumblings — we grow in our capacity to live compassionately towards others, and towards ourselves.
And two, God will eventually find every lost sheep. The story doesn’t say if he finds it, Jesus said when he finds it. In the end, God will have God’s way with us, bringing us into the great party that is heaven.
What all this means in regards to what takes place after death, only God knows for sure. What makes sense to me is that the experience of standing in the presence of the extraordinary light and love of God will have an excruciatingly painful aspect to it: a sense of shame regarding all that came forth from us that wasn’t worthy of the love of God that gave us this life in the first place. It makes sense to me that some people would, in the moment of their death, chose to turn away from this great love, creating a hell of their own making. In the moment of death I believe we are required to give up a lot of stuff we’ve been mightily attached to during our lifetimes: our pride, anger, resentments, fear, self-righteousness and other inaccurate self-images of ourselves. And maybe we decide on some level of our being that we’re not going to any party where we aren’t allowed to bring that stuff with us.
But still the shepherd searches, which I suspect means the search can continue beyond death. I hold onto this story when I hear about suicides. The person may have taken his or her own life in great despair and deep darkness, lost in the wilderness, but the good shepherd doesn’t give up on his beloved lamb. The search goes on, with a blessed conclusion ultimately guaranteed.