Rev. Carlton Pearson and universalism

March 21, 2011

In light of the ongoing controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s new book, which critics are loudly and publicly denouncing as universalist (the belief that in the end everyone will be saved), I point you to an episode of This American Life about the Rev. Carlton Pearson, a formerly popular evangelical pastor who gave up the idea of hell—or more accurately, believes that Jesus’ death effects salvation for everyone, regardless of their faith.

I like this piece a lot. (Thanks to Kevin Hargaden and his fine blog for the heads up.) For one thing, it reminds me—a fan of old time radio—how effective radio can be at telling a story. And Rev. Pearson, whose story is mostly one of outgrowing the Christian fundamentalism of his youth and embracing a deeper vision of the gospel, is congenial, funny, and sympathetic. As I hope the story makes clear, there are many, many worse things than believing that in the end—out of an incomprehensible love for humanity that we cannot understand—the cross of Christ saves everyone.

Universalism is a belief that attempts to capture the magnitude of God’s love. Because of our experience of God and God’s love, we suspect that God’s love for us is bigger, more merciful, and more forgiving than we can imagine (or that we can even justify in terms of the Bible and church teaching). Universalism emerges from this suspicion, and I’m sympathetic.

But here are some of my complaints: The story could have explored whether or not Pearson’s version of universalism counts as “heresy,” not simply accepting the judgment of the Pentecostal denomination of which he was a part, but by interviewing scholars of Christian history. Haven’t there been many Christian thinkers throughout the ages—including biggies like Origen—who have espoused this kind of universalism?

Since Pearson’s beliefs about salvation would be welcome—and shared by many—in the vast majority of mainline Protestant churches, including the one of which I’m a part, Pearson’s universalism should hardly count as any kind of radical stance. Methodists are not radical!

Pearson said some things that should not have gone unchallenged. He said that the traditional belief in hell—by which he means a place of eternal torment for those who fail to accept Christ in this lifetime—is inextricably a part of Jesus’ teaching. I disagree. Strongly. Jesus mentions hell, to be sure. But as I’ve discussed elsewhere, what he actually says should make all of us uncomfortable—Christians included. Are we not the ones who often disregard the poor and fail to visit the sick and clothe the naked, etc.?

Pearson also espoused the same old clichés about the mean “Old Testament God.” Granted his point might have been that (simply) literal readings of the Bible are sometimes incompatible with the loving God revealed in Christ, in which case I agree. But it wasn’t clear. Whatever else we say about God in the Bible, we must also say that Jesus is God and perfectly reveals God to us. We ought to read our Bibles through the lens of Jesus.

Finally, the tone of the story overwhelmingly sides with Pearson—because he’s open-minded as opposed to narrow-minded, accepting of homosexuals, a paragon of liberal values, etc. (This is public radio, after all.) But not so fast… From Pearson’s perspective, Jesus saves everyone. Therefore everyone—Muslim, Hindu, Jew, atheist, Buddhist, Sikh, Zoroastrian, what-have-you—will end up being a Christian. As Pearson says in the piece, it’s still the cross of Christ that reconciles them to God.

Does Ira Glass, who is Jewish, want to be a Christian? (I wish Glass had asked Pearson about this!) How is Pearson’s winsome “gospel of inclusion” not also exclusive?

This is why I am openly exclusive. I make no secret of the fact that I want everyone to become a Christian.

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