In the late 90s, the Rev. Carlton Pearson began to doubt the existence of hell. This was no small thing. Pearson was raised in the Pentecostal wing of the Black Church—home to such practices as speaking in tongues, getting slain in the Spirit, and casting out demons. Hellfire and damnation were the linchpin of a theology which proclaimed: narrow is the path to salvation and wide is the road to eternal destruction. The driving purpose of his faith was to save souls. This theology picked up power as it flew from his mouth—so that at the time of his doubting, Pearson’s church had grown 5,000 strong, and he was a national sensation in charismatic circles. He had been claimed as the “Black son” of Oral Roberts himself. His church was pulling in half a million dollars in offerings every single month, and he thrived on a fast-paced, celebrity lifestyle. The nagging doubt about hell came into his life completely unbidden.
One night he sat with his chubby nine-month old baby girl as he watched the evening news; a report on the Hutus and Tutsis. As Pearson described in This American Life, “I’m watching these little kids with swollen bellies. And it looks like their skin is stretched across their little skeletal remains.” Pearson said, “God, I don’t know how you can call yourself a loving, sovereign God and allow these people to suffer this way and just suck them right into hell.” And he heard a voice, saying “Can’t you see they’re already there? That’s hell. You keep creating that for yourselves.” Then he saw emergency rooms, divorce court, prisons. He said, “I saw how we create hell on this planet for each other. And for the first time in my life, I did not see God as the inventor of hell.” With that one belief, Carlton Pearson fell from Pentecostal grace.
As a kid, the story of Elijah calling down fire in the presence of the prophets of Baal was one of my favorites. I still remember the comic book illustrations from my picture Bible—the sheer intimidation of the false prophets, waiting for the divine showdown. Elijah, all alone in some raggedy old robe, looking crazy as he broke a sweat stacking stones, digging trenches, dragging the bull onto the altar, dousing the whole thing in bucket loads of water. Let’s face it, the people preferred the prophets of Baal in their respectable robes, with links to royalty and golden idols aplenty. Elijah’s message was one of doom. These other guys seemed like they’d throw down a mind-blowing party. Whose side would you take?
The kid me felt a surge of pride when Elijah won the divine duel. Elijah was, for me, a stand-in for every kid who’s ever felt different, but still stood by what was right, even when it seemed foolish. The fire falling from the sky was a visceral sign of God’s preferential option for the underdog. And don’t we all wish that God would disrupt our lives with such scorching signs that our eyebrows got a little singed? Don’t we long for an obvious God, one whose response to our prayers is a clarion signal that God is alive, well, and on our side? Oh, the satisfaction as the false prophets look on, defeated, and the people flood that fiery altar, praising God, turning to Elijah in recognition—oh, you are the real prophet!
But there was another meaning I was taught growing up—that there is one true God, and that is the Triune God made known in Jesus Christ, worshiped by Christians alone. All other religions must teeter on a wire above the fiery pit, I was instructed, because their sheer wrongness was an affront to God. Sure, they might pray or go to their houses of worship. They might even do good things, like care for the poor. But their beliefs were wrong.
I grew up in a suburb of Detroit, surrounded by a beautiful tapestry of religious diversity. My high school included significant populations of Jews and Chaldeans (or Catholic Iraqi-Americans). I had friends who were Jewish, Hindu, and Hari Krishna. A Muslim student was one of the most stylish girls in school. The notions so many nice folks might be hell bound and their religions a mirage, troubled me deeply.
When I studied world religions in college, my cognitive dissonance was affirmed. So many people, the world over, profess other religious traditions. A shocking two-thirds of all people remain in the religion into which they were born. In that classroom that we began to problematize what evangelical Christianity taught, because—who is this God who allows people to be born and die in Taoist China without ever knowing the name Jesus and still condemns them? Who is this God who sees Muslims down on their knees, foreheads pressed to the ground in prayer five times a day, and dismisses their petitions? Who is this God who okays the majority of those created in the divine image being cast into some hellish pit, never to be forgiven? It didn’t make sense. That wasn’t the God I experienced.
My world religions class, taught at a conservative, Christian college, offered a way to think about Jesus beyond exclusivism. It didn’t reduce all religions to the same principles and say every path leads to God. It honored the significant departures in doctrine, practice, and world-view at play in the world’s religious traditions. It affirmed the particularity of Christ. But it also acknowledged that a God of grace would surprise us with mercy more than judgment, so we ourselves would do well to reserve it. It named the overlapping values in world religions, and that we can learn from one another. It didn’t shy away from the fact that nearly every major religion has fundamentalist fanatics who promote violence, and, at one time or another, has been hijacked to forward a political agenda (not that American Christians know anything about that).
Finding a path out of the exclusivism of my evangelical upbringing was a breath of fresh air. The truth was—I was fascinated by other religions. I wanted to make a holy pilgrimage like the hajj. I wanted to hear the call to prayer, kneel on my prayer mat and place my forehead to the ground in the middle of the day. I wanted to burn incense and set the table for God and the ancestors. I wanted to light Shabbat candles and receive the blessing of my parents. I wanted to feast on high holy days, then fast from sun-up until sun-down. I wanted a robust religion bright as a bowlful of marigolds, thick as the smoke of a holy offering, ringing with the prayers of the faithful. My life was animated by a deep hunger for the divine.
And yet, my love for Jesus was an essential. The further I ventured into the exploration of other religions, the more I saw Jesus. Not the personal pocket-Bible Jesus out to save every lost soul. But the mystical Jesus whose piercing stare peers out from a line in the soup kitchen; who winks from the parade of peace-loving monks; whose penchant for difficult questions is echoed in the hearty religious sparring in temples. And I realized that I didn’t need to bring Jesus with me everywhere I went. Jesus was already there. My faith was not about sharing my Jesus, but discovering the very incarnation of God in every landscape, person, and situation.
In theological school I studied the poetry of Sufi mystics, whose love affair with the divine compelled them to cross deserts, until they learned so much from God they could no longer call themselves simply Muslim. I studied the teachings of the Buddhist monk, Thich Naht Hanh whose work on issues like anger, peace, and reconciliation resonate deeply in my personal and family life. And I learned about a religion of conscience—peering deeply into another tradition to put it in conversation with your own. I’ve often been stuck in how Christianity deals with the issue of suffering. When I put my faith in deeper conversation with Buddhism, I gained new insights about my own tradition.
When we look at Jesus’ words about other religions, there’s not much to find. Sure, Jesus is quoted making exclusive claims about himself, but he also lifted up Samaritans who practiced a hybrid religion. Jesus was not preoccupied with converting people. In fact, though Jesus was a Jew and also the inspiration for a movement that birthed the early Christian church, he was surprisingly anti-institution.
Jesus publicly berated the religious authorities of his day. He didn’t merely hint that they might be duplicitous, but called them outright hypocrites. They seek places of privilege, but fail to deliver justice for the vulnerable. They tithe publicly while neglecting the weightier matter of mercy. They look good on the outside, but they are brimming with self-indulgence.
Jesus called for a radical re-ordering of the religious life. He was particularly critical of the holiness codes and sought to break them at every turn. It was unclean to touch a menstruating woman, so Jesus healed the woman with the issue of blood. He broke the Sabbath laws. It was unclean to touch a dead body, so Jesus laid hands on them. Those with diseases and disabilities were not allowed inside the temple gates, so Jesus healed them with mud and spit in the river. Adulterous women were to be stoned, but Jesus administered forgiveness. He didn’t do all of this to be charitable. He did it as a systematic critique of the religious institution and a public indictment of its leadership. Jesus overturned the tables of legalism in favor of a radical love that seeks out those on the boundaries.
So when we consider which false prophets are propping up altars in our lives, which false gods we bow down to, I’m no longer thinking about other religious traditions. I’m remembering how Jesus was preoccupied with greed, injustice, legalism, exclusion, false piety, and status. And I’m wondering what altars exist in my heart of hearts. I’m wondering how prophets would interrogate my life with their words about trampling the poor and the self-righteous legalism that shuts out grace. I’m measuring the optics of my life with the grime of divided living, the intolerance for the prophet who comes in the guise of the dispossessed. Little-g gods always clamor for our allegiance. And sometimes, aren’t we like those who wander over to the false prophets?
Remember the Rev. Carlton Pearson? At the very moment he was exiled and proclaimed a heretic, he was welcomed by the United Church of Christ, the denomination that has my heart. While he has not joined the UCC, he was invited to speak at a conference put on by Yvette Flunder, the founding pastor of City of Refuge UCC in Oakland, CA, a predominantly Black, gay congregation. Pearson recalled that after he had finished preaching what he calls "the Gospel of Inclusion," the crowd stood, applauding. Rev. Flunder asked him to walk down the aisle, because she knew he had been bruised by the charismatic church, and the people hugged him, with tears in their eyes. She brought to him a vat of warm water, asked him to sit down and remove his shoes, and she washed his feet. Pearson said it was one of the holist moments of his life.
If we have the power to create hell here on earth, perhaps we also have the power to bend the arc of the universe toward justice, to create places of healing and hope that offer a taste of heaven. If we have the power to exclude, so we also have the power to reach across borders and enact the divine love that knows no bounds. Call me a heretic or as foolish as raggedy-robed Elijah, but that’s the way I choose to follow.