Without any hesitation whatsoever, I tell you that Hell is entirely a man-made doctrine. Some years back, we reviewed a movie (Come Sunday, 2018) about an evangelical leader who realized this. That leader, Carlton Pearson, lost almost everything when he publicized his change in beliefs. Amid Pearson’s recent death, a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leader has recently taken the time to warn the flocks not to lose their terror of Hell or their laser focus on avoiding it.
I can see why, of course. With the hemorrhage of members the SBC has experienced for years now, they need every bit of help they can get to keep their talons in the few they have left. And the terror of Hell has always made for great talons.
Christianese 101: Defining a man-made doctrine (like Hell)
In evangelical Christianese, a man-made doctrine is almost any doctrine that the judging evangelical thinks is false. That’s it. Obviously, the judging evangelical’s own doctrinal stances were dictated by their god. But any competing doctrines must come from a non-divine source.
Evangelicals reckon that some doctrines come from demons, of course. These would be the ones that are most contradictory to their own, particularly those regarding women’s rights and LGBT people’s equality. Sometimes we find someone in the wild (archive) claiming that doctrines demanding asceticism and overtly formal worship are demonic. Other evangelicals add (archive) that any claim that questions TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ must be demonic. Still others suggest (archive) that any doctrine that leads to dealbreaking hypocrisy must be demonic. (You’d think they’d be more careful with that suggestion, considering how many evangelical leaders get caught up in scandals!)
But when evangelicals really wanna diss a competing doctrine, they call it man-made. The implication here is that the person buying into that belief has been fooled by a shallow, inferior copy of the real deal.
In the Christ-o-sphere, man-made doctrines are super-duper-mega bad because they compete very successfully against real-deal divine doctrines. But as you can guess, one Christian’s man-made doctrine is another’s real-deal divine one. The Trinity stands out as the prime example here. Often, you find evangelicals rightly calling Catholicism a body of man-made doctrines (archive). Except for the doctrine of the Trinity, which wouldn’t exist if not for Catholicism. That one’s the real-deal divine doctrine (archive). Yep yep. As for Protestantism, Catholics rightly call it man-made in turn (archive).
Didja catch the “rightly” there? It’s there for a reason.
In truth, every single doctrine in Christianity is man-made. There are no actual divine or demonic doctrines. Every single brick in the religion’s wall came from a human being. This truth applies particularly to the doctrines that Christian leaders invented and now depend upon to keep the flocks’ butts planted in their pews.
And of those coercive doctrines, none stands out more as obviously man-made as Hell.
How we know that Hell is a man-made doctrine, short answer edition
There’s a short answer and a longer answer to the question of how we know, beyond all shadows of doubt, that Hell is simply another man-made doctrine alongside the hundreds others in Christianity.
The short answer: No evidence supports Christians’ claims about Hell.
No religious person has ever presented a single bit of objective evidence even to support the claim that a meaningful afterlife exists for humans, much less one fitting Christians’ very specific religious claims about Heaven and Hell. For that matter, no religious person has ever presented objective evidence to support the claim that a “soul” exists in some meaningful fashion after a person’s death, much less that souls face either a very unpleasant or a very blissful afterlife.
That which people assert without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence. Extraordinary claims (like people’s souls facing the possibility of Hell after death) require extraordinary levels of evidence, and Christians don’t possess even flimsy evidence. All they’ve got are threats, unbelievable anecdotes, and scary stories.
But oh my, they do go overboard on the threats. Hell-believers lurrrrve making threats about Hell. They make these threats because there is no evidence to support their claims. If they had evidence, they’d have presented it centuries ago. Because they don’t, they go for broke on threats.
And the longer answer:
Over many centuries, Christians have very clearly shaped the earliest, most primitive concepts of Hell to get the doctrine into its current shape.
A while ago, I traced the extremely understandable, man-made history of this man-made doctrine. We saw how it began as a fairly mild-sounding Jewish belief. And we saw how Christians began amping up their threats about Hell very quickly after their religion began to take off.
For example, in the earliest Christian writings, the flames of the “lake of fire” were just normal-sounding flames. Then, in the 2nd century, Tertullius began talking about “secret fire” that burned hotter than regular fire. Around the 3rd century, Hippolytus of Rome extended this concept a bit further by adding actual eternal torture to the mix. Around the same time, Cyprian of Carthage openly yearned to watch that torture!
By the 4th century, the monk/hermit Anthony the Great added a very important concept to Hell: that somehow, its denizens had chosen to go there. Later, he added another favorite concept to the doctrine: that demons deliberately tempted sinners so they’d end up in Hell. By the 5th century, Augustine of Hippo had already begun working on apologetics-based answers to the Problem of Hell.
And so on, and so forth. At every major junction of Christianity’s existence, some big name in the religion has changed the doctrine to look more and more like the one today’s evangelicals hold dear.
Now let’s look back at the actual Bible. What it says about Hell doesn’t look at all like the modern version. Here’s the OpenBible entry for Hell. Look for yourself. The Book of Revelation, which was written around 95-96 CE (archive) when the earliest Christians were already shaping the basic concepts of their religion, talks about the flames burning with sulfur. Otherwise, all the Bible describes is a lake of fire.
Pew-warmers don’t know any of this stuff. They don’t study their religion like this. They don’t read those early writings. So they don’t know that the modern conceptualization of Hell has a very easily-discerned timeline and pedigree. Really, it’d make more sense to be scared of the Dementors from Harry Potter. At least that series has fairly coherent and cohesive worldbuilding behind it. Hell is an obvious mishmash, a thrown-together leftovers stew that’s taken Christians centuries to cook.
(That’s why they’ve never adequately solved the Problem of Hell. The doctrine completely contradicts what Hell-believers believe about the essential nature of their god. They have no way to square that circle. If their god is omnimax and loving, then the doctrine of Hell is impossible. If Hell exists, then their god is not actually omnimax and loving.)
What Carlton Pearson realized about the man-made doctrine of Hell
Carlton Pearson used to be a right proper Pentecostal-style fundamentalist preacher in the denomination Church of God in Christ. He led a huge, racially-diverse church of some 6000 members. There, he preached up a storm every Sunday, even broadcasting his sermons on television. His success was meteoric, especially considering he was Black. As H.B. Charles Jr, a pastor out of Florida, notes in Baptist Press (archive), Pearson didn’t preach any doctrines that would have alarmed a non-Pentecostal evangelical.
That all changed abruptly around the year 2000. At that time, Pearson says he caught a documentary about the genocide in Rwanda. It’s a wrenching story: after the assassination of Rwanda’s peace-seeking president, Hutu militia members massacred somewhere around a half-million to a million Tutsi people. Of note, the Hutu are overwhelmingly Christian, much like the Tutsi themselves.
The massacre got into Pearson’s mind and would not leave. He couldn’t help but think of all the people who die without converting to Christianity. A lot of evangelicals think those people go to Hell—unless they’re so incredibly awesome (archive) at living as if they were Christians that Jesus cuts them a special pass. Of note, he apparently does this even if those folks have never even heard of Christianity.
Now, you and I can look at that doctrine and immediately conclude that anyone who behaves with normal human decency goes to Heaven, right? But standard-issue evangelicals can’t do that.
Zack Hunt wrote a post on the topic (archive) that criticizes disgraced onetime megapastor Mark Driscoll for announcing that anyone who isn’t Christian is going to Hell, period point blank amen forever. Hunt himself doesn’t happen to agree with Driscoll, as we discovered earlier this summer. I liked the end of his post:
God is the only one that gets to decide our eternal fate, which is why Jesus told us to judge not when it comes to heaven and hell because the same charity we afford in our judgment of others will one day be extended towards us. And since extending charity to people we don’t like or disagree with is something most of us are pretty terrible at, it’s probably a good idea that we heed Jesus’ words and stop declaring who is and who isn’t going to heaven.
Otherwise, the day may come when we, not they, are the ones who find ourselves warm and toasty.
But Hunt doesn’t go quite far enough.
How a major evangelical name rejected the man-made doctrine of Hell
Carlton Pearson went far enough to realize what the endgame looks like if one takes this doctrinal stance. By 2002, he had fully rejected the doctrine of Hell.
He thought Jesus had granted him a real live epiphany about it. This divine message was elegant and simple: Nobody is going to Hell. Jesus came to save EVERYONE from that fate. If any punishment exists after death, it will only be corrective and lasting as long as it must, and it will end with that person being allowed into Heaven. Hell, if it exists at all, is what sin creates here on Earth. By converting to Christianity and abiding by its rules, people can heal and mend the damage that sin wreaks in this life on Earth.
Pearson called this doctrinal stance “the Gospel of Inclusion.” It’s a riff on universal reconciliation/salvation.
As he began preaching this message, his church congregation melted almost entirely away. He also lost his denominational standing and his coveted high position in the evangelical crony network. His post-epiphany church never again grew as large as it’d been pre-epiphany. (In 2008, Pearson shut it down. What remained of its members merged with a large Unitarian Universalist church in the area.)
In 2018, his life story became the star-studded Netflix movie Come Sunday.
I liked the movie, incidentally. In one scene, Pearson confronts his denominational leaders in what amounts to an inquisition of his beliefs. (This event occurred in 2004.) By accident, one of those leaders gives away the entire Hell game by admitting that Hell amounts to cosmic punishment meted out to everyone that leader wants to hurt and see hurt in this life and the next. In that sense, Hell represents the opposite side of the coin of justice: on one side, TRUE CHRISTIANS™ gain after death all the rewards and riches denied them in life, and on the other, their enemies who evaded punishment in life get it in triplicate forever.
A week ago, Pearson died at the age of 70. Just days later, an SBC pastor danced on his grave.
Making sure the flocks fear the man-made doctrine of Hell
In his November 28 post for Baptist Press (archive), H.B. Charles Jr. discusses Carlton Pearson’s “legacy.” It really bugs this pastor to think of all the man-made doctrines that Pearson rejected besides that of Hell:
Pearson roamed further away from the biblical and historic Christian faith. He flatly rejected the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. He led a Unitarian Church and a New Thought congregation. And he affirmed homosexuality and gay marriage as legitimate Christian lifestyles.
Remember, biblical and historic both just mean whatever the judging Christian believes. Evangelicals in particular like to think of themselves as the most Jesusy Jesusers who ever Jesused the Jesus-Jesus. Of all flavors of Christianity, theirs and theirs alone represents the only TRUE CHRISTIAN™ faith. In fact, it’s the same faith practiced by Original First-Century Christians™! Blah blah, THE ORIGINAL GREEK AND HEBREW, blah blah, y’all! Jesus is so lucky to have them!
H.B. Charles Jr. wants to make particularly certain that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ understand just what a terrible person Carlton Pearson truly was:
Carlton Pearson’s Gospel of Inclusion did not garner a large following or spark an “Azusa” level movement. But that does not mean it was inconsequential. Pearson’s defiant false teachings poured poison into the children’s milk. We now have trained, eloquent and sought-after preachers who deny the authority of Scripture, the exclusivity of Christ and the message of the Gospel. And they do so without suffering any of the repercussions Pearson endured.
He misspelled “vicious retaliation” in that last sentence, but you get the idea. Every bit of the “suffering” that “Pearson endured” came from people just like H.B. Charles Jr. Very obviously, Pearson’s tormentors felt that they could Christian love him back into obedience by shunning him and attacking him. Truly, it’s a testament to Pearson’s grace and strength of character that they failed. Other similarly-treated evangelicals (like Eugene Peterson) meekly trotted back into their cages within hours or days of experiencing Christian love.
Man-made doctrines divide and separate Christians, just as they were designed to do
Coming back to this Baptist Press post by H.B. Charles Jr., we see that it also stands out as a testament to Christian gatekeeping as well. It’s got it all!
- “Paul’s charge to Timothy is the Lord’s command to every minister: “Preach the word.” How can you preach the Word if you do not believe the Word you preach?”
- “Over the years, liberal theologians (who, in many instances, are just apostates holding on to selective truth-claims that suit their own passions) have claimed to embrace the teachings of Jesus over those of Paul. It’s a convenient way to profess Christianity while rejecting the doctrines you do not like.”
- “That question [of your legacy] has nothing to do with size, numbers or prominence. It has everything to do with your fidelity to biblical authority, sound doctrine and Gospel truth.”
It’s got strawmen in it too:
Now, some celebrated preachers dare to say that Jesus was wrong when He declared, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). You don’t have to believe this divine claim. However, you cannot claim to follow Jesus and call Him a liar.
Literally nobody in this entire drama, not even Carlton Pearson, called Jesus a liar or has taught anything like what Charles claims here. In fact, Pearson very much believed what Jesus said there. It took me about ten seconds to find answers from Pearson’s own website. There, we find him quoting all kinds of Bible verses about Jesus saving the world and being the way to salvation. Here’s one bit from it:
We believe the entire Bible is about Inclusion. We believe the underlying message of the Bible is about an all-powerful God reaching out in love to the undeserving, sinful human race; not because of anything we have done, but in spite of all we have done. But of course what you are looking for are specific Bible references. Here’s just a few brief ones….
I Timothy 4:10 …we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.
I John 2: 2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
John 12:47 As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it.
John 3:17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
It sure sounds to me like Pearson completely agrees with John 14:6. But Pearson probably interprets that verse and the ones listed in the quote above very differently than Charles does.
Oh, and don’t miss the Appeal to Consequences that Charles makes along with another strawman here. He writes: “It is one thing to neglect the Great Commission. It is another thing to cancel it by deeming it unnecessary.” Here’s the outline of this logical fallacy:
- If Jesus means to grant all human beings a place in Heaven, then the Great Commission as we understand it, which the SBC in particular claims to consider paramount in their belief system, isn’t really necessary.
- That would super-suck, because the SBC makes a lot of money with their teachings on the Great Commission.
- Therefore, Jesus can’t possibly mean to grant all human beings a place in Heaven.
In addition, Pearson has never, to my knowledge, said the Great Commission (which doesn’t appear to have been part of the Gospels in their earliest form, and certainly wouldn’t have made much sense to those earliest apocalyptic believers) was pointless or unnecessary. Rather, reading what Pearson wrote reveals that Pearson found great value in following Christianity, and he thought it’d have great value to others as well. He just didn’t use terroristic threats of Hell to convert people, is all.
To a Southern Baptist, though, that’s crazy talk. That’s impossible. So obviously, Pearson must be rejecting evangelism entirely!
The flocks are losing their fear of man-made doctrines like Hell
It’s hard to imagine being an evangelical leader right now at any level, but even harder to imagine being one in the SBC. The denomination’s been declining steadily for years. Their all-important ratio of baptisms per existing believers has been tanking for decades. And every survey evangelicals take of the beliefs of the pew-warmers indicates that the flocks are slowly but surely drifting away from that literalist/inerrantist bullshit that today’s modern evangelical leaders push.
Ligonier, one of the biggest Calvinist sites out there (and therefore one of the big names in literalism/inerrantism), called these trends “concerning” last year (archive). But let’s use a far more accurate word here: CATASTROPHIC, at least for the organizations paying their leaders!
Those leaders tend to be fairly old, so they probably find this strange new world very “concerning” indeed. They still remember when a church leader was the de facto ruler of his (yes, his) community. When evangelicals could gleefully torment dissenters, heretics, apostates, and critics. When Christianity was taken completely for granted as the religion of America, with even much of law enforcement, judicial, and legislative bodies ignoring most overreach Christians committed. And yes, when vocally rejecting Christianity could burn down someone’s entire life and lose them their livelihood and every relationship they valued.
Indeed, that’s what happened to Carlton Pearson when he vocally rejected Hell as a doctrine. But those were evangelicals’ glory days, those early 2000s. Their decline had only just begun, though almost none of them had noticed yet. It’s a lot harder to retaliate like that now.
How their Dear Leaders are responding to that loss of fear
Nowadays, today’s evangelicals find themselves in a situation they likely couldn’t even have imagined 40, 30, even 20 years ago. It looks a lot like the situation the earliest Christians faced: a world that didn’t grant Christians unilateral and total temporal power over people’s lives.
And what did those earliest Christians do about that situation? Well, we’ve already seen exactly what they did in one area at least: They ramped up their threats around Hell. They tried to make their religion as coercive as it could possibly be.
If the religion sold well without threats, Christians wouldn’t need to push the idea of Hell at all. But we know they do, and we know it precisely because their leaders never stopped adding new terrifying details to the doctrine. Without Hell, there’s not much reason to buy into Christianity and stick with it.
Christianity just doesn’t sell very well without threats. Its claims aren’t true at all, its promised benefits never materialize for the vast majority of recruits, even Christians themselves don’t act like they really believe, their leaders can’t seem to stop getting caught putting their dicks where they don’t belong, and Christian groups tend to be full of truly awful people. Worse, it’s been like that from the very beginning! Even the writers of the New Testament described facing the same exact struggles with recruitment and retention that today’s do.
Without having any evidence to support their claims and lacking any characteristics that would make their ideology and groups a natural draw, evangelicals like H.B. Charles Jr. must drill own as hard as they can on Hell being a real danger. Some of ’em call this form of coercive evangelism “selling fire insurance.” They piously wring their widdle handsies over how terribly non-ideal it is to convert people based on threats—before immediately rationalizing doing exactly that if nothing else works to persuade their marks.
Spoiler alert: Nothing else does, or ever has.
That’s why H.B. Charles Jr. has papered over his blatant attempt to terrorize by piously invoking Pearson’s “legacy.” That’s what Charles’ post was about, officially: Making evangelicals aware that if they drop this man-made doctrine of Hell, then they risk losing their legacy just as Pearson did. But if the doctrine’s simply not true, then I wouldn’t want my “legacy” to involve it either. I think if he’d recited his post to Pearson’s face, Pearson would have just laughed gently and said something similar to him. A legacy based on lies isn’t something anyone should feel proud of leaving after death.
Y’all, I think they’re running scared!
It’s just such a staggering notion, though, when you think about it.
Fear is all Christian leaders have. Their faith requires fear to sell itself. Nothing else holds Christians’ butts in church pews quite like it, and these leaders know it.
So if the flocks stop fearing Hell, if they find out it’s nothing but yet another man-made doctrine, then they’ll likely find little else about or within Christianity to keep their butts in place on those pews.
For this exercise, we’re ignoring the fact that Carlton Pearson himself, along with many millions of other Christians, find plenty enough about Christianity to make it worth their while. Young Earth Creationists suffer from the same sort of tunnel vision in (mistakenly) thinking that only their ideology guarantees that someone will be Christian for life.
Yeah. Ohh yeah. I can see why evangelical leaders are pushing so hard on Hell that they must fling shit on the memory of one of the best people to ever come out of one of their organizations—all because he rejected that man-made doctrine so effectively and so thoroughly. He was their worst nightmare: A onetime TRUE CHRISTIAN™ leader who knew the Bible inside and out, who’d been well-educated in evangelical doctrines, who knew evangelical talking points like the back of his hand, who commanded the respect of both Black and white national-level leaders, and then realized that his belief in Hell was wrong. And then, even worse, he made his change of opinion known—and maintained it despite the worst abuse evangelicals could hurl at him in force him back into line.
These dysfunctional authoritarians hate us heathens, yes. But they hate apostates ten times more than someone who has never been part of their group.
May Carlton Pearson rest in peace. He lived a very courageous life, and I hope he helped a lot of Christians lose their terror of Hell.
We send our condolences to his family and friends, and we hope they find the grace and strength to endure his loss in the days ahead. I hope that as evangelicals’ power continues to wane, we’ll see more and more Christians doing as he did.
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