Obituaries

Carlton Pearson, Pastor Deemed a Heretic for Denying Hell, Dies at 70

Bishop Carlton D. Pearson, an evangelical pastor who was deserted by his large congregation after declaring that hell does not exist and advocating gay rights — and whose story was told in a 2018 Netflix movie — died on Sunday in Tulsa, Okla. He was 70.

His death, in a hospice care center, was caused by cancer, his agent, Will Bogle, said.

Before he was cast out by the evangelical establishment, Bishop Pearson was one of its leading lights: a board member of Oral Roberts University, an adviser to President George W. Bush on faith initiatives and one of the country’s first Black televangelists.

An annual revival that Bishop Pearson led, the Azusa Conference in Tulsa, a mix of ministry and music, drew as many as 20,000 people and spun off best-selling gospel records.

“The night services were always sprinkled with heavy, heavy hitters in the gospel industry,” said Yolanda Adams, a Grammy Award-winning singer whose career took off after an invitation from Bishop Pearson. At the conference in 1996, a group of evangelical leaders declared him “a bishop in the Lord’s church.”

But his fall was decisive once he questioned core doctrines, leading to his formal branding as a heretic and the loss of most of his congregation.

While watching a TV report in the 1990s on children starving during the Rwanda genocide, Bishop Pearson had an epiphany. He could not believe that God would consign innocent souls to hell who had not accepted Jesus Christ as savior before their deaths. He concluded that hell does not exist, except as earthly misery created by human beings; that God loves all mankind; and that everyone is already saved.

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