Gay-accepting, Hell-denying Bishop Carlton Pearson dies at age 70

Carlton Pearson, a Black man with greyish curly hair, sits in a living room while wearing a dark open-collared shirt and a brown blazer
Carlton Pearson Photo: YouTube screenshot

Bishop Carlton Pearson, an influential Oklahoma megachurch pastor who was declared a heretic for denying the existence of Hell and affirming gay rights, died last Sunday at the age of 70 from cancer. He is survived by his mother, son, daughter, and ex-wife.

Pearson began preaching at age 15, was ordained as a pastor at age 18, and attended Oral Roberts University where he was mentored by its eponymous religious leader. At age 27, he founded his own church, the Higher Dimensions Evangelistic Center, which became one of the largest churches in Tulsa, attracting 6,000 congregants a week.

He was ordained as a Pentecostal bishop in 1997 and campaigned for then-presidential candidate George W. Bush in 2000.

Despite his conservative Christian credentials, Pearson began to defy his denomination’s teachings in 1994 when he stopped believing in the existence of Hell. While watching television coverage of Muslim people severely harmed by the Rwandan genocide, he realized that God would send them to Hell because they weren’t Christian.

In a 2006 NBC News interview, he admitted that at the time, “I said, ‘God, I don’t know how you’re gonna call yourself a loving God and allow those people to suffer so much and then just suck them into hell.’”

Afterward, he began preaching “The Gospel of Inclusion,” his belief that all people, regardless of faith, are eventually reunited with God. Ted Haggard, the evangelical church leader who later resigned under allegations of gay sex and meth use, called Pearson’s new gospel a “horrible” and “grievous mistake,” and noted that Roberts tried to get Pearson to change his mind on the matter.

In the months that followed, the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops Congress denounced Pearson as a heretic. The negative response caused attendance at his church to decrease to the hundreds, eventually draining its finances and causing its closure in 2006.

Afterward, Pearson was invited by a lesbian pastor in San Francisco to preach to her small church — its congregants included gay people, AIDS patients, and abused women.

“The people had experienced what I was experiencing,” he said. “They were pros at it… pros at being rejected.”

In 2007, he helped lead hundreds of clergy members nationwide to tell Congress to pass hate crime and job anti-discrimination legislation for gay people, ABC News reported. He eventually became a minister affiliated with the United Church of Christ, a socially liberal Protestant denomination.

In a September 2010 CNN interview, Pearson said, “Until the Church — the Church, Black or otherwise — confronts, not combats, confronts this issue of human sexuality and homosexuality, which is not going away. Homosexuals and homosexuality [are] not going away. If every gay person in our church just left or those who have an orientation or preference or an inclination, or a fantasy, if everyone left, we wouldn’t have a church.”

Pearson himself wasn’t gay and was married for 26 years to Gina Marie Gauthier. They had a son and daughter together before divorcing in 2019.

“Many of my self-righteous detractors accuse me of being gay because I am so outspokenly supportive of gays,” Pearson wrote. “Do these same people, suspicious of my sexuality, also say I am atheist, a Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Scientologist because I hang with, love, and accept them all and others, including those hypocritical so-called Christians who hate themselves and everyone else?”

In a video to followers released last September, Pearson said, “I am facing death … [but] I’m not afraid of death, I’m not even afraid of dying. I don’t fear God and if I was going to fear anybody, I’d fear some of his so-called people because they can be some mean sons of biscuit eaters, as my brother used to say.”

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