On December 14, 2019, two-year-old Olive Heiligenthal passed away in her sleep.
Olive’s mother, Kalley Heiligenthal, is a worship leader at Bethel Church, a charismatic megachurch based in Redding, California. Following an impassioned worship service the next morning, Heiligenthal took to Instagram and called on the “global church to stand with us in belief that He will raise this little girl back to life.”
And, thus, the stage was set for a resurrection of Biblical proportions.
Founded in 1954, Bethel Church has been a lightning rod of controversy in various corners of evangelical Christianity long before #WakeUpOlive began trending on Twitter.
Bethel Church adheres to a particular brand of Kingdom theology made famous by the Pentecostal Movement at the turn of the 20th Century and modernized by the New Apostolic Reformation. With its emphasis on “Signs and Wonders,” followers believe Christians have the natural ability to manifest the Kingdom of God on Earth through supernatural acts like speaking in tongues, faith healings, prophetic visions, exorcisms, and – in rare cases – raising the dead.
A section of Bethel’s website lists dozens of pages of testimonies of “healings,” and a well-circulated YouTube video purportedly showed a “glory cloud” descending from the rafters during a worship service (which looks suspiciously like glitter).
Despite the pileup of theological critiques and denunciations, the depth and breadth of Bethel’s reach is massive. Songs from Bethel Music, the church’s record label, are some of the most played contemporary worship music in North American churches. Bethel’s singles regularly sit atop iTunes’s and Spotify’s most-streamed Christian playlists, and their worship albums have reached the Billboard 200.
And while it’s not accredited, The Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry (BSSM) has trained more than 10,000 students to “embrace their royal identity” since its formation in 1998, and believes “God has given His Church supernatural power to bring individuals and nations into wholeness.” According to a 2016-17 research study conducted by two alumni, BSSM graduates reported more than 50,000 physical healings in the previous year. (A graduate of BSSM began a Dead Raising Team that claims to have “brought about 15 resurrections”).
Loosely connected to the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) and Independent Network Charismatics (INC), Bethel Church also adheres to the Seven Mountains Mandate. Sometimes called “Dominionism,” the mandate holds there exist seven mountains of culture (Arts, Government, Religion, Family, Education, Media, and Business) that Christian should seek to influence to usher in the Kingdom of God. (And, yes, Bethel’s leadership is decidedly pro-Trump).
Bethel Church’s sleek production design, attractive on-stage talent, impressive social media presence, and “Nothing Is Impossible” doctrinal cornerstone are all elements that lend themselves to a religious experience that feels spontaneous, fresh, and exciting. And their “Revival” message is particularly attractive to young people eager to distinguish themselves from the “safe” Christianity of their parents.
In a Christianity Today interview, religious scholar Brad Christerson said,
“For the young people, they’re searching for meaning, and they’re also looking for adventure and excitement. These kinds of churches appeal to them in ways that traditional congregations just can’t. They really believe they are participating in this cosmic spiritual battle to transform the world…For many people, that’s more exciting than a 45-minute sermon examining the Greek terms from Paul’s writings.”
But Bethel Church doesn’t exist in a cultural or historical vacuum. Pentecostalism, a branch of Christianity that highlights supernatural manifestations of the Holy Spirit, is one of the fastest-growing religious movements in the United States and the world – especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Korea, and Latin America.
And North America’s religious history is far more supernaturally-tinged than a lot of Christians know or would care to admit. Critics of Bethel’s orthodoxy are a dime a dozen, but how far are we willing to go before we start unweaving the very fabric of our shared faith?
Ever since the Puritans – a hyper-legalistic sect of Protestantism – landed ashore at Plymouth Rock in 1620, the United States has been a near-constant state of religious revival. And many of those early settlers believed the New World to be the New Jerusalem and themselves as God’s new “Chosen People.”
Modern missionaries in foreign countries often worry about syncretism, or the blending of old and new religious beliefs that create hybrid religions.
Back in 17th-century colonial America, syncretism wasn’t on anybody’s radar. Lacking theological gatekeepers and with an emphasis on “religious freedom,” the immigrant-friendly New World became a melting pot of conflicting spiritual ideologies.
In Fantasyland, historian Kurt Andersen writes,
“As Yale religious historian Jon Butler has written, the early United States was an ‘antebellum spiritual hothouse,’ Christian faith blending freely with folk magic – belief in the occult, clairvoyance, shamanic healing, and prophetic dreams, much of it old folk superstition no longer constrained by Puritan doctrine and order.”
As a result, new hybrid versions of Christianity that highlighted emotional spectacle, spiritual warfare, miraculous healings, and apocalyptic prophecy began to dominate the religious landscape.
Colonial America was also a deeply superstitious place. Witches, shapeshifters, changelings, and Native Americans (which some Protestant preachers described as “instruments of the devil” and “professed enemies of Christ Jesus“) prowled the wilderness of the new Promised Land. Therefore, it was important for Christianity to be more powerful than the demon-haunted world lurking outside the walls of the church.
For the various Protestant sects fleeing the Church of England and Roman Catholicism, religion finally became something it hadn’t been for a long time: Exciting.
And this was no more apparent than the First Great Awakening (1730 – 1755) and Second Great Awakening (1790-1840). Watershed moments in American history, both revivals forever altered the ways Americans interacted with Christianity: It was not enough to know the Holy Spirit; one had to experience the Holy Spirit.
During the First Great Awakening, tens of thousands of American colonists flocked to hear preachers like Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John Wesley deliver theatrical performances heavy on fear-based and emotional appeals in tents, pastures, and town squares. Prayer and worship gatherings became riotous displays of euphoric religious experientialism.
Congregations would faint, moan, convulse, weep, and collapse in fits of hysterical laughter and collective religious ecstasy. No one had ever seen or heard anything like it before.
During one sermon, Jonathan Edwards was so disturbed by the audience’s reaction (one observer remarked, “[there was] howling, screeching, groaning as of women in the pains of childbirth“), he wrote another sermon urging caution against emotionalism, saying emotional outbursts didn’t prove the legitimacy of a revival and “enthusiasm often spreads even when evangelists proclaim false doctrine.”
Forty years later, the Second Great Awakening was triggered by the Red River Meeting House, a religious camp meeting of several hundred people led by James McGready, a Presbyterian minister, in June 1800.
After observing a service at the Red River Meeting House, minister Barton Stone wrote, “It baffled description. Many, very many, fell down as men slain in battle, and continued for hours together in an apparently breathless and motionless state.” In a letter to a friend, minister McGready wrote, “There you might see little children of ten, eleven and twelve years of age, praying and crying for redemption, in the blood of Jesus, in agonies of distress.”
Another seminal event was the Cane Ridge Revival of 1801, an impromptu week-long religious festival in Kentucky that saw between 10,000 and 25,000 attendees – an absolutely massive turnout given the population density of early 19th-century America.
At Cane Ridge, dozens of preachers erected make-shift stages and delivered fiery exhortations of the “true new Gospel” amid the glow of multiple bonfires. Participants laughed uncontrollably, collapsed, barked like dogs, and danced with wild abandon. Young women writhed on the ground and moaned in near-orgasmic bliss. Preachers found themselves drowned out by hundreds of people “spontaneously exhorting” their own divinely-inspired messages. And, while sitting on the shoulders of adults, children spouted apocalyptic prophecies.
According to one observer, Cane Ridge was filled with “Sinners dropping down on every hand, shrieking, groaning, crying for mercy, convoluted.” Another visitor commented on the untold number of attendees blessed by “the jerks,” or seizure-like convulsions: “Their heads would jerk back suddenly, frequently causing them to yelp…I have seen their heads fly back and forward so quickly that the hair of females would be made to crack like a carriage whip.”
Historian Paul Conkin called the Cane Ridge Revival “the most important religious gathering in all of American history.” For decades afterward, a common evangelical prayer at the onset of any camp revival meeting was “Lord, make it like Cane Ridge.”
And, yet, the events at Red River Meeting House and Cane Ridge Revival have been shuffled to the annals of history. Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists owe their denominations’ prevalence to the First and Second Great Awakenings, but the sensational (and cringe-worthy) emotionalism has largely been stripped from the narrative.
When modern critics treat Bethel Church like an eccentric anomaly or evangelical outlier, they’re failing to take into account the wider context of America’s religious history. And therein lies an uncomfortable truth: Perhaps more than any other denomination, Bethel’s Christianity is America’s Christianity – emotional, attractional, and supernatural.
The Age of Miracles
The problem with talking about Pentecostal and Charismatic faith traditions is that there are literally dozens of different brands and flavors across the theological spectrum. A reductionist critique often unfairly collapses the theological diversity of Pentecostalism into one or two outrageous examples to demonize the entire denomination.
With more than 600 million global adherents, Pentecostalism is the largest Christian denomination after Catholicism. And with denominational Christianity and Catholicism declining “at a rapid pace,” Pentecostalism is poised to become the largest expression of the Christian faith in the world. No small feat for a religious movement that began a little over a hundred years ago.
As the age of modernity slowly stripped the world of its awe and mystery in the early 20th Century, religious traditions in America wrestled with how to adapt to the rising tide of scientific rationalism. After all, how does one reconcile the fact that washing one’s hands appear to be a more effective deterrent against disease and sickness than clasping those same hands in prayer?
While some denominations embraced scientific rationalism (“Science is merely God’s way of helping us understand the inner workings of the natural world”), other faith traditions split and doubled-down on supernaturalism.
And thus, the Pentecostal Movement (1900 – 1929) was born. Like the Puritans before them, the original Pentecostals thought the end of the world was imminent, but they also believed a sign of the impending apocalypse would be a resurgence of miraculous abilities among the followers of Jesus.
The epicenter of the Pentecostalism was the Asuza Street Revival, a multi-year worship gathering in Los Angeles. Led by Bishop William Seymour, an African-American preacher, the Asuza Street Revival swelled into the largest desegregated congregation in the U.S. with more 1,300 weekly attendees over a three-year period.
Though many were scandalized by the “disgraceful mingling of races,” newspaper reporters were particularly intrigued by the outrageous behavior that came to define the Revival.
“They cry and make howling noises all day and into the night,” read one local newspaper report. “They run, jump, shake all over, shout to the top of their voice, spin around in circles, fall out on the sawdust blanketed floor jerking, kicking and rolling all over it. These people appear to be mad, mentally deranged or under a spell.”
Inspired by the teachings of another preacher named Charles Parham, Bishop Seymour preached a new concept called “Baptized in the Spirit,” a post-salvation initiation marked by supernatural abilities (like speaking in tongues and miraculous healings).
During the most frenzied Azusa Street services, participants reported pillars of fire hovering above the building and amputated limbs regrowing.
In addition to breaking down racial barriers, Pentecostalism also launched a massive missionary movement. Fueled by apocalyptic expectations, hundreds of Pentecostals bought one-way tickets to preach the Gospel among indigenous people groups in developing nations.
And though the missionaries lacked formal training, they were incredibly successful in their conversion efforts. In fact, Pentecostalism may be uniquely suited to thrive in environments in which belief in the supernatural is the norm.
In an interview with Foreign Policy, religious historian Allan Anderson said,
“The emphasis on the freedom of the spirit, as the Pentecostals would put it, has enabled them to adapt and take on characteristics of the local culture. That has now permeated the churches throughout the world.”
In other words, Christian supernaturalism is highly adaptable to other cultures already steeped in a supernatural or shamanistic worldview.
For example, in Encyclopedia Brittanica‘s entry on Voodoo, the editors describe a customary voodoo service like this:
“Believers sometimes enter a trancelike state…perform stylized dances, give supernaturally inspired advice to people, or perform medical cures or special physical feats.”
While many Christians preachers in the West focus on the relevance of Christianity by making sound logical appeals, Pentecostals are taking the completely opposite approach – and reaping far more success. And the decentralized nature of the movement means it’s one of the most theological diverse branches in all of Christianity.
Power in the Blood
Bolstered by Bethel’s network of successful Christian artists, prayer vigils and worship gatherings for #WakeUpOlive began spreading across the country – along with a storm of controversy and derision.
On Wednesday, December 19, Bill Johnson, senior leader and visionary of Bethel, posted a video on Bethel’s Instagram and YouTube channel. In the video, Johnson says, “Not everyone dies in God’s timing,” and “When [praying for a miracle] doesn’t work, we don’t blame God.”
In a blog post titled “Is It Always God’s Will to Heal Someone?”, Johnson wrote,
“How can God choose not to heal someone when He already purchased their healing? He already decided to heal … There are no deficiencies on His end … All lack is on our end of the equation.”
In the same blog post, Johnson cautions against praying an “‘If it be thy will’ kind of prayer” because of the “thousands of people” he’s seen healed, no one was healed from “that kind of prayer.”
Supernaturalism isn’t limited to the Pentecostal or Charismatic faith traditions.
According to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, the wine and wafers of Communion become the literal blood and flesh of Jesus after being consumed and blessed by a priest. And the Vatican maintains a “special forces” team of priests dedicated to performing exorcisms.
The bestselling spiritual devotional in recent memory, Jesus Calling, hinges on the conceit that author Sarah Young is channeling personal messages from Jesus to her readers. And, in the U.S., 35% of Christians believe God talks directly to them.
And, of course, the Bible is filled with miraculous events and healings (including one very consequential resurrection).
In other words, you can’t do away with supernaturalism without fundamentally altering the core tenants of Christianity.
The controversies swirling around Bethel (and other NAR and INC ministries) comes down to a centuries-long battle between Cessationists and Continuationists.
A Cessationist believes the miraculous abilities that defined the ministry of Jesus and the spread of the early Church died out with the apostles, while a Continuationist believes those miraculous abilities are still available to current followers of Jesus.
(If you’re not religious, these sort of in-house squabbles probably sound like two kids fiercely arguing over which reindeer Santa feeds first on Christmas Eve, and for that, I apologize).
A vast majority of Christians in the U.S. – probably without realizing it – fall in the middle of the Cessationist-Continuationist spectrum. While most Christians believe in “Spiritual Gifts” (Teaching, Wisdom, Discernment, Leadership, etc), some draw the line at the three “extraordinary” gifts: Speaking in Tongues, Miraculous Healings, and Prophecy.
These three gifts are major sources of contention and controversy in evangelical Christianity. For example, in the Bible, the “Gift of Tongues” is presented as people supernaturally acquiring the ability to speak in a different language to preach the Gospel.
But, in the Pentecostal and Charismatic tradition, the gift of tongues takes the form of what sounds like incoherent babbling (called “glossolalia“). While MRI scans reveal people who speak in tongues do enter into a euphoric disassociated state, linguistic experts are quick to point out that glossolalia isn’t limited to Christianity and it always mimics the speech patterns of the speaker’s original language.
Olive didn’t wake up.
Seven days after her death, Bethel posted an update on Instagram and Facebook, saying, “Olive hasn’t been raised. The breakthrough we have sought hasn’t come…the joy of our faith is that, though we haven’t seen the miracle of Olive being raised, she is alive in the presence of God.”
Sean Fuecht, a Bethel singer/songwriter also running for a Republican seat in Congress, commented underneath the post: “As we collectively pressed in together for her miracle and awakening, God has awakened us all in the process.”
On Friday, December 27 – two weeks after her death – Bethel held a funeral service for Olive. In an Instagram post, Jenn Johnson – a prolific Bethel worship leader – wrote: “God had resurrection power & we had Faith. Why she didn’t come back is a mystery and we surrender that to Him. AND we continue to do what He said, “Pray for the sick, raise the dead.”
For many people in our result-oriented culture, these responses are absolutely baffling. They prayed for a resurrection, it didn’t happen, and yet they have more faith?
But what critics fail to understand is that within the context of a self-reinforcing belief system, failure and success are irrelevant outcomes.
As one of my Charismatic friends put it: “God is glorified through our petitions, whether or not they turn out the way we want them to.”
Faith is resilience and loyalty in spite of failure and lack of evidence. The very act of stepping out in the face of insurmountable odds, statistical improbability, and public ridicule is presented as its own reward. It’s not the outcome that matters; it’s the faith it took to believe the outcome was even possible.
If you accuse such a belief system of being irrational, you’re missing the point. For a Christian steeped in supernaturalism, the accusation of irrationality is enviable evidence that one’s faith is highly distinctive.
We see variations of these kinds of internal justifications pop up all the time in sports and politics. Do you renounce your fandom when your team doesn’t make the Super Bowl or World Series? Do you abandon your political ideology when your candidate doesn’t get elected? On the contrary, most people would claim true fandom or loyalty is earned only by sticking with something or someone through hard times.
And the more a person sacrifices (money, time, reputation, etc) for a belief or cause, the more they’ll seek out information, stories, experiences, and like-minded communities to justify their sacrifice. They need it to be true because the alternative would be too much to bear. And this isn’t a dig at any particular theological persuasion; it’s just the way our ego works to protect itself.
(If that sounds too cynical, consider this question: How do you explain people sacrificing everything for an ideology different from your own?).
Therefore, the outcome of #WakeUpOlive is easily reframed as proof of God’s immeasurable goodness within the context of God’s infinite wisdom – with the problem being our inability to comprehend God’s will.
Or, as Johnson suggested, perhaps the deficiency is on our end. Maybe there were too many skeptics, or not enough people prayed. Or maybe God wanted to resurrect Olive, but someone’s unconfessed sin got in the way.
You can see how this theological framework – if left unchecked – can send a person spiraling into doubt and self-loathing. And an all-powerful and gracious God who always desires to heal but won’t because of our inherent fallibility doesn’t seem to be a very powerful or gracious God at all.
Addendum: Bringing Magic Back
In C.S. Lewis’s Miracles, the famed apologist writes,
“A naturalistic Christianity leaves out all that is specifically Christian.”
I understand what Lewis is trying to say. To strip Christianity of its supernatural elements is to essentially do away with Christianity. You’re left with the philosophical musings of a roaming rabbi and the shared delusions of his grief-stricken followers.
And, according to the Bible, Jesus did raise people from the dead. At one point, he commanded his disciples to do the same. And the book of Acts recounts a couple of instances of the apostles bringing people back from the dead.
But, for whatever reason, Christians today aren’t walking on water, diverting major hurricanes, passing through walls, or spitting in people’s eyes to return their sight. Brigades of Charismatics aren’t flooding into children’s cancer wards, praying over patients, and astounding doctors with the results. Disabled veterans aren’t being called onstage to have their amputated limbs prayed over.
And the common explanation of why we don’t see things like that has always struck me as a textbook example of circular logic: Miracles don’t happen very often in America because we’ve lost the faith that miracles can happen in America. I mean, if God “desires everyone to be saved,” then wouldn’t dramatic miraculous events be the perfect venue to convince nonbelievers of His existence?
And wouldn’t a God who withholds healing on account of the faith levels of the petitioners be recast as a diabolic villain in any other setting?
At the end of the day, I don’t believe being Christian grants you access to magical powers or supernatural abilities (and I largely attribute the spiritual theatrics of the Great Awakenings and Pentecostal revival to mass hysteria, akin to the Tanzania Laughter Epidemic and Satanic Ritual Abuse Panic of the 1980s). While I believe miracles can (and do) occur, I don’t think we have very much control over where, when, and how they happen.
But, part of me thinks what makes some Christians uncomfortable with Bethel Church is that they push our sometimes illogical faith to its logical conclusion.
For those skeptical of Bethel’s brand of supernatural Christianity (and I count myself among them), I want to pose some questions: Where do we draw the line? And why? How far is too far? What did Jesus mean when he said we could have move mountains with the faith of a mustard seed and “Nothing is impossible?”
Several years ago, while in college, I was left reeling from the fallout of a romantic relationship that ended badly. She’d been The One, or so I thought, and the vacuum left in her absence grew more and more noticeable every day.
My morose funk dragged on for weeks, and, in retrospect, it’s pretty clear I was suffering from depression. One day, while wandering campus on my way to class, someone approached me with a cellphone in hand.
“Hey, this is going to sound really weird,” the guy said. “But I was just got off the phone with my roommate who was praying and he told me there was someone walking around campus with a blue shirt who really needed someone to pray for them right now.”
I looked down at my blue shirt, and then I began to sob uncontrollably.
The stranger wrapped his arms around me and, while I was cocooned in his embrace, he began to pray very loudly for me in the middle of campus.
Of course, I could reverse engineer the circumstances and explain it all away.
But, for a few moments, I was a true believer.
For Further Exploration
Meet the “Young Saints” of Bethel Who Go To College To Perform Miracles – Molly Hensley-Clancy, BuzzFeed News.
Inside the Popular, Controversial Bethel Church – Martyn Jones, Christianity Today.
We Are Not Divine. But We Are Loved. That Is Enough – Kate Bowler, Washington Post.
Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History – Kurt Andersen
“American Gospel” – Documentary (YouTube)