The Sounds of Fundamentalism is a series that I would like readers to help me with. If you know of a video clip that shows the crazy, cantankerous, or contradictory side of Evangelical Christianity, please send me an email with the name or link to the video. Please do not leave suggestions in the comment section. Let’s have some fun!
Today’s Sound of Fundamentalism is a video clip of Charismatic preacher Perry Stone checking his smartphone while speaking in tongues. I wonder if God was texting him?
In Luke 24, we find the risen Jesus appearing to his eleven disciples and several other people, saying to them: “Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high.” After Jesus uttered these words, He ascended to Heaven and hasn’t been seen since. From that moment forward, Christians have wondered what Jesus meant when he said his followers would be “endued with power from on high.”
I was taught growing up in Baptist churches that the power spoken of by Jesus was the Holy Spirit (Holy Ghost); that prior to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and his ascension to Heaven, the Holy Spirit came UPON God’s chosen ones but did not permanently live inside of them. Once Jesus was gone from the scene, he sent the Holy Spirit (comforter) to earth to live inside every believer. I was taught similar pneumatology (doctrine of the Holy Spirit) in Bible college.
In Acts 2, we find the followers of Jesus gathered together on the day of Pentecost. Suddenly, the Holy Spirit came upon them and “they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Most Evangelicals believe that this was the moment that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in every believer and endue them with Heavenly power. I am just kidding: most Evangelicals don’t agree on anything — Holy Spirit included. You would think receiving the Holy Spirit would be quite simple, but thanks to endless arguments and debates amongst those who claim to have ONE LORD, ONE, FAITH, ONE BAPTISM, Christian sects have all sorts of pneumatological beliefs. Let me share a few of them with you.
Many Baptists believe that the moment a person is saved, the Holy Spirit takes up permanent residence inside of them. Now, that’s only for people who are saved after the resurrection of Jesus. Those saved before the resurrection of Jesus — say people in the gospels and the Old Testament — the Holy Spirit came upon them when he needed to use them in some sort of powerful, supernatural way. Once this was accomplished, the Holy Spirit departed.
Other Baptists believe that the Holy Spirit has always lived in saved people — both before and after the resurrection of Jesus. These Baptists see a continuity between the Old and New Testaments. This belief is popular among worshippers of John Calvin.
And yet other Baptists believe that all saved people are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, but “special,” on-fire, sold-out Christians can receive a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit if they really, really, really beg God to give it to them. Some preachers I heard growing up called this being baptized with the Spirit.
Wander off into the Evangelical weeds and you will find all sorts of additional — and contradictory — beliefs about the Holy Spirit. Some sects believe that you receive the Holy Spirit the moment you are baptized by immersion. Other sects believe similarly, except the evidence of being filled with the Holy Spirit is speaking in tongues. What is speaking in tongues, you ask? Ah yes, another belief Christians are hopelessly divided over.
Most Baptists believe that speaking in tongues is Demonic. Some Baptists believe that speaking in tongues is the ability to speak foreign languages you haven’t learned. Pentecostals, Charismatics, Apostolics, and some garden-variety Evangelical churches believe that speaking in tongues is some sort of babbling prophetic or prayer language; one that must be interpreted so hearers can understand; but then, maybe not — maybe it’s just a Heavenly prayer language that no one, including the speaker, understands. Turn on the TV and watch Christian programming and you will see plenty of speaking in tongues — interpreted and uninterpreted.
Back to the Holy Spirit. Some sects believe that you receive the Holy Spirit when you are saved, but if you want to want to have a close relationship with God, you need to beg him to fill you will his Spirit. Again, speaking in tongues or some other supernatural demonstration will be the requisite evidence for such fillings of the Holy Spirit.
In the 1980s and 1990s, I attended a number of southern-style camp meetings. It was not uncommon to “see” the Holy Spirit come upon people. They would start shouting, waving towels/hankies, running the aisles, walking on top of pews, and just about any other bit of religious craziness you can think of. I heard countless preachers say that the Holy Spirit gave them their sermons; that their preached words were straight from the Spirit himself. I had similar experiences while preaching. There were a few times when my sermons seemed to have some sort of special “zip” or anointing, and people responded to them in overtly emotional ways. One evening, in particular, I remember the service was overflowing with the Spirit. Sinners were saved and backsliders were reclaimed. Afterward, I was exhausted. God really used me for his purpose and glory, I thought at the time.
As you can see from this post, Christians have varied beliefs about the Holy Spirit and the outworkings of receiving said Spirit. It is these varied beliefs that make me wonder about the existence of God. If, as Christians believe, the Holy Spirit is essential to the salvation and the day-to-day lives of believers, why all the diverse and contradictory beliefs? Surely, God would want to make sure every Christian was on the same page when it came to the Holy Spirit, right? Yet, they are not, and the same could be said concerning virtually every other article of faith.
If, over the course of 2,000 years, we saw that Christians generally believed the same things, it might cause us to pause a moment and consider whether those beliefs are true. Instead, what we have is countless sects, each believing that their beliefs are true and all others false. This leads me to conclude that Christian religions are manmade, filled with internal and external contradictions. Either that or God loves confusion. Oh, wait, 1 Corinthians 14:33 says, God is NOT the author of confusion. If he’s not the author, who is? That’s right, humans are. And from this conclusion, it is clear: that religions — all of them — are human constructs; that the plethora of beliefs about the Holy Spirit reveals human engineering, not divine.
What were you taught about the Holy Spirit? Were you ever “filled” with the Holy Spirit? Did you ever speak in tongues? Please share your human utterances in the comment section.
About Bruce Gerencser
Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.
Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.
Older readers might remember shopping at the stores of discount retailer Kmart and seeing what was commonly called a “blue light special.” Blue light specials were sudden discounts offered to shoppers during their shopping experience at Kmart. A store employee would roll a cart with a police-like blue light attached to a pole near the aisle where the sudden discount was going to be offered. At the customer service desk, another employee would announce to shoppers, for example, “ATTENTION KMART SHOPPERS! There’s a blue light special going on right now on GE light bulbs in aisle three!” The employee in charge of the blue light would switch it on. and with its flashing/rotating light, the blue light would guide customers to their exciting just-for-them discount on light bulbs. Woo-hoo!
For eleven years in the 1980s and 1990s, I pastored the Somerset Baptist Church in Mt. Perry, Ohio. I started this church in 1983, and remained its pastor until I resigned and moved to San Antonio, Texas in 1994 to become the co-pastor of Community Baptist Church. For a few years, Somerset Baptist was the largest non-Catholic church in Perry County. The church was known for its fiery redheaded preacher and its International Harvester-colored red and creme buses that bused in church attendees from Muskingum, Perry, and Fairfield counties. Reaching high attendances in the low 200s, this country church reached thousands of people for Christ.
The church also attracted more than a few people who had — in my Baptist eyes, anyway — screwy beliefs. One such person was the mother of a woman who was a member of the church (along with her husband and two children). I had visited this woman and her husband several times at their home, hoping that they would join their daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren in worshiping Jesus at the “fastest growing church in Perry County” — as the church’s sign said, anyway. I knew the woman had some charismatic tendencies, but I thought I could preach all that nonsense right out of her if she would only give me the opportunity to do so.
For those of you who are not aware of what charismatic beliefs are, let me describe them this way: all the miraculous spiritual gifts found in the Bible — healing, raising the dead, speaking in tongues, to name a few — are in force today. The favorite gift of charismatics is speaking in tongues — an unintelligible prayer language God gives to people who are filled/anointed/baptized with the Holy Ghost. As a Baptist, I believed that when a sinner was saved he received all of the Holy Ghost, and there was no more of Him to have. All Christians needed to do was utilize the power that was already within them. Charismatics tended to be an emotionally excitable lot, at least while worshiping Jesus. (I preached at several Charismatic/Pentecostal churches during my tenure at Somerset Baptist.) In their minds, babbling nonsense they believed was given to them by the Holy Ghost was a sign of God’s presence and power. Just turn on any of the dozens of national Christian TV channels and in short order you’ll see tongues-speaking on display.
The woman I mentioned above was a babbler, and this worried me a bit, but I thought that my Bible-saturated preaching would deliver her from charismaticism. Not only did this woman speak in tongues, she also believed that Jesus spoke to her, audibly. That’s right, this woman had conversations with a mythical entity she believed was the Jesus of the Bible.
As was our custom for many years, the church has a testimony time on Sunday evenings. This was time allotted for church members and visitors to stand up and share with everyone in attendance what Jesus had done for them over the past week. Sometimes, these brag-on-Jesus times turned into narcissistic, look-at-what-I-did-done-do for Jesus sessions. Often, testimony time was a time for congregants to lie about their relationship with God. One dear woman, who had been a smoker her entire adult life, stood up one Sunday and praised Jesus for delivering her from the filthy sin of smoking. We had a quite a praise-fest that night, thanking our Lord for delivering Sister R from her addiction. Years later, I learned that Sister R had, in fact, never stopped smoking, and that the only reason she said that she did was so she could have the appearance of a victorious Christian life like the rest of us. Oh, if she had only known that NONE of us, including her preacher, had victory over sin, she might not had felt compelled to lie. Sister R felt so guilty about not being as spirit-filled as the rest of us that she was willing to lie to her friends about her deliverance from smoking. Not long ago, Sister R died of cancer. I do hope that she found peace and rest. While her smoking most certainly contributed to her death, she had other qualities that deserved praise and admiration. Sister R was a kind, compassionate woman, but sadly, in the IFB church she attended, all that mattered was her sinful habit. As her dumb ass preacher used to say, smoking won’t send you to hell, but it sure will make you smell like you have been there! (Please readKen Ham, Answers in Genesis, Dinosaurs, and the SIN of Smoking)
On one particular Sunday night, the charismatic lady mentioned above decided to attend church with her daughter. She had visited several times before, and let it be known that she really liked my “old-fashioned” preaching. Prior to my sermon, I asked if anyone had a good word they wanted to put in for Jesus. Several people raised their hands, signifying that they wanted to brag a bit on their Lord and Savior. The charismatic woman excitedly raised her hand, anxious to let everyone know about a recent encounter she had with Jesus. When it came time for her to testify, she popped up from her seat and said this (as recounted from thirty years ago):
I was asleep last night, and all of a sudden I awoke, feeling a “presence” in my bedroom. As I stood to see this presence, my eyes saw a blinding blue light. Now, I knew that Satan could present himself as an angel of light, so I spoke to this light, saying, If that’s really you Jesus, please make yourself known to me. And right then and there I heard, Attention K-Mart Shoppers! (Okay, that last sentence was a bit of literary fiction, also known as preaching.) And right then and there I heard a voice that said, it’s me, Jesus. Praise, the Lord. I knew then that the presence in my room was Jesus.
For those of you raised in the IFB churches, imagine my homicidal thoughts as this woman was regaling congregants with her version of a blue light special. I was oh-so-happy when she stopped testifying, and later let it be known among church members that her testimony was NOT an approved meeting with Jesus. We Baptists only talked to Jesus in English, and only while we were on our knees praying; and even then our talks with Jesus had to align with what the Bible said. In other words, ATTENTION CHURCH MEMBERS! There will NOT be any blue light specials at Somerset Baptist Church.
About Bruce Gerencser
Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.
Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.
Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.
There is no such thing as “Christianity” — as in a singular group encompassing all Christians. The Bible says that there is ONE Lord, ONE faith, and ONE baptism, yet Christians have spent the last two thousand years trying to prove that their peculiar beliefs are the one, the only one, the one TRUE CHRISTIANITY®. Every Evangelical sect, every Evangelical pastor, every Evangelical church member thinks their beliefs are right. This kind of thinking is fueled by the belief that the Bible is an inspired, inerrant, infallible book, written through human instrumentality by God himself. It should come as no surprise that many Evangelicals, believing that they hold in their hands the very words of God, are cock-sure that what they believe is exactly what God meant when he had holy men of old write the this or that passage of Scripture. Armed with certainty, Evangelicals have no place for doubt. Doubt is of the devil! preachers say. I’m standing on the promises of God, praise Jesus! Just remember, it was SATAN who said to Adam and Eve, yea hath God said (yes, he spoke in King James English). God has spoken, end of story.
If, as Evangelicals says, God has inerrantly and infallibly spoken, why is it, then, that Evangelicals have such varied and contradictory beliefs? If, two thousand years after the purported resurrection of Jesus from the dead, all Christians had the same theological beliefs, I might at least pause to consider whether the claims of Christianity are true. Instead, there are countless Christianities, each with its own beliefs. Worse yet, there are countless Jesuses, with every Christian molding and shaping a Jesus in his or her own image. (Please read Does the Bible Contain Multiple Plans of Salvation? and Is There Only One Plan of Salvation?) Christians can’t even agree on the basics: salvation, baptism, and communion. If Christians can’t come to a consensus about what constitutes the one truth faith, why should anyone pay attention to them?
Let me illustrate this by answering the quandary Why Pentecostals speak in tongues, and Baptists don’t.
First, the Baptists.I grew up in the Baptist church so I am quite familiar with how Baptists view tongues-speaking. TONGUES-SPEAKING IS SATANIC, STRAIGHT FROM THE PIT OF HELL! There, end of discussion. I was taught, and later taught others, that speaking in tongues was a temporary sign gift given to Jesus’ disciples so they could spread the good news of the gospel to the ends of the earth. Once the canon of Scripture was completed, the need for tongues went away. Evidently, once Christians of the fourth century had for their reading pleasure all sixty-six books of the King James Bible, God no longer used tongues to speak to people.
The Pentecostals, on the other hand, believe that speaking in tongues is very much for today; that it is normative for spirit-filled Christians to speak in unknown languages. Several sects go even so far as to say that one of the evidences of salvation is speaking in tongues. Don’t speak in tongues? You aren’t saved! One Pentecostal man told me, upon hearing I was a Baptist preacher, Baptists wouldn’t know the Holy Spirit if he met them in the middle of the road. In other words, Baptists were blind to work and power of the H-o-l-y Ghost.
Years ago, I got into a heated discussion with a Pentecostal preacher over speaking in tongues. I gave him all the standard Baptist arguments and he gave me all the classic Pentecostal arguments. Back and forth we went, neither of us winning the day. I am sure we parted company each believing that he had been victorious. Ha! I showed him!
Such conflicts as the one mentioned above are quite common. Why do Pentecostals believe in speaking in tongues, but Baptists don’t? Both sides use the Bible as proof for their beliefs. GOD HATH SPOKEN, both sides say. If God has indeed spoken, why the contradictory beliefs? God seems quite schizophrenic, telling the Baptists one thing and the Pentecostals something different. Surely, if God and the Bible are as Evangelicals claim they are, there would only be one truth, not many.
The only way to adequately answer this question is to carefully examine the matter from an environmental and sociological perspective. (Please read Why Most Americans are Christian.) Look at the religious environments people grow up in and you will have a good idea why they believe as they do. Look at their tribal and social influences, and it becomes clear that Pentecostals speak in tongues and Baptists don’t because these were the beliefs they were exposed to. They believe what they do because they couldn’t believe otherwise. While not a hard and fast rule, most often Baptists beget Baptists and Pentecostals beget Pentecostals. While Evangelical adults certainly can and do change churches, most often then look for churches of “like” faith. When people change churches, they most often seek that which is familiar to them. Not always, of course. Sometimes, Baptists do become Pentecostal tongues-speakers and Pentecostals become starched, English-only Baptists. These, however, are exceptions to the rule.
Perhaps Christians will one day figure out exactly what is the one true faith. I doubt it, but as someone who believes in probabilities, it is possible, say .0001 percent, that God’s chosen ones will finally figure out exactly what it takes to be a member of their club. Until then, buy some popcorn, pull up a seat, and enjoy the show.
Most Christians have a difficult time distinguishing their spirit from their intellect. Your conscience is the voice of your spirit. The Holy Spirit is more closely associated with your conscience than your intellect. As you pray in tongues, you are praying from the channel of your conscience through which the Holy Spirit speaks.
Our problem is that we are more accustomed to looking for God’s voice in our intellect. Our intellect is generally an unsafe guide because it is usually clouded with a mixture of the world’s thinking, where much of our decision-making is based on our best interests. Most Christians have a difficult time hearing from God, because their soul which comprises much of their intellect, is clouded with self, mingled with the world and yet has some Word in it.
Bill and Beni Johnson, senior pastors Bethel Redding.
Bethel Redding, an Evangelical charismatic multi-campus church, is located in Redding, California. Its senior pastors are Bill and Beni Johnson. What follows is a compendium of information about Bethel and its methodology.
Bethel offers a surefire way parents can help children troubled by depression and discouragement. Let me introduce you to Vintz, the puppet.
*Vintz the Puppet: He lives in a barrel and brings the message of God’s presence and joy as priority number one.
*Manual: The manual contains 13 lesson supplements. Short lessons designed to incorporate joy into every week in your children’s ministry.
*DVD: On the DVD is a demonstration of one of the lessons, as well as an interview with Seth Dahl.
Seth Dahl believes in raising a generation of children who are strong (joyful) in the Lord. One of his passions is for them to encounter God and experience His works, preventing them from living a life of Christian form without the Reality. Seth and his family live in Redding, California where he is the Children’s Pastor of Bethel Church.
Here is a video from Bethel detailing how children are taught to prophesy and speak in tongues:
On Sundays, children gather together at Bethel and recite the Bethel Kids Declaration:
Here is another I Declare statement Bethel uses in its children’s programs:
I think I can safely add Bethel Redding to the list of churches that emotionally and mentally manipulate children in the name of Jesus.
Bethel Redding attracts thousands of people to its services. Attendees come expecting to see God work in supernatural ways. According to a 2010 Record Searchlight article, Bethel provides healing rooms for those in need of a touch from God. Amanda Winters reports:
Every Saturday morning from 9 to 10:30 a.m., two large rooms in Bethel Church are transformed into the Healing Rooms Ministry; a place where people can come and receive prayer for any kind of ailment.
Randy Castle, who was acting director that Saturday, said the healing rooms generally see 100 or so visitors – and up to 300 on a busy weekend.
Four teams with about 70 people each work the Healing Rooms. Many pray over visitors, commanding the body to be healed, speak in tongues and invite the presence of the Holy Spirit through impartation, or laying on of hands. Others, Castle said, play worship music in the “Encounter Room” where people can go bask in the presence of God.
Music performed in the Encounter Room made its way through the Healing Room speakers, repeating “God is good, God is good, God is good,” while worshippers prayed, danced, laughed, cried, fell down and lay on the floor under what they say is the power of God. According to Bethel leadership, this is the room where people are cured of cancer, broken bones, chronic pain, multiple sclerosis and a host of other diseases.
Later in the article, Winters writes about an interview she conducted with Bethel senior pastor Bill Johnson:
Bill Johnson, Bethel’s senior pastor, settled into a plush black couch in his office, his arm around an animal-print pillow. Before anything else, he wanted to talk about healing.
“We just had another brain tumor case of cancer healed,” he said. “We have a lot of that kind of stuff happen. It’s verified by doctors, they do the tests and the cancer’s gone. We have a lot of that sort of thing – miracles.”
Johnson, who himself required hernia surgery last year and wears prescription glasses, teaches that the supernatural miracles that happened in Biblical times still happen today if people just value God’s presence and open themselves up to receiving it.
“Because we have such value for his presence with us, things just happen,” he said.
Johnson said that healings happen all the time and he doesn’t feel he needs to provide any documentation or hard evidence to inquiring minds. He also said he doesn’t check up on people who come to Bethel for healing – he doesn’t have the time.
“If you’re sitting here and you say, ‘I’ve been deaf in my left ear since childbirth,’ and I pray for you and then I have you close your right ear and I whisper 10 feet away and you can hear me, I don’t feel like I need to get a doctor’s report,” he said. “I’m happy you’re happy you can hear. That’s enough for me.”
Though he had people praying for his hernia to heal early in 2009, the condition still required surgery and Johnson said that was OK because God can use doctors as well as he can use Bethel’s healing teams, though both are necessary.
“The doctors serve a great purpose but they’ll tell you they can’t fix everything,” he said. “Some things need to be fixed by a miracle or just aren’t fixed at all.”
Johnson said in his sermons he often tells the congregation stories of miraculous healings to encourage them. One such story was about a group in the small, rural city of Shelton, Wash., whose goal it is to raise people from the dead.
Bethel Redding also operates a college of sorts, Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry (BSSM) . According to its website, in 2012-13 over 1,800 students took classes through BSSM. Much of BSSM’s training consists of reading books. Students receive little theological training. The focus of the school is the impartation and use of supernatural gifts.
Think all this supernatural mumbo jumbo is funny and of no consequence? Think again. In 2008, Jason Michael Carlsen, along with Sarah Koivumaki and Zachary Gudelunas, both students at BSSM, traveled to a California cliff to have a party. Already drunk, Carlsen fell off the 200 foot cliff. Instead of immediately dialing 911, Koivumaki and Gudelunas decided to put their BSSM skills to work. The Record Searchlight reports:
Rather than call police when their drinking partner fell ? or was pushed ? off a nearly 200-foot cliff, two students at a Redding Bible school tried first to reach the severely wounded man and pray him back to life, a lawsuit alleges.
In a lawsuit filed this month in Shasta County Superior Court exactly two years to the day after he was pulled by search-and-rescue crews from the banks of the Sacramento River, Jason Michael Carlsen alleges that when Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry students Sarah Elisabeth Koivumaki and Zachary Gudelunas couldn’t reach him to heal him with their prayers, they spent hours debating whether to call the police.
Bethel’s members purport to have the ability to heal people through prayer and bring the dead back to life.
The two later told police they thought Carlsen was killed in the fall.
Worried that they would be exiled from the church, the two Bethel students also went so far as to try to cover up evidence they’d even been at the top of the cliff, the lawsuit alleges…
Carlsen, by the way, is now a paraplegic.
According to Beni Johnson, in 2009 Martin Scott came to Bethel and gave the church a prophetic word about the California drought. Johnson thinks the recent rains are proof that God fulfilled Scott’s utterance.
(video no longer on Vimeo)
Beni Johnson also practices what is commonly called grave sucking (or mantle grabbing). What follows is a picture of Johnson lying on the grave of C.S. Lewis, hoping to suck out of Lewis’ corpse some of his supernatural power.
According to a February 20,2016 Record Searchlight article, Bethel has submitted plans to the planning commission for a new church facility. If approved, Bethel’s new 39.3 acre church plant will include:
A 171,708-square-foot campus
1,851 parking spaces
An auditorium that will seat 2,600
Classroom space at the School of Supernatural Ministry to enroll up to 3,000 students
There is no question is my mind that Bethel Redding is a dangerous Evangelical cult. While people often think of cults being small, secretive, out-of-the-way sects or churches, Bethel is a reminder that some cults hide in plain sight.
If you have ever attended Bethel or had any interaction with its members, please share your experiences in the comment section.
Molly Hensley-Clancy, a writer for Buzz Feed, recently wrote a feature article on Bethel. Here’s an excerpt from her insightful article:
The basic theological premise of the School of Supernatural Ministry is this: that the miracles of biblical times — the parted seas and burning bushes and water into wine — did not end in biblical times, and the miracle workers did not die out with Jesus’s earliest disciples. In the modern day, prophets and healers don’t just walk among us, they are us.
To Bethel students, learning, seeing, and performing these “signs and wonders” — be it prophesying about things to come or healing the incurable — aren’t just quirks or side projects of Christianity. They are, in fact, its very center.
This is the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry’s real goal: creating spiritual warriors, young people who will go out into the world armed with just the kind of supernatural gifts that Bethel believes will bring people into the Kingdom of God.
“Jesus is bringing the Kingdom, and he’s doing it through signs and wonders,” says Dann Farrelly, BSSM’s dean. “They’re the things that make people go, ‘Huh, there’s something about you, about this.’ Jesus even said: You don’t have to believe in me, you believe in the signs I’m doing.”
More simply: Miracles are a really good way to convert people.
BSSM is built on the idea that we are all “naturally supernatural”: We all have the potential to heal the sick and to hear God’s vision for the future. It’s ours because it’s Jesus’s, says Farrelly: Jesus does the work, and humans act as conduits. The school’s job is to foster the supernatural gifts of signs and wonders — to teach people to hear God’s voice and turn it into prophecy.
Stefan, who spent three years at Bethel before eventually leaving evangelicalism, felt for his first few weeks at Bethel like he was really seeing miracles: healings and prophecies that felt like they had come directly from God. Eventually, that changed.
Stefan looks back at his time at BSSM and sees an array of “psychological mind games” — healing via placebo, prophecy through confirmation bias. He’s done some reading lately, he says, on how magicians convince crowds that they are seeing magic and not magic tricks; how believing that you are going to recover from an illness or that your injured limb has been healed can, sometimes, be enough to accomplish healing.
“I think, for me, Bethel was the beginning of realizing, like, this is all bullshit,” says Chris, who went to Bethel in the mid-2000s and asked that his last name not be used because he still has close friends in the church. “When you do it, you convince yourself that this is all really real. But it’s cold reading, that’s what it is. You just dress it up in Jesus.”
Chris was a good prophet, his teachers told him. While he was studying at Bethel, he once had a vision from The Song of Deborah as he prayed over a woman whose name he did not know. As he told her this, she cried out in surprise: Her name was Deborah.
“What I see now is, those are random thoughts,” Chris says. “Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, your prophecies are horrible misses. But you don’t remember them being a terrible flop — you remember the one time it worked.”
At BSSM, Chris said, the focus was on testimonies of success — retelling to a group of fellow students the stories of the one “holy shit” moment when their prophecy had worked. No one talked about the times they had failed.
Bethel has offered tens of thousands of people a chance to be healed at its massive conferences and on mission trips across the globe. And hundreds of people make the pilgrimage to their Healing Rooms in Redding every week. Many, I am told, practice Bethel’s brand of Christianity, but others are mainstream Christians, dipping their toes in the waters of more radical faith. Others, like me, are not religious at all.
On a Saturday morning, I sit in the lobby of the Healing Rooms, clipboard in my lap and a pen in my hand. On my right knee is the big, ugly black brace, one that I’ve been sporting for six weeks, since a soccer injury left me with two completely torn ligaments. I’m here to have my knee healed — or at least that’s what I write on the Healing Room intake form I’ve been given, which asks me to list my “Physical Prayer Needs.”
I have a lot of physical prayer needs: At the moment, I can’t ride a stationary bike, go down stairs, or even bend my knee at a right angle. I write those down. The form also asks whether I’m “born again” and if I’ve been “baptized in the Holy Spirit.” I check “no” for both.
After an introductory class on the “Biblical foundations of Healing,” we’re led into the main sanctuary, a kind of holding room which is already buzzing with people. Concentric circles of chairs, some of them draped with colorful blankets and pillows, have been set up around a large group of easels where people are painting prophetic art on giant canvases: a pair of hands touching each other, a tree shedding blue leaves. A praise band of beautiful young people wearing flannel plays up on the stage, crooning hypnotic, repetitive strains of viral Bethel Music songs. In the corner, in front of a cross draped with sequined gold cloth, a woman lies prostrate and unmoving, her forehead pressed to the carpet. She does not move the entire time I’m in the sanctuary.
In the back of the room, a row of people with telemarketer-style headphones and laptops are conducting healing sessions via Skype. A pair of large screens in front of us remind us that only Bethel’s ministry team are allowed to heal.
I settle in the corner, waiting for my number to be called, and watch as a trio of prophetic dancers, barefoot and carrying colorful scarves, gather around a woman near me who looks very much like she has just emerged from a brutal chemotherapy treatment. They ask if they can dance for her. She begins to cry, clutching her husband’s hand, as they twirl around her.
After a while, a woman interrupts the praise band to tell us that there is a “healing pool” forming in front of the stage. “It’s a pool where the impossible is possible, where oil and water mix, and here there’s going to be real healing,” she says. As dozens of people come up to the pool, collapsing to their knees or raising their hands in the air, the woman’s voice becomes a hypnotic chant: “Oil and water mix here, outside in the world they don’t, but in here they doooo. Oil and water mix here…”
The ailing woman and her husband make their way to the pool and begin to dance with each other, swaying slowly.
Later, we’re herded into another, smaller room, one where intense healing is going to take place. We wait our turn and watch Bethel’s healers do their work, stationed in pairs in front of people clutching their intake forms.
The woman next to me, who looks about my age, has a squirming little boy on her lap. I peek at her form, which lists just two ailments, scrawled in all-caps: PARASITES and HEARTBREAK.
Finally it’s my turn. “So, you’re not saved, and you’re not born again, right?” one of my healers asks, scrutinizing my form.
I explain clumsily that I was “raised Catholic,” which is only barely true. With my utter lack of faith made clear, the prayers focus not just on my knee, but on my own relationship to God, asking him to “help me on my journey towards faith.”
I can tell I’m a tough case, because a third healer comes over to us, and then a fourth. Soon I’m surrounded by people praying for me, one woman’s hand on my shoulder, another on her knees in front of me, and the force of their expectation — desperation, almost — is palpable. Unrelentingly, every few minutes, they ask me how I’m feeling, whether I’m better.
I try to deflect some of their questions, but it never works. When one healer asks me what I feel, I tell her I feel “your energy and prayers.” She jumps back, “But what about your knee?”
“Well, it’s a really serious injury,” I try. “So I think it might take some time.”
The woman seems almost offended. “Time?” she says. “Jesus doesn’t need time! Jesus can heal you right away.”
We start praying again, and I start feeling a little desperate, like I’ll never get out of here. The next time they ask me how my knee feels, almost automatically, without thinking, I lie.
“I think it’s more flexible now,” I say. I move it back and forth, and I can see my healers’ eyes light up. “I think it’s getting better. Thank you.”
“Thank you, Father!” one of them cries out, taking my hand. We’re both, I think, relieved, though maybe for different reasons. “Thank you for beginning this journey to healing.”
It’s finally over, and my healers ask me to give them my intake form. When I take the paper off of the clipboard, I notice there’s a back side, too, meant to be filled out by Bethel staff: a checklist labeled “Miracles Performed.” It includes healed shoulders and knees, zapped tumors, cured cancer, and limb-straightening, as well as soul-saving. At the very bottom of the list is the very miracle that the Stanford professor told Stefan would convert him: “Limb regrown.”
I hand the form over, wondering if they’re going to check me off as a Miracle Performed. As I leave the room, I think I see one of my healers do just that.
A week later, when I’m back in New York, I pull myself up onto my physical therapist’s table, facedown. The excruciating process of recovering from my injury has, so far, involved forcing my locked-up knee to bend slightly farther at every appointment, a process that always makes me cry out in pain, and sometimes leaves me with tears in my eyes.
“All right, let’s see how you’re doing,” she says. Before I left for Redding, I had told her where I was headed and why, and as I lie there on the table, she jokes, “Maybe you’re healed! This could be our last day.”
I squeeze my eyes shut and feel her bending my knee back. “Wow,” she tells me. “You’re doing really well. You’ve got much more flexibility, actually. I’d say at least 20 degrees.”
I had a lot of downtime in Redding, and I spent most of it doing physical therapy — several hours a day of excruciatingly painful work, lying on the hotel room floor and using a strap to force my knee to bend farther and farther. But still. I turn around to my physical therapist, and she and I exchange a look: just a split second.
According to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, (link no longer active) the 2010 population of the Jerusalem district was 924,000. In 1948, the population of the Jerusalem district was 87,000. According to Wikipedia, the 1st century population of Jerusalem was around 80,000, though this population would swell during Passover and other religious observances. When I lived in Yuma, Arizona, I observed a similar swelling of the population when the snow birds arrived to spend winter in Yuma. Whatever the population of Jerusalem was during the three-year public ministry of Jesus, there were plenty of people who observed his works. Surely, there were thousands of eyewitnesses who could have written something about Jesus’s miracles, and his death, resurrection, ascension back to heaven. Surely, there were eyewitnesses who could have written something about the acts of the Apostles and the early church. Why then, is there little or no historical record for the life and work of Jesus or the early followers of Jesus? God striking church members dead or causing the followers of Jesus to speak in unknown tongues surely were notable events, yet there is no record of them outside of the Bible. Why is this?
According to the Bible, the events leading up to the death of Jesus, his crucifixion, and his resurrection from the dead, took place during Passover. After the post-resurrection ministry of Jesus, Jesus ascended back to heaven, and on the Day of Pentecost, while the followers of Jesus were gathered in an upper room, they were filled (baptized) with the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2)
Acts 2:1-6 states:
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.
This miracle of speaking with other tongues caused quite a stir and, as a result, on one day:
Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:41)
In fact, according to according to Acts 2:47:
And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.
Every day people were being saved, baptized, and added to the church, or so says the author of the book of Acts.
In Acts 3,4 we find Peter and John going to the Temple to preach the gospel. While they faced great adversity from the Sadducees over their preaching that through Jesus people could be resurrected from the dead, Acts 4:4 states:
…many of them which heard the word believed; and the number of the men was about five thousand.
So, in a short amount of time, the Acts narrative moves from 120 followers of Jesus being gathered in an upper room to 3,000 people being saved, baptized, and added to the church, to 5,000 men believing the preaching of gospel. Yet, outside of the New Testament, which was written decades after the events recorded in Acts 1-4, there is no historical mention of a large number of people becoming followers of Jesus. There is no mention of 3,000 people being publicly baptized on one day. There is no mention of a large gathering of Jesus followers in the outer court of the Temple.
In fact, there is no non-Biblical historical record for any of the astounding events recorded in the Gospels and Acts. Suppose a well-known man died in the community you live. You saw him die. With your own eyes you saw his dead, embalmed body. Yet, three days later, this same man came back to life and was sitting with his family and friends at the local Applebee’s. Do you think such a miraculous event would make the front page of the newspaper? Do you think it would be trending on Twitter? Do you think everyone in your community would quickly know about the dead man brought back to life? Yet, when it comes to Jesus the miracle worker, a man who purportedly raised people from the dead, cast demons out of people, gave sight to the blind, restored the hearing of the deaf, walked on water, and walked through walls, there is no non-Biblical historical record of any of his works.
According to the Bible, Jesus was well-known in Jerusalem. When he came riding into Jerusalem on a colt (or an ass, you decide) people lined the streets and cheered him. This same man, a short time later, was arrested, publicly humiliated, nailed to a cross like a common thief, and buried in a borrowed grave. Three days later, however you count three days, this same well-known Jesus resurrected from the grave and appeared to over 500 people. Pretty news worthy stuff, right? Yet, outside of the Bible, there is no historical record of these events.
Even more astounding, according to Matthew 27, at the moment Jesus died:
And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
At the very moment Jesus died, the veil of the Temple, a curtain that was likely 30 feet wide, 60 feet high, and four inches thick, (using 18 inches as the measurement for a cubit) was torn in half. And according to the Gospel of Mark, there was an eclipse at the moment of, or right before Jesus died. Ponder for a moment such astounding events, yet, outside of the Bible, there is no record of them ever occurring.
If that is not astounding enough, consider that the Bible says when Jesus died the graves of the saints were open and out popped resurrected followers of Jesus. These resurrected saints went into Jerusalem and appeared to many people. Yet, not only is there no non-Biblical historical report of this happening, none of the other gospel writers or Paul mention it. Surely, dead relatives and dead fellow believers resurrecting from the dead and walking about the city of Jerusalem would be important to 1st century Christians, yet outside of Matthew no one mentions it.
Yes, later Christian authors, working from the text of the Bible and stories passed down to them, speak of these events being true, but why are there no Roman or Jewish historical writings that mention these astounding events?
I am well aware of the various arguments that can be made, but I don’t buy them. It seems far more likely that these miraculous, astounding events never happened. Yes, Josephus possibly said:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
I say possibly because what Josephus actually said is a matter of great debate. (the oldest manuscript of Josephus’s writings is dated a thousand years after his death) Regardless of the authenticity of the aforementioned passage, Josephus does not mention, outside of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, any of the miraculous events that occurred at the time of the death of Jesus. Why is this?
This is one of the reasons that I do not believe the Christian narrative. While this is not proof for there being no God, it does call into question the narrative that many Christians proclaim is truth.