Last modified: Dec 31, 2019

There are fewer worse things to experience in life than the loss of life. And perhaps nothing is more jarring than the loss of a child. Before I write anything, I must start with condolences for the Heiligenthal family, who lost their two-year-old daughter. The details of Olive Alayne’s death are tragic: she stopped breathing in the middle of the night, and medics attempted to revive her to no avail.

There was a powerful burst of raw emotion on social channels from people who have followed the family and their church — The Heiligenthals are leaders at Bethel Church in Redding, CA. And I believe there’s no more excellent proof of Christian love than to try to lift others who are suffering. It’s essential, it’s Biblical, and it’s inspiring. People have poured out support through words, through prayers.

All of that support is amazing, but very little can truly take away the pain they still feel. Grief is a powerful emotion, and it tears down as furiously as it builds up. And I believe we have to let the Heiligenthals — and any family that goes through incalculable tragedy — cope with grief the way they need to.

This post is not about the Heiligenthal family, and I’m making that clear at the start. As heavy as this event has been (for so many people), it’s probably the best opportunity we have to unpack some very basic theological points that can help shape the way we look at grief, the stigmatization of those who are suffering, and the selfishness of presuming God’s in the business of giving us anything we want.

Let’s dive in.


Comic Book Villain

I remember going to a small group meeting in New York City years ago. The hosts were affiliated with Bethel (and Jesus Culture), which at the time was hotter than 50 Cent running into a burning building wearing a coat lathered with gasoline. Bethel is supermassive now — I get it. But they were the shiniest new thing a decade ago, and that made them the proverbial talk of the town.

I don’t remember all of what happened that night because it was a really long time ago at this point — but also because psychologists have a term for this, and it’s called repression.

I have to add this preface for transparency’s sake: I wanted absolutely no part of this event. The burgeoning young theology seeker in me wasn’t a fan of what little Bethel stuff I had already seen floating around the ether. It wasn’t just that what they shared from pulpits made me feel uncomfortable, but they were rapidly gaining cult status in my circles. (Pun maybe somewhat intended.) I went with somebody who was curious about this new church movement, and they wanted me to see it for myself. Sure — I mean, c’mon — they make pretty good music. I figured I can at least give them a shot.

Walking in, our first impressions wouldn’t give anybody pause: it was a bunch of young people around my age. Hanging out. Talking.

We picked spots in the middle of the room. And from what I remember, we were all crammed into the small downtown space like sardines in tin.

There were prayers, songs. Songs that I was familiar with because everybody and their mother was singing this stuff at their churches at the time.

And then, during a winddown after a communal song, it happened.

A laugh.

And not one of those I-heard-something-funny kinda laughs. Maybe it struck a chord with me because it was so uncalled for, and I was so ill-prepared for it. (I had heard rumors of this expression in worship settings, but I’d mostly brushed it off as negligible.)

But it was a laugh that came from somewhere strange. Like a comic-book-villain-cackle kinda laugh. A guttural laugh. Followed by several guttural laughs. And then a chorus of guttural laughs.

Cackles even.

Theologically, I didn’t know enough at the time about whether or not laughing like this was strange. (In some charismatic circles — like Bethel’s — they refer to this phenomenon as holy laughter.) But the out-of-place hysterical laughing wasn’t even the strangest part of the evening.

I remember the evening’s guest speaker delivering one of the most profoundly disjointed messages I had ever heard. (I wasn’t familiar with the guy, but I gathered he was some sort of a celebrity to the people in the room from the anticipatory buzz before the meeting.) He shared something about Jesus dying on the cross… but not like really dying on the cross. Like it was some sort of divine hide-and-seek.

He didn’t point much to scripture at all.

He felt it in his gut, and this is what he needed to tell us — his truth.

He spoke for maybe 40 minutes and laid hands on people for another 40. I’m positive it was at least this long because I remember feeling like I was in some sort of terrible, slow-moving, indie psychological thriller that was going through its inevitable slow burn but couldn’t end soon enough.

I was horrified the whole time — but also fascinated by how normal this seemed to be for this group. I grew up in an Indian church that would send throngs of pastors to lay hands on people until they either (a) fell down violently or (b) physically erupted into speaking in tongues. This guy was laying hands on people until people released guttural laughs. I’d never seen this before. Ever.

We didn’t stay until the end — frankly, because I couldn’t take any more of it. I remember walking out of there and stepping back into the busy, chaotic, taxi-laden New York City night. All I could think was: “We made it.”

new york city taxis at night

Unlock

It’s a running joke at this point. When people who have known me for a while are about to discuss Bethel in front of me, they’ll pause, look at me, and ask:

Oh, you don’t like Bethel, right?

I guess it all started over a decade ago. I openly questioned the church’s theology in public forums. That made lots of people angry in much the same way you’d expect if you were to publicly declare you weren’t a fan of Mr. Rogers. Because how dare you.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I don’t like Bethel. I don’t subscribe to some of their core theological stances — and I don’t believe asking questions about what they stand for is evil in some way.

In order to have an actual conversation about Bethel and the Bethel movement, we’ve got to go over some basics.

First, charismatic churches typically believe in continuationism. This is the theological belief that gifts of the Holy Spirit that existed during the time of the apostles (or the Apostolic Age) continue to exist in this present age. This isn’t shocking to a lot of people in Pentecostal circles, for example, where signs like tongues and prophecy are vital — not just as gifts but also as evidence of continuationism. Continuationism came into its own as a distinct theological position when Pentecostalism started up in the early 20th century.

Second, continuationism stands in opposition to cessationism. The latter is the theological belief that spiritual gifts ceased with the Apostolic Age. To understand this position, one must understand the historical context: it arose during the Reformation as a response to claims of miracles and radical healing from which the Roman Catholic Church was profiting.

Third, like any belief, some subscribe to the most extreme forms. For example, there are cessationists (Consistent Cessationists) who believe miracles served a purpose only in the Apostolic Age, and thus the need for miracles and apostles/prophets has also ceased. But this is hardly the only form of cessationism. Many Protestants today — even if you never really thought about any of this before today — believe that although gifts ceased with the Apostolic Age, God has the sovereignty to work in supernatural ways today (Classical Cessationists).

I’ll presume that last bit — if you’re a Protestant church-goer — probably doesn’t sound so jarring. I fall into that pool of cessationism.

God can work when he deems it's necessary, but there's no reason to believe miracles and gifts are just available all willy-nilly like we live in some sort of cosmic pinball machine.Click To Tweet

Bethel is at the extreme end of continuationism. The belief that miracles and signs — the least of which could be the gold dust and feathers they flaunt as miraculous signs from God — are everywhere today.

I don’t use the word extreme lightly. An example is the practice of “grave sucking” (or “grave soaking”), which is where people lay on top of the graves of famous dead Christians to suck/soak the anointing they believe remains in their bones or their grave. That sounds absolutely bonkers at first glance. It started as a casual suggestion from one of their lead pastors, students (and Beni, the wife of Lead Pastor, Bill Johnson) took it literally, and the church kinda sorta just… ran with it. Because — charismatic church.

It’s a part of their anything-goes mentality toward revival. In fact, one of the running jokes about the church and associated movements is that they’ll rubberstamp virtually anything out of the ordinary that students, congregants, or leaders do because they chalk it up to acts of revival. (There’s so much to unpack with this one, but it’s worth saving for another day.)

Additionally, Bethel leadership — especially Bill Johnson — effectively believe what scholars would tie to Kenosis Heresy — the belief that Jesus was not divine on earth. This leads to deeper issues if you dig a little bit. If Jesus didn’t retain his divinity when landing in that manger, then what he accomplished on the cross couldn’t be sufficient to atone for the sins of the world. He’d just effectively be a dude.

Now, if you’ve grown up in church or have understood the thrust of where the Church has pointed over the last several hundred years, that last paragraph would bother you. Christ not being divine on earth has severe ramifications on… really everything Christians believe in.

And, for Bethel, it’s hard to backtrack. (They’ve tried to do so when challenged about this in interviews, but journalists/writers/interviewers have pushed back to show Bill Johnson has written in books and shared in sermons this concept of kenosis.) But he’s also built on the idea to push something else: since Jesus was just a dude, we should be able to do everything he was able to do. Because we’re just dudes, too.

It sounds reductive and a little obnoxious for me to whittle down Bethel teachings to “Dude this” and “Dude that,” but at the crux of their extreme continuationist beliefs is the idea that we’re all effectively capable today of what Jesus was able to do on earth — from healing and walking on water all the way on down to physically resurrecting from the dead.

I’ll expound on that last paragraph and why it’s such an unhealthy framework for mass-market Christian thinking. But ultimately, these things should make us — at the very least — ask questions.

I once had a friend (let’s call him Ahab because that’s the only pseudonym I can think of at the moment) reach out after I shared questions I had about Bethel online somewhere. He reprimanded me as if challenging people to look deeper into Bethel’s doctrinal teaching equated to telling people Bill Johnson was a horrible husband, father, and man. I wish I was kidding. The conversation took a turn, man. It took a turn.

This post isn’t about Bill Johnson’s status as Husband-, Father-, and/or Man-of-the-Year. I can assure you all I’m not on the voting panel for any of those awards, and I don’t have any personal beef with him. I hope he sweeps those contests.

This post won’t dive too deep into the theological issues that abound in Prosperity theology or Word of Faith movements. I could write books. I don’t have write-books kinda time right now.

I’m willing to go out on a limb here: it’s likely people sharing Bethel’s or the Heiligenthals’ posts this week about the potential of their faith to unlock Olive’s physical resurrection probably haven’t unpacked some of the church’s more core and controversial teachings. (To be clear: the family and the church are praying for a physical resurrection, and celebrities, Christians, and lay people are supporting it under the banner of the hashtag, #WakeUpOlive.)

This leads to more profound questions, and I hope we’re ready for that.

Here’s what I want to unpack about dangerous variants of extreme continuationism — whether it’s Bethel and the Bethel movement or if it’s another flavor of a Word of Faith, “name-it-and-claim-it” movement:

  • Our selfishness reduces God to a mere cosmic genie
  • It dampens what a full relationship with Christ could look like
  • It normalizes really bad theology

#WakeUpOlive may be the new flavor, but it’s just an extension of really bonkers theology. Bringing somebody back to life because of excessive faith only sounds different than getting that million-dollar windfall from taxes because of excessive faith because those phrases use different words. In both cases, there’s an underlying theology that shows up online in ways that make us feel good: just believe real hard, and your faith will unlock so many dope things.

I know Bethel’s the cool kid on the block. But it’s important to understand what they believe if we’re going to blindly share posts about resurrections — even if we’re doing it for good reasons.

cool-kid wearing guitar sunglasses

Selfishness

One of my favorite C.S. Lewis works is a book he published under a pseudonym. Lewis wrote A Grief Observed after the death of his wife, Joy.

And it is such a profound and gut-wrenching read.

Throughout the text, he vents and questions and explores his grief. His faith. God. And it’s especially gripping because of how his grappling with pain teaches him lessons along the way about his own faith… and selfishness.

He writes:

I never even raised the question of whether a return, if it were possible, would be good for her. I want her back as an ingredient of my past. Could I have wished her anything worse? Having got once through death, to come back and then at some later date, have all her dying to do over again? They call Stephen the first martyr. Hadn’t Lazarus the rawer deal?

Rev. Dr. Art Lindsley explains this light bulb moment for Lewis, writing “in some ways, his faith was a ‘house of cards’ that needed to be knocked down in order to be rebuilt with stronger material.”

Word of Faith theology is especially dangerous because it sounds like it’s inherently coming from a good place. There are verses in the Bible that tell us we will receive when we ask — something many far-out charismatic church movements have contorted over the years to convince us we’ll receive whatever we ask for.

In the case of Lewis’ cries to God to bring his wife back from the dead for another moment, this isn’t very much different than how most of us would react to death today. We say things like:

He’s gone too soon.

And:

She had so much more to offer the world.

But ultimately, there's a fine line between saying what feels appropriate regarding the loss of human potential and presuming we know better than God does about our expiration date.Click To Tweet

Lewis realized that his extended grappling with grief was blinding him from the fact that he was making his wife’s death all about himself.

I’d argue we risk devaluing God’s sovereignty whenever we do this ourselves.

And selfishness is at the core of feel-good theology, isn’t it?

We want and want and want, and we believe God’s in the business of giving us stuff and giving us stuff and giving us stuff.

Are we giving God the room to say NO if all we’re expecting is for him to provide us with the stuff we’re demanding? Maybe God has already decided it’s his time, and so he isn’t gone too soon. Perhaps he’s decided it’s her time, and so she offered the world as much as she ever would.

It’s tricky when we talk about resurrection and gifts because all of this just sounds so inherently good. Why shouldn’t we be asking God for these good things? But the better question to ask is: Who is it good for? What if God knows the best time for us to go?


Self-Deprecating

In a related vein, feel-good theology is dangerous because of how we stigmatize those who we believe God isn’t responding to.

I was talking to somebody recently (let’s call her Linda) who doesn’t believe in the power of her own prayer. The conversation was unexpected, and it was sad to hear her say the things she believed about herself.

Linda explained how, once, she had prayed for weeks about her sick spouse. All she’d do was pray, pull up sermons about healing on YouTube, and pray some more. Every single day.

One day, she explained, a family member came over to say a simple prayer and lay hands on her husband. He was back on his feet the next day. And all Linda could convince herself was that it wasn’t because of her own prayer; it was because of this other person’s prayer. God obviously wasn’t listening to her.

And it’s only gotten worse. She now almost exclusively seeks out the counsel of self-proclaimed prophets and prayer warriors. And if you ask her, Linda would tell you she genuinely doesn’t have the kind of prayer that God is interested in hearing. Point blank.

I remember hearing this for the first time, and my heart sank.

You don’t believe God listens to your prayers?

For people reading this, there’s probably a family member, a friend, or somebody in their “churched” list of contacts who falls into this camp. They’ve bought into a bogus theology: believing in God is about believing in results. If you’re not rich, or healed, or successful, or dominating, or getting things you want, then you’re not doing it right.

This way of thinking lays bare in its devastation the reiteration that God is ultimately a cosmic genie. He’s just about granting us what we ask. And if he doesn’t grant, it’s because of you. You did something wrong.

In feel-good theology circles, there’s evidence — anecdotally and otherwise — of stigmatization of those who don’t get what they pray for. It’s not always so overt, either. If John didn’t get his healing, it becomes self-evident there wasn’t enough faith in the equation. If he believed harder, he would have gotten it.

It eventually shakes John. And Linda.

And it’s unfortunate because knowing Christ is so much deeper than just believing you’re only meant to see the good stuff.


Full

Being married has taught me so many life lessons.

The biggest thing I've learned is that my relationship with my wife deepens because of the valleys and not in spite of them.Click To Tweet

This is true for anything, really. Cue any adage about falling down and getting back up again.

runner falling down and getting back up

You become a better chef because you learn from all the bad dishes. You become a better coder because you learn from all the bad lines of code. You become a better lawyer because you learn from all the little and all the large oversights.

I become a better husband to Rachel because I learn from all the bad days. (And bad dad jokes.)

The danger of feel-good theology is that you’re expected to only value the mountaintops despite the fact God promises to meet you in the valleys, too. When we’re only looking to build a relationship with somebody by expecting photo-perfect moments, the candid moments will throw us for a loop.

Relationships are forged in all those moments. The good ones aren’t just celebrations of the high points; they’re also very much trials-by-fire.

Going back to Linda for a second, consider the depth of her understanding of who Christ is. I’ve asked her myself. She’s been in church her entire life, and she can’t honestly tell me Christ walks with her. Reading that should mess you the hell up. But her church leaders and church experience have taught her Christ only exists in the sunlight — clouds be damned.

But God speaks in silence. And stillness. And valleys.

A relationship in Christ would be fullest once we see the whole gamut of where life’s twists can push and pull us. No matter how far we feel like we’re pushed and pulled, Christ’s there.

A lot of this comes down to bad hermeneutic.


Bad Theology

Since moving to Austin, Rachel and I have spent Sundays visiting different churches in hopes of finding a new church home.

It’s been tough.

We’ll find a church that’s super friendly, or super diverse, or totally down with social justice… but not all those things at once. Which is fine. We understand that we can’t go into this season of church-finding with bad calculus: there is no perfect church.

But the one thing we both choose to not compromise on? The church must teach a good word.

Maybe they’re kinda friendly, or kinda diverse, or kinda down with helping the community. But if they don’t care about expositional teaching and good hermeneutic, we won’t stick around.

I’ve become more acutely aware of bad theology now because of all the churches we’ve visited. There have been so many cookie-cutter messages that have no substance to it.

I grew up in a church environment that cared more about Charismatic expression than good hermeneutic, so I'm already accustomed to theological disappointment in church.Click To Tweet

But it’s so much more important to me now because I realize how important it is to be grounded in a church that cares about exegesis — especially as Rachel and I think about starting a family. The lights and cool music won’t teach us how to be better Christians; they’ll just make us feel warm and fuzzy inside.

Feel-good theology is inherently about the warm and fuzzy. The goosebumps down our limbs. The chills down our spine.

Those televangelists that point to the screen and explain how that $77 or $777 donation will unlock God’s genie powers and give them what they’re deeply praying for. Warm and fuzzy. Goosebumps. Chills.

Those tweetable quotes from your favorite pastor who’s riffing about stuff that has very little to do with good hermeneutic. Warm and fuzzy. Goosebumps. Chills.

Talking about gold dust and feathers and resurrection. Warm and fuzzy. Goosebumps. Chills.

Social media hasn’t made things any better for those dreaming of a better day for sound Biblical teaching. On social channels, anything goes. Not just lies politicians tell us in advertising (because social networks refuse to fact-check or police misleading claims and lies). Feel-good theology inherently works on social media today. Post feel-good stuff, and get throngs of followers buying in because positive emotion cascades through the inevitable shares and forwards.

Positive emotions and guilt trips, perhaps. Those televangelists don’t tug on peoples’ happy strings; they pull on the guilt strings. And, if you think about it, cessationism’s response to the Roman Catholic Church’s overindulgences and money-making schemes was probably appropriate — and it was meant to pull the masses away from those that most resembled televangelists and guilt trip invokers of their own time. The truth is, when left to explore the extremes, modern charismatic movements aren’t so different from their Roman Catholic Church analogs. People make gold microphone kinda money off of resurrections today.

resurrection hoax from south africa

I believe we must be more vigilant than ever before about seeking out good hermeneutic.

The #WakeUpOlive push online is only alarming because of how casually everybody dove right into the conversation because it felt good to them. I’m not insinuating that either the initial movement or the subsequent GoFundMe page came out of seedy and dark places, but if we asked people how they felt about grave sucking, feathers, gold dust, and Jesus being just a dude, I’d have to imagine there’d be at least a few scratchings of heads and a little bit of healthy skepticism.

The least we can do is be like those Bereans the Apostle Paul raved about in the Book of Acts and just ask questions. Just demand more.

What saddens me most about the rush to physical resurrection (and the more general push for a preponderance of miracles) is that people miss out on the goodness of hope we have in Christ, who came so that we could live again in him. By prioritizing the former, we miss out on what salvation was trying to accomplish for us. In other words, Christ didn’t come to make us physically elastic and immortal on earth; he came so we can experience something more exceptional.

Charismatic churches indeed tend to struggle with suffering. There is a definite skew toward the feel-good passages in the Bible — all the random verses we can pluck out to convince people God’s all about making us super prosperous. But most scripture points to the idea that even though God doesn’t intend to heal and prosper everybody, he could because he’s sovereign.

But in order to get to that place, we’d have to see the value of what God is trying to teach us through the entirety — the hills and the valleys — of scripture.

man walking through valley between hills sketch

To Each Their Own

At the end of the day, what we choose to share — the causes, the hashtags, the movements, the music — is up to us. I won’t impose my beliefs on people. I’m not the ultimate arbiter of theology, and I’m well aware of that. There are a lot of incredible theologically-sound charismatic churches; there are also enough sketchy ones that make it important for us to ask questions.

I’ll admit that it’s tough. Rachel and I had two Bethel songs sung at our wedding. TWO! (We’re not heroes.) And we’ve all been to churches where we’ve sung “Healer,” a song written by a dude who taught people the song by dragging an oxygen tank on stage and pretending to be dying from cancer. Good things can come from inherently messed up people. I get that.

But I hope we start diving deeper into the things we share. For the Lindas that need to know God loves them today — even in their valleys. For the Clives that need to know their faith isn’t lacking, but just an ever-tumbling house of cards that needs rebuilding over and over again.

The valleys and the ever-tumbling — and even death — are good things if we understand them within the framework of the full thrust of scripture: God is with us, and we have hope for something better.

It’s just unfortunate the bad theology looks so much better trending on social media. ■


Shout out to my wife, my sisters, and my brothers-in-law for the long iMessage conversation about this — especially Allen Thomas for his insights. He’s a good pastor, good dad, good brother, and good dude.