Reports have been doing the rounds of some tragic news at Bethel Church (not our one, the one in Redding). Adam Ford reports:
The two-year-old daughter of Bethel Church worship leader Kalley Heiligenthal and her husband, Andrew, died unexpectedly early Saturday morning. Since then, the heartbroken parents have enlisted leaders and members of the Bethel megachurch conglomerate to pray, worship, and “believe” for little Olive’s resurrection from the dead.
They’ve held ceremonies daily since the girl’s death where they sing, pray, chant, and dance, as they beckon the girl to come out of the grave.
Five days on and they’re still going at it.
I’m sure everyone can understand the grief of parents who have lost a child. I’m sure many of us can understand the desire to want to undo what, sadly, cannot be undone. And, from a Christian point of view, death was never how God intended things to be and so it is always sad and unnatural when it inevitably rears its head.
But much sadder still is the false hope these parents have and the claims false claims this church is making. There are several reasons why the prayers of folk at Bethel are unlikely to be answered in the way that they would hope.
Now, it bears saying, that the Lord could raise Olive from the dead should he wish. So, it is not impossible for the Lord to do this. But is it likely that he will do this and is it principally what we should be seeking from him?
First, it is true that God promises a resurrection from the dead. But he doesn’t promise it now. He promises it when Jesus comes again to judge the world in righteousness. There is no promise of resurrection before the Lord comes again. So the confidence the folks at Bethel seem to have is not based on anything stated in the Bible. They are ultimately looking for hope in the wrong resurrection. They ignore the fact that, except for the Lord himself, every person ever resurrected from death went on to die again and remain so.
Second, it assumes that our physical health is promised. Bethel’s theology leads them to believe that Jesus’ atoning work not only deals with sin but also secures full and complete healing in this life. That is nowhere in the Bible. Both Paul’s thorn in the flesh (that many believe to be an ongoing illness of some sort) and his instruction to Timothy to take a little wine ‘for your stomach’s sake’ are not the comments of somebody who believes that Jesus promises full, unbridled physical healing in the here and now.
Third, it assumes that physical health is our summum bonum. Now, I appreciate there are different views on the estate of young children. But all Bible-believing Christians acknowledge, like Abraham, that the judge of all the earth will do right. Should it even be possible that young children can enter Heaven – and most minimally recognise it is at least possible – how can it be better for them to be dragged out of glory and, instead, returned to our broken, fallen world? If our physical health is our greatest good, Heaven becomes a lesser state. But the Bible never views it that way. Paul was clear ‘to live is Christ, to die is gain’ going on to say, ‘I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.’
Fourth, the purpose of prayer is to align our will with God’s. But much of what seems to be going on in Redding seems to be designed to make God’s actions align with their will. They are making demands that the Lord has never promised to deliver. As Reagan Rose rightly points out here, ‘[God] has promised that healing will come, that there will be a day when death is no more, but it’s not here yet. That is why Paul does not say to the grieving Thessalonians, “Have you tried praying harder or singing more to bring them back?” No. He tells them to put their hope in the future resurrection which was actually promised of God.’
My big fear for the folks at Bethel, Redding is a fear I have for many others in many other churches, maybe even in my own church. We make a God of our own imagining who acts and works in ways that he has never promised to do. And then, when he doesn’t do it, we assume God must be broken. He doesn’t do for us what we imagine he should be doing for us. And if he is broken, or doesn’t work, what is the ultimate point of following him?
The problem is ultimately one of knowing God. If we knew him rightly, we would know how he tends to operate. We, likewise, wouldn’t expect him to do what he expressly says he won’t do nor insist he do what he has never said he would ever do. If we really knew him, we wouldn’t imagine he is broken and seek after something else that works. Ultimately, we wouldn’t be asking him to resurrect those he has never said he would and we would realise that, should they be in glory, they are better off than all of us. Because there, they really know God and there is nothing greater or more important than that.