Thoughts on Bethel’s attempt to resurrect a 2-year-old

It’s hard to weigh in on an issue that begins with the death of a 2-year-old. Death is terrible. Yet sometimes that’s what it takes to highlight some fundamental beliefs of a heavyweight in the Christian world like Bethel Church. I’m going to try to focus more on Bethel than I am the girl who passed away and her family.

On December 14, 2019, a two year old girl named Olive suddenly stopped breathing which led to her death. The response of the mother was to post a picture of her on social media asking for prayer, not for comfort in the family’s grief, but for resurrection. The hashtag #wakeupOlive trended worldwide.

These posts continued for 5 days, with the final one captioned, “Day 5 is a really good day for resurrection…” while the body of the girl lay in the morgue. Yesterday (December 21) the family began to make memorial service arrangements.

This story brought a lot of thoughts and opinions from Christians (and non-Christians) around the world, arguing for both sides. Some were in favor of faith and prayer for resurrection, while others decried the event as unbiblical and damaging theology.

I was in charismatic circles for years, so I understand the viewpoints of people on both sides. I know Heidi Baker claims to have raised someone in Africa from the dead — granted, these were after a few hours, not 5 days. Do I personally believe God could raise someone from the dead? Of course.

But I don’t know how helpful it is to put time restraints on it, like “after 24 hours, they cannot be raised and you should begin the funerary arrangements.” Because that completely misses the point.

I posted about this event in a theological group I’m a part of, asking what the other members thought. One summed it up succinctly:

“Honestly there’s too many toxic dynamics in this situation to effectively pull it apart. Denial of death, manipulation of power dynamics, religious groupthink, honest ignorance, willful ignorance, and more.”

The bottom line in this situation is a simple maxim my theology professor often repeated: “Bad theology always hurts people.” Whether you’re forcing someone to speak in tongues, coercing more monetary giving, or shaming people for their past, what you believe has real implications in the world, and on other people.

Often these implications may get overlooked in the day-to-day life. You may claim to believe in resurrection of the dead (a core element of the Christian faith; not only Jesus’ resurrection, but of all believers — it’s in the creeds!) but what exactly does that mean when someone you love dies right before you?

For many, if not most believers, this means that we believe in a future day when Jesus will return and pluck us — physically — from the grave, never to die again. We have hope that this will happen, and that the grave is not the final word.

What happened this past week shows that Bethel and its adherents believe something different — that we can deny reality using spiritual jargon and do damage to a grieving family. Is this harsh? Yes. But do Bethel’s theological teachings now manifest themselves in a way that has proven to be more destructive than previously thought? Also yes.

Most churches would respond to the death of a child the same way Jesus did — with weeping (John 11:35). A healthy church would support the family, comfort them, pray for them, and be present with the bereaved. An unhealthy church would simply postpone these things in favor of false hope and strange hermeneutical arguments for why this child should not stay dead.

As my friend’s comment stated, there is some strange denial of reality at work here. The Bible is consistently clear that we live in a very fallen world: there should not be wars, genocide, cancer, and yes, the death of a two year old. But there is. And how we respond to these things reveals a lot of what we believe. For instance, do we make sacrifices of our own comforts in order to try to balance the scales of justice; giving to the millions of children who don’t have food or clean water in the first place? Or, like Bill Johnson (pastor of Bethel Church), do you amass your millions of dollars and whip around in a Lexus?

It’s easier to post online asking for prayer than it is to give of your time and money, trying to make right things that are really, really broken in the world for millions of people. This may seem like a false dichotomy: you can battle injustice and pray for resurrection, but the tough thing is that we don’t see much of that in Bethel’s teaching. They emphasize the blessing and anointing of the Lord without much ‘realistic’ acknowledgment of the corrupt power systems in the world. Perhaps this is because they are comfortably atop much of the power structures, so why wouldn’t they dig deeper into their money-making theology?

The family who lost a daughter was doubly hurt this week: Not only did they lose a beautiful little girl, but they were wronged by this teaching that refuses to acknowledge suffering, thus prolonging the process of their grief.

Not only that, but the witness of Christians around the world was damaged. A friend who recently became a Christian told me, “If I had seen that story before becoming a Christian, it would have driven me even further away.” Christians already have a tendency to sequester themselves away and often live in airy utopias (look at pretty much any Christian film that doesn’t swear or have anything really bad happen). This story seems to confirm that: To the outsider, Christians don’t live in reality. It’s a superstitious cult that can’t deal with reality.

One caveat I’ll make is, I wish I was wrong. I wish Olive had jumped back to life and publicly blown the world away, denying death and proving the power of God.

However, now that the story seems to be wrapping up, we can see the destructive nature of Bethel’s teaching. Their selective use of Scripture and borderline brainwashing have once more done more damage than good, and in a deep way. Hopefully it will not take such severe events to reveal these things in the future. My desire for all believers is to come to know Jesus and His Word as truly as we can. May we not be wooed by teachers who promise us miracles and riches, but may we acknowledge reality, worshiping God in the high and low points of our lives.




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