Religious literacy will never not be important, and has rarely been more important than it is now
When we imagine cults, we imagine the robes, the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, the worshipping of one great leader. We imagine everyone wearing the same colour, sitting in a circle. We think about Jonestown and everyone killing themselves. We think about Charles Manson or Heaven’s Gate.
Bethel Church is a mega-church located in Redding, California that is considered to be a non-denominational neo-charismatic church, but they follow Jesus and their ideals are similar to that of Pentecostal churches.
They have over 11,000 members. You might know them for their catchy worship songs. They believe strongly that God can heal you.
So, what makes Bethel a cult?
Dr. Michael D. Langone, Executive Director of the International Cultic Studies Association, has a list of 15 characteristics that are associated with cults to analyze if a group is similar to studied cults.
The first points states that “the group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.”
You may immediately assume that the leader is God, but it’s not. It’s very rare that the pastors at Bethel actually read from the Bible. Instead, they say that the words they are preaching are directly from God to them.
They take from the Bible and twist words, like the time Senior Pastor Bill Johnson said that in the word ‘repent’ from the Bible, the ‘pent’ part is like a penthouse. What they teach is not actually the Bible so the people aren’t following God, they are following the Pastors.
The next point I want to bring up is “mind-altering practices are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).” Bethel has quite a few of these.
One of their biggest and most controversial is called Grave Sucking. You lay down on the grave of someone that was considered a great in their faith and ‘suck’ the anointing out of them.
Another thing was ‘gold dust,’ where God would allegedly make gold dust appear from nowhere. As someone who grew up in a church highly influenced by Bethel, I watched people spend hours praying for this gold dust to appear. They practice speaking in tongues, which is a language that the Holy Spirit is supposed to give to you.
Next point is “the leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel.”
Their website has a large section on how members of the church should only marry the opposite gender, it outlines how members of the church should act and behave sexually. They encourage their congregation on who to vote for in elections.
Specifically for the students of the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry (BSSM), they had strict ways they were supposed to act. A former student stated they were told to go around Redding and do chores for the townspeople as a way to get them to open up for prayer.
For those who work for Bethel’s school for children, they are not allowed to text on their phone during the school day, only email. In the BSSM student handbook, it outlines exactly how students should behave, including not being allowed to miss services, outreaches, or conferences, leave class early, start a relationship before talking to the school, or have alcohol.
“The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society,” is Langone’s next point and one that is fairly clear to see. One of the largest goals of Bethel is to “expand the Kingdom of God,” which means converting people to their religion.
They speak of wanting revival which, in my experience of being in similar spaces, means converting as many people as possible in a certain time span. If there wasn’t an us-versus-them mentality, there would be no need for revival.
Other points are based on bringing in money and new members. The first thing you see when you open Bethel’s website is ways to join the church either online or in-person. Scroll down a bit and it says “there’s a place for you.”
There’s a whole section on their page about giving them money claiming “generosity is a form of worship.” There are almost unlimited ways to give money: credit cards from anywhere, by mail, by wire transfer, stocks, cryptocurrency…the list goes on.
On their website is a prayer saying that after you give them money, God will give you money in return. In December of 2023 alone, Bethel was given 1.8 million dollars. The total amount of donations they received in 2023 was 32.6 million dollars.
Those aren’t all of Langone’s points of being a cult, but I want to bring your attention to one event in particular that might make you think of the cultic behavior I mentioned earlier.
On December 14, 2019, Olive Heiligenthal died in her sleep. She was two-years old. Her parents were Kalley and Andrew, who worked for Bethel.
Bethel Church went into overdrive, praying for this little girl to be brought back from the dead. Using the hashtag #WakeUpOlive, the Bethel community around the world was praying for Olive to be resurrected.
Those videos are reminiscent of the classic cult, the groups of people standing in front of leaders, asking for something. They sang out, “In Jesus’ name, Olive, come out of that grave,” over and over again.
Many people online questioned if she was in a coma or on life support, but no. She was dead. She had been declared dead by doctors.
On December 20, six days later, Olive had still not been resurrected and instead, the family set up a GoFundMe, asking for $100,000 for the funeral and the family.
By all standards, Bethel is a cult. It’s just Jesus – or so they say.