At What Price Awakening? Examining the Theology and Practice of the Bethel Movement

Postscript. In the wake of an overwhelming response from readers, we are grateful to those who have offered additional information and pointed out mistakes* in the original version of this article (published Sept 20, 2018). The following is a revision.


“Australia for Jesus” is the motto of Awakening Australia, an event that seeks to unite every denomination under one mission: to bring revival to Australia. They believe that God clearly told them 100,000 Australians would come to God in 2018. They are “raising up a nationwide prayer mandate for the salvation of our families, friends and our country”. While revival, unity and nationwide prayer are good goals for Christians to have, I am unable to support Awakening Australia. My aim in writing this article is to share concerns about this movement.

As a pastor of an Australian church, I too am passionate to see revival happen in Australia. There is, however, a huge difference between revival and revivalism

As a pastor of an Australian church, I too am passionate to see revival happen in Australia. There is, however, a huge difference between revival and revivalism, as Iain Murray famously put it. One comes from God, the other is of human origin. My main contention with Awakening Australia is that it is part of a hyper-charismatic ‘Signs and Wonders’ movement with its epicentre at Bethel Church in Redding, California. In fact, the leader of Bethel Church, Bill Johnson, is the main speaker at Awakening Australia.

The Mission of Bethel: Revival

If you log onto Bethel’s website (bethelredding.com), their mission is clear: to bring revival to Redding and to the whole world. They see themselves as having “a global impact” as “a revival resource and equipping centre”. They run “revival” conferences and rallies all over the world. Kingdom Invasion in Singapore draws thousands, as will Awakening Australia later this year. Bethel also runs their own “Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry (BSSM)” which teaches people to perform miracles and bring revival. BSSM spawns hundreds of similar schools around the world, including in Melbourne and in other cities in Australia. But what exactly does Bethel mean by revival?

What does Bethel mean by revival? Signs and Wonders

According to Bill Johnson, “Revival is the atmosphere in which Christ’s power is most likely to be manifested”.[1] He argues for the necessity of signs and wonders for God’s glory and his nature to be revealed. He goes on to say that “it is impossible to give an adequate witness of God without demonstrating his supernatural power”.[2] “When miracles are absent, so is the glory of God”.[3] According to Johnson, the church has failed the world because we have not given them adequate signs and wonders. Christians owe a debt to the world and by that he means an encounter with God through signs and wonders.[4] For Johnson, salvation was not God’s “ultimate goal” but merely his “immediate goal”.[5] God’s ultimate goal on earth is “the fullness of the Spirit in the believer” as “getting us to heaven is not near as great a challenge as it is to get heaven into us”.[6]

A Deadly Elevation of Experience over Scripture

Johnson’s pursuit of signs and wonders has led to a deadly elevation of experience over Scripture. He argues that God “wants to take us farther and we can only get there by following signs. Our present understanding of Scripture can only take us so far”.[7] Johnson encourages Christians to stop focussing on “our need to protect ourselves from deception” and instead “our hunger for Him must be seen in our lustful pursuit of spiritual gifts”.[8] He criticises the church for “living according to an intellectual approach to the Scriptures void of the Holy Spirit’s influence” which leads to “a false sense of security”.[9] Instead we are told “to follow Him, we must be willing to follow off the map—to go beyond what we know”.[10]

Jesus is Perfect Theology: A Misguided Attempt at a Christ Centred Hermeneutic

Bill Johnson’s conviction that God always intends to heal everyone immediately has led to a hermeneutic which he summarises pithily as “Jesus is Perfect Theology”.[11] According to Johnson, “Jesus healed everyone who came to him. To accept any other standard is to bring the Bible down to our level of experience and deny the nature of the One who changes not.[12] Johnson teaches that Jesus is the perfect revelation of God’s character. What that looks like in practice is to treat the four gospels as a canon within the canon. The historical account of Jesus’ life and ministry becomes a hermeneutical grid for interpreting the rest of the Bible. Truths about God that are found in other parts of the Bible are secondary to what we see Jesus model in the gospels. Johnson’s response to the question of Job is instructive:

People ask, “What about Job?” I tell them, “I’m not a disciple of Job; I’m a disciple of Jesus.” Job was the question; Jesus is the answer. If I read Job and it doesn’t lead me to Jesus, then I never understood the question. All the law and the prophets were to create an awareness of need. That awareness prepared Israel for a saviour. To return to the standards of the law and the prophets at the expense of ignoring the perfect revelation of the Father given to us in the person of Jesus Christ is to fall to the ultimate expression of arrogance. It puts us back in the place of control where we do what is humanly possible—and call it ministry.[13]

Elsewhere, however, Johnson uses the examples of Old Testament characters who “fell into sin and deception”[14] as a template for the disgraced leaders of the 1950s healing revival:

If you’re afraid of reading about those who later fell into sin and deception (some of these people ended in disaster), stay away from Gideon, Samson, Solomon’s Proverbs, and Song of Solomon. The author of those books also ended in tragedy. We must learn to eat the meat and throw out the bones.[15]

We might note, of course, that Sampson didn’t fall into sin later in life—he kept at it the whole way through. If we look to him as our example, we’ll find that we can justify anything. Johnson has confused Old Testament description with New Testament prescription.

The Passion Translation—A Bethel Bible to Propagate Bethel Theology

It is never a good sign when a particular movement decides that the words of Scripture need to be improved. But this is exactly what Bethel has sought to do with the Passion Translation. Brian Simmons, the sole translator on the project claims to have uncovered “the love language of God that has been missing from other translations”.[16] Simmons states: “What we’re trying to do with this project is to bring words that go right through the human soul, and past the defences of our mind, and goes right to our spirit”.[17] Andrew Shead, the Head of Old Testament and Hebrew at Moore Theological College and member of the NIV Committee on Bible Translation has written an in-depth review of the Passion Translation for Themelios.[18] Shead argues that, in Simmons’ attempts to reintroduce the passion and fire of the Bible to the English reader, he “abandons all interest in textual accuracy, playing fast and loose with the original languages, and inserts so much new material into the text that it is at least 50% longer than the original”.[19] Shead concludes that “the result is a strongly sectarian translation that no longer counts as Scripture; by masquerading as a Bible it threatens to bind entire churches in thrall to a false god.”[20]

A Less Than Divine Jesus: The Kenosis Heresy

When Johnson sees the miracles of Jesus in the gospels, he doesn’t see a unique manifestation of divine power; he sees an example for every Christian to aspire to. According to Johnson, Jesus “performed miracles, wonders and signs, as a man in right relationship to God, not as God. If He performed miracles because He was God, then they would be unattainable for us. But if he did them as a man, I am responsible to pursue His lifestyle”.[21] Johnson also teaches the common Word of Faith belief that Jesus was born again.[22] But perhaps the most offensive thing he teaches is that Jesus “laid aside his divinity as he sought to fulfil the assignment given to Him by the Father”.[23] This teaching, based on Philippians 2:5-7, is strikingly similar to the Kenosis Heresy that emerged in Germany and England at the end of the 19th Century. Kenotic theologians argue that Christ “emptied himself” of some of his divine attributes such as omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence while on earth as a man.[24] While it appears that Bethel worship Jesus as God in their songs, their understanding of the incarnate Christ is that he was less than divine while he walked the earth.
(See update on this in the postscript below)

Another Gospel: The Gospel of “Triune Salvation”

An important question for us to consider is whether Bill Johnson is in fact teaching another gospel. As he was preaching from Galatians 1, Johnson says “Some people interpret Paul’s thorn in the flesh is a disease allowed or brought on by God. That’s a different gospel. Jesus didn’t model it. He didn’t teach it”.[25] According to Johnson, anyone who teaches that God sends sickness teaches a different gospel. In that same sermon, Johnson argues blatantly that if a gospel proclamation is not accompanied by signs and wonders, it is “a different gospel”. By doing so, Johnson distances himself from the historic understanding of God and the gospel which Christians have held for over 2000 years.

According to Johnson, anyone who teaches that God sends sickness teaches a different gospel. In that same sermon, Johnson argues blatantly that if a gospel proclamation is not accompanied by signs and wonders, it is ‘a different gospel’

Johnson credits his understanding of the gospel to John G Lake who argued that the gospel touches the whole man—spirit, soul and body and called it a “Triune Salvation”.[26] Johnson contends that “Jesus destroyed the power of sin, sickness and poverty through His redemptive work on the cross. In Adam and Eve’s commission to subdue the earth, they were without sickness, poverty and sin. Now that we are restored to his original purpose, should we expect anything less? After all, this is called the better covenant”.[27] It is fair to conclude that Johnson teaches a gospel that requires the accompaniment of signs and wonders as well as miraculous physical healing to authenticate it. Anything less than that is “a different gospel”. Ironically, I doubt that the majority of his followers would be able to live up to the definition of the gospel that Johnson has concocted. In fact, I doubt even he can live up to the standard he has set for himself.

From the Bizarre to the Blasphemous—The Spiritual Practices of Bethel

The pursuit of signs and wonders has led to a litany of bizarre and sometimes blasphemous spiritual practices at Bethel. Perhaps the most infamous example of this is their claim that the “glory cloud” of God’s shekinah presence often manifests in their worship services. You can find videos on YouTube of the “glory cloud”, which is made up of gold dust that looks suspiciously like the glitter you can purchase at your local arts and craft store. They also report feathers appearing in their worship services, which they claim belong to angels. Beni Johnson (Bill’s wife) and other Bethel leaders practice what is called “grave sucking” or “grave soaking” where they lay atop the graves of famous dead Christians to suck the anointing that they believe is contained in their bones. Beni posted a picture on social media of herself “soaking” at CS Lewis’ grave among others.[28]

Beni Johnson (Bill’s wife) and other Bethel leaders practice what is called ‘grave sucking’ or ‘grave soaking’ where they lay atop the graves of famous dead Christians to suck the anointing that they believe is contained in their bones.

At Bethel, a myriad of practices is encouraged under the banner of “prophetic”. This includes “prophetic cards”, which are similar to tarot cards and are practised by an associated ministry in Melbourne.[29] It also includes prophetic dancing, painting, drumming and even “Destiny Pants” that will purportedly “enhance your awareness of God’s presence and help you be a walking encounter of Heaven’s message to those around you”.[30] Prophecy is also used in outreach in what are called “Treasure Hunts”.[31]

Beni Johnson teaches that there are a variety of angels (messenger angels, healing angels, fiery angels) but that they are laying dormant until someone wakes them up.[32] How does one wake up angels? You blow the shofar and you cry out “WAKEY WAKEY”.[33] People in the Bethel movement believe that raising the dead should be something we aspire to. As a result, some Bethel students formed a Dead Raising Team.[34] They go to the morgue to practice raising the dead. They also listen to the radio and try to beat ambulances to accidents to raise the dead or heal the injured before the ambulance arrives.[35] From all accounts, they have yet to raise their first corpse. Christianity Today reports that in 2008, two Bethel students were involved in an accident that left a man stricken at the base of a 200-foot cliff.[36] The students believed that the man had died and so they tried to resurrect him by prayer.[37] They waited until the next morning to call emergency services.[38] Thankfully, the man survived but unfortunately, he remains paralysed.[39]

Bethel leaders Bill Johnson and Kris Vallotton teach “the Physics of Heaven”, which is a way to “explore the mysteries of God hidden in sound, light, vibrations, frequencies, energy, and quantum physics”.[40] They allege that “God uses these different expressions of his creation to usher us into the fullness of Pentecost”.[41]

Jesus Culture, Bethel Music & Awakening Australia—Gateway Drugs

What makes the Bethel movement dangerous is that their reach is extended through their music ministry. Jesus Culture and Bethel Music have created a brand of worship music that can genuinely compete with Hillsong. Christianity Today reports that one of their live albums was the No.1 album on iTunes above Adele, Justin Bieber and Coldplay.[42] I fear Jesus Culture serves as a gateway drug that draws young and inexperienced Christians into a world of false teaching, unbiblical practices and spiritual disaster.

I am concerned that the upcoming “Awakening Australia” (which is hosting Bill Johnson, and which was itself founded by a Bethel Missionary & Former Pastor) has the potential to cause much confusion and spiritual damage to thousands of unsuspecting Australians. To those who are supporting this event in the name of revival, may I ask this question: “At what price, awakening?” Is it worth pursuing awakening if it means that the gospel is compromised and that false teaching is promoted? I am reminded of the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:6:

If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.


* Errors in the early version:

  • An implied suggestion that Bethel pastors do not preach from mainstream translations. Several commenters have provided examples of Bethel preachers using the NASB;
  • Omission of the word “only” in a quote about emotion which made it sound like the authors of The Passion Translation reject the intellect;
  • A misunderstanding of Bill Johnson’s comments equating disgraced 1950s healing revivalists with heroes sich as Sampson and Gideon. The earlier version interpreted Johnson’s words as recommendations not to read about fallen heroes in the OT.

We apologise for these errors, and have sought to correct them in this version. We are grateful to those who have taken the time to point them out.
– TGCA editor & Stephen Tan


Postscript October 8, 2018

Following the publication of this post, Stephen Tan and a number of other pastors met with Ben Fitzgerald (Bethel missionary and chief organiser of ‘Awakening Australia’) to discuss their concerns. Among other points, Pastor Fitzgerald wished to stress that ‘Awakening Australia’ is not Bethel event and that neither he nor Bethel endorse the practice known as ‘grave sucking’.
We welcome these statements, but questions remain. According to the ‘Awakening Australia’ Facebook page Bethel plans to send 150-200 members to serve at the Melbourne event—this seems to represent a significant level of involvement. Meanwhile, Joe Carter of TGC US points to strange statements from Bill Johnson regarding the possibility of claiming ‘untended’ spiritual anointings from past generations.
With regard to the kenosis issue. Ben Fitzgerald showed Stephen Tan texts from Bill Johnson affirming that he believes ‘Jesus never stop [sic] being God. He is eternally God.’ Once again, we welcome this clarification, but find it hard to understand how he reconciles this to his other public comments. More importantly, we remain concerned about the way his argument erodes the distinctiveness of Christ. The miraculous signs of Jesus are not, in the first place, examples for us to follow—they are testimonies to his unique relationship to God the Father (e.g. John 2:11 c.f. 1:14). When Jesus raises the dead, our response shouldn’t be “I can do that!” but to honour him as we honour the Father (John 5:23). Legitimate questions about how he did his miracles must not distract us from what they reveal about his personal identity as the eternal Son of God.

For more detailed information see this link.


Photos: Hannah Busing, Unsplash (head); Doctorg, wikimedia (inset)

[1] Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth, (Shippensburg: Treasure House, 2003), 119.

[2] Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth, 119.

[3] Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth, 124.

[4] Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth, 137.

[5] Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth, 137.

[6] Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth, 137.

[7] Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth, 142.

[8] Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth, 112.

[9] Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth, 76.

[10] Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth, 76.

[11] http://bjm.org/qa/does-god-ever-cause-sickness/, accessed 7 September 2018.

[12] Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth, 115.

[13] http://bjm.org/qa/does-god-ever-cause-sickness/, accessed 7 September 2018.

[14] Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth, 103.

[15] Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth, 103.

[16] https://www.thepassiontranslation.com/, accessed 7 September 2018.

[17] https://www.thepassiontranslation.com/, accessed 7 September 2018.

[18] http://themelios.thegospelcoalition.org/article/burning-scripture-with-passion-a-review-of-the-psalms-passion-translation, accessed 7 September 2018. Other critical reflections on The Passion Translation, can be found at http://readingthepassionbible.com/

[19] http://themelios.thegospelcoalition.org/article/burning-scripture-with-passion-a-review-of-the-psalms-passion-translation, accessed 7 September 2018.

[20] http://themelios.thegospelcoalition.org/article/burning-scripture-with-passion-a-review-of-the-psalms-passion-translation, accessed 7 September 2018.

[21] Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth, 29.

[22] https://thinktheology.co.uk/blog/article/on_throwing_the_baby_out_with_the_bethelwater, accessed 7 September 2018.

[23] Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth, 79.

[24] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 550.

[25] Bill Johnson, The Requirement of Miracles, 11 Dec 2011, ibetheltv.com, accessed 7 September 2018.

[26] Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth, 33.

[27] Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth, 33.

[28] https://pulpitandpen.org/2018/04/19/bethel-pastor-contradicts-bill-johnsons-narrative-infamous-grave-sucking/, accessed 7 September 2018.

[29] https://www.bethel.com/about/christalignment/, accessed 7 September 2018.

[30]https://web.archive.org/web/20171228104713/https://store.theresadedmon.com/collections/clothing/products/designer-leggings_isnt-she-lovely, accessed 7 September 2018.

[31] https://www.bethel.com/testimonies/gods-treasure-hunt/, accessed 7 September 2018.

[32] http://www.benij.org/blog.php?id=1, accessed 7 September 2018.

[33] http://www.benij.org/blog.php?id=1, accessed 7 September 2018.

[34] https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/may/cover-story-inside-popular-controversial-bethel-church.html, accessed 7 September 2018.

[35] https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/may/cover-story-inside-popular-controversial-bethel-church.html, accessed 7 September 2018.

[36] https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/may/cover-story-inside-popular-controversial-bethel-church.html, accessed 7 September 2018.

[37] https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/may/cover-story-inside-popular-controversial-bethel-church.html, accessed 7 September 2018.

[38] https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/may/cover-story-inside-popular-controversial-bethel-church.html, accessed 7 September 2018.

[39] https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/may/cover-story-inside-popular-controversial-bethel-church.html, accessed 7 September 2018.

[40] https://www.destinyimage.com/products/physics-of-heaven, accessed 7 September 2018.

[41] https://www.destinyimage.com/products/physics-of-heaven, accessed 7 September 2018.

[42] https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/may/cover-story-inside-popular-controversial-bethel-church.html, accessed 7 September 2018.

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