Preface for blog: Recently my wife and I spent a number of weeks in California. We sent various letters back to our friends, reporting on our doings. My final letter described at some length our experience at a church in northern California, focusing on what I learned about their philosophy of praying for healing. This letter is reproduced below, with a few edits and with some endnotes added to address certain questions which might be raised by a more general audience reading this here.
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Grace and I just got back from our trip to California. We spent the last four weeks in Redding, in northern California, about 3.5 hours drive north of San Francisco. Our key driver for coming to the Golden State was to get in enough quality time with the Bethel Church community here to catch the vibe of how they do life. It has been an interesting and rewarding experience.
I will try here to capture some of the impact from our visit, to share with our many friends who have wished us well in this adventure. This will be a fairly personal reflection. Some of the things that interested me, such as healing in answer to prayer, will be familiar to some who read this, and unfamiliar to others. If this is more information than holds your interest, please don’t feel obligated to read it all.
What was I looking for?
I’ll start with some of what I knew about Bethel before coming here, and what drew us to make this investment of time and money. We had heard speakers from Bethel at various conferences we have attended over the years, and also listened to podcasts and YouTube talks. There seems to be a consistent message of integrity and great positivity. We also know a number of people who have spent weeks and months out there, and all have returned with glowing reports. These reports are not only of emotional wholeness and cultural excellence, but also of notable physical healings.
Here is one example of how this seems to work. About five years ago, the pastor of our home church in Pennsylvania invited the senior pastor of Bethel, Bill Johnson, to speak. Bill shared with the audience that he believed that healing was God’s will, and he shared stories of people who reported dramatic relief after being prayed for. Then he invited anyone in the room who had some medical condition to stand up for prayer. He then asked the others of us in the room to gather around the closest standing person to us, and pray for them.
The closest person to me was a pastor who had driven down from Connecticut, along with his wife. This pastor had had a severe stroke 1-2 years earlier, localized in the back of his brain. He had recovered most of his function, but due to the damage to the cerebellum, he continued to experience constant mild vertigo. And if he tilted his head way back to look up, he got totally, miserably dizzy. While we prayed for this man, he said that he was feeling heat in his head. After we prayed, he was totally relieved of vertigo. He tested it further by lying on his back and looking straight up. No problem now for this man. About twenty other people in the room reported similar symptomatic relief. So this encounter with a Bethel representative helped to build my interest in that church.
I have occasionally witnessed other episodes of relief of serious conditions in answer to prayer over the years. For instance, some of us prayed for a woman in a church in New Jersey a couple of years ago, who had a condition which kept her bent over and tottering along with the use of a cane. While we prayed, she felt heat in her head. A day or two later, she found that her sense of balance had fully recovered, and she marched into the next church service waving her cane above her head and giving thanks to God.
How we view these sorts of healings will depend on the assumptions we bring. Skeptics may shrug off any number of reports of healings, no matter how strong the documentary evidence. Since there is a strong mind-body connection, it is often hard to sort out how much of a natural, psychosomatic element might be involved. My own approach is to affirm all restoration of wholeness, whether it comes through the ordinary skill of doctors, through the influence of good thoughts upon the body, or through God working in ways that science cannot explain. 
In a practical sense, I’m not sure these mechanistic questions matter that much. However their healings happened, that pastor with vertigo and that hobbling woman experienced genuine relief, which they had not obtained from conventional medical treatments.
What is not clear to me is what is a realistic expectation for the effectiveness of prayer. Some believers pray with very understated expectations: “Lord, if it be thy will, please heal Fred.” This is a comfortable approach, since it does not raise hopes that would then be dashed in the event that Fred is not healed. However, in my experience, the odds are very low of anything happening in response to such a mild prayer.
The more notable healings I have observed have generally came about in the context of praying with a high degree of conviction. There are a number of verses in the New Testament that link the effectiveness of prayer with the level of faith. But this robust approach raises a number of obvious questions:
Why are many people not healed? How much faith for healing is required on the human side of the equation, and how can such faith be increased? Is it unkind to build up too much hope in the people seeking healing? Does praying for them with no results make it harder for them to then accept their condition with dignity? Should we just accept death and disease as a part of the natural world we live in? 
The folks at Bethel have the reputation of navigating these difficult issues in an effective way. So a key goal I had in going there was to find out more about how this works for them in practice.
First Impressions of the Church Community
Here is the entrance to one of the buildings on the main campus. Note the usual California blue sky.
Some churches are very much defined by the church building itself. That is not the case at Bethel. The main meeting room is plain but artistically attractive, with rows of chairs and a stage at the front. Because the attendance keeps growing, a satellite campus has been added, again with fairly plain rooms.
What struck me the most was the diversity and vitality of the people. I will describe some of the leadership below. However, the “culture” of the church has taken such hold in so many members that effective activity bubbles up everywhere with minimal formal day to day oversight. Although we attended dozens of formal larger meetings with speakers, we also made a point to meet as many individuals as we could, to check out how things really function at the grass roots level. We took people out to lunch and dinner to spend quality time in conversation. Again and again, we found people to be overflowing with kindness and wisdom and positivity.
There are all kinds of interest groups and focused ministries. There is a strong effort to help disadvantaged people in the city of Redding. There are support groups for budding artists and musicians and business entrepreneurs. There are places and times available for getting prayer for physical and emotional healing and for spiritual insight. Besides the usual weekly groups for teens and young adults, there was a “Diamond Fellowship” for 55+ folks, which we attended a couple of times. The “Firestarters” group encourages folks to encounter God experientially and to pray boldly. There was also a group for aspiring inventors. I went to that meeting, and tried to add to the discussion from my experience in inventing and patenting.
The church sponsors and hosts a “School of Supernatural Ministry”, where more than 2000 people are enrolled. These students are mainly in their early twenties, though there is a spectrum of people of all ages that attend. The students come from all over the nation and from all over the world. Most enroll for one or two years, with some staying into a third year. Most of them go back where they came from or fan out elsewhere to serve as they feel called. However, a number of them like Redding and the Bethel community so much that they end up staying here. These students and ex-students provide a lot of young but disciplined energy to make things happen around here. A summary of the school’s core values is here .
The leader of the ministry school gave a brief overview of his vision. He said the most important foundational thing is to help students develop an identity as sons and daughters of their heavenly Father. He told us that he says basically the same message to the first-year students over and over again, worded fifty different ways, during their first few months, until they start to feel in their gut that they are not cosmic orphans, but are loved by a good Father. Once that point of a secure identity is established, then they can move on to challenging things like praying boldly for others.
There are about 10,000 people who attend some service at Bethel on a regular basis. At the start of most services, the leaders invite people visiting for the first time to raise their hands. Typically about 20-50 people are visitors, and many of these have come from other countries. For a three-day conference we attended there, about a third of the 900 attendees came from other states and another third came from outside the U.S. That shows the level of outside interest generated by this church.
The global reach of the church is enhanced by its internet presence, and the high quality music composing and heartfelt worship by the resident musicians. Several services per week are broadcast on Bethel TV. For access to all the live events, a subscription is required, but many of these are available for free as podcasts, and on the Bethel TV YouTube channel.
The Bethel TV YouTube channel has over 132,000 subscribers, and the BethelTV Facebook page has 342,000 followers. The Bethel Music YouTube channel, has over 1,300,000 subscribers. Those are some pretty big headcounts, which again demonstrate the wide attraction and influence of this church in a somewhat remote area of California.
The patriarch around here is Bill Johnson. Here he is in action at the end of one meeting. Hundreds of people lined up to come to the front of the room for prayer, and he greeted and blessed each one.
His vision has set the course of this whole ship. A core conviction of his is “God is good”. That seems like an innocuous saying, but Bill pushes it to some controversial limits.  It is common when a man or woman isn’t healed for someone to say, “Well, I guess it just was not God’s will for him or her to be healed.” Bill contends that it is always God’s will to heal. He points to the example of Jesus, who healed everyone who came to him. Jesus never turned any one away. Bill acknowledges that his experience does not yet match this ideal (i.e. not everyone that Bill prays for is healed) but he does not want to lower his theology to the level of his experience. Rather, he aims to do whatever he can to raise his experience to match his theology; Bill holds that Jesus is perfect theology.
Bethel emphasizes this line in the Lord’s Prayer: “May your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This leads them to promote wholeness and integrity on all levels of life. Bill points out that there is no disease in heaven, so it cannot be God’s will for there to be disease on earth.
Bill’s convictions lead to high expectations for healing, which is evident in the Bethel community. This naturally leads to the question of “If it is always God’s will to heal, why is everyone not healed?” More on that later.
Bill is still on the senior leadership team, but things are now run by a wider set of men and women, many of whom he mentored. As just one example, here is Danny Silk, one of the speakers at the final conference we attended here. Thirty or so years ago, Danny was functionally illiterate, working as a butcher in a small town up in the mountains. Bill was the pastor of a small church there, and took Danny under his wing and counseled him personally, and encouraged him get an education. Danny has since developed teachings around promoting mutual honor in personal relationships and in the greater cultural conversation. He has published 4 books (Loving Our Kids on Purpose, Culture of Honor, etc.) and is in demand at major corporations to provide input on building a culture of mutual respect amid diversity.
Below is another photo I took while Danny was teaching, which shows more of the main meeting room.. One the far side of the stage can be seen two paintings on easels. Usually during the music time, while the band on the stage is playing and everyone is singing, a couple of artists from the congregation compose paintings on various themes as they feel moved, as an expression of worship.
Our Experiences Here
Too much happened in the past month to give a day-to-day summary of all the meetings we went to, all talks we heard, all the music we shared, and all the people we talked with. A number of people prayed with us and for us, and spoke encouraging words over us. We have pages and pages of notes. The bottom line is that we feel enormously enriched and blessed from our experience.
Most healthy churches attempt to offer correct doctrine (i.e. teaching from the Bible as they understand it, as opposed to just making stuff up that sounds good) and to promote personal integrity and love among their members and leaders. Bethel does all that, but consciously adds another, more experiential dimension to what they are trying to accomplish. They don’t want people to walk out of their services just saying, “That was a nice sermon and nice music.” They want people to sense they have had, at some level, a personal experience with the Lord. One of Bill Johnson’s mottos is “We owe people an encounter with God”.
Often, people sense divine presence when they are prayed for at Bethel. At the end of some of the services we attended, the leader asked any current or former ministry school students to form one or more lines across the front of the room. The rest of us were invited to file down the center aisle, and then walk past people praying for us. The folks praying would say a brief prayer or word of encouragement over each of us as we walked by, sometimes accompanied by a touch on the shoulder. I was not conscious of any particular sensation as I was walking through the prayer line, but as I walked away afterward, I was almost always conscious of feeling something unusual, almost like a pleasant buzz. On two of these occasions, this enduring sensation was so strong I felt I had to sit down for several minutes just to process it. For an analytical guy like me, it is odd to recall and to write about such a raw, undefinable experience. But that is what happened, however one chooses to interpret it.
On one of our last nights in Redding, Bill Johnson led the worship/teaching session. He invited anyone with a medical condition to stand, and prayed for their healing, and asked others in the room to also pray. His prayers were heartfelt, but there was no attempt to work up a lot of emotion in the crowd. Afterwards he asked anyone who was able to test whether they had been healed to do so. He asked those who could verify that they were at least 80% better to wave both hands above their heads so he could see them. (By “test” he meant whether pain you came in with had disappeared, or now you could move in a way you couldn’t before you had been prayed for, etc. Obviously, some other healings might have occurred which could only be verified in a doctor’s office).
I wasn’t tracking the results quantitatively, but I snapped a couple of photos (see below) at this point, so you can see a number of pairs of hands up. I have grayed out some faces for privacy. You have to squint to see the hands up at the far end of the room. I count about twelve people total holding up their hands in these two photos. I think there were around 30 people total in the room stating they had experienced healing.
A few of these people described on a microphone what happened. One man had suffered from dyslexia, such that it took him around an hour to read through half a page. After receiving prayer, his wife handed him a newspaper to test it out, and he was able to read straight through it. A woman who had been in pain from sitting ever since she injured her hip in a car accident 24 years earlier was now able to sit comfortably. Another woman who had experienced chronic pain from a neck injury reported that the pain was now gone. We can of course sit around afterward and skeptically debate how severe their conditions really were, but it seemed clear these individuals experienced significant relief from longstanding problems. This sort of healing service is another aspect of how Bethel tries to make the personal experience of God to be accessible to members and visitors.
Expectations for Healing Prayer
Since I posed the questions above, I will try to bring closure here to my discussions with people on their philosophy of healing, even though that issue only took up a tiny fraction of our interactions at Bethel. The most enlightening discussions I had were with Chris Gore, who is on the church staff as the leader of their healing ministries.
Chris travels around the world, leading healing services where many people find relief. I bought two of his books, Walking in Supernatural Healing Power, which deals with healing in general, and his most recent book, The Perfect Gift: Seeing the Child, Not the Condition. That deals with loving and valuing special needs children as they are, even while praying for relief of their condition. Several parents share their stories of finding significant healing for their children with autism and similar conditions.
I put to him some of my questions about healing. He acknowledges that many people are not healed, and he feels the pain of that, but as a practical matter he finds it is just not helpful to speculate or dwell on that. We can focus on whatever we choose, positive or negative. Chris sees more fruit for himself and his teams when they focus on and celebrate whatever healings do occur, both under their ministry and in the wider church. That seems to build more faith and lead to more healings, in a sort of virtuous cycle. They stay optimistic with everyone they pray with, springing from their intense conviction of God’s astonishingly good character.
Chris teaches his healing teams to treat everyone with respect and sensitivity, regardless of their condition or outcomes. Whether or not they get healed, he wants everyone who is prayed for to come away feeling valued and loved.
When someone he prays for is not healed, he does not blame them (e.g. for harboring doubt or sin) or God. If anything, he takes responsibility on himself, reasoning that if he were more like Jesus, the person would have been healed. Yet he does not turn this into an exercise of introspection and self-condemnation. Rather, he resolves to press ever closer to God and become even more enamored with His goodness and majesty, so that the next time he ministers he will be more effective. He frames it this way: “If someone comes to me for healing and was not healed, then they encountered me, not Jesus.” 
Chris did not offer answers to the more theoretical questions, like why some people are healed and some are not. He puts that in the category of “mystery”. I should add that he lives this out in a searing personal way. One of his daughters, who is now in her early twenties, suffers from cerebral palsy, and has never been able to walk or talk, despite taking advantage of all that modern medicine has to offer. Some nights Chris and his wife have been up for hours as she is vomiting and screaming from seizures. Although he has seen thousands of people healed of many conditions, and over fifty healed of autism, his own child remains severely disabled. He was not looking for pity when he mentioned that to us, but he did cite it as an example of the choice we all face with issues in our lives: will we get offended at God if things don’t go the way we want, or will we trust in His character and ultimate plan? Chris elaborates on this topic in the 20-55 minute section of this YouTube talk (audio only).
For Chris, pursuing healing is not a primary goal that he tries to “use” God to accomplish. Rather, loving God and being loved by God is fundamental, and healing then flows out of this relationship. The greatest expression of God’s love is that he entered our world in the form of Jesus, and experienced all the heartaches and suffering of humanity, and did whatever it took to restore relationship with us. Chris spoke of being full of Jesus, being lost in Jesus, being consumed with Jesus, and so on. Thus, if healing comes through Chris’s prayers, it is not really something Chris is doing, but rather Jesus working through Chris.
In Psalm 37 it says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart”. An analogy may illustrate this point. Suppose I were engaged to a woman and walked into her apartment unexpectedly and overheard her telling her best friend on the phone, “I love Scott and he loves me. I don’t understand everything he does, but I trust his character and believe that he will take good care of me. It doesn’t matter what life throws at us, because we are going to be there for each other no matter what.” You can bet that hearing that would make me even more resolved to do everything I could for her. But suppose her conversation went like this: “Do I love Scott? Are you kidding me? I don’t even like him. In fact, I think he’s kind of a jerk. I just don’t get why he does a lot of things he does. I just pretend to love him because he has a good job and I expect him to provide for whatever I want. And if he doesn’t, I’ll divorce him and try my luck elsewhere.” My observation over the years is that approaching God with this second attitude is not very fruitful.
In science it is common to have practical or experimental results for which a theoretical framework has not yet been found. For instance, mankind bred improved plants and animals for thousands of years before the DNA basis of genetics was discovered. People found that eating limes would ward off scurvy, long before we understood the metabolism of vitamin C. The empirical observations gave sufficient practical guidelines to work with, even in the absence of an overarching theoretical explanation.
It was those sorts of practical guidelines about healing prayer that I took away from our visit to Bethel. Some tough intellectual questions remained unanswered, and perhaps they are simply unanswerable from our limited human perspective. But the folks at Bethel seem to have found attitudes and practices which make them effective in bringing healing to a wide range of people.
 Most of my articles on this blog deal with issues like evolution and the age of the earth. However, I have including a few posts that report on notable healings. For instance, here is my summary of an article in a medical journal of a study by a U.S. medical team in Mozambique reporting a number of people showing major improvements in hearing and vision, in response to prayer: Healing Miracles in Mozambique: Medical Journal
One of my daughters travelled to Mozambique a few years back, and told me that as far as she could tell, people really did get healed of deafness under this ministry. So this is not just some anecdote from deep in the jungle. The journal article notes that the prayer in this study was “personal proximate prayer”, which differs from distant prayer for a name on a list; the latter practice has been found in numerous double-blind academic studies to be ineffective.
Another article is: Healing of Nearly-Deaf Boy on YouTube . This links to a video which shows in real time a boy going from only 10-20% hearing to essentially full hearing ability. I can vouch for the integrity of the person praying here, Randy Clark. We spent two weeks with him on a trip to Germany, and he is sincere and good-willed.
 Everyone works from a set of unprovable assumptions in constructing their worldview. This letter was written within a framework which presupposes that there is a Creator who sometimes answers prayer in immediate and visible ways.
The question of why some people are not healed, or why is there disease in the first place, is a subset of the larger question of why is there evil and suffering if God is all-good and all-powerful. I do not address this general problem of evil here. I have offered some thoughts regarding that subject in A Survey of Biblical Natural Theology.
 Because Bill Johnson and other Bethel spokesmen at times make provocative statements without qualifying all the nuances, and they talk much more about some topics than others, some conservative Christian watchdogs denounce them as heretics. But anyone who reads the “What We Believe” statement all the way through would find that Bethel’s doctrine falls well within the evangelical mainstream.
Since the book is open in my hand, I will cite a paragraph from Chris Gore’s The Perfect Gift as a further example of how the Bethel approach to healing is linked to traditional biblical teachings:
There is no greater story to tell than the one that has been written by Jesus Christ. Before the very breath of God spoke light into existence, Jesus was there. His story began before the foundation of the world was created and it has never stopped. Over 2,000 years ago, the greatest gift we could ever be given came in the flesh in the form of Emmanuel – “God with us” and His name is Jesus. His greatest sacrifice was to give up His own life so that we could inherit life with Him. We are the joy set before Him. This book is about Jesus. Without Jesus, none of the stories you are about to read would have happened. He is our Healer and He is our Perfect Gift!
 Theologians have long recognized that “the will of God” can have various levels of meanings. Even human “will” can be complex and hard to define. Thus, to say “It is always God’s will to heal” doesn’t cover all the bases.
It is formally true that “Jesus healed everyone who came to him”, in the sense that he never told anyone who came to him humbly asking for help, “Sorry, I just don’t want to heal you.” But it is not the case that he immediately and automatically healed every sick or disabled person around. In a couple of cases (e.g. the man with a son subject to seizures, and the Syro-Phoenician woman with a troubled daughter) he did not heal a child before having some serious, probing dialog with the pleading parent. The implication in John 5 is that Jesus only selected and healed one man out of a whole crowd of disabled people at the Pool of Bethesda. Finally, in Mark 6, it seems that Jesus’ own healing ministry could be constrained by rampant unbelief. The people in Jesus’ home town were skeptical and offended at his messianic claims, and so “He could do no miracles there, but only laid his hands a few sick people and healed them. He was amazed at their unbelief” (Mark 6:5-6). He told a number of people whom he did heal that their own faith had played a key role (“Be it done according to your faith”, “Your faith has healed you”, etc.). The universality of healing in the rest of the New Testament, outside the Gospels, is similarly nuanced (e.g. I Cor 11:29-30; II Cor 12:8-9; I Tim 5:23; II Tim 4:20; James 5:16).
John Arnott, who is associated with the Toronto outpouring of the 1990’s, ministers healing in a manner similar to the Bethel folks. However, he has repeatedly mentioned in his teachings that harboring unforgiveness can block a person from realizing their physical healing. This unforgiveness can be towards someone else who harmed the person, or it can be towards oneself, say if the person blames himself or herself for getting injured. He has frequently observed a physical healing to manifest after the unforgiveness has been identified and abandoned.
I don’t recall Bill Johnson ever describing any substantive reason for lack of healing, other than underdeveloped spirituality in the person praying. However, towards the end of Walking in Supernatural Healing Power, Chris Gore does acknowledge that unforgiveness and other roadblocks in a person can hinder healing. If he senses that unforgiveness is an issue, he will ask delicate, probing questions to try to expose the problem so it can be dealt with; he will avoid making the person feel accused or condemned. That said, Chris is reluctant to use these potential flaws in the other person to justify his own powerlessness. He would prefer instead to press in yet closer to God so that he could be a more effective minister of healing the next time: “I would rather go on my face before God and get a greater revelation of who He is in me and through me, and gain greater understanding of the revelation of His goodness and the power of His love.”