On Saturday, Andrew and Kalley Heiligenthal faced the greatest tragedy a parent can endure: the death of a young child. Their two-year-old daughter, Olive, suddenly stopped breathing, and over the weekend was pronounced dead. But since then, Bethel Church, where Kalley serves as a worship leader, has taken to ceaseless prayer and praise for their daughter Olive's resurrection from the dead.
Five days later and they are still going.
Bethel Church and its affiliated ministries are a charismatic Christian group known for their infectious worship music and emphasis on modern-day miracles. They have drawn criticism in the past for practices like "grave sucking" in which participants lay on a person's grave to allegedly "soak up" that person's "anointing". Bethel is also host to the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry, which promises to teach students how to perform miracles, including the raising of the dead.
So, though the story of Christians praying for the physical resurrection of a deceased child may sound odd, it is not unusual for Bethel.
On Monday, Kalley posted the following along with a photo of her husband and their daughter,
"Day 3 is a really good day for resurrection. We are overwhelmed with gratitude by your outpouring of love for us and faith for Olive. Jesus is Faithful and True and He's riding in with the victory He bought for Olive. Olive Alayne means 'victorious awakening'. We call on the mighty all-sufficient name of Jesus and we call you back by name, sweet girl. You will live. Thank you for your faith-filled declarations, keep them coming. Worship Jesus with us, He is moving, He is good, He is worthy and He is alive."
Outsiders may wonder at or even admire the faith of these parents, especially in the midst of such heart-wrenching devastation. Their prayers sound less like requests and more like foregone conclusions. But some clues as to the source of their confidence can be found in the preceding paragraph.
Bethel espouses a theology that says Christ's atonement not only covered the sins of His people, but they also believe that it secured the right to full and complete physical healing in this life. It is this theology that is being assumed in the line, "Jesus is Faithful and True and He's riding in with the victory He bought for Olive." It is that firm belief that Olive's perfect temporal healing is guaranteed by Christ's death and resurrection which drives their zealous faith and results not in impassioned pleas for God to intervene, but rather in "faith-filled declarations".
A video post on Tuesday by Instagram user fajuke shows the group being led by the girl's father, Andrew, in a song with the lyrics, "Olive, come out of that grave, come out of that grave in Jesus' name."
It's not a prayer, it's a demand. No need to ask for that which has already been guaranteed. But is this really how Christians should behave and pray when a loved one dies?
Following this story, my heart broke twice. First, for the parents of this sweet little girl, who by man's accounting was taken from them far too soon. But my heart broke a second time when I saw how hopeful they were for Olive's miraculous resurrection. I grieve because their hope is in the wrong place, the wrong promise, and the wrong resurrection.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:13, the apostle Paul tells Christians that they should "not grieve as others do who have no hope." This is written in the context of the Thessalonian church having had some of their members die. The apostle wants to be perfectly clear, believers in Jesus Christ do not grieve over death as the rest of the world does. We hate death, we recognize it as the unnatural result of sin and the Fall that it is, but we also know that for Christians, death is not the end of the story.
The great comfort for believers who have had believing loved ones perish—even children—is that the end is not the end. Verse 16 goes on to say, speaking of Christ's return, "For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first." From whence does our hope in the face of death come? Our dead brothers and sisters will rise again at the last day. In fact, all of 1 Corinthians chapter 15 is about the glorious promise of resurrection for all who have repented of their sins and placed their faith in Jesus Christ. This promise is so great, and the hope it presents so grand that we can boldly taunt death, "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15:55).
Where the folks at Bethel tragically go wrong is not in the fervor of their zeal but in the object of their faith. To cling tightly with both hands to God's promise of final resurrection is right and necessary. But what promise are these parents and the other members of Bethel clinging to? Instagram posts by the family are littered with misappropriations of the indicatives of Jesus' miraculous ministry as if the miracles performed by our Lord as an attestation to His divinity were meant to be exemplary of the normal pattern of life for His followers. He 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.
Prayer is not a wish that if you just cross your fingers hard enough, close your eyes tight enough, and work yourself up into enough of an emotional frenzy then maybe, just maybe, God will answer it. Christian prayer that God answers is a petition to the Almighty of the universe for aid made in accordance with His character and promises.
This is not what the prayers of Bethel sound like. Their loud, demanding declarations of resurrection over this little girl sound more like the prophets of Baal who just shouted louder and cut themselves when their god did not respond (1 Kings 18:28). Christian prayer may come through tears and pleading, but it is characterized by a quiet confidence that God will do just as He has promised and a heart that whispers "thy will be done" — even and especially during exceedingly tragic circumstances. God is our rock. We are not in control. This is good news.
Indeed, believers in Jesus Christ do not grieve as those without hope. Because our hope is rooted in a promise of God to us—the bodily resurrection of the saints. But just as we do not grieve as those without hope, we also should not hope as those without a promise. And I fear that this family and Bethel Church are hanging their hopes on a promise God never made to them. He has not promised that our lives in this world would not be marked by pain, suffering, and death. But He has promised that one day suffering will cease.
So, to Olive's parents, and to anyone suffering from the loss of a loved one, I would simply remind you that for those in Christ there will come a day when "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away" (Revelation 21:4). Hope fully in the promises which God has made, for they are absolutely certain. And trust that even in the worst tragedy imaginable, the God Who loves His children and holds the Universe together by His power is working all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).
Reagan Rose is the creator of Redeeming Productivity, a blog and podcast dedicated to helping Christians get more done and get it done like Christians by applying biblical principles to personal productivity. He also serves as the Director of Digital Platforms at Grace to You, The Bible Teaching Ministry of John MacArthur.