Theocratic Sect Prays for Real Armageddon
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Todd Bentley has a long night ahead of him, resurrecting the dead, healing the blind, and exploding cancerous tumors. Since April 3, the 32-year-old, heavily tattooed, body-pierced, shaved-head Canadian preacher has been leading a continuous "supernatural healing revival" in central Florida. To contain the 10,000-plus crowds flocking from around the globe, Bentley has rented baseball stadiums, arenas and airport hangars at a cost of up to $15,000 a day. Many in attendance are church pastors themselves who believe Bentley to be a prophet and don't bat an eye when he tells them he's seen King David and spoken with the Apostle Paul in heaven. "He was looking very Jewish," Bentley notes.
Tattooed across his sternum are military dog tags that read "Joel's Army." They're evidence of Bentley's generalship in a rapidly growing apocalyptic movement that's gone largely unnoticed by watchdogs of the theocratic right. According to Bentley and a handful of other "hyper-charismatic" preachers advancing the same agenda, Joel's Army is prophesied to become an Armageddon-ready military force of young people with a divine mandate to physically impose Christian "dominion" on non-believers.
"An end-time army has one common purpose -- to aggressively take ground for the kingdom of God under the authority of Jesus Christ, the Dread Champion," Bentley declares on the website for his ministry school in British Columbia, Canada. "The trumpet is sounding, calling on-fire, revolutionary believers to enlist in Joel's Army. ... Many are now ready to be mobilized to establish and advance God's kingdom on earth."
Joel's Army followers, many of them teenagers and young adults who believe they're members of the final generation to come of age before the end of the world, are breaking away in droves from mainline Pentecostal churches. Numbering in the tens of thousands, they base their beliefs on an esoteric reading of the second chapter of the Old Testament Book of Joel, in which an avenging swarm of locusts attacks Israel. In their view, the locusts are a metaphor for Joel's Army.
Despite their overt militancy, there's no evidence Joel's Army followers have committed any acts of violence. But critics warn that actual bloodletting may only be a matter of time for a movement that casts itself as God's avenging army.
Those sounding the alarm about Joel's Army are not secular foes of the Christian Right, few of whom are even aware of the movement or how widespread it's become in the past decade. Instead, Joel's Army critics are mostly conservative Christians, either neo-Pentecostals who left the movement in disgust or evangelical Christians who fear that Joel's Army preachers are stealing their flocks, even sending spies to infiltrate their own congregations and sway their young people to heresy. And they say the movement is becoming frightening.
"The pitch and intensity of the military rhetoric of this branch of the global Dominionist movement has substantially increased since the beginning of 2008," writes The Discernment Research Group, a Christian watchdog group that tracks what they call heresies or cults within Christianity. "One can only wonder how long before this transforms into real warfare with actual warriors."
Joel's Army believers are hard-core Christian dominionists, meaning they believe that America, along with the rest of the world, should be governed by conservative Christians and a conservative Christian interpretation of biblical law. There is no room in their doctrine for democracy or pluralism.
Dominionism's original branch is Christian Reconstructionism, a grim, Calvinist call to theocracy that, as Reconstructionist writer Gary North describes, wants to "get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God."
Notorious for endorsing the public execution by stoning of homosexuals and adulterers, the Christian Reconstructionist movement is far better known in secular America than Joel's Army. That's largely because Reconstructionists have made several serious forays into mainstream politics and received a fair amount of negative publicity as a result. Joel's Army followers eschew the political system, believing the path to world domination lies in taking over churches, not election to public office.
Another key difference between the two branches of dominionism, which maintain a testy, arms-length relationship with one another, is Christian Reconstructionism's buttoned-down image and heavy emphasis on Bible study, which contrasts sharply with Joel's Army anti-intellectual distrust of biblical scholars and its unruly style.
"Some people snort cocaine, others snort religions," Joel's Army Pastor Roy said while ministering a morning program at Todd Bentley's Lakeland, Fla., revival in late May.
As this article went to press, Bentley's "Florida Outpouring" had been running for more than 100 days straight. Many attendees came in search of spontaneous physical healing and a desire to be part of a mystical community marked by dancing, shouting, gyrating, speaking in tongues and other forms of ecstatic release.
Snide jabs at traditional church services are fairly common at Bentley's revivals. In fact, what takes place onstage at the Florida Outpouring looks more like a pro wrestling extravaganza than church. On stage, Bentley and his team of pastors, yell, chant, and scream "Fire!" and "Bam!" while anointing followers.
The audience members behave as if they are at a psychedelic counterculture festival. One couple jumps up and down twirling red and silver metallic flags. Dyed-haired teenagers pulled in by the revival's presence on Facebook and MySpace wander around looking dazed. Women lay facedown on the floor, convulsing and howling. Fathers wail in tongues as their confused children look on. Strangers lay hands on those who fail to produce tongues or gyrate wildly enough, pressuring them to "let it out."
Bentley is considered a prophet both by his followers and by other leaders of the Joel's Army movement, whose adherents claim to be reviving a "five-fold ministry" of prophets, apostles, elders, pastors and teachers, as outlined in the Book of Ephesians. Not every five-fold ministry is connected to the Joel's Army movement, but the movement has spurred an interest in modern-day apostles and prophets that's troubling to the Assemblies of God, the world's largest Pentecostal church, which has officially disavowed the Joel's Army movement.
In a 2001 position paper, Assemblies of God leaders wrote that they do not recognize modern-day apostles or prophets and worried that "such leaders prefer more authoritarian structures where their own word or decrees are unchallenged." They are right to worry. Joel's Army followers believe that once democratic institutions are overthrown, their hierarchy of apostles and prophets will rule over the earth, with one church per city.
According to Joel's Army doctrine, the enforcers of the five-fold ministry will be members of the final generation, for whom the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade constituted a new Passover.
"Everyone born after abortion's legalization can consider their birth a personal invitation to take part in this great army," writes John Crowder, another prominent Joel's Army pastor, who bills his 2006 book, The New Mystics: How to Become Part of the Supernatural Generation, as a literal how-to guide for joining Joel's Army.
Both Bentley and Crowder are enormously popular on Elijah's List, an online watering hole for a broad spectrum of Joel's Army enlistees, from lightweight believers who merely share an affection for military rhetoric and pastors who dress in army camouflage (several Joel's Army pastors are addressed by their congregants as "commandant" or "commander") to hardliners who believe the church is called to have an active military role in end-times that have already begun. Elijah's List currently has more than 125,000 subscribers on its electronic mailing list.
Rick Joyner, a pastor whose books, The Harvest and The Call, helped popularize Joel's Army theology by selling more than a million copies each, goes the furthest on Elijah's List in pushing the hardliner approach. In 2006, he posted a sermon called "The Warrior Nation -- The New Sound of the Church," in which he claimed that a last-day army is now gathering and called believers "freedom fighters."
"As the church begins to take on this resolve, they [Joel's Army churches] will start to be thought of more as military bases, and they will begin to take on the characteristics of military bases for training, equipping, and deploying effective spiritual forces," Joyner wrote. "In time, the church will actually be organized more as a military force with an army, navy, air force, etc."
In a sort of disclaimer, Joyner writes at one point that God's army "will bring love, peace and stability wherever they go." But several of his books narrate with glee what he describes as "a coming civil war within the church." In his 1997 book The Harvest he writes: "Some pastors and leaders who continue to resist this tide of unity will be removed from their place. Some will become so hardened they will become opposers and resist God to the end."
Two years later, in his book The Final Quest, Joyner described a vision (taken as prophecy in the Joel's Army world, where Joyner is considered an "apostle") of the coming Christian Civil War in which demon-possessed Christian soldiers enslave other, weaker Christians who resist them. He also describes how the hero of the novel -- himself -- ascends a "Holy Mountain" in order to learn new truths and to acquire new, magic weapons.
Kids on Fire
Bentley, who claims to be a supernatural healer, is no less over the top, playing his biker-punk appearance and heavy metal theatrics to the hilt. On YouTube, where clips of his most dramatic healings have been condensed into a three-minute highlight reel, Bentley describes God ordering him to kick an elderly lady in the face: "I am thinking, 'God, why is the power of God not moving?' And He said, 'It is because you haven't kicked that women in the face.' And there was, like, this older lady worshipping right in front of the platform and the Holy Spirit spoke to me and the gift of faith came on me. He said, 'Kick her in the face ... with your biker boot.' I inched closer and I went like this [makes kicking motion]: Bam! And just as my boot made contact with her nose, she fell under the power of God."
The atmosphere is less charged with violence at "The Call," a 12-hour revival of up to 20,000 youths led by Joel's Army pastor Lou Engle and held every summer in a major American city (this year's event was scheduled for Washington, D.C. in August).
Attendees are called upon to fast and pray for 40 days and take up culture-war pledges to lead abstinent lives, reject pornography and fight abortion. They're further asked to perform "identificational repentance," lugging along family trees and genealogies to see where one of their ancestors may have enslaved or oppressed another so that they can make amends. (Many in the Joel's Army movement believe in generational curses that must be broken by the current generation).
As even his critics note, Engle is a sweet, humble and gentle man whose persona is difficult to reconcile with his belief in an end-time army of invincible young Christian warriors. Yet while Engle is careful to avoid deploying explicit Joel's Army rhetoric at high-profile events like The Call, when he's speaking in smaller hyper-charismatic circles to avowed Joel's Army followers, he can venture into bloodlust.
This March, at a "Passion for Jesus" conference in Kansas City sponsored by the International House of Prayer, or IHOP, a ministry for teenagers from the heavy metal, punk and goth scenes, Engle called on his audience for vengeance.
"I believe we're headed to an Elijah/Jezebel showdown on the Earth, not just in America but all over the globe, and the main warriors will be the prophets of Baal versus the prophets of God, and there will be no middle ground," said Engle. He was referring to the Baal of the Old Testament, a pagan idol whose followers were slaughtered under orders from the prophet Elijah.
"There's an Elijah generation that's going to be the forerunners for the coming of Jesus, a generation marked not by their niceness but by the intensity of their passion," Engle continued. "The kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force. Such force demands an equal response, and Jesus is going to make war on everything that hinders love, with his eyes blazing fire."
Although Joel's Army theology is mainly directed at people in their teens and early 20s via events like The Call and ministries like IHOP, sometimes the target audience is even younger. In some of the most arresting images in Jesus Camp, a 2006 documentary about the Kids on Fire bible camp in North Dakota, grade school-aged kids dressed in army fatigues wield swords and conduct military field maneuvers. "A lot of people die for God and they're not afraid," one camper told ABC News reporters in a follow-up segment.
"We're kinda being trained to be warriors," added another, "only in a funner way."
Cain and the Intellectuals
Both Christian and secular critics assailed the makers of Jesus Camp for referring to the camp's extremist, militant Christianity as "evangelical." There is a name, however, that describes Kids on Fire's agenda, if you're familiar with their theology: Joel's Army. Pastor Becky Fischer, who runs the camp, said that a third of the kids at her camp were under 6 years old because they are "more in touch in the supernatural" and proclaimed them to be "soldiers for God's Army." Her camp's blend of end-times militancy and supernaturalism is perfectly emblematic of the Joel's Army movement, whose adherents believe their cause is prophesied in the Old Testament chapter titled "An Army of Locusts."
The stark, evocative passages of that chapter describe a locust swarm that lays waste to Israel (to this day, the region suffers periodic locust invasions): "Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was of old nor ever will be in ages to come." As remarkable as the language is, most biblical scholars agree that it is a literal description of a locust invasion and resulting famine that occurred sometime between the 9th and 5th centuries B.C.E.
In the Book of Joel, the locust invasion is described as an omen that an Assyrian army to the north may attack Israel if it fails to repent as a nation. But nowhere is the invasion described as an army of God. According to an Assemblies of God position paper: "It is a complete misinterpretation of Scripture to find in Joel's army of locusts a militant, victorious force attacking society and a non-cooperating Church to prepare the earth for Christ's millennial reign."
The story of how an ancient insect invasion came to be a rallying flag for 21st-century dominonists begins just after World War II in Canada. Out of a small town in Saskatchewan, a Pentecostal preacher named William Branham spearheaded a 1948 revival in which he claimed that his followers lived in a new biblical time of "Latter Rain."
The most sinless and ardent of his flock would be called "Manifest Sons of God." By the next year, the movement was so strong -- and seemed so subversive to some -- that the Assemblies of God banned it as a heretic cult. But Branham remained a controversial figure with a loyal following; many of his followers believed him to be the end-times prophet Elijah.
Michael Barkun, a leading scholar of radical religion, notes that in 1958, Branham began teaching "Serpent Seed" doctrine, the belief that Satan had sex with Eve, resulting in Cain and his descendants. "Through Cain came all the smart, educated people down to the antediluvian flood -- the intellectuals, bible colleges," Branham wrote in the kind of anti-mainstream religion, anti-intellectual spirit that pervades the Joel's Army movement to this day. "They know all their creeds but know nothing about God."
The Gates of Hell
Branham was killed in a car accident in 1965, but his Manifest Sons of God movement, the direct predecessor of Joel's Army, lived on within a cluster of hyper-charismatic churches. In the 1980s, Branham's teachings took on new life at the Kansas City Fellowship (KCF), a group of popular self-styled apostles and prophets who used the Missouri church as a launching pad for national careers promoting outright Joel's Army theology.
Ernie Gruen, a local pastor who initially promoted and gave citywide credibility to KCF pastors in the early 1980s, cut his connections in 1990. Concerned about KCF's plans to push its teachings worldwide, Gruen published a 132-page insider's account, based on taped sermons and conversations and interviews with parents who had enrolled their kids in KCF's Dominion school.
According to Gruen's report, students at the school were taught that they were a "super-race" of the "elected seed" of all the best bloodlines of all generations -- foreknown, predestined, and hand-selected from billions of others to be part of the "end-time Omega generation."
Though he'd once promoted these doctrines himself, Gruen became convinced that the movement was turning into an end-times cult, marked by what he summarized as "spiritual threats, fears, and warnings of death," "warning followers to beware of other Christians" and exhibiting "a 'super-race' mentality toward the training of their children."
When contacted by the Intelligence Report, Gruen's spokesman said that Gruen stands by everything he published in the report but no longer grants media interviews.
The Kansas City Fellowship remains in operation and has served as a farm team for many of the all-stars of the Joel's Army movement. Those larger-than-life figures include John Wimber, the founder of a California megachurch, The Vineyard, who, before his death in 1997, proclaimed that Joel's Army would not only conquer the earth but defeat death itself. Lou Engle founded The Call based on the Joel's Army visions that KCF "prophet" Bob Jones (not to be confused with Bob Jones III of Bob Jones University) received while at KCF. Mike Bickle, another KCF member, stayed in Kansas City to form the International House of Prayer.
IHOP members and other Joel's Army adherents are well aware of how their movement is perceived by other conservative Christians.
"Today, you can type 'Joel's Army' into a search engine and a thousand heresy hunter websites pop up, decrying the very mention of it," writes John Crowder in The New Mystics. Crowder doesn't exactly allay critic's fears. "This is truly warfare," he writes. "This battle is not a game. They [Joel's Army warriors] will not be on the defense; they will be on the offense -- and the gates of hell will not be able to hold up against them."
So far, few members of the secular media have taken notice of Joel's Army, even as they report on Protestant dominionists like Pat Robertson or the more outrageous calls for the stoning of gays and lesbians emanating from Reconstructionist circles. There are exceptions, however. On the DailyKos, a well-read, politically liberal blog, a diarist has been blogging for two years about her experiences as a walkaway from a Joel's Army church. She writes under a pseudonym out of fear of physical reprisals.
She may have real cause for concern. As Wimber, the late founder of The Vineyard, put it in one of his most famous and fiery sermons, one that is still frequently cited by Joel's Army followers: "Those in this army will have His kind of power. ... Anyone who wants to harm them must die."