In California, a Christian Megachurch Is Trying to Bring a 2-Year-Old Girl Back to Life

Olive Alayne Heiligenthal died last Saturday.

In this photo Olive Alayne Heiligenthal is playing with leaves and smiling.
An undated photo of Olive Alayne Heiligenthal. Courtesy of Bethel Church

Christianity is a religion built on an account of a physical resurrection. But it is rare to see 21st-century American Christians praying for the dead to be raised in real time. Since last weekend, however, a prominent megachurch in Northern California has been calling on its members and followers to “pray for a miracle of resurrection” for a 2-year-old girl who died last weekend.

Olive Alayne Heiligenthal stopped breathing early last Saturday, according to a statement from Bethel Church spokesperson Aaron Tesauro. The circumstances are unclear, but the family called 911, and medical professionals attempted to resuscitate her at the family’s home and at the hospital. She was pronounced dead, and the church said her body has been at the Shasta County Coroner’s office since Saturday. Soon afterward, her mother posted a desperate request on Instagram. “We are asking for bold, unified prayers from the global church to stand with us in belief that He will raise this little girl back to life,” Kalley Heiligenthal wrote on Instagram, accompanied by a photograph of Olive playing outside. “Her time here is not done.”

Kalley is a member of the Bethel Music worship collective, a band associated with Bethel Church in Redding, California, which attracts about 9,000 attendees to services each weekend. She released her first solo work this fall and has a large following on social media. That helped the movement to bring Olive back to life become a global phenomenon within hours of her first post. The hashtag #wakeupolive has generated roughly 3,000 posts on Instagram, including songs, selfies, dancing, and original artwork. A GoFundMe set up for the family by the church had raised $50,000 by Thursday afternoon.

The church itself has assisted in spreading the word. On Tuesday evening, Bethel hosted a prayer service “declaring resurrection and life” for the little girl. Hundreds of people attended. Heiligenthal posted a video to Instagram of an energetic worship service that night, with the large crowd standing, jumping, and raising their hands as they sing, “All hail to Jesus.” “Day 4 is a really good day for resurrection,” she wrote in the caption. “Thank you so much for joining your faith to ours, we feel your strength and radical belief. Keep declaring life over Olive Alayne with us.” Other videos apparently taken at the same service depict the church’s young adult pastor pacing the stage and praying: “We are not mourning right now, we are expecting a move of the Spirit in such a measure to wake a child from her sleep!”

Bethel’s profile as a megachurch has risen quickly in recent years. The church was founded in the 1950s, but its growth took off in the 1990s, when the Revs. Bill and Beni Johnson assumed leadership. In 2005, the Johnsons removed the church from the Assemblies of God denomination and turned it into an independent church. It is best known for Bethel Music, a music ministry that includes a record label and touring worship band that produces the kind of soaring inspirational anthems performed by Instagram-savvy musicians that dominate the Christian music scene.

But Bethel has increasing political influence, too. The Johnsons both spoke publicly about their support for President Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Sean Feucht, a member of Bethel Music who has posted frequently about Olive this week, is currently running for Congress as a Republican in California’s 3rd Congressional District. Feucht was one of at least seven Bethel leaders who prayed for the president earlier this month in the Oval Office at a gathering of Christian singers and musicians.

Bethel is part of a charismatic tradition that is defined in part by its belief that the Holy Spirit continues to physically act in the world today, including through miraculous healing. Bethel itself operates a School of Supernatural Ministry that trains students in faith healing and prophecy—students cheekily refer to it as “Christian Hogwarts.” Still, it is extremely unusual to encourage such a public denial of a confirmed death. “The Bible gives resources for being positive but it also gives resources for being realistic about the world in which we live,” said Craig Keener, a professor of biblical studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, who wrote about the Bethel “resurrection” movement for Christianity Today.

Keener has written about rare contemporary resurrection accounts that he finds credible, and he does not begrudge a parent’s instinct to pray for a miracle. But he cautioned that the longest period of time between death and resurrection, in the Bible and in what he considers credible contemporary accounts, is four days. Heiligenthal posted on Wednesday that “Day 5 is a really good day for resurrection.”

Other evangelical Christians are beginning to question the church’s ongoing calls for resurrection. Author Wade Mullen, who writes about abuse within evangelical institutions, cautioned that attempted resurrections are often associated with cults. On Wednesday, Bill Johnson posted a somber five-minute video statement addressing critics who have questioned the church. Johnson says there is biblical precedent for such miracles, citing biblical accounts of Jesus raising people from the dead. But he acknowledged that the outcome is unknown. “There’s no manual that tells us ‘fast this many days, pray this many hours,’ ” he said. “But there’s a biblical precedent that tells us to keep praying.”

Tesauro, the church spokesman, emphasized that this is the “the first-ever public gathering of prayer for resurrection that Bethel has hosted.” But the incident is reminiscent of an event in Bethel’s recent past that may have provided a template for the church’s followers to come together this week. Two years ago, the 2-year-old son of Bethel Music CEO Joel Taylor was airlifted to a hospital with a serious E. coli infection. The church requested prayers, and thousands of people followed the toddler’s condition online and prayed for his healing. Bethel Music members wrote and recorded a worship anthem, “Raise a Hallelujah,” to which the church partially attributed the child’s recovery. In a video of a live performance posted this fall, Kalley Heiligenthal sings the song onstage with Bethel Music. “Up from the ashes, hope will arise,” she sings, as the crowd raises their hands to the stage. “Death is defeated, the king is alive.”