Following Benny Hinn’s recent visit to the UK, Justin Brierley investigates the controversial health and wealth message of one of the world’s most famous healing evangelists.
When I decided to attend a Benny Hinn ‘miracle night’ in London, I had a good idea of what to expect. A quick Internet search brings up multiple videos of his televised healing events around the world. It also won’t take you long to discover that he is a figure whose ministry divides Christian opinion. For the many who watch his TV show This is Your Day and attend his events, Hinn is a powerfully anointed evangelist with a God-given healing ministry. To others, he is a charlatan and a false prophet – a heretic fleecing a flock of gullible followers.
Born in Israel and raised in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Hinn converted to Pentecostalism after his family emigrated to Toronto. He went on to found a church and healing ministry in Florida in the 1980s. By the 1990s, he was filling stadiums for miracle rallies around the world, with millions more watching his showmanship via television broadcasts.
He’s hugely popular, but has been no stranger to controversy throughout his ministry. In 1989 he predicted a mass wipeout of homosexuals in America by 94/95. In 2000, he predicted physical appearances of Jesus around the world before his return. His organisation has also been examined for financial irregularities (the United States Senate Committee on Finance investigated Hinn in 2007, but found no evidence of wrongdoing).
Then there are the healings themselves. The American television network HBO broadcast a documentary (A Question of Miracles) in which they followed case studies of people who Hinn claimed were healed at a rally, but found no evidence of them actually being healed. The American evangelist Justin Peters, who wrote his thesis on Hinn, has criticised the way people with obvious physical disabilities are hardly ever allowed onstage at a rally.
So what would happen in London? Walking into the 2,000-seat venue at Westminster Central Hall in late August, I wanted to keep an open mind. Certainly, some of his flamboyant behaviour is out of my comfort zone, but as a Christian who believes in charismatic gifts and healing, I’m open to God working miracles. Hinn had been unable to grant me an interview in person, but I hoped to at least get a ring-side perspective on what the 60-year-old healing evangelist is all about. Would my night with Benny Hinn confirm the worst fears of the critics, or prove to be an eye-opening encounter with a genuine man of God?
The event starts late, but that doesn’t seem to bother the assembled crowd of mainly black and Hispanic Pentecostals, and a number of people in wheelchairs. A group of well turned-out singers leads the enthusiastic congregation in praise numbers before Hinn walks on to the stage dressed in his trademark dove-emblazoned suit.
Jovial and laid back, Hinn tells anecdotes to the crowd, even engaging in banter with the hired hand playing Central Hall’s huge organ. He leads the singing, spontaneously calling for a medley of hymns, while the musicians try to keep up. It’s slightly disorganised at times (there are no projected words), but it also has a refreshingly unpolished feel for such a large event.
Many have travelled some distance to attend. Hinn invites a woman on to the stage who arrived at 4:30 that morning. She’s evidently star-struck and nearly faints when Hinn announces that he is giving her an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel. It turns out to be a precursor to encouraging the audience to book on to a trip to the Holy Land, organised by Hinn’s ministry.
NAME IT AND CLAIM IT
Critics of Hinn note his embrace of the Word of Faith movement, in which believers verbally claim blessings for themselves in faith that God will provide. Hinn invites anyone who wants to go on his Israel trip to stand up (over half the auditorium does so). He leads them in a prayer to claim the $2,200 costs plus air fare. ‘It’s not about if, it’s when,’ he proclaims emphatically, as those standing with outstretched arms repeat the prayer after him. He even includes a request for God to provide extra spending money to do some shopping while they are there.
In reality, he almost certainly won’t be joined in Israel by the vast majority of those who prayed. Can it be right to dangle such a promise in front of people who will inevitably be left disappointed? Either way, there’s more of this sort of thing to come, as money talk dominates much of the rest of the ‘miracle night’.
Hinn clearly preaches a ‘prosperity gospel’ which views financial riches as a sign of God’s favour, promised in scripture. At the conclusion of his talk about six biblical stories of so-called ‘wealth transfers’ in scripture, Hinn points at the audience and declares ‘the seventh wealth transfer is coming to you’.
The envelopes for the offering bear the words of Luke 6:38, a proof text for the Word of Faith movement: ‘Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.’ But the context for these words (Jesus’ teaching on forgiving others as they forgive you) is conveniently ignored.
HEALTH AND WEALTH
When it comes to his own prosperity, Hinn has frequently been the target of media reports and questions over ministry funds. In 2005, the NBC TV show Dateline claimed that he received more than half a million dollars in salary as well as book royalties. Then there’s the $10m seafront mansion, private jet, expensive cars and claims of lavish expenditure. Hinn has responded by saying that the ministry’s financial dealings are beyond reproach, the jet is a ministry asset and he receives no royalties. His website includes a long and seemingly comprehensive list of responses to these and other accusations.
Money talk dominates much of the miracle night
His personal life also came under the spotlight when his wife Suzanne filed for divorce in 2010. A tabloid story then accused Hinn and televangelist Paula White of having an affair, something they both strongly deny, but which diminished his popularity at the time. In fact, he and Suzanne remarried in March this year in what was described as a ‘miracle of grace’. He isn’t shy of talking about his personal life from the platform, as an extraordinary onstage drama begins to play out.
He begins by relating how his divorce left him over $700,000 in debt. Facing apparent destitution, he met to pray with his pastor Jack Hayford, a well-known US church leader. He says he heard God tell him to honour Hayford with a gift of $2,000 per month, and that acting in obedience to that prompting set off a trail of blessing in return.
A rich American couple approached Hinn soon afterwards, offering to pay off all his debts and more. They are in the audience, and join him onstage. We then find out that they have received a windfall of fresh income that very morning through an oil deal. God is blessing them for their faithfulness, says Hinn. The drama reaches a peak as they spring it on the evangelist that they’ve just decided to give him another $250,000. Hinn is almost beside himself with amazement, and immediately pledges to tithe 10% into his ministry.
Perhaps those wealthy donors were completely genuine, but to most onlookers the whole thing would have seemed like an absurd stage play. Can this be what Christianity is about? Rich people on a platform giving each other large amounts of money?
SEED GIFTS AND HARVESTS
Entry was free to this event, and the cost of staging it would have been considerable, so taking an offering is perfectly defensible. But where’s the line between taking an offering and manipulating the audience into giving more than they can afford? Once the American couple had made their pledge, Hinn begins to explain why tonight is especially important for ‘planting a financial seed’.
‘Planting a seed’ is another branch of prosperity theology based on Bible verses about sowing and reaping. By some supposed spiritual law, giving (sowing) a financial donation will mean that God is obliged to return a multiplication (harvest) of what has been given. What’s more, we are assured that there is an ‘anointing for finance’ this evening and ‘there may never be another night like this’. There will be ‘breakthroughs’, people will become ‘debt free’; Hinn even prays for a ‘seven day turnaround’ for those who come forward. But ‘your seed determines your harvest’ we are warned, so ‘put the best seed God tells you to in the envelope’.
Those who want to make a ‘seed gift’ of £1,000 or more go down to the stage first. A trickle of about 15 people come forward for this first tier of giving. Then those who want to give £100 or more are invited, and a larger number of people start to make their way. Meanwhile, another member of Hinn’s team takes over, animatedly promising promotions, cars, and miracles in return for giving in faith. On Hinn’s command the buckets are passed along rows to take the rest of the offerings, accompanied by a rousing medley of songs about supernatural provision.
Essentially what took place is this: people in financial difficulty were told that if they gave as much as they could, then the magic wand of anointing would solve all their problems. Would there be thousands of debt-free Christians with new cars and better salaries by the next time the ministry came to town? Hinn made it sound like a certainty.
HEALING AND MIRACLES
The hours ticked by, and it was still unclear when the healing part of the service would actually take place as Hinn began a sermon about Jesus. To give him credit, his theology sounded fairly orthodox at this point, with no sign of the doctrinal errors on the Trinity he’s been accused of (he’s previously preached that there are actually nine parts to the Trinity, as each person of the Godhead is in fact a trinity itself). As he reached his conclusion, the mood music from the keyboard began to swell and excitement levels rose. A man beside me began to shout in tongues. It’s clear that most of those present know the typical service formula and that Hinn was about to proclaim a healing anointing. He did so, and began to call out a number of ailments that he could sense were being healed. At the same time, people began to approach the stage.
Can this be what Christianity is about? Rich people on a platform giving each other large amounts of money?
The ministry takes the same approach at all its miracle events. Individuals who believe they have received healing are brought on to stage by one of his aides who give a potted history of their affliction. Hinn then speaks to the person and may ask them to perform some kind of action to confirm the healing. The individual will then go down in the Spirit as Hinn lays hands on them.
There was some jostling for position in the queue which had formed. A woman in charge of deciding who would come up clearly knew what she was about, and was ensuring that the right people were in the right order. One father with a young daughter ruefully shook his head as he realised he wasn’t going to make it on to the platform. Evidently, getting on the stage with Hinn seems to be key to whether a healing has taken place.
People testified to hearing problems being healed, and various pains being alleviated. Realistically, they were almost impossible to verify in the circumstances, and I didn’t see any of those with severe physical disabilities go up. Nevertheless, those coming onstage believed something had happened. One of the most dramatic accounts was of a teenage girl from Pakistan called Sarah, with Down’s syndrome. We were told that she had been given six months to live by doctors, due to holes in her heart. She was reliant on the use of a wheelchair and oxygen tank, but now she was onstage without oxygen and standing next to her wheelchair. Hinn walked her around the stage with him, and when she fell down in the Spirit, proclaimed that God was healing her heart condition.
Hinn’s detractors say that his miracle claims are bogus. They believe the testimonies onstage are more the result of adrenaline and careful handpicking than the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, there are mainstream evangelicals who believe Hinn has a genuine healing gift, albeit accompanied by showmanship and theology that’s unpalatable outside certain Pentecostal cultures. I was left undecided. I believe God can work miracles, I just didn’t know if he was working them through Benny Hinn.
GRACE AND SCEPTICISM
So what about Sarah? I rang the family a few weeks later, wanting to find out if there had been a permanent change in her health. I was assured that there had been. Whereas she had often needed the use of a wheelchair, she was now doing without it. She was also less dependent on her oxygen tank and had stopped taking tablets for her heart condition. It was good news but also revealed that her story was a little more complicated than the onstage version. She had actually been given the six month diagnosis three years ago, and in that time her family had been to several Hinn events without managing to get onstage. They had persevered, as Sarah’s mother believed she had been given a dream saying that her daughter would be healed by Benny Hinn.
Sarah hadn’t yet found out about her heart; she will see a specialist soon to determine whether the holes are gone. I hope and pray that she is fully healed. She and her family seemed to be good, honest people, seeking to be obedient to God. Despite my concerns about Hinn’s theology and practices that night, I witnessed a room full of sincere, faith-filled Christians. And why shouldn’t God respond to honest faith?
So call me a believer, not in Benny Hinn, but in Jesus. I have strong reservations about the ministry, particularly the potential damage of his prosperity message. But I also happen to believe in a God who is gracious enough to respond to his people in spite of those things, and in spite of my scepticism too.
BENNY BY NUMBERS
1 BILLION Number of people Benny Hinn has preached to directly, according to his ministry
$100M Estimated annual income of Benny Hinn Ministries, according to NBC Dateline
$36M Estimated value of Dove One, a private jet bought by Benny Hinn Ministries in 2007
$250,000 Amount donated by Benny Hinn Ministries to Asian tsunami relief in 2005
$3,000 Cost per night of some hotel suites for ‘layovers’ in Hawaii, Cancun and Milan between crusades
9 Number of members in the Godhead according to Hinn, who at one time claimed each member of the Trinity was also a trinity