It’s stunning to me that in a world where radical jihadists “inspired by God” can send planes hurtling into skyscrapers killing thousands of innocent civilians and setting off a deadly so-called global war against terrorism, where intractable inter-religious conflicts have raged in recent years (and continue to be fought in many cases) in Bosnia, Chechnya, Côte d’Ivoire, East Timor, Kosovo, Indonesia, Palestine, Sri Lanka, and numerous other places around the globe, that anyone could regard religion as anything but “dangerous nonsense” as Richard Dawkins has so rightly labeled it.
And yet, we non-believers are steadfastly assured by people of faith that our concerns about religion are needlessly strident, hysterical, and completely without foundation, and at the very least, they most certainly shouldn’t be applied in any way to Christianity which, we’re repeatedly told, is a loving and beneficent faith.
Well, we’ll see about that. Meet Todd Bentley, a 32-year-old, prodigiously tattooed, body-pierced, shaved-head Canadian preacher who’s been leading a continuous “supernatural healing revival” in Lakeland, Florida, a city of half a million located smack-dab in the middle of the panhandle, that its 19th century founder Abraham Munn had originally thought of naming “Red Bug” for some curious reason.
Bentley himself has temporarily stepped down from his position with the Abbotsford, B.C. based Freshfire Ministries and his role as main attraction at the “Lakeland Outpouring” as it’s called due to the fact that he “entered into an unhealthy relationship on an emotional level with a female member of his staff,” as ministry officials put it in a recent press release. What’s of far more concern than another hypocritical charlatan like Bentley claiming to be a prophet (there never seems to be any shortage of those in the world), or the laughable fraudulence of his faith-healing shakedown, is the truly disturbing ideological movement behind it, as outlined in this eye-opening article by Casey Sanchez of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
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.
Nothing to worry about when it comes to Christians, huh? But wait, it gets much, much better.
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.”
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.
If, as Dawkins asserts that religion is a “virus of the mind,” then it has to be said that the Joel’s Army theology is an intensely noxious strain of it.