Book Review: When Heaven Invades Earth, by Bill Johnson

Johnson speaks of God impersonally, which is the first reason why I believe his teaching is heterodox

“Johnson rejects the sufficiency of Scripture, insists on new revelations, and chastises pastors and teachers who insist on sound doctrine (85, 91, 103). Most evidently, he speaks of the Spirit as something like a drug to experience and Jesus as a powerful model to imitate, not an incarnate Lord to worship. This is the first reason why I believe his teaching is heterodox.”

 

It’s no light matter to call someone a heretic.

Heresy isn’t merely theological error; it’s error that tampers with our understanding of God and Christ and threatens, if not completely undermines, our standing before him. Historically, heresy has been saved for matters that deny the Trinity or reject the early church councils.[1] Therefore, we must use the greatest caution when invoking the term.[2]

And yet, when Trinity-eroding, Christ-denying, gospel-subverting error is published, we ought not shy away from declaring a teacher or teaching as heretical.

For that reason, I must use the word heresy to speak of Bill Johnson’s book When Heaven Invades Earth: A Practical Guide to a Life of Miracles. As I will argue, Johnson’s teaching about living a life of miraculous power is heretical precisely because it misrepresents what the Bible says about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While this review could focus on the sign-gifts Johnson attests to, I’ll instead focus on his intended (or unintended) teaching about God to show how he deviates from Christian orthodoxy and, as such, poses grave danger to Christians and non-Christians alike.

BILL JOHNSON AND BETHEL CHURCH

Bill Johnson is the pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, California. As his bio indicates, he’s “a fifth-generation pastor with a rich heritage in the Holy Spirit.” His family line includes a grandfather who sang for Aimee Semple McPherson and others who were deeply impacted by early Pentecostal minister Smith Wigglesworth. In short, Johnson is a committed Charismatic, whose ministry has garnered an international reputation through his revival preaching, his church, and their School for Supernatural Ministry. To be clear, what follows is not a critique of Charismatics as a whole, but the specific strain of Bill Johnson’s “gospel of power.”

It should also be noted that Bethel’s music ministry has reached the widest audience, especially in the evangelical world. Their digital downloads have at times eclipsed Adele and Coldplay. This, combined with a large YouTube following, the reputation of Bethel Church and its supernatural manifestations, has grown far and wide. In May 2016, the cover story of Christianity Today focused on Bethel Church and the “manifestations” of God it reports (e.g., holy laughter, miraculous healings, gold dust, etc.). Johnson describes these in the book (159–60)[3]—and though they’re worth investigation, this review will limit its focus to what he says about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.

By focusing on Johnson’s aberrant theology, I pray pastors will be better equipped to counsel members influenced by his wide-reaching ministry. At the same time, these doctrinal considerations may lead Bible-centered churches to exchange the often subjective songs of Bethel Music and Jesus Culture for lyrics that more expressly praise the triune God. My hope is that what follows does more than “expose” the heretical teaching of When Heaven Invades Earth; I also hope it clarifies for all of us the true power of God’s gospel (Rom. 1:16).

AN IMPERSONAL POWER, NOT A PERSONAL GOD

When critiquing the Gnostics in the second century, Irenaeus observed,

Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of a man all to pieces, should re-arrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed. (Against Heresies 1.8.1)

Similarly, Bill Johnson speaks often about God’s power, but instead of rightly asserting God’s power in biblical categories (i.e., the power of his word or the power of God in creation, providence, or redemption), he describes God’s power in repeatedly impersonal ways.

For instance, in a life-altering “power encounter,” Johnson speaks of God as an overwhelming force. He describes his life-shaping power encounter like this:

Once, in the middle of the night, God came in answer to my prayer for more of Him, yet not in a way I had expected. I went from a dead sleep to being wide-awake in a moment. Unexplainable power began to pulsate through my body, seemingly just shy of electrocution. It was a though I had been plugged into a wall socket with a thousand volts of electricity flowing through my body. My arms and legs shot out in silent explosions as if something was released through my hands and feet. (126–27)

Johnson explains his prayer life leading up to this experience, which recurred for three nights straight (126–28). And what was his conclusion? This power encounter was God: “This was simply the most overwhelming experience of my life. It was raw power. . . it was God” (127, emphasis his).

Noticeably absent is any mention of verbal communication or propositional truth, not to mention any biblical meditation or spiritual conviction. His experience is entirely visceral, not verbal. The Logos is absent. The Bible tells us that God spoke the world into existence (Ps. 33:5–6) and has given us a Spirit-inspired book (2 Tim. 3:16). Yet Johnson says of this experience, this power, “it was God.”

For all his talk about power, Johnson neglects to consider the power of the gospel (Rom. 1:16­–17), Jesus’ power to forgive sins (Mark 2), or God’s power to raise spiritually dead men to life (Eph. 2:1–10). In fact, in one of the few places Johnson mentions Jesus’ death, his orthodox statement about salvation (Jesus “live[d] life as a man without sin, and then die[d] in the place of mankind for sin,” 88) is immediately called into question because of how he espouses the kenotic theory: “He [Jesus] laid His divinity aside (see Phil 2:5–7) as He sought to fulfill the assignment given to Him by the Father,” (87–88).

Historically, the kenotic theory has been rejected by orthodox theologians because of the way it brings into question the hypostatic union of the Son, an essential Christological doctrine. (For a helpful critique of the kenotic theory, see Donald Macleod’s The Person of Christ, specifically pages 209–12.) Whether this is due to imprecision or error, Johnson’s resulting Christology is aberrant and another indication that his God-of-all-power theology is likewise unbiblical. As a result, one walks away from When Heaven Invades Earth with the sense that the ultimate communion with God should be something like a drug-induced high where God is the opiate—only in this case, God is the opiate.

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