Music echoed throughout the cavernous space as hundreds of congregants of a church in Redding, California, jumped up and down with their hands in the air. At the front of the room, a worship leader danced around a stage lined with lit Christmas trees as giant screens played the song’s lyrics.
“Come alive / Come alive / Come alive, dry bones / Awake, arise / Inhale the light”
The group was praying for 2-year-old Olive Heiligenthal, who Bethel Church says unexpectedly stopped breathing on Saturday. But the worshippers were not praying for her soul to find rest or for her family to be healed. They were asking God to raise her from the dead.
Kalley Heiligenthal, a worship leader at the church, and her husband Andrew Heiligenthal called 911 when they realized their daughter was not breathing, Bethel’s leadership said in a statement. First responders tried to revive Olive at her home and at the hospital, but the church said she was pronounced dead the same day. Her body was transferred to the Shasta County Coroner’s Office.
That evening, Kalley asked the church community to pray that her daughter would come back to life just as, Christians believe, Jesus Christ raised people from the dead.
“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 wrote on Instagram alongside a photo of Olive running through a pile of leaves. “Her time here is not done, and it is our time to believe boldly, and with confidence wield what King Jesus paid for.”
Kalley has shared photos of her daughter daily with messages thanking people for their support and continuing to call for Olive to come back to life. Bethel Church said it has been hosting prayer and worship gatherings at the continued request of the Heiligenthals.
The church said its congregants believe in the miracle of resurrection, “which is modeled by Jesus in the New Testament of the Bible.” This is Bethel’s first public gathering of prayer for someone to return to life, according to a statement from the church’s leadership.
“Bethel Church believes in the accounts of healing and physical resurrection found in the Bible (Matthew 10:8), and that the miracles they portray are possible today,” said the church’s statement, shared by communications director Aaron Tesauro.
In thousands of Instagram posts shared with the hashtag #WakeUpOlive, people have expressed empathy for the Heiligenthals and hope that the girl will come back to life. Some videos showed Kalley herself leading a worship service.
A GoFundMe page set up for the family will cover unknown expenses and any future expenses for Olive, according to the church statement. The fundraiser had accrued more than $50,000 as of Thursday evening.
Bill Johnson, a senior leader of the church, said in a video that there was a Biblical precedent for believing in resurrection. In addition to Jesus raising the dead, Johnson said that Jesus commanded his disciples to do the same.
“The reason Jesus raised the dead is because not everyone dies in God’s timing, and Jesus could tell,” Johnson said. “And he would interrupt that funeral, he would interrupt that process that some would just call the sovereignty of God.”
Johnson said he did not know when the church members would stop praying, but he referenced the community’s support two years ago for the young son of another worship leader. The boy was experiencing serious medical issues during the prayer and eventually went home from the hospital.
Although Bethel is nondenominational, it began as a part of the Pentecostal denomination Assemblies of God, said Richard Flory, who wrote about the church in his book, “The Rise of Network Christianity.” He said Pentecostal Christians believe the Holy Spirit is active in the modern world and can perform miracles like the ones that have been ascribed to Jesus.
Pentecostal Christians frequently pray for those miracles, but rarely ask God for someone to be raised from the dead, said Flory, senior director of research and evaluation at the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture. He said he had heard of this kind of prayer happening in African nations, but he did not know of other instances of it in the United States.
Flory said Johnson’s assertion that “not everyone dies in God’s timing” seemed presumptuous and inconsistent with many Pentecostal Christians’ belief that God is always in control. Flory said he is more concerned, however, about the potential psychological and emotional impacts on the Heiligenthals and other church members when Olive is not resurrected.
In an effort to make the difficulties of life easier to bear, Flory said some people choose to believe in miracles that seem unlikely to others.
“That kind of power that’s not part of this world is something that I think is really appealing to people in a world that’s just seemingly running amok,” he said.