From Charismatic to Agnostic: How the International House of Prayer Influenced My Journey

“Rationalizations often appear when a religious movement suffers the falsification of its prophecies.” - Dale C. Allison

People have asked me several times since “coming out” as an agnostic what impact, if any, my time at the International House of Prayer has had on my journey. The truth is that it has had a profound impact, but probably not in the way many people might think.

I’ve been out of the end-times charismatic world for almost a decade now, and I’ve really grown to love many of the more traditional, progressive, and ecumenical expressions of the faith I’ve been exposed to in that time. My “loss of faith” is not the result of a sudden pendulum swing or naively equating the more ecstatic and apocalyptic expression of my youth with the whole of Christianity. What my experience at IHOP has done, however, is give me a first-hand framework for understanding crucial aspects of the early church (e.g., its more ecstatic and apocalyptic elements) that might otherwise be difficult for a modern Christian to understand.

Much of my theological energy over the past decade or more has been spent trying to avoid the conclusion that I now find unavoidable: that the earliest period of the church “was a time of excited and sometimes (from the typical twentieth-century standpoint) fantastic beliefs and practices to whose atmosphere we have a clue in the uninhibited enthusiasms of contemporary Pentecostalism and the unshakable certainties of marginal sects expecting the imminent end of the world. In that early apocalyptic phase of the Christian movement the canons of plausibility were very different from those operating within today’s mainline churches” (John Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate, 16).

The discerning reader of this blog may have noticed a trend in recent years, as many of my posts have focused on the question of non-fulfillment in biblical prophecy (e.g., this post), and particularly on non-fulfillment in the prophecies of Jesus (e.g., this post). That is one dimension of a matrix of questions about the historical foundations of Christianity, all of which might be boiled down to a fundamental set of alternatives: Did it all happen like the New Testament writers say it did, or was there something else going on? Reading such posts in retrospect, I see myself trying desperately to find an honest interpretation of the evidence while still upholding an orthodox Christian faith—two goals which I now find to be in conflict with one another.

I offer no pretense of objectivity here. As a student of the New Testament who grew up in an atmosphere of unshakeable apocalyptic expectations, I can’t help but see many parallels between modern charismatic groups like IHOP and the early church, and my first-hand experience with the former makes it difficult for me to avoid skepticism toward the latter.

To cite one example, it has become increasingly fascinating to me how IHOP’s “prophetic history” has undergone so many stages of redaction and reinterpretation over the last 30+ years, despite being told by the same leader who experienced it all in the first place, and despite being told to essentially the same community. One of the best illustrations of this phenomenon is the story Mike Bickle tells about the fulfillment of Bob Jones’ drought prophecy in the summer of 1983. This is just one example, but anyone familiar with source, form, or redaction criticism will immediately see its relevance to the New Testament.

 “A sign in the heavens”

Here’s how Mike told the story in 1989:

“Then Bob [Jones] stands up at the end [of the fast] and he says, ‘I got bad news.’ He says, ‘The Lord told me that there isn’t gonna be a revival being poured out at the end of this 21 days.’ He said, ‘Worse than that, we’re goin’ to have three months of total barrenness. And there’s gonna be a drought upon the city.’… [So] we watched it day by day and there was a drought those three months. He (Bob) said, ‘The Lord will break the drought in the natural over Kansas City, and it’s a sign that He will, on an appointed time, break the drought in the Spirit, but not until He appoints the time.’

And he told us on the end of May, he said, ‘This drought will last three months in the natural. It will last a number of years in the Spirit… But there is an appointed time when the drought breaks in the natural as well as in the Spirit.’ And he said, ‘And here’s the proof…It will break on an appointed day in the natural.’ On August 23, the drought will end and the rains will come to the city. Three months from, from now, the rains will come… Obviously that took place and that was glorious. And it was a supernatural sign to us. We waited all summer for that.” (Mike Bickle, “Overview of Our Prophetic History,” May 1989, emphasis mine)

Note that, according to this early telling of the story, Bob Jones prophesied that there would be a three-month drought from the end of May (“from now”) until the end of August, and on August 23 (“an appointed day”) God would end the drought (“On August 23, the drought will end and the rains will come to the city”). This fledgling community waited all summer for the rain from heaven to come on August 23, so of course they were beside themselves when it actually happened. It’s hard to exaggerate how important this story is to IHOP’s identity and worldview.

Mike also stated the following concerning this drought prophecy in 1986:

Quoting Bob Jones: “‘This is the sign in the heavens… For three months there will be a drought in this city.’… there will be a pattern in the heavens—a weather pattern, and you can’t manipulate weather patterns.’ So we said, ‘Okay. If it comes to pass, we know the word is true.’… But he [Bob] says, ‘On August 23, God will send a sign from heaven...’ I said, ‘Bob, I hope this is right.’ Cause it was terrible. June—no rain… August 23, 6:00 at night, it rains, what, three to four inches of rain… It was a sign in the heavens that no man could have manipulated; it was spoken publicly for all to hear.” (Mike Bickle, “Prophetic History 2,” Spring 1986, emphasis mine)

This version gives us some extra details: it didn’t rain at all in June, and it rained three to four inches on the night of August 23. It’s also interesting how Mike emphasizes the public nature of the prophecy, much like Paul emphasizes the public nature of some of the appearances of the resurrected Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15:5-7. That should shut the mouth of every skeptic, right?

Well, maybe it would have, if Mike’s story was the only record we had. But thanks to modern data collection and meteorology, we can actually test Mike’s recollection of the weather patterns in the summer of 1983 against hard data—and that’s exactly what one person did.

In 1990, the pastor of a large charismatic church in Shawnee, KS named Ernie Gruen wrote an open letter in which he called Mike out on some of the details of this story:

“These are the facts concerning rainfall during the months of June, July, and August, 1983. They were obtained from the National Weather Service and the newspaper weather reports from that timeframe:

1. July and August were below normal in rainfall, and very hot, but July and August are always hot in Kansas City.

2. June’s record showed well above average rainfall: 5.03 inches in the northern part of the city, and 7.37 inches in the southern part, where Kansas City Fellowship is located.

3. It rained only .32 inches on August 23, not 3 to 4 inches. Regarding this rainfall on August 23, the newspaper’s comments were, ‘Tuesday’s watered-down attempt at rain here, though half-hearted and half-heated, eased area sneezes, dropping the pollen count to only 23 particles per cubic meter of air. Gesundheit.’ (KCT, Thursday, August 25, 1983)

4. On six separate days in June, there was more rainfall recorded than on August 23, with one day showing over 2 inches of rainfall, and two days showing over 1 inch of rainfall. There was no drought. Anyone who went outside or read the newspaper could not have considered June a month of drought. The sprinkle of rain on August 23 was not considered a drought-breaker.” (Ernie Gruen, “Documentation of the Aberrant Practices and Teachings of Kansas City Fellowship,” May 1990)

Of course, people within the IHOP community rarely bother to fact-check Mike’s stories. I mean, why would they? Those stories are practically the foundation of their worldview. I myself was heavily involved at IHOP for eight years and I simply accepted the prophetic history as 100% true, a fact which now stands as a humbling personal example of confirmation bias and the halo effect. I didn’t know anybody who actually read Gruen’s report, and the only thing I ever heard about him was that he eventually recanted his accusations against Mike (a claim which he adamantly denied).   

Despite the insulated nature of the IHOP community, however, Gruen’s report seems to have made a real impression on Mike, because he now tells the story somewhat differently:  

MB: “We were exhausted after a twenty-one day fast. He [Bob] said, ‘Here is the bad news: the revival is not coming right away, but there is a spiritual drought that has been on this nation for a long time… But, God has determined a day where He will break the drought over this nation—the spiritual drought… and there will be an outpouring of revival that will be dramatic… Here is a sign: There will be a three-month natural drought in this city. That natural drought is going to happen, and it is going to convince you of what I am telling you about.’…

He said this publicly, with several hundred people listening: ‘Thus, says the Lord: On August 23 the rains will come.’ I thought, ‘That is bold.’ Well, you can look at the handout. There was a drought going on when he said this. We were experiencing the worst drought minus one year in recorded history in Kansas City for just three months plus a week. On August 23, on a Tuesday night, we gathered… and the rains came. It was a downpour. It only rained about a third of an inch, but it all came down in twenty to thirty minutes. It came like a storm at seven o’clock, right when we were meeting. We were gathering before the Lord, and this downpour came so powerfully that people had to stay in their cars…

We were shouting. We were happy, because if Bob Jones heard so precisely at the end of May that on August 23 the rains would come in the midst of a drought, then it meant that if that sign happened in the heavens, then the vision and the dream were true as well.” (Mike Bickle, “The Early Days, Cairo Egypt, and the Solemn Assembly,” September 17, 2009, emphasis mine).

Notice how Mike now says “it only rained about a third of an inch” instead of “three to four inches” like he used to, and how he now has Bob prophesying that the rain on August 23 would come “in the midst of a drought,” not as the event that would “break the drought” like he used to. He also repeats three times in the handout that the prophesied drought was from July 1 to October 1, not from the end of May to the end of August like he used to.

This awkward change in the timeline of the prophecy is the only way Mike can account for the fact that there was actually higher than average rainfall in June, and on six separate days there was more rainfall than on August 23. Once confronted by these facts, Mike was faced with a choice: either (a) admit that the prophecy did not come to pass, or (b) redact and reinterpret it to fit with the facts.

As an aside, perhaps it is worth pointing out that even if we go with Mike’s revised timeline of July 1 through October 1, it still rained on 21 of those 93 days, which means that Bob Jones would have had more than a 1 in 4 chance of naming a day with rain in that period, and 8 of those other days saw more rain than on August 23. So even if we granted Mike’s tampering with the timeline, it still hardly qualifies as “a sign in the heavens that no man could have manipulated”.

How Stories Change 

Ernie Gruen thought Mike was being intentionally deceptive, much like the early critics of the NT Gospels thought Jesus and/or the early Christians must have been intentionally deceptive. As someone who spent almost a decade under Mike’s leadership, however, it’s hard for me to reach that same conclusion. I think a much more plausible explanation, based on a more informed understanding of human psychology, is that this is a classic case of cognitive dissonance and wish fulfillment. It also illustrates what recent studies of memory are showing:

“Every time you remember an event from the past, your brain networks change in ways that can alter the later recall of the event. Thus, the next time you remember it, you might recall not the original event but what you remembered the previous time… Your memory of an event can grow less precise even to the point of being totally false with each retrieval” (Northwestern).

Despite all the changes Mike has made to the story of the drought over the last 30 years, it really did rain on August 23 just like Bob Jones predicted, and that must have made a powerful impression on that young charismatic community at the time, especially since they had been praying and waiting for that very outcome. Never mind that the odds were actually better than flipping tails twice in a row; in their minds, conditioned as they were, it simply must have been God, and so all the little details that didn’t fit were easily ignored or reinterpreted, and any embellishments only served to reinforce what they genuinely believed to be true. I can’t help wondering how the story would have evolved had Mike’s early embellishments not been challenged.

A Psychological Contagion

Over a century ago Otto Pfleiderer said the following with reference to the development of early Christianity: “It is a well-known fact of experience that states of the extraordinarily excited life of the soul, and in particular religious enthusiasm and ecstasy, have a sort of infectious character, and master whole assemblies with elemental power” (Philosophy and the Development of Religion, 2:116). I know this to be true from my own experience. And the more I study the New Testament, the more I think it explains a good deal about how Christianity began.

Imagine you are a devout first-century Jew following a charismatic prophet who you believe confidently to be the deliverer of Israel. Imagine that this prophet, coming to terms with the inevitable outcome of his revolutionary message but trusting also in the divine vindication of his cause, on numerous occasions foretells of his own death and resurrection. What would you think, then, if only a short time after his death, in the midst of your grief and guilt, you hear that his tomb was found empty? Would you not, through your attachment to him, have sufficient cause for hope? And as a devout Jew, wouldn’t the natural outworking of such hope be fasting, prayer, and fervent searching of the Scriptures? And suppose that, through this process, you and perhaps several others have visionary experiences in which you encounter your master alive from the dead, offering forgiveness and telling you to carry on his message. What would you think? What would you do? How would you express those experiences?

Point being: If the disciples carried the kind of eschatological expectations the Gospels say they did, and/or if Jesus ever said the kinds of things about resurrection that the Gospels say he did, then the mystery of the empty tomb would have presented itself to them as a highly suggestive mystery. Indeed, Luke’s account says that Peter “marveled” when he saw the tomb empty (Luke 24:12), and John says that this was all the beloved disciple needed to believe that Jesus had risen (John 20:8). It was their rain on August 23, the event that drove them into a state of hopeful expectancy for an encounter with the risen Jesus.

But like the rain on August 23, the empty tomb is much more vulnerable to a naturalistic explanation than most apologists admit. Grave robbery was not uncommon at the time. Indeed, the so-called Nazareth inscription confirms that it was a problem specifically in first-century Palestine (see Bruce M. Metzger, New Testament Studies: Philological, Versional, and Patristic [NTTS 10; Leiden: Brill, 1980], 75-92). Any number of persons could have stollen Jesus’ body. Necromancers, for example, were often eager to find body parts for their magical rituals. That might seem strange to someone in the post-Enlightenment West, but as Dale Allison shows, it only takes a little bit of disciplined historical imagination to see the plausibility of such a scenario:

“Not only might the remains of a holy man have been particularly tempting—recall the power of Elisha’s bones in 2 Kings 13:20-21, of Thomas’s bones in Acts Thom. 170, and later superstition about the healing powers of relics—but the remains of the executed were also thought particularly powerful (cf. PGM 4.1885-1886). Jesus was desirable on both counts. Furthermore, necromancers, ‘who were, almost by necessity, body snatchers,’ had a special interest in those who died violent deaths” (Dale C. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters [New York: T & T Clark, 2005], 202-203).

This is purely speculative, of course, and it’s impossible to quantify the likelihood of Jesus’ body being taken by necromancers, or by any other party, like we can quantify the likelihood of it raining on August 23, 1983. But the point is to show that, like August 23, this was hardly a “sign from heaven that no man could have manipulated,” however much it may have seemed that way to the disciples at the time.

And here’s the implication, which I plan on arguing in more depth later: Once we have the empty tomb, the early testimonies for everything that happened thereafter are more plausibly explicable in terms of known psychological patterns than they are by the claim that God raised Jesus from the dead. It simply fits the evidence better. As Christopher Knight observes,

“What is clear from psychoanalytic case study—irrespective of whether the Jungian exploration of it is considered valid or adequate—is that, in certain unusual mental states, especially at times of great emotional stress or need, there occur visions of a dreamlike character, containing imagery which reflects that of ancient and primitive mythology, and which may be a vehicle for an experience of the numinous. Given this factor in human psychology, the historian who is able to acknowledge the presence of all these factors in the resurrection appearance accounts seems to be faced with a compelling account of the psychic mechanism through which they began their formation.

Nor is this conclusion nullified if one judges the accounts to be accurate insofar as they report corporate experiences—even by several hundred (1 Cor. 15:6). Though much rarer than individual experiences, the corporate visionary experience of archetypal content is far from unknown (as witnessed, for example, by several well-documented cases in this century whose content has been ‘the Virgin Mary’). Jung himself analyses a related type of phenomenon—which he labels the ‘visionary rumor’—in terms which seem extraordinarily applicable to Jesus’ resurrection appearances, even though he is talking about something quite different. He talks, for example, of a prerequisite to the experience of such visions being ‘an emotional tension having its cause in a situation of collective distress or danger, or in a vital psychic need’. Moreover, he recognises the affinity of the phenomenon to the explicitly religious visions of ‘the crusaders during the siege of Jerusalem, the troops at Mons in the First World War, the faithful followers of the Pope at Fatima, Portugal’. Indeed in the context of his own study on a modern manifestation of the phenomenon, he particularly notes a situation ‘calculated as never before to arouse expectations of a redeeming, supernatural event’” (Christopher Knight, “Hysteria and Myth: The Psychology of the Resurrection Appearances,” Modern Churchman 31 [1989], 39-40).

I didn’t allow myself to pursue this line of thought for years, because I thought my experience made me susceptible to prejudice, prone to read cognitive dissonance and wish fulfillment into places where the evidence doesn’t really support them. As much as I tried to avoid this line of thought, though, and as much as I tried to replace it with a coherent alternative with the help of scholars like G. B. Caird, N. T. Wright, and Richard Bauckham, the more I grappled with the relevant exegetical questions, the harder it became to avoid the conclusion that Jesus was actually a failed apocalyptic prophet and Christianity was born through the same kind of psychological contagion that I experienced first-hand at the International House of Prayer.