In April 2005, American Evangelist Benny Hinn arrived in Nigeria for his much-advertised Healing Crusade. He flew into the country aboard his Gulfstream III jet with a retinue of bodyguards. But a few days later, Hinn left Nigeria in annoyance and disappointment. He was irked by the low turnout at the event: only an estimated 300,000 people attended the crusade instead of the six million that had been expected.
Hinn was visibly angry because of the huge amount of money he had invested in the crusade. “Four million dollars down the drain,” he is said to have shouted on the final day of the event. The vice president of Benny Hinn Ministries, Jon Wilson, gave a breakdown of the money. He said $3 million was spent on hotel accommodations and technical infrastructure, while $1 million more was used up by members of the local organizing committee.
But the Benny Hinn Healing Crusade generated a lot of interest and debate in the local media. A Nigerian pastor, writing in The Guardian, one of the national dailies, urged the Pentecostal leaders to “bury their heads in shame,” given the “prevailing rot” in their churches. And as a face-saving measure, the Pentecostal Federation of Nigeria (PFN)-the umbrella group of most Pentecostal churches in Nigeria-had to expel Bishop Dr. Joseph Olanrewaju Obembe, the president of the PFN chapter in Lagos, General Overseer of the El-Shaddai Bible Church, and a coordinator of the Benny Hinn Healing Crusade, and other pastors who served on the local committee.
With the growing decline in religious belief in America and the entire Western world, evangelists are looking to Africa for converts, followers, and disciples. Many Pentecostal churches in Africa receive millions of dollars in aid from their American counterparts to “bring Africans to Christ.” Luis Bush, a cousin of president George W. Bush and one of the leading evangelists in the U.S., supports missionary work in more that thirty African countries. Other American evangelists, such as Benny Hinn, Todd Bentley, and Oral Roberts, as well as the German evangelist Reinhard Bonnke, sponsor miracle crusades across the continent.
Pentecostalism has therefore become a thriving business in Africa. In fact, it has become the shortest route to wealth and affluence for the continent’s teeming population of unemployed youths. Local pastors employ all sorts of tricks and techniques to extort money from gullible folks (as well as foreign friends). They use this money to build magnificent churches, erect costly dwellings, buy luxurious cars and aircraft, and live ostentatiously, while their church members languish in poverty, misery, and squalor.
In most cases, pastors tell the faithful to give money to God so that God will bless them in return. They tell the people of the divine favors that come to those who pay their tithes and make offerings regularly. Or they use the biblical injunction that says, “givers never lack”-though in Africa, they often do-to squeeze money out of the people. In Nigeria, there have been instances where people have even stolen money to give to their pastors and churches. In March 2003, a cashier in a hotel in Abuja was arrested for allegedly stealing nearly forty million naira (about $40,000) from his employer. The man later confessed to the police that he gave the money to his church, Christ Embassy. And in another case of theft for God, a bank clerk stole forty million naira from his employer and gave ten million to his church as seed money, in the belief that the seed would germinate and yield several times that amount in return, as promised by his pastor. The man, according to the BBC’s Focus on Africa magazine, got appointed to the office of assistant pastor. But before his seed could germinate, the crime was detected and he was arrested.
Miracles in Africa
Africans are suckers for magic, miracles, and paranormal claims. Generally, among Africans, there is a deep-seated belief in supernatural forces that intervene and alter human destinies for good or ill. These spiritual forces are believed to work in magical and miraculous ways, through signs and wonders that confound the human mind. And the evangelical churches are capitalizing on this superstitious element in African thought and culture to peddle and propagate their paranormal services. They promise divine healing and instant solutions for problems and diseases.
Pentecostal pastors claim they have the power to make the deaf hear, the blind see, the lame walk, and the infertile give birth. Recently, Gilbert Deya, a self-proclaimed archbishop from Kenya, got himself into trouble: he said he could make infertile black couples give birth to miracle babies. But police investigations revealed child theft and baby trafficking. (See my article “The Kenya Miracle Babies Scandal,” in the September 2005 Skeptical Briefs.) Some years ago, a Nigerian pastor, Temitope Joshua, of the Synagogue of All Nations, announced to the world that he could cure HIV/AIDS.
In 2001, German evangelist Reinhard Bonnke was reported to have raised a person from the dead. There have been a lot of such indiscriminate claims of miracles and divine healing by Nigeria’s televangelists and end-time preachers-Chris Oyakhilome, Enoch Adeboye, David Oyedepo, Helen Ukpabio, Matthew Ashimolowo, et al. These faith healers use the money from miracle seekers to put up billboards and sponsor radio and television programs advertising their miracles. Last year, the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission had to ban the broadcast of miracles on national television.
Faith healing is the greatest threat to scientific medicine and health-care delivery in Africa. Miracles have no basis in science, reason, or common sense. All claims of divine cures and healing cannot be reconciled with the dire health situation in Africa. Africa has the highest infant-mortality rate in the world. And millions there are still dying of preventable diseases like malaria and tuberculosis. According to the United Nations, 6,000 African children die from-and 11,000 become infected with-HIV/AIDS every day. And if there are indeed people with supernatural powers to heal the sick, raise the dead, and cure all ailments, why are human beings suffering and dying? It is quite obvious that all claims of miracles and faith healing are fake. As the French philosopher and writer Ernest Renan rightly pointed out, “No miracle has ever taken place under conditions which science can accept.”
Experience shows, without exception, that “miracles” occur only in the presence of persons who are disposed to believe in them. So, faith healers are just taking advantage of the African predicament. They are cashing in on the desperation and gullibility of Africans to enrich themselves and to promote their churches.
Africa needs science, not superstition; critical thinking, not dogma; open mindedness, not blind faith; reason, not revelation; and industry and technological advancement, not the Holy Spirit and miracles. Africa needs skepticism, not Pentecostalism.