The movie “Heaven is for Real” cost $12 million to make and as of a week ago had raked in more than $52 million at the box office. Apparently a lot of people are interested in grappling with its central question: Do you believe a 4-year-old boy’s account that, during emergency surgery, he briefly went to heaven?
I certainly believe heaven is for real, but not having seen the film or read the book yet, I have no opinion on their credibility. But, as journalists who report on the work of God around the world, this question is more than academic. We’ve heard people talk about supernatural events – healings, exorcisms, even resurrections. In Egypt a few weeks ago, we witnessed events that looked a lot like descriptions I’ve read of demonic possession and exorcism.
How to report those events, if at all? What just happened back there? In our Crossfield News story, here’s how we reported what we saw at a place commonly known as the Cave Church:
About 75 Muslim women sit together to the right of the stage. Many come regularly to seek healing for physical, emotional or spiritual problems. The priest, Father Abuna Simaan, is preaching from Matthew 8 and Mark 7, about Jesus’ power to heal.
“All those wanting to be touched by him, he is willing to touch,” he says in Arabic. “Those who are heavy burdened – he is able to set them free.”
Already, during the worship music, some of the women have erupted into screams – particularly as words from various Psalms are sung. Now, as Father Simaan nears the end of his message, one of the Muslim women begins screaming and flailing uncontrollably. Church security people surround her, hold her down and pray with her. As she calms, the people sitting near her don’t seem fazed.
Now, what I think was happening was that these women were demon-possessed, and something happening during that church service was smoking the demons out. The reading of certain passages from the Bible seemed to increase this activity.
But I couldn’t say for sure. So I simply wrote what I saw. Nothing more.
The next day, I talked with a leader from another church about demonic activity. He said it’s frequently visible in Egypt these days – and especially as groups of Muslims attend Christian churches.
“We gather them together and we start to say the Word of God, the message of Jesus, of salvation,” he said. “And many of them accept. After they accept, you have the right to say to the evil spirits, ‘Go out.’ Because this man or this woman, they want Jesus.
“You have the spiritual authority to control it. Sometimes there are many of them. Screaming, very loud. And you can control it in the name of Jesus.”
Often, this church leader believes, the screams are indeed coming from demons. Sometimes it’s from the person. One way to tell, he said, is to look in the person’s eyes. When a demon is communicating through that person, the eyes have an inhuman stare about them.
“Many of them have told us, don’t look at me in my eye. I don’t want your eyes on me,” he said. “I look because I have the authority. This is Jesus – I have zero, I am nothing – but now when we face the evil spirits, now Jesus will do everything.”
Fascinating stuff. I didn’t use these quotes in the story because they would have distracted from the bigger story, about prayer and revival in Egypt. Sometimes we can pay too much attention to the sensational and miss the more significant.
Journalistically, here’s where we land on these kinds of topics:
- If you witness it yourself, don’t assume more than you just saw.
- If you did not witness it, check the information with multiple, independent eyewitnesses. Did they all see the same thing?
- If you can’t find eyewitnesses to a supernatural event, you probably don’t have something you can report.
At the Cave Church, I was struck by the non-response of most of the people around the screaming women. They certainly noticed the craziness happening around them, but it didn’t seem to distract them from the central message – the priest’s sermon about salvation through Jesus.
Jesus himself addressed this in Luke 10, when the disciples he sent out return and talk excitedly about how they were able to cast out demons.
“Don’t rejoice because evil spirits obey you,” Jesus responds. “Rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”
That’s a piece of advice we try to follow journalistically, too. Don’t ignore the miraculous, but don’t overplay it or sensationalize it, either. There are bigger miracles happening.