LAKELAND, Fla. - Todd Bentley believes God acts through him to cure cancer, heal the deaf and raise the dead.
So do hundreds of thousands of people who have visited his raucous revival meeting, now in its third month and broadcast nightly from a huge tent in the middle of Florida.
The 32-year-old Canadian, tattooed to the fingers and neck, puts a palm to the forehead of the sick, desperate and faithful. Bentley yells "Bam!," they collapse and he proclaims them cured. Attendees dance in the aisles, shout to heaven, laugh, shake violently and cry.
Such revivals aren't new, but Bentley's stage show has become a phenomenon in the religious world - for both its pull and the criticism it has attracted - in just a few months.
He claims to have medical proof of mass healings, but has not produced widely convincing evidence.
His tactics, sometimes violent, have made skeptics even of Pentecostals who believe in concepts that aren't accepted by all branches of Christianity, such as speaking in tongues, miraculous healing and spontaneous twitching from the Holy Spirit.
"Some of the language used during the Lakeland Revival has created an almost sideshow atmosphere," wrote J. Lee Grady, editor of the Pentecostal magazine Charisma, in an online column. "People are invited to 'Come and get some.' Miracles are supposedly 'popping like popcorn.' … Such brash statements cheapen what the Holy Spirit is doing."
When Bentley performs healings, often wearing jeans and a T-shirt, aides bring the sick up both sides of an elaborate stage. The preacher's assistants tell the audience each person's condition and how far they came to be cured: from Europe, the West Coast, up to the Northeast and beyond.
Like a psychic, he will proclaim someone in the crowd has a particular kind of tumor, growth or affliction.
"Someone's getting a new spinal cord tonight!" Bentley yelled in one service.
Bentley gives the credit to God, but Christian critics say he rarely opens a Bible or sermonizes about Jesus Christ. They worry he is too little about conversion, too heavy on his own hype and too focused on self-proclaimed miracles.
"How can you be too focused on miracles?" Bentley shouted to another packed house.
The revival sprung from Bentley's April visit to a Lakeland church for a speaking engagement. He has traveled the world as head of Fresh Fire Ministries, based in Abbotsford, British Columbia, but never received a fraction of this exposure.
Thanks to Internet streaming and live broadcasts on the satellite channel GodTV, Bentley's revival has outgrown four venues in Lakeland and drawn more than 400,000 in person from around the country and world, promoters say.
GodTV estimated its viewership has more than doubled since it began televising the event each night, and Web hits have risen from 25,000 to 200,000 weekly. Bentley's own page is now getting 8 million hits a month, he said.
But the ease of Internet communication cuts both ways for Bentley. Critics circulate a YouTube video from Lakeland of him kneeing a supposed terminal stomach cancer patient in the abdomen, saying God told him to. In another clip, Bentley explains how he kicked an elderly lady in the face, choked a man, banged a crippled woman's legs on a platform, "leg-dropped" a pastor and hit a man so hard it dislodged a tooth.
The criticism has grown so acute that Bentley addressed it directly on stage earlier this month. He said he has used those extreme methods only about 20 times in 10 years of preaching, and those cases were taken out of context. Each person was healed, not hurt, Bentley insisted.
"People just can't understand why God would tell me something like, 'Kick that woman in the face,' who was not injured and hundreds were healed," Bentley said. "Or the incident where I did hit a guy so hard one time that he did hit the ground and his tooth popped out.
"But what people don't know is that he was a dentist. There's a whole miracle that took place in his body. He was healed of cancer and he became a (ministry donor) after the incident of knocking his tooth out, because he knew it was God. And he said, 'I never felt a thing.'"
The claims of healing range from disappeared tumors to a man who says he can now see out of a glass eye. In more than 20 cases, Bentley says, his revival has even resurrected the dead. Such claims have been made by revivalists in the past, but they are not common and some Pentecostals reject them.
Expecting critics, Bentley's ministry distributed a list of 15 people it said were cured, and vetted by his ministry, with all but three of their stories "medically verified."
Yet two phone numbers given out by the ministry were wrong, six people did not return telephone messages and only two of the remainder, when reached by The Associated Press, said they had medical records as proof of their miracle cure. However, one woman would not make her physician available to confirm the findings, and the other's doctor did not return calls despite the patient's authorization.
Bentley also insists he hasn't accepted a cent from the nightly offerings in three months at Lakeland, instead putting it into the ministry and living on his regular salary from Fresh Fire. According to records from the Canadian Revenue Agency, the ministry as a whole made $2.7 million in 2006 revenue, the most recent year available.
Bentley would not disclose donations from the revival, but said it carries a $35,000 daily operating cost. Offerings aren't taken until four hours or so into the nightly proceedings, he notes, when all are tired and some have left.
To those who doubt the healing claims, he asks: If you believe in the Bible's miracles, why can't you believe they're happening today?
"Miracles and healings are evidence," Bentley said. "They are signs of the Kingdom, and if we don't have signs then all we have is a bunch of theology. How one individual wants to interpret Scripture and how another individual wants to interpret Scripture."
The revival is similar to years-long events in Toronto and Pensacola, on Florida's Panhandle, in the 1990s, said Vinson Synan, a professor of church history at Regent University and sympathetic expert on Pentecostalism. The difference is Bentley's focus - more on healing, less on conversion - and appearance, he said.
"What I see is exhortation - encouraging the people to worship and to praise, exhorting people rather than teaching and preaching, in the traditional sense," Synan said. "I told my class he's the most unlikely evangelist you can imagine, compared to the curly haired Billy Grahams and Oral Robertses, who were attractive people. This guy's kind of short, fat and bald, with tattoos on his arms. He looks like a hippie. … In a way it's a positive, because he's very much of the common man."
Though that has helped Bentley attract a broad mix, it has not necessarily convinced the larger Pentecostal community. Some local church leaders have criticized the event, and the Assemblies of God, one of America's largest Pentecostal denominations, got so many questions it published a five-page statement of guidelines to help parishioners test the validity of a revival. It doesn't mention Lakeland specifically, or directly opine for or against Bentley. But it is consistent with much of the criticism against him.
"Miraculous manifestations are never the test of a true revival - fidelity to God's Word is the test," wrote AOG Superintendent George O. Wood. "Jesus Himself said there would be many who would do miracles in His name and even cast out demons, but he does not know them. Jesus warned that 'many false prophets will appear and deceive many people.'"