Part 2 of this Story
Maybe you spotted him while you were channel surfing one night or maybe you were already tuned in. Either way, he's hard to ignore. Benny Hinn - televangelist, faith healer, and appointment viewing for millions of believers. His popularity and his wealth are matched only by the devotion he's shown by his followers, many of them desperate for help. Their stories and his ministry play out almost every night in made-for-TV mini-dramas. But there are other stories, other scenes that reveal much more about Pastor Benny, caught on Dateline's hidden cameras. Correspondent Bob McKeown reports.
He always arrives onstage when they begin to sing the hymn, "How Great Thou Art."
And whether you measure success in his TV ratings, attendance at his live services or crusades around the world, or the money he raises, he is unquestionably one of the most popular and successful televangelists in the world today. His television show is available around the globe. He attracts capacity crowds at arenas and stadiums at home and abroad. And scenes like this one in his TV studio are a big reason why:
Benny Hinn: "Yes Lord. A lower back is being healed. Thank you Lord. Emphysema is being healed. We rebuke it in Jesus' name. Somebody's legs have just been healed."
On television or at his crusades, Benny Hinn promises that wherever he goes, miraculous healing will follow.
Benny Hinn: "In the name of Jesus, I rebuke the allergies out of you. Touch! - The glory of God is in the studio. We are having a visitation in the studio today as we have been taping these TV programs."
Those miracles, Hinn says, can cure injury and illness - even terminal disease.
Benny Hinn: "The healing may happen instantly, and may happen gradually but surely as God is God, your legs will work again, and your body will be healed again."
And according to Benny Hinn, it gets even more miraculous than that.
Benny Hinn: "On the program today, you are going to see a clip of this man who was raised from the dead."
Those dramatic claims - and his dynamic preaching style - have attracted millions of devoted followers, like Carlotta Moore.
"When I go to a crusade, I'm going because I need to be refreshed. I need to be renewed. I need to be revived in my spirit," says Carlotta Moore.
Moore says she also watches Benny Hinn's TV show everyday.
"The Bible speaks of spiritual fathers," says Moore. "That is my spiritual father. He's a leader. And he is a mentor."
And he is a master fund raiser as well, so along with that devotion comes money - a lot of it. Though pastor Benny denies it, estimates of total ministry revenue exceed $100 million a year.
Benny Hinn insists his only mission is to preach the gospel, save souls, and heal the sick. But is there more than that to the man they call pastor Benny?
"Dateline" looked at the ministry of pastor Benny Hinn, who claims miraculous power flows from God through him. We'll take a closer look at all his healings and at all the money that goes into his collection buckets.
Hinn was born in the Middle East, raised in Canada, and modelled himself after a faith healer, the legendary Katherine Kuhlman. Hinn started a church in Orlando, almost two decades ago. By 1999, he'd left Florida, building his ministry's administrative headquarters in Dallas and his TV studio in southern California where he now lives.
Hinn's claims of miracles have made him immensely popular, but those healings, combined with his ministry's enormous wealth, have also triggered scrutiny of a different kind.
"I say he's in the business of raising money and spreading his own celebrity," says Ole Anthony, who heads the Trinity Foundation - a Christian watch-dog group that examines the workings of television ministries. The organization operates on donations, grants, and sales of its magazine and tapes.
Ole Anthony himself has been highly critical of television preachers who don't divulge the details of how they raise and spend their money - especially Benny Hinn.
"We've gotten most of the complaints lately from Benny's organization and Benny's followers," says Anthony. "That became our focus, we've been following him intently since 1993."
"Dateline" asked the Trinity Foundation to provide access to, among other things, documents and videotape it's collected about the Hinn Ministry. We reimbursed the foundation for its costs.
And we also went looking for some answers ourselves. For almost two years, "Dateline" sought permission to videotape Benny Hinn's crusades, to see how this affluent television ministry really works.
Eventually we were allowed to bring our cameras to a crusade in Atlanta. But the ministry made it clear we were only permitted to tape the first hour or so. Then after Hinn's entrance, a few hymns and some saving of souls, we were told to stop.
So, in order to try to find out what really goes on behind the scenes of the Benny Hinn Ministry, we attended a number of other crusades and walked in right though the front door with everybody else. Only this time, the cameras were hidden.
At least once a month, somewhere in the U.S, 50,000 or 60,000 people attend one of Benny Hinn's two-day crusades. Over the past two years, we followed pastor Benny around the country to Hampton, Virginia; Las Vegas; Buffalo, and a few cities in between.
At each of the crusades we attended, the faithful began to arrive hours before the service. And so did we with our hidden cameras.
But even when you get there early, the best sections are already taken - reserved for major donors, church VIPs and, at the back, for the disabled and those in wheelchairs.
In Buffalo, we found our seats high up in the bleachers and we began recording the service in the middle of that noisy crowd with a hidden microphone and camera.
What brings the faithful out to see Benny Hinn is the healing. The expectation that sometime tonight they're going to see, or perhaps even be - one of those people who arrive desperately ill and leave miraculously cured.
The script - Benny Hinn's tried-and-true formula - was always the same. And it always started with the music. There's an orchestra, a heavenly host of local church choirs, and an all-star cast of Christian headliners. The crowd's emotional temperature seems to rise, as they anxiously wait for pastor Benny.
"It's organized more closely than a political convention," says Ole Anthony, of the Trinity Foundation. "There's the repetitive music, there's the mood lighting, there's this whole arrangement of waiting and waiting and waiting until he comes on stage. The band is playing, "How Great Thou Art" and then the process starts."
Once he arrives onstage, pastor Benny preaches, prays and spiritually tends his flock.
Benny Hinn: "If you mean business with God, he means business with you."
At a Benny Hinn crusade, you can't help but notice the faith of his followers and how much they appear to believe in him and his healing message.
The impression one gets being among that crowd is that whatever's happening down there on the stage, however it may or may not be choreographed, these people have come because they truly believe.
"There's no question that the people that are there have strong belief or a strong want-to-belief," says Anthony, "and so they respond."
In fact, all evening, throughout the arena, the tension keeps building because everyone here knows what's going to happen next.
Benny Hinn: "There's power here, people. Lift your hands and receive it."
According to pastor Benny, that "power" will soon lead to miracles:
Benny Hinn: "By moving those legs that have been crippled for all those years."
This is from a highlights tape we bought from the ministry's Web site.
Benny Hinn: "You're tired of all the pills you've taken, and all the needles they put in your body and all the pain you felt. Well, I'm here to tell you, you will be healed tonight!"
After the preaching, there's the passing of the collection buckets. And then comes the moment when Benny Hinn makes his much-anticipated announcement - God is speaking to him, he says, revealing a multitude of miracles, actual healings now taking place throughout the arena, some of them very specific.
Benny Hinn: "There is a young man named George. George has HIV. But my brother George, the holy ghost is burning it out of your body!"
At all of the evening crusades we attended, it was about 10 p.m. when Hinn announced God was speaking to him.
Benny Hinn: "Another arthritis has been healed."
Benny Hinn's ministry says that in order to verify the miraculous healings that have taken place, it screens those who claim they've been healed before they get up on stage.
First, Hinn staff members talk to the people who get in line. This screener is even a doctor and he evidently thinks this woman is a good candidate to announce her healing up on the platform with pastor Benny.
Doctor: "No pain? Great job. You couldn't do that before? (As she moves her head around.) That is neat. Yeah, take her up there."
The people selected by the screeners are then introduced to Benny Hinn and the capacity crowd. Those who've been healed, and others who attend each service, are given a blessing by pastor Benny with his own personal touch. And whether he blows or flicks or waves his hand, the faithful are strewn across the floor like bowling pins. So what exactly is at work here?
"They'd fall down," says Michael Cohen. "They'd fall backwards. He'd blow on them. They'd fall over. And I thought these were actors that came in and they paid them so much. And they had a string and they pulled them down."
Even some who were skeptics at first soon became believers, like Michael Cohen.
"And when I finally went up there, I ended up falling down," says Cohen. "I closed my eyes but I knew that Benny didn't push me. I knew I wasn't pulled or tugged. I knew that was God touching me."
But Ole Anthony says he thinks it's a phenomenon that has much more to do with mass hypnosis than religion.
"And they watch him on television over and over and over for years," says Anthony. "And they see it, they expect it, they see other people upstage are falling over right and left. Sometimes Benny falls over the place. It's a circus. It's like professional wrestling."
Bob McKeown: "But in fact he's been on the record time and time again saying he is not a healer."
Ole Anthony: "Of course."
Bob McKeown: "It's God who heals."
Ole Anthony: "Of course."
Bob McKeown: "He's just the vessel that's been chosen."
Ole Anthony: "What's the reason that people come to the crusades? What's the main thing that happens onstage? That's his attraction. He promotes himself as a healer, as a healing ministry."
But according to former Hinn insiders, there's a great deal more to Benny Hinn's crusades than what you see on television - and what we've found supports that. A woman who worked at crusades said she was instructed to look particularly for those standing in front of their wheelchairs.
Benny Hinn: "Look at all the empty wheelchairs here in Las Vegas, people!"
Empty wheelchairs apparently imply there's been a lot of healing going on. But for every one of the people declared healed by pastor Benny on stage and on TV, many more leave the arena still sick or disabled.
"Desperate people, the really desperate ones, the ones that break your heart are at the back on the crusade, they won't let them up in the lines," says Anthony.
The broadcasts of Benny Hinn's crusade in Buffalo did not include what our hidden camera captured. This man was escorted from his seat by security guards after crying out for pastor Benny to touch his apparently ill son. "I wanted to take my son up there and get prayed. That's all I wanted," he said.
So not everyone who wants to get up on stage is allowed to. But what happens to those who are called up on the platform to be touched by pastor Benny? To try to find out, we attended a crusade in Las Vegas, and we did our best to keep track of each and every one of the miracles Benny Hinn proclaimed. By our count, there were 56 of them in all - many of which ended up on this videotape we purchased through the ministry.
This little boy said his damaged vision was cured: "And as soon as God healed me, I could see better."
According to one woman, her cancer was gone. Hinn said God told him a demon had caused the cancer, and he cast it out.
Benny Hinn: "Go out of her! It's gone!"
One woman said she had a diseased lung.
Benny Hinn: "The lord is asking me now to ask him to give you a new lung."
According to pastor Benny, she got that new lung, right there on stage.
Benny Hinn: "That's why she's coughing... that's why she's coughing."
And there was this woman, who said she was cured of lung cancer. She says: "She had cancer in the lungs. She don't have it now!"
In his 25 years of healing, there have been thousands of similar stories from Hinn's followers - none of them more famous than this one. At a crusade in 1994, Benny Hinn came to the aid of the former heavyweight champion of the world. Evander Holyfield had lost his boxing license because a medical test had revealed a serious heart ailment.
Benny Hinn (at a crusade): "The Lord is telling me right now he is repairing Holyfield's heart completely."
Reportedly, Holyfield promised Hinn a check for $265,000, and before long, he got a clean bill of health, and won the world title back.
But Benny Hinn doesn't only minister to the rich and famous.
Bob McKeown: "And you needed a miracle."
Belva Ventura: "Oh, did I."
Bob McKeown: "You and your son."
Belva Ventura: "Yes."
We met Belva Ventura at a crusade in Worcester, Massachusetts. She and her son had both been diagnosed with cancer. Both had been told it was terminal. Before long, she and her son were on stage in front of 14,000 people, right next to pastor Benny.
Bob McKeown: "And what did Pastor Hinn say to you?"
Belva Ventura: "Oh, he hugged us. And he put his arm around me. And he couldn't believe all the cancer in one family. And he said we're gonna get this cancer out of this house right now. It's not gonna bother you no more. And we came home, we were happy. I was healed. I know I was."
The question is, despite all the claims, how does anyone really know if Belva Ventura or any of the others was indeed miraculously healed at one of Benny Hinn's crusades?
So we asked pastor Benny to help us follow up on some of the people we saw on his stage. Then we did some following up of our own.
Bob McKeown: "As far as you know, the ministry has no idea whether your cancer is still there or not."
Belva Ventura: "No."
Bob McKeown: "Whether you're alive or not."
Belva Ventura: "No. No. they don't."
Benny Hinn: "But as surely as God is God - your legs will work again, and your body will be healed again, and your lungs will breathe again, and your eyes will see again!"
At all of his live crusades, Benny Hinn proclaims a breath-taking litany of miraculous healing. Pastor Benny has said that everyone who gets up on his platform has been checked by a doctor. His ministry also claims it has a follow up process with people afterwards that it describes as "exhaustive" and "thorough," and that medical information it collects is reviewed first by a nurse, then by a doctor.
So we wanted to find out how that process works and which of those claims of miracles actually can be verified. We thought a good place to start would be with the ministry itself. Last year, we asked Benny Hinn to help us confirm the 56 healings we counted at just one of his crusades - the one in Las Vegas.
By the time we asked, dozens of those "miracles" had already been broadcast around the world on his TV show, including the woman who Benny Hinn said had grown a new lung right there on stage.
Woman: "Feels like something in there, like someone was reaching in my heart, in my lung."
Benny Hinn: "I want you to go back to your earthly doctor, have him give you an X-ray. I want to hear about it. I want a full story."
But if Hinn knows the full story about who was healed in Las Vegas, he's not sharing it with us. In a letter from its lawyer, the ministry refused to provide proof of any of those healings to "Dateline."
So since the ministry wouldn't give us any information, we did some checking of our own about Las Vegas, and other reported healings.
Remember the woman we met in Las Vegas who said she'd been cured of lung cancer? With our hidden camera, we were able to go back stage to her follow-up interview.
Hinn staffer: "Now, what happened tonight that makes you feel God touched you?"
She did speak to a Hinn staff member, but it's hard to know how from this conversation alone he could have known whether she was cured of cancer, or even if she had it in the first place.
Staffer: "That primary tumor can be one cell."
She was asked a few questions, but it didn't appear to us that there was any medical examination.
Staffer: "Keep trusting God. Follow it up with your physicians. Thank you so much. The Lord bless you all."
Unfortunately, there's one thing we were able to determine about this woman without the ministry's help. She died two and a half months after the crusade. The cause was lung cancer.
And then there was Evander Holyfield's heart ailment - which seemed to disappear after that crusade in 1994 - touted as one of pastor Benny's greatest healing successes.
When Holyfield then won his world title back, it seemed a storybook ending - except for one problem. According to the Nevada Athletic Commission, two different clinics determined that Holyfield had been misdiagnosed. His doctor had been given incomplete information about his condition. In other words, there was nothing seriously wrong with Holyfield's heart in the first place. But three years later, pastor Benny was still claiming credit for the champ's miraculous healing.
On the "Larry King" show with Pastor Benny, he was aksed: "Evander Holyfield credits you with curing his heart problem, although doctors said that maybe it was misread in the first place."
Hinn: "God healed him in one of our crusades, yeah."
Evander Holyfield had no comment through his lawyer.
And remember Belva Ventura, who said Benny Hinn cast out cancer from her and her son?
A few weeks after that crusade in Worcester, Massachusetts, Belva's son died of cancer. When we visited several months later, she said she hadn't had a follow-up call from anyone in the Hinn organization.
Bob McKeown: "As far as you know, the ministry has no idea whether your cancer is still there or not."
Belva Ventura: "No."
Bob McKeown: "Whether you're alive or not."
Belva Ventura: "No. No. they don't. Otherwise, they would have got hold of me. Nobody did."
Her physicians evidently were not convinced of her claims of healing.
Bob McKeown: "What do your doctors say?"
Belva Ventura: "They laugh. They look at me and they laugh. They don't believe me."
Belva still believed apparently until the end. A month after our visit, she died. The cause, her doctor told us, was cancer.
Bob McKeown: "If Benny Hinn, by whatever means, can give people like that hope, is that not a good thing?"
Ole Anthony: "Then why don't we just - why doesn't the FDA approve snake oil? And we could have snake oil salesmen run around offering and saying, "This little tube of water here, cost you $1,000. And if you take it, you'll be cured of cancer." It's the same thing except he's doing it in God's name, which makes it terrible, terrible. He's lying. False hope has to always be exposed. It must be exposed."
Benny Hinn says it's possible for someone to be healed at one of his crusades only to have the illness or injury return later. Here's how he explains it:
Benny Hinn: "This is your Day Vegas... My Friend, hear this well. The reason people lose their healing, is because they begin questioning if God really did it."
That, says Ole Anthony, only makes matters even worse for those who are desperately ill.
"Now they're twice as bad off as they were before because now, according to Benny, they've done something wrong," says Anthony.
After repeated requests to verify healings - specifically the 56 we saw at the crusade in Las Vegas - Benny Hinn's ministry sent us details of what it said were five irrefutable and medically proven miracles, but none was from the Las Vegas crusade we were asking about.
The cases they gave us ranged from a herniated disc, to heart problems, cancer and Lou Gehrig's disease. When we called them, all five people insisted they had been healed, but four of them wouldn't or couldn't provide their medical records, and we could not speak to their doctors.
As for the woman who said she'd been healed of Lou Gehrig's disease, for which there is no known cure, we did speak to her neurologist, who said he suspected she didn't have Lou Gehrig's disease in the first place.
Though the ministry says publicly that the medical information it collects is reviewed by a nurse and a doctor, in a letter to us from its lawyer, the ministry acknowledged to us that it is "... Impossible to investigate and substantiate each and every one" of the healings proclaimed at pastor Benny's crusades.
But with our without absolute proof of the miracles, millions of followers keep coming to the crusades, and continue to donate millions to his ministry.
But now, people who've worked inside the Hinn organization are raising questions about where some of that money has gone.
Part 2 of this Story