By Steve Beard
With a career that began by jumping over a 20-foot box of rattlesnakes and two mountain lions and graduated to an attempt over the Snake River Canyon, Evel Knievel electrified audiences in the 1960s and ’70s with death-defying feats. Now, at age 68, the famous and cantankerous daredevil has been forced to confront a different challenge — namely facing his own mortality.
Born Robert Craig Knievel, the legendary showman is now ravaged with arthritis and finds relief from his intense back pain through a drug pump inserted in his abdomen that provides him with synthetic heroin and morphine.
Knievel profited handsomely off the controversy fueled by his jaw-dropping motorcycle jumps — long before extreme sports became commonplace in American culture. His rebellious and fearless reputation was enhanced through his bouts with safecracking, bank robbing, prison, bankruptcy, divorce, heavy drinking, high-stakes gambling, battling the IRS, and broken bones (he holds the Guinness Book of World Records number on that count).
Throughout his career and retirement, Knievel was a well-known independent thinker — outspoken in his disdain of organized religion and vigorously rebuffing the appeals of family and friends to make peace with God. He told his first wife, a devout Christian, that he was not interested in heaven unless it was populated with beautiful women and golf courses.
Within the past year, however, his outlook began to change. “I think about God a lot more than ever, though I used to ask him, ‘Help me make a good jump,’” Knievel told USA Today in January 2007. “I’m awfully tough to get along with, but I’ll tell you what: I am a good person. I wish there was such a thing as reincarnation.”
Perpetuating his gruff tough guy image, Knievel went on to say, “If there is a heaven, I don’t know anything else I can do to get there—and neither do you. There are some personal things that I would never do again.…God made us. He’s in charge of everything, right? If he didn’t like us, why didn’t he change us? Hey, I faced every challenge that came along. I just did everything. I have no regrets.”
On Palm Sunday of this year — several months after the USA Today interview — the man who captured the imaginations of audiences around the world with his motorcycle stunts spoke about his dramatic conversion to Christianity and was baptized during a service at the Crystal Cathedral in southern California. “Jesus Christ is everything! I know that now. If I had known that years and years ago, I would have been three times the man I thought I was,” Knievel told the congregation. Three weeks later, his testimony was broadcast on the Hour of Power television show seen in more than 100 nations.
Interviewed by Dr. Robert H. Schuller, the 80-year-old television ministry pioneer, Knievel shared about the emptiness that he was feeling in his life. “The God I was praying to was a God that I thought maybe could answer my prayers, but I didn’t realize that I needed to go through a living God.”
Knievel described himself as a person “who always believed in God, there was a God power, but I always had trouble believing in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I don’t know why I fought it so hard, I just did. But I think maybe it was the power of prayer. Maybe God just got sick and tired of me fighting it so much. He reached out and grabbed me and said, ‘Look, I just want you…you’ve got to stop this nonsense, you just come with Me.’”
Knievel told the congregation that he began thinking more about God prior to attending Daytona Bike Week in Florida in early March. He had called an old friend whom he had not spoken to for more than thirty years. The man was a pastor and he told Knievel that he would have his church pray for him. “My daughter had her whole church praying for me in Bozeman, Montana; and my ex-wife Linda, she’s had her whole church praying for me in Butte, Montana,” he said. “And she’s prayed for me for 25 or 30 years that I would become a Christian.”
In his frail state and with labored breath, Knievel said, “I don’t know if it was the power of the prayer, or of God Himself. But it just reached out either while I was driving, or walking down the sidewalk, or sleeping; and the power of God in Jesus just grabbed me. It just took a hold of me so strong; I can’t tell you how strong it was…All of a sudden I just believed in Jesus Christ!”
According to Knievel, his dramatic conversion took place during the Daytona Bike Week—a rowdy biker convergence known more for free-flowing alcohol and scantily clad women than for religious contemplation. On the second night of the event, he rose up from his bed in the middle of the night and shouted, “Devil, devil you bastard you, get away from me. I cast you out of my life.” He then went to the balcony of his hotel room and told the devil, “I will take you and throw you, throw you on the beach. You will be dead, you will be gone. I don’t want you around me anymore.”
He told the congregation, “I did everything I could. I just got on my knees and prayed that God would put His arms around me and never, ever, ever let me go. When I said [to the devil], ‘Get away from me,’ all of a sudden I was just overcome by the Spirit of God Almighty.”
After his unforgettable experience, he bought a Bible, the Jesus of Nazareth film, and Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ.
As he shared his testimony, he encouraged the audience to not make the same mistake regarding Jesus Christ that he had made. “Do not let us come with any patronizing thoughts in our minds to say, ‘Oh yes, Jesus was a minister of his time, or a biblical person, a person who believed in God, who taught us, he was a teacher, a great human being.’ Jesus did not offer us that,” Knievel said. “He is the Son of God and if you don’t believe that Jesus Christ is what he says he is, you will surely die, you’ll die in your sins, believe me.”
I don’t imagine that there will be politicians, movie stars, lawyers, baseball players, musicians, generals, theologians, or daredevils in heaven. There will only be believers. It seems that selflessness and humility — and a singular focus on God — will be the prevailing ethos of eternity. If there are superstars in heaven, I don’t imagine that most of us will have ever heard of them. I have a sneaking suspicion that there is a different set of requirements to be well-known on the streets of heaven than here on earth.
All of this is to say that celebrity conversion is no more impressive to the great cloud of witnesses than the changed life of one who is only known by a small community. As Jesus said, “There is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Luke 15:7). Having said that, we are often captured by the interesting and eccentric testimonies of superstar prodigals who find redemption. (I admit to being a bit biased since I treasured my Evel Knievel action figure and stunt cycle during my childhood.)
As I watched the Hour of Power telecast, one could sense that Evel was genuinely transformed by his midnight visitation from God in his Daytona hotel room. What was equally impressive was the response of the congregation after his baptism. When the invitation was made for others to participate, hundreds of people streamed into the aisles. Many wept as they were baptized. This kind of response — now, more than 1,000 — was repeated for several weeks after Knievel’s testimony.
Evel Knievel’s swagger and bravado created an image that helped to provide him with popularity and wealth, but his contrition and God’s grace are what he believes will grant him eternal life. Even the daredevil knows he can’t cheat death forever.
“I know that there’s more to life than what I’ve had. I wrote a book called, Evel Ways. I said I’ve had a life better than any king, any president or any prince. Hogwash! I didn’t have Jesus Christ in my life. I was talking about the Rolls Royce I had, five of them; the Ferraris I’ve had, five of them; the Stetsons, and the Lamborghinis, and the jet airplanes, two of them.…the diamonds, and the gold, and the racehorses, and the women, and the booze.
“I want to tell you something, I’ve been a sinner. You’re looking at a real sinner, but not anymore.”
Steve Beard is the creator and editor of Thunderstruck Media.