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The Problem(s) with the Prosperity Gospel

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There are many popular and prominent pastors and writers who preach and teach what is known as “The Prosperity Gospel.” It is also commonly called “the health and wealth” gospel and essentially teaches that if you have faith in God, you will experience material blessings like good health and much wealth. This teaching seems to have really grown in prominence in America over the past couple of centuries and has become an unfortunate export from America to places such as Africa, where it now permeates the church as well (For more on the how and why of its growth in America, see Russell Woodbridge’s article “Prosperity Gospel Born in the USA.”) Because it is so widespread and a dangerous misrepresentation of the Christian message, it is important for us to know about it and what makes it so problematic. Here are four reasons why this teaching does not reflect the truth found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Problem #1 – It Ignores (and Contradicts) Many Passages in the Bible
I am not sure how someone can believe that we will have healthy and wealthy lives on this earth after reading what Jesus says in John 16:33: “In the world you will have tribulation.” Or Paul’s words to Timothy: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Or these words from Peter: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 1:12). I think you get my point. The Bible features many, many stories of people of God who have neither good health nor much wealth (think of the Apostle Paul and all his sufferings in ministry), and Jesus teaches us to take up our cross daily (Luke 9:23)! In fact, Jesus (who I think we would all agree was the most faithful person who ever lived on earth) did not have wealth or even a home, as he said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’’(Luke 9:58). We should be prepared to deal with hardships, not being ashamed or fearful of them, but rather to see how God is still with us and growing us through them (see passages like James 1:2-3). The number of times the Bible teaches about godly people still experiencing suffering could almost make us wonder if something is wrong if we are not experiencing suffering; suffering, not happiness and protections from ill, seems to be the normal Christian life. In summary, the Bible does tell us that we will not avoid suffering, but will encounter it and God will grow us through it. The Prosperity Gospel either ignores these clear teachings…or blatantly contradicts what God has told us. 

Problem #2 – It Takes Many Verses Out of Context
Prosperity Gospel advocates seek to use the Bible to justify their teachings, but they are only able to do so by teaching passages of Scripture out of their specific and overarching context. It might be through taking a particular example – such as Abraham who “was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold” (Genesis 13:2) – and then saying this is God’s desire and plan for all who are faithful. Or it might be by taking promises connected to the covenant that God made with the people of Israel concerning the blessings their land would receive if they remain faithful (such as Deuteronomy 28:1-14) and then applying these to Christians today who stand in relationship to God via another covenant. Another form of literature that is misused are wisdom texts, especially Proverbs but also various Psalms (such as Psalm 1 that speaks about one prospering in all one does when faithful to God), as the nature of wisdom literature is to teach principles and not issue promises or guarantees with no exceptions. It is not just Old Testament passages that are taken out of context, as various verses that speak about Jesus’s work can then be used to claim that all blessings and promises are given now. For example, some say that Jesus’s work brings complete physical healing to people now because of Matthew 8:17 and that Jesus’s words in Mark 11:24 mean that God must give us anything we ask for in faith (see Mark 11:24). These claims ignore the reality that our salvation is achieved now in part but not in full. In addition, they do not recognize that these promises of prayer have various disclaimers such as obedience (John 15:7) and right motives (James 4:3) or that individuals like Paul and even Jesus did not always receive what they requested.

Problem #3 – The Nature and Timing of our Ultimate Hope is Forgotten
The Prosperity Gospel seems to make the nature of God’s gift of salvation more akin to the American Dream than to the Kingdom of Heaven, and that this is something that happens today rather than at the return of Christ. The focal point appears to be achieving health, wealth, and prosperity as a result of faith in God, rather than having a restored relationship with God through the forgiveness of sins. In some ways, it is as if knowing God is not enough as we are looking for more. It would be similar to entering into a relationship with someone because of what they can give to you as opposed to for the relationship itself. In addition, by emphasizing that we receive blessings now (or as some might call it, “our best life”), we forget the nature of hope that the truly best will come later when Christ returns. Of course we do receive some benefits now from what Christ has done for us, but not the full benefits, and this is only a glimmer of what is to come. Christ will end all suffering and cure all illness, but not until His return. Therefore, the Prosperity Gospel is defective in that it focuses too much on the gifts instead of the giver and too much on the “already” element of salvation (which we receive now) and not enough on the “not yet.” In the Christian life, this tends to minimize the hope for Christ’s return when the resurrection of the dead and the transformation of this broken world will occur. 

Problem #4 – It Emphasizes What We Do More Than What God Has Already Done
Another problem in Prosperity Gospel teaching is that it often elevates what we do over what God does and in particular what He has done for us. There is a stress by Prosperity Gospel teachers that the path towards the health and wealth they claim God has promised is found in thinking and saying the right things. This is why it is often also called “name-it and claim-it” theology or the “word of faith” movement. Rather than originating from the Bible, this idea comes from what was known as the New Thought philosophy, but it was adopted and adapted by early prominents of the Prosperity Gospel. While we are encouraged our thoughts reflect what is noble and right (Philippians 4:8) and to believe and ask for God to do amazing and impossible things, the focus should always remain on God and not our faith. It is the object of our faith, not the strength of it or our own virtues that lead to God answering our requests. This emphasis on our faith shown in words and thoughts can also reduce the importance of what God has done for us in Jesus and what He will do in the future. 

Responding to this Problematic But Popular Teaching
There are many other issues and problems with the Prosperity Gospel that I can’t include in this post due to space; I have only tried to highlight those I found most central. We need to both recognize its errors and also seek to resist them in our lives and refute them when we see them. That will require us to really know our Bibles – not just Bible verses, but the overarching teachings of the Bible. We need to develop what is often called a “biblical theology” (what the Bible teaches through its storyline) about various things like suffering, wealth, illness, and many other things. This will help us retain a proper perspective, not falling into the errors of this false teaching or other potential dangers (such as a faith that overdelights in suffering or does not think it can enjoy any blessings in this world). We need to remember the importance of contentment and also the dangers of wealth and possessions, as our hearts are susceptible to seek treasures on earth rather than treasures in heaven. Above all, let us keep our eyes focused upon Jesus, remembering both his sufferings and the salvation that we experience in him in part, not but in full until his return and our resurrection.

Questions about the Bible or theology? Email them to Pastor Brian at Theology@WeAreFaith.org. You can also request to receive weekly emails with our blog posts by filling out the information on the right side.

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