Prosperity Gospel: Deceptions and Dangers
Many contemporary Pentecostal and Charismatic preachers have become wealthy by promising their givers financial prosperity. Based on the blessings associated with tithes and offerings (Mal. 3:10: “Bring all the tithes…, and try Me now in this…" 1), some of those preachers assure that the generous givers can even choose in advance the kind of blessings to be requested from God. The various options include the style of the house they would like to own, the brand of the car they would like to drive, and even the bank account balance they would like to keep. All this, and much more, they would receive for being generous and “trying” God to fulfill His promises!
Helpful studies unveil the historical roots of the so-called “prosperity gospel." 2 For instance, John S. Haller Jr.’s The History of New Thought: From Mind Cure to Positive Thinking and the Prosperity Gospel (2012) demonstrates that the gospel under consideration is grounded on the American metaphysical movement known as New Thought. 3 Kate Bowler’s Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (2013) sees the prosperity gospel as the intersection between Pentecostalism, New Thought, and an American gospel of pragmatism, individualism, and upward mobility." 4
Most prosperity-gospel proponents argue that their postulates are grounded on the Scriptures. Some like Kenneth E. Hagin even claim, “the Lord Himself taught me about prosperity. I never read about it in a book. I got it directly from Heaven." 5 Regardless of what such proponents acknowledge as their historical roots and/or claim to justify their views, there are at least five serious tensions between the prosperity gospel, as taught by many popular contemporary preachers, and some foundational doctrines of the Scriptures.
1. The prosperity gospel distorts God’s character.
The Scriptures reveal God’s love in the way He treats human beings. He is merciful and just even with those who hate Him. About the plan of salvation, we know that “God so loved the world” (John 3:16) that He gave His own Son to die for us when we were still “sinners” and “enemies” of Him (Rom. 5:8, 10). The same impartiality is manifested also in the way God preserves today the required conditions for human beings to live on this planet (Gen. 8:22), despite the degenerating consequences of sin (Gen. 3). Christ Himself stated that God “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45).
One also has to recognize that, within the large framework of God’s treatment of human beings, many times He has to punish the wicked and to discipline those professed Christians who allow sin to separate them from Him (Isa 59:2). But even such a punitive process is permeated by the redemptive love that seeks to lead sinners into a personal relationship with God and obedience to His will. Despite being “a consuming fire” to sin (Heb 12:29), God continues to love sinners to the point of not wanting “that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). The same Christ who always loved His enemies and offered His forgiveness even to those who crucified Him (Luke 23:34) still grants the gift of life and many other blessings to millions and millions of people who make fun of God and even blaspheme His holy name.
Ignoring God’s character as revealed in the Scriptures, many preachers of the prosperity gospel are not afraid of presenting to the people a god caricaturized by nepotism and financial bargains with His followers. These preachers present a god much more interested in receiving financial resources from his worshipers than in leading them to live by “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). They present a god willing to accept even moneylender deals such as “we will loan you such amount, under the condition that you will return it ‘multiplied’ to us!” As tempting as they might seem, such deals are populist distortions of the holy and blameless character of God as revealed in the Scriptures.
2. The prosperity gospel presents a utopic image of human existence within the context of the great cosmic conflict.
Human history is a long and dramatic process that began with the human beings separating themselves from God and will end with their eschatological reencounter with God. Each step in this process has been marked by a continuous conflict between the powers of good and the forces of evil. Paul referred to this conflict by stating that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). And Christ declared that the agencies of evil are trying “to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (Matt. 24:24).
Satan is qualified in the Scriptures as “the father of lies” (John 8:44, RSV) and “the accuser of our brethren” (Rev. 12:10), and someone who does whatever he can to denigrate God’s character and bring troubles to the lives of God’s children. Even being a blameless and upright person, Job was deprived of his possessions and suffered innocently—not because he sinned but rather for God’s name to be glorified (Job 2). In regard to a man who was born blind, Christ explained, “neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him” (John 9:2, 3). And Christ Himself was born in a humble manger (Luke 2:7) and lived a humble life of suffering, deprived from material possessions (Matt. 8:20; Luke 9:58).
Even so, the promoters of the prosperity gospel continue preaching that those who have genuine faith and give their possessions to the coffers of the church will receive multiplied material and financial returns. If this is the case, then why did God not give such generous “financial blessings” to His own Son, instead of leaving Him without a place “to lay His head” (Matt. 8:20; Luke 9:58)? Why did God allow the apostle Peter to reach a point where he had to confess that he did “not possess silver and gold” (Acts 3:6, NASB)? Why was the consecrated and dedicated apostle Paul allowed to experience such “needs” that others sometimes had to supply them (2 Cor. 11:9, NASB)? Could it be possible that the god of the prosperity gospel is much more generous than the God of the apostolic church (cf. James 1:17)?
Some preachers of the prosperity gospel teach that disease and poverty are caused by demons that can be expelled once for all, so that a Christian can enjoy full health and material prosperity. It is true that sickness and misery were never part of God’s plan for the human race. But that kind of “exorcism” of sickness and poverty, as advocated by the prosperity preachers, undoubtedly suggests a kind of gospel without a cross (cf. Matt. 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; 14:27). If things are really so easy, then why did the apostle Paul not succeed in having his “thorn in the flesh” removed (2 Cor. 12:7-10)?
The Bible states clearly that struggles with the powers of darkness will never cease for the Christian while he or she is still in this world of sin and hardships (Eph. 6:10-18; 1 Peter 5:8, 9). Therefore, it is quite unrealistic to say, “Accept Christ and all your problems will disappear!” Christ Himself declared that His followers would face many problems (Matt. 10:34-39). And the apostle Paul also admonished that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim 3:12). In reality, Christ never promised to remove all storms from our lives, but rather to be with us in the midst of those storms (Matt. 8:23-27; Mark 4:35-41; Luke 8:22-25).
3. The prosperity gospel distorts the very essence of Christ’s teachings.
The essence of true Christianity is conversion that generates self-denial and full surrender to Christ (Matt 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). In that experience, sinners, who are by nature egocentric beings (centered on themselves), are transformed into alterocentric Christians (centered on God and humanity). In Philippians 3:4-9, Paul speaks of the transformation of his own life:
"If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.
"But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith."
The preachers of the prosperity gospel pretend to lead their listeners to an altruistic life through financial sacrifices. But such altruistic intention is completely neutralized by constant promises of material prosperity from those very same preachers. As a result of such an egocentric motivation, believers end up paying generous tithes and offerings, believing that the more they give, the greater the multiplied financial return they will receive!
In addition to such an egocentric motivation, it is worthy to highlight that the ego of the givers ends up being exalted even more through public testimonies about the donations and the resulting prosperity experienced. Such practices might be backed up by good intentions, but they are in direct opposition to Christ’s example and teachings! In His remarks about the poor widow’s offering (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4) and in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), Christ reproved forcefully this kind of show-off “testimonies.” In Matthew 6:2-4, He highlights the same principle of giving in humbleness:
"Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly."
4. The prosperity gospel applies to the New Testament church many Old Testament promises of theocratic prosperity.
To understand the matter of material prosperity in the Scriptures, one has to distinguish between the centripetal missionary emphasis of the Old Testament theocracy-monarchy and the centrifugal missionary purpose of the New Testament church.6 In the Old Testament, God chose Abraham and his descendants to make them a prosperous and model nation that would centripetally attract other peoples and nations to worship the true God (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:13, 14; 22:16-18). Israel came close to that ideal during the prosperous kingdoms of David and Solomon (1 Kings 4 and 10), but ended up departing from that ideal under the increasing manifestations of apostasy and idolatry that culminated in the fall of the kingdom of the North (2 Kings 17) and the exile of the kingdom of the South (2 Kings 25; 2 Chr. 36:17-21; Jer. 39, 52).
Under the New Testament, one finds Christ’s church with the centrifugal mission of going out to preach the gospel of the kingdom to the whole world (Matt 24:14; 28:18-20; Mark 16:15, 16; Luke 24:45-49; Acts 1:8). This is a very challenging mission, for “the field is the world” (Matt. 13:38) and “the laborers” continue to be proportionally few (Matt. 9:37; Luke 10:2). Under such reality, the classic words of Christ recorded in Matthew 6:19-21 are still pertinent for us today. There we read,
"Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
It is true that, on the one hand, the preachers of the prosperity gospel encourage people to detach themselves from their material possessions in favor of the church. But, on the other hand, they promise to the believers automatic material and financial prosperity during this life. Such promises ignore the reality of the great controversy and the fact that even the righteous may undergo suffering and deprivation, as demonstrated in the experience of Job.
5. The prosperity gospel distorts the whole spectrum of Christian obedience.
In both the book of Malachi and in Deuteronomy chapters 11 and 28, the condition to receive the divine blessings is not only faithfulness in tithes and offerings (Mal. 3:10-12) but also dedication of one’s life to God in full obedience to His will. Christ spoke of this same reality in Matthew 7:21-23, where He stated:
"Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'”
Although Christ emphasized several times in His teachings that it is much more important to be than to have, the preachers of the prosperity gospel place, according to Caio Fábio, more emphasis on having than being.7 Not very concerned whether the believers are keeping “clean hands and a pure heart” (Ps 24:3-5), or living “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4), or even allowing the true Holy Spirit to guide them “into all truth” (John 16:13; cf. 1 John 4:1; Acts 5:32), those preachers seem to be more interested in knowing whether the believers spoke in tongues, experienced some miracles, and had their material possessions multiplied.
Unfortunately, the religion taught by many prosperity preachers is a populist marketing religion apparently aimed at increasing the number of members in order to multiply the revenues of their churches.
Unfortunately, the religion taught by many prosperity preachers is a populist marketing religion apparently aimed at increasing the number of members in order to multiply the revenues of their churches. Many of them regard the speaking in tongues as much more significant than taming the tongue (James 3:1-12; 1 Cor. 14:18, 19), miraculous healings as more meaningful than living in harmony with the biblical principles of health (1 Cor. 3:16, 17; 6:19, 20), and preaching temporal prosperity as much more important than leading sinners to “the inheritance of the saints in the light” (Col. 1:12). Those preachers are much more excited about ordering like Peter, “rise up and walk” (Acts 3:6) than admonishing like Christ, “go and sin no more” (John 8:11; see also 5:14).
The books of Malachi and Deuteronomy list numerous blessings and curses depending on the attitude of the people toward the covenant “to serve God” and keep “His ordinance” (Mal. 3:14). Although God promised to bless His faithful children materially (Mal. 3:10-12), the true evidence of divine favor cannot be limited to this realm, for material prosperity seems to be more common among the wicked than among the righteous (Mal. 3:15; Ps 73:2-17).
The prosperity gospel taught by many popular preachers (1) distorts God’s character; (2) presents a utopic image of human existence within the framework of the great cosmic conflict; (3) distorts the very essence of Christ’s teachings; (4) applies to the New Testament church many Old Testament promises of theocratic prosperity; and (5) distorts the whole spectrum of Christian obedience.
Since “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10) and Christians are warned by Christ not to lay up for themselves “treasures on earth” (Matt. 6:19), it is quite evident that the prosperity gospel distorts the New Testament teachings about the Christian relationship with material goods. If full dedication to God always results in the blessing of “financial prosperity,” why did neither Christ nor the apostles received such blessing? Could it be the case that neither of them fulfilled the required conditions for that to happen?
The preachers of the prosperity gospel encourage believers to give more and more generously to the church. But the motivation used to reach that goal ends up strengthening even more the egocentric tendency of the believers and the financial wellbeing of the preachers. People give huge donations—not motivated by an unselfish love for the gospel cause, but because they believe that with such donations they will receive a highly lucrative financial return (“multiplied”). This kind of egocentric prosperity incentive, preached in God’s name (cf. Matt. 7:21-23), denies the very essence of Christ’s teachings (Matt. 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23).
- Unless otherwise indicated, all Bible references are from the NKJV.
- The prosperity gospel was largely shaped by E. W. Kenyon, Kenneth E. Hagin, Oral Roberts, Kenneth Copeland, and Joel Osteen.
- John S. Haller Jr., The History of New Thought: From Mind Cure to Positive Thinking and the Prosperity Gospel (West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation Press, 2012).
- Kate Bowler, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 11.
- Kenneth E. Hagin, How God Taught Me About Prosperity (Tulsa, OK: Kenneth Hagin Ministries, 1985), 1. See also Bill Hamon, Prophets and Personal Prophecy: God’s Prophetic Voice Today: Guidelines for Receiving, Understanding, and Fulfilling God’s Personal Word to You (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image, 1987), 123-134.
- For a more detailed study of the subject, see e.g., Johannes Blauw, The Missionary Nature of the Church: A Survey of the Biblical Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974).
- See Caio Fábio, A Crise de Ser e de Ter, rev. and enl. ed. ([Rio de Janeiro]: Vinde, 1995).