The Apostles bore witness regarding one of the most pernicious dangers and difficulties Christians in successive generations would face: the desire to hear a message amenable to human nature and lust, and those who would be more than eager to preach such a message (1 Timothy 4:1-3, 6:3-10, 2 Timothy 4:1-5, Jude 1:3-23). The prosperity gospel manifests these tendencies fully.
The prosperity gospel is also known as prosperity theology, the seed gospel, or the health and wealth gospel. Its fundamental premise is the expectation that those who fully trust in God are blessed with health, wealth, and overall prosperity. According to this message Jesus died in order to eliminate poverty and sickness from among His people. The means by which such prosperity can be accessed is almost invariably through providing consistent monetary donations to those who proclaim this message: it is often claimed these are seed donations, and God will provide those who give them with far more material wealth when they are given. Those who proclaim this message emphasize personal empowerment, self-help, and positivity. Those few adherents who may find healing or prosperity are celebrated and lionized as the norm; the many who do not receive healing or prosperity are made to feel as if they did not have enough faith and did not work hard enough to obtain the benefits.
The prosperity gospel relies on a pastiche of various decontextualized Bible verses to advance its thesis. Much is made of Jesus’ promise that He would give anything which His servants would ask for in His name, and emphasis is made on “anything” (cf. Matthew 7:7, 21:22, Mark 11:24, Luke 11:9, John 14:13-14, 15:7, 16, 16:23, 26). Constant appeals are made to the Apostles’ power to heal people of their illnesses (e.g. Acts 3:1-13, 5:12-16, 9:32-43). Malachi 3:10 is another promise to which many will make appeal; much also can be made of 2 Corinthians 9:6-13 in the same line of thinking: those who give much to God will receive even more from Him. Passages like John 10:10, promising abundant life, are easily warped to suggest material prosperity. The greeting of 3 John 1:2, hoping for prosperity and health along with soul prosperity, is made absolute.
We can understand the appeal of the prosperity gospel: who among us wants to be poor and sick? In modern society, as has been true in most societies throughout time, health and wealth have been seen as signs of divine blessing and favor, and people would like to emulate those who enjoy such things. Indeed, under the old covenant, the blessings of God were defined in terms of health and material wealth, and those who would lose such things or who never obtained them were deemed cursed by God (e.g. Leviticus 26:1-46, Proverbs). Those who advocate the prosperity gospel can find antecedents for many of their teachings in the Christian tradition; many of its strands are not novel. The prosperity gospel has been proclaimed so as to align well with the “American Dream” of self-sufficiency and wealth; its preachers skillfully exploit and manipulate the laws regarding religious non-profits to maximize wealth from the donations they have received, often to the point of fraud. Thus we should not be surprised to find prosperity gospel advocates proclaiming their messages on every form of common media and receiving fantastic sums of money from donations, having persuaded untold thousands of the aged, ill, poor, and marginalized in America and around the world of their message.
In truth the prosperity gospel is a false gospel, one designed to appeal to the lusts and vanities of people and away from the difficult aspects of the self-emptying and sacrificial message of Christ crucified. Even under the old covenant the conceit of the view that all suffering came from sin and a lack of faith was questioned and refuted, as can be seen in Psalm 44, Job, and Ecclesiastes; Job and Ecclesiastes, as well as the prophets, affirmed that many become wealthy based on exploitation and fraud, not faithfulness toward God. Yet the fundamental error of the prosperity gospel is made plain in the cross: the Scriptures do not attest that Jesus died on the cross to eliminate poverty and sickness from among His people. Jesus lived and died in poverty; the Apostles did the same (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:9-13, 2 Corinthians 8:9). Most of those who heard and obeyed the Gospel were among the poor, and most of them remained in that condition throughout their lives (1 Corinthians 1:26-27). For all those whom God healed to bear witness to the truth of the message of the Apostles we can find other instances in which Christians became ill and were not thus miraculously healed: Epaphroditus of Philippi, Trophimus (Philippians 2:25-27, 2 Timothy 4:20). If Jesus died to eliminate poverty and sickness among His people, the witness of history has proven Him an abject failure.
Jesus did not die to eliminate poverty and sickness; Jesus died to liberate humanity from slavery to sin, death, and the powers and principalities of this present darkness (Romans 8:1-18, Colossians 2:15, Hebrews 2:8-14). Furthermore, it was not expected that Jesus would suffer so that no one else would ever have to suffer; quite the contrary! Jesus was the Pioneer of the Way of Life (Hebrews 2:9-10): all who would follow Him would have to take up their cross, that is, the object of their humiliation, suffering, and shame, and come after Jesus (Matthew 10:38, 16:24-25). Only those who have suffered with Jesus will be glorified with Him (Romans 8:17). Paul exhorted Christians to imitate him as he imitated Christ, glorying not in material standing or wealth but in humiliation and weakness (1 Corinthians 11:1, 2 Corinthians 11:16-12:10, Philippians 3:1-15). John understood how God is love, and that love was manifest in what God accomplished in Jesus (1 John 4:7-21); thus, for Christians to love as God has loved them required them to suffer loss for one another (1 John 3:16-18). Jesus thus did not suffer with the expectation that His followers would not have to suffer; instead, His suffering proved paradigmatic for the believer, who would only enter the Kingdom through tribulation (cf. Acts 14:21-22).
Health and wealth are not inherently problematic; we can certainly hope and pray for health and wealth, just like John did for Gaius in 3 John 1:2. Yet we must recognize that health and wealth can become idols and temptations away from God’s purposes in Christ (1 Timothy 6:3-10). Those who have health and wealth must use them to glorify God in Christ, to provide for those in need, and to be rich in good works, putting no trust in that health or wealth but in everything giving the glory to God (1 Timothy 6:17-19). We indeed can ask anything of God according to His will and purpose and expect to receive it if we ask in faith; yet, as James the Lord’s brother warns us, if we ask to spend on our passions, we should not expect to receive anything (James 4:1-5). The gospel of health and wealth is a distraction, for having health and wealth does not guarantee or require good standing before God. Many who have been materially poor and sick have been rich in love, faith, patience, good works, and kindness; they will receive their reward in Christ.
The prosperity gospel works for those who preach it; less so for those exploited by it. The best the prosperity gospel can offer you is material prosperity for the moment; but what will happen to you and your wealth when you stand before the Lord Jesus without having carried the cross assigned to you (Romans 14:10-12)? The Gospel of Christ promises a far greater wealth than anything which we can presently find on earth: receiving the glory of God (Romans 8:17-18, Revelation 21:1-22:6). Compared to that glory anything we suffer on earth is reckoned as “light momentary affliction” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)! Thus we should direct all of our efforts, and endure whatever is necessary, to receive that glory in the resurrection of life. We know the way, for Jesus is that Way and that Truth and that Life (John 14:6); we must suffer with Him if we wish to be glorified in Him. May we resist the siren song of the prosperity gospel, and take up our cross and follow after Jesus to obtain true glory and life!
Ethan R. Longhenry