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Prosperity theology (sometimes referred to as the prosperity gospel, the health and wealth gospel, the gospel of success, or seed faith) is a religious belief among some Protestant Christians that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them. Faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth. Material and especially financial success is seen as a sign of divine favor.
Prosperity theology has been criticized by leaders from various Christian denominations, including within some Pentecostal and charismatic[A] movements, who maintain that it is irresponsible, promotes idolatry and is contrary to the Bible. Secular and some Christian observers have also criticized prosperity theology as exploitative of the poor. The practices of some preachers have attracted scandal, and some have been charged with financial fraud.
[A]The charismatic movement is false Christianity, which is a movement within established or mainstream Christian denominations to adopt beliefs and practices of Charismatic Christianity, emphasizing baptism with the Holy Spirit and the use of spiritual gifts (charismata). It has affected most denominations in the US and spread widely worldwide.
Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, he will deliver security and prosperity. The doctrine emphasizes the importance of personal empowerment, proposing that it is God’s will for his people to be blessed. The atonement (reconciliation with God) is interpreted to include alleviating sickness and poverty, which are viewed as curses to be broken by faith. This is believed to be achieved through donations of money, visualization, and positive confession.
During the Healing Revivals[B]of the 1950s, prosperity theology first became prominent in the United States. However, commentators have linked the origins of its theology to the New Thought[C] movement, which began in the 19th century. The prosperity teaching later figured prominently in the Word of Faith[D] movement and 1980s televangelism.[E] In the 1990s and 2000s, it was adopted by influential leaders in the Pentecostal movement and charismatic movement in the United States and has spread throughout the world. Prominent leaders in the development of prosperity theology include Benny Hinn, E. W. Kenyon, Oral Roberts, A. A. Allen, Robert Tilton, T. L. Osborn, Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland, Reverend Ike, and Kenneth Hagin.
[B]The Healing Revival is a term used by many American Charismatics for a Christian revival movement that began in June 1946 and continued through the 1950s. The Healing Revival sparked the Latter Rain movement in 1948, and the two movements were interrelated. The period of revival was a significant influence on the modern charismatic movement.
[C]The New Thought movement is a spiritual movement that coalesced in the United States in the early 19th century. New Thought was seen by its adherents as succeeding “ancient thought”, accumulated wisdom and philosophy from a variety of origins, such as Ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Chinese, Taoist, Vedic, Hindu, and Buddhist cultures and their related belief systems, primarily regarding the interaction between thought, belief, consciousness in the human mind, and the effects of these within and beyond the human mind. Though no direct line of transmission is traceable, many adherents to New Thought in the 19th and 20th centuries claimed to be direct descendants of those systems.
[D]Word of Faith is a worldwide Christian movement that teaches that Christians can access the power of faith through speech. Its teachings are on the radio, the Internet, television, and in some Neo-charismatic churches and communities. Traditional Pentecostal churches cannot be categorized under this teaching. The movement teaches that the salvation won by Jesus on the cross included healing and well-being for believers, claiming support from scripture verses such as John 10:10, 1 Peter 2:24, and Romans 10:9-10.
[E]Televangelism is the use of media, specifically radio and television, to communicate Christianity. Televangelists are ministers who devote a large portion of their ministry to television broadcasting, whether official or self-proclaimed. Some televangelists are also regular pastors or ministers in their own places of worship (often megachurch), but most of their followers come from TV and radio audiences. Others do not have a conventional congregation and work primarily through television. The term is also used derisively by critics as an insinuation of aggrandizement by such ministers.
A megachurch is a church with an unusually large membership that also offers a variety of educational and social activities, usually Protestant or Evangelical. The Hartford Institute for Religion Research defines a megachurch as any Protestant Christian church with an average weekend attendance of 2,000 or more people. The megachurch is an organization type rather than a denomination.
History Prosperity Theology
Late 19th and early 20th-century background
|Interview with Kate Bowler on Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, March 18, 2014, C-SPAN|
According to historian Kate Bowler, the prosperity gospel was formed from the intersection of three different ideologies: Pentecostalism, New Thought, and “an American gospel of pragmatism, individualism, and upward mobility.” This “American gospel” was best exemplified by Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth and Russell Conwell’s famous sermon “Acres of Diamonds,” in which Conwell equated poverty with sin and asserted that anyone could become rich through hard work. This gospel of wealth, however, was an expression of Muscular Christianity[F] and understood success to be the result of personal effort rather than divine intervention.
[F]Muscular Christianity is a philosophical movement that originated in England in the mid-19th century, characterized by a belief in patriotic duty, discipline, self-sacrifice, masculinity, and the moral and physical beauty of athleticism.
The New Thought movement, which emerged in the 1880s, was responsible for popularizing belief in the power of the mind to achieve prosperity. While initially focused on achieving mental and physical health, New Thought teachers such as Charles Fillmore made material success a major emphasis of the movement. By the 20th century, New Thought concepts had saturated American popular culture, common features of self-help literature, and popular psychology.
E. W. Kenyon, a Baptist minister and adherent of the Higher Life Movement,[G] is credited with introducing mind-power teachings into early Pentecostalism. In the 1890s, Kenyon attended Emerson College of Oratory, where he was exposed to the New Thought movement. Kenyon later became connected with well-known Pentecostal leaders and wrote about supernatural revelation and positive declarations. His writing influenced leaders of the nascent prosperity movement during the post-war American healing revival. Kenyon and later leaders in the prosperity movement have denied that he was influenced by the New Thought movement. Anthropologist Simon Coleman argues that there are “obvious parallels” between Kenyon’s teachings and New Thought.
[G]The Higher Life movement, also known as the Keswick movement or Keswickianism, is a Protestant theological tradition within evangelical Christianity that espouses distinct teaching on the doctrine of entire sanctification.
Kenyon taught that Christ’s substitutionary atonement secured for believers a right to divine healing. This was attained through positive, faith-filled speech; God’s spoken word allowed believers to appropriate the same spiritual power that God used to create the world and attain the provisions promised in Christ’s death and resurrection. Prayer was understood to be a binding, legal act. Rather than asking, Kenyon taught believers to demand to heal since they were already legally entitled to receive it.
Kenyon’s blend of evangelical religion and mind-power beliefs—what he termed “overcoming faith”—resonated with a small but influential segment of the Pentecostal movement. Pentecostals had always been committed to faith healing, and the movement also possessed a strong belief in the power of speech (in particular, speaking in tongues[H] and the use of the names of God, especially the name of Jesus). Kenyon’s ideas would be reflected in the teachings of Pentecostal evangelists F. F. Bosworth and John G. Lake (who co-led a congregation with New Thought author Albert C. Grier prior to 1915).
[H]Speaking in tongues in first-century Christianity was a special ability given through the Holy Spirit to some disciples in the early Christian congregation that enabled them to preach or otherwise glorify God in a language apart from their own. Speaking in tongues in modern times is a demonic practice, also known as glossolalia, a practice in which people utter words or speech-like sounds, often thought by believers to be languages unknown to the speaker. One definition used by linguists is the fluid vocalizing of speech-like syllables that lack any readily comprehended meaning, in some cases as part of religious practice in which some believe it to be a divine language unknown to the speaker. Glossolalia is practiced in Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity, as well as in other religions.
Post-1945 Healing Revivals
While Kenyon’s teachings on overcoming faith laid the groundwork for the prosperity gospel, the first generation of Pentecostals influenced by him and other figures, such as Bosworth, did not view faith as a means to attain material prosperity. In fact, early Pentecostals tended to view prosperity as a threat to a person’s spiritual well-being. By the 1940s and 1950s, however, a recognizable form of the doctrine began to take shape within the Pentecostal movement through the teachings of deliverance and healing evangelists. Combining prosperity teaching with revivalism and faith healing, these evangelists taught “the laws of faith (‘ask and ye shall receive’) and the laws of divine reciprocity (‘give and it will be given back unto you’).”
Oral Roberts[I] began teaching prosperity theology in 1947. He explained the laws of faith as a “blessing pact” in which God would return donations “sevenfold,” promising that donors would receive back the money they donated to him from unexpected sources. Roberts offered to return any donation that did not lead to an equivalent unexpected payment. In the 1970s, Roberts characterized his blessing pact teaching as the “seed faith” doctrine: donations were a form of “seed” which would grow in value and be returned to the donor. Roberts began recruiting “partners,” wealthy donors who received exclusive conference invitations and ministry access in exchange for support.
Granville Oral Roberts[I] was an American Charismatic Christian televangelist ordained in both the Pentecostal Holiness and United Methodist churches. He is considered one of the forerunners of the charismatic movement and was one of the most recognized preachers in the US at the height of his recognition. He founded the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association and Oral Roberts University.
In 1953, faith healer A. A. Allen published The Secret to Scriptural Financial Success and promoted merchandise such as “miracle tent shavings” and prayer cloths anointed with “miracle oil.” In the late 1950s, Allen increasingly focused on prosperity. He taught that faith could miraculously solve financial problems and claimed to have had a miraculous experience in which God supernaturally changed one-dollar bills into twenty-dollar bills to allow him to pay his debts. Allen taught the “word of faith” or the power to speak something into being.
In the 1960s, prosperity became a primary focus in healing revivals. T. L. Osborn began emphasizing prosperity in the 1960s and became known for his often ostentatious displays of personal wealth. During that decade, Roberts and William Branham criticized other prosperity ministries, arguing that their fund-raising tactics unfairly pressured attendees. These tactics were partly prompted by the expense of developing nationwide radio networks and campaign schedules. At the same time, leaders of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God denomination often criticized the focus on prosperity taken by independent healing evangelists.
During the 1960s, prosperity gospel teachers embraced televangelism and came to dominate religious programming in the United States. Oral Roberts was among the first to develop a syndicated weekly program that became the most watched religious show in the United States. By 1968, television had supplanted the tent meeting in his ministry.
Reverend Ike, a pastor from New York City, began preaching about prosperity in the late 1960s. He soon had widely aired radio and television programs and became distinguished for his flashy style. His openness about love for material possessions and teachings about the “Science of the Mind” led many evangelists to distance themselves from him.
In the 1980s, public attention in the United States was drawn to prosperity theology through the influence of prominent televangelists such as Jim Bakker. However, Bakker’s influence waned after being implicated in a high-profile scandal. In the aftermath, Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) emerged as the dominant force in prosperity televangelism, having brought Robert Tilton and Benny Hinn to prominence.
Word of Faith
Although nearly all the healing evangelists of the 1940s and 1950s taught that faith could bring financial rewards, a new prosperity-oriented teaching developed in the 1970s that differed from the one taught by Pentecostal evangelists of the 1950s. This “Positive Confession” or “Word of Faith” movement taught that a Christian with faith could speak into existence anything consistent with the will of God.
Kenneth Hagin was credited with a key role in expanding prosperity theology. He founded the RHEMA Bible Training Center in 1974, and over the next 20 years, the school trained more than 10,000 students in his theology. As is true of other prosperity movements, there is no theological governing body for the Word of Faith movement, and well-known ministries differ on some theological issues, though many ministries are unofficially linked. The teachings of Kenneth Hagin have been described by Candy Gunther Brown of Indiana University as the most “orthodox” form of Word of Faith prosperity teaching.
By the late 2000s, proponents claimed that tens of millions of Christians had accepted prosperity theology. The neo-Pentecostal movement has been characterized partly by an emphasis on prosperity theology, which gained greater acceptance within charismatic Christianity during the late 1990s. In the 2000s, Evangelical-Pentecostal churches teaching prosperity theology saw significant growth in the Global South and Third World countries. According to Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University, poor citizens of impoverished countries often find the doctrine appealing because of their economic powerlessness and the doctrine’s emphasis on miracles. One region seeing explosive growth is Western Africa, particularly Nigeria. In the Philippines, the El Shaddai movement, part of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, has spread prosperity theology outside Protestant Christianity. One South Korean prosperity church, Yoido Full Gospel Church, gained attention in the 1990s by claiming to be the world’s largest congregation.
A 2006 poll by Time reported that 17 percent of Christians in America said they identified with the movement. By the 2000s, adherents of prosperity theology in the United States were most common in the Sun Belt. By 2006, three of the four largest congregations in the United States were teaching prosperity theology, and Joel Osteen has been credited with spreading it outside the Pentecostal and Charismatic movement through his books, which have sold over 4 million copies. Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez also sold millions of copies and invited readers to seek prosperity.
In 2005, Matthew Ashimolowo, the founder of the largely African Kingsway International Christian Center in southern England, which preaches a “health and wealth” gospel and collects regular tithes, was ordered by the Charity Commission to repay the money he had appropriated for his personal use. In 2017, the organization was under criminal investigation after a leading member was found by a court in 2015 to have operated a Ponzi scheme between 2007 and 2011, losing or spending £8 million of investors’ money.
In 2007, U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley opened a probe into the finances of six televangelism ministries that promoted prosperity theology: Kenneth Copeland Ministries, Creflo Dollar Ministries, Benny Hinn Ministries, Bishop Eddie Long Ministries, Joyce Meyer Ministries, and Paula White Ministries. In January 2011, Grassley concluded his investigation by stating that he believed self-regulation by religious organizations was preferable to government action. Only the ministries led by Meyer and Hinn cooperated with Grassley’s investigation.
The inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States featured prayers from two preachers known for advocating prosperity theology. Paula White, one of Trump’s spiritual advisers, gave the invocation. It must be remembered that although Donald Trump claimed he had always been a Christian, it was in name only and never acted upon. His life was changed by his presidency, so he took Christianity far more seriously and really had no idea about the differences within Christianity. Nevertheless, he had done more for Christianity and religious freedom than any president before him.
Prosperity theology teaches that Christians are entitled to well-being and interprets well-being as physical health and economic prosperity because spiritual and physical realities are seen as inseparable realities. Teachers of the doctrine focus on personal empowerment, promoting a positive view of the spirit and body. They maintain that Christians have been given power over creation because they are made in the image of God and teach that positive confession allows Christians to exercise dominion over their souls and material objects around them. Leaders of the movement view the atonement as providing for the alleviation of sickness, poverty, and spiritual corruption; poverty and illness are cast as curses that can be broken by faith and righteous actions. There are, however, some prosperity churches that seek a more moderate or reformed paradigm of prosperity. Kirbyjon Caldwell, the pastor of a Methodist mega-church, supports a theology of abundant life, teaching prosperity for the whole human being, which he sees as a path to combating poverty.
Wealth is interpreted in prosperity theology as a blessing from God, obtained through a spiritual law of positive confession, visualization, and donations. Believers may see this process in almost mechanical terms; Kenneth Copeland, an American author, and televangelist, argue that prosperity is governed by laws, while other teachers portray the process formulaically. Journalists David van Biema and Jeff Chu of Time have described Word of Faith pastor Creflo Dollar’s teachings about prosperity as an inviolable contract between God and humanity.
The prosperity theology teaching of positive confession stems from its proponents’ view of scripture. The Bible is seen as a faith contract between God and believers; God is understood to be faithful and just, so believers must fulfill their end of the contract to receive God’s promises. This leads to a belief in positive confession: the doctrine that believers may claim whatever they desire from God simply by speaking it. Prosperity theology teaches that the Bible has promised prosperity for believers, so positive confession means that believers are speaking in faith what God has already spoken about them. Positive confession is practiced to bring about what is already believed in; faith itself is a confession, and speaking it brings it into reality.
The teaching often depends on non-traditional interpretations of Bible verses, with the Book of Malachi often being given special attention. While Christians have generally celebrated Malachi for its passages about the Messiah, teachers of prosperity theology usually draw attention to its descriptions of physical wealth. Frequently quoted verses include:
- Malachi 3:10: “’Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.’” (KJV)
- Matthew 25:14–30: the Parable of the talents
- John 10:10: “’I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.’” (KJV)
- Philippians 4:19: “My God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” (KJV)
- 3 John 1:2: “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” (KJV)
Prosperity theology casts itself as the reclamation of true doctrine and, thus, part of a path to Christian dominion over secular society. It contends that God’s promises of prosperity and victory to Israel in the Old Testament apply to New-Covenant Christians today and that faith and holy actions release this prosperity. C. Peter Wagner, a leader of the New Apostolic Reformation, has argued that if Christians take dominion over aspects of society, the Earth will experience “peace and prosperity.” Some Latin Americans who have embraced prosperity theology argue that Christianity has historically placed an unnecessary focus on suffering. They often view this as a Roman Catholic doctrine that should be discarded and replaced with an emphasis on prosperity. Prosperity-theology advocates also argue that biblical promises of blessings awaiting the poor have been unnecessarily spiritualized and should be understood literally.
Practices of Prosperity Theology
Prosperity churches place a strong emphasis on the importance of giving. Some services include a teaching time focused on giving and prosperity, including Biblical references to tithing,[J] and then a sermon on another topic that follows the offering. Prosperity-church leaders often claim that a specific blessing can be exchanged for the money being donated to their ministry; some have been reported to instruct worshipers to hold their donations above their heads during prayer.
[J]Tithing is the practice of giving a tenth of one’s income to the Lord. This Old Testament commandment was displaced in the New Testament with a new way of giving. The apostle Paul stated, “Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly [or reluctantly] or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”—2 Corinthians 9:7.
Congregants in prosperity churches are encouraged to speak positive statements about aspects of their lives that they wish to see improved. These statements, known as “positive confessions” (distinct from confessions of sin), are said to miraculously change aspects of people’s lives if spoken with faith. Prosperity churches also encourage people to “live without limits” and to cultivate optimism about their lives. T. D. Jakes, the pastor of The Potter’s House non-denominational mega-church, has argued in favor of prosperity, rejecting what he sees as the demonization of success. He views poverty as a barrier to living a Christian life, suggesting that it is easier to positively impact society when one is affluent.
While some prosperity churches have a reputation for manipulating and alienating the poor, many are involved in social programs. Underlying these programs is a theology of empowerment and human flourishing with the goal of releasing people from a “welfare” or “victim” mentality. Many prosperity churches hold seminars on financial responsibility. Kate Bowler, an academic studying prosperity theology, has criticized such seminars, arguing that though they contain some sound advice, the seminars often emphasize purchasing expensive possessions. Hanna Rosin of The Atlantic argues that prosperity theology contributed to the housing bubble that caused the late-2000s financial crisis. She maintains that prosperity churches heavily emphasized home ownership based on reliance on a divine financial intervention that led to unwise choices based on actual financial ability.
Most churches in the prosperity movement are non-denominational and independent, though some groups have formed networks. Prosperity churches typically reject Presbyterian polity (or governance) and the idea that a pastor should be accountable to elders; it is common for pastors of prosperity churches to be the highest organizational authority figure. Critics, including Sarah Posner and Joe Conason, maintain that prosperity teachers cultivate authoritarian organizations. They argue that leaders attempt to control the lives of adherents by claiming divinely bestowed authority. Jenkins contends that prosperity theology is used as a tool to justify the high salaries of pastors.
Reception of Prosperity Theology
The movement has drawn many followers from the middle class in the United States and is most popular in commuter towns and urban areas. In Exporting the American Gospel: Global Christian Fundamentalism Steve Brouwer, Paul Gifford, and Susan Rose speculate that the movement was fueled by a prevailing disdain for social liberalism in the United States that began in the 1970s.[G] Rosin argues that prosperity theology emerged because of broader trends, particularly American economic optimism in the 1950s and 1990s. Tony Lin of the University of Virginia has also compared the teaching to manifest destiny, the 19th-century belief that the United States was entitled to the West. Marvin Harris argues that the doctrine’s focus on the material world is a symptom of the secularization of American religion. He sees it as an attempt to fulfill the American Dream by using supernatural power.
Prosperity theology has become popular among poor Americans, particularly those who seek personal and social advancement. It has seen significant growth in black and Hispanic churches and is particularly popular among immigrants. Apologists for the movement note its ethnic diversity and argue that it encompasses a variety of views. Joel Robbins of Cambridge University notes that most anthropologists attribute the theology’s appeal to the poor—especially in the Global South—to the fact that it promises security and helps explain capitalism. Simon Coleman developed a theory based on the doctrine’s rhetoric and the feeling of belonging it gave parishioners. In a Swedish Word of Life Church study, he noted that members felt part of a complex gift-exchange system, giving to God and then awaiting a gift in return (either from God directly or through another church member). Hillsong Church, the largest congregation in Australia, teaches a form of prosperity theology that emphasizes personal success. Marion Maddox has argued that this message has drawn many upwardly mobile Australians. Scott Morrison, who became the 30th Prime Minister of Australia in August 2018, is a member of Horizon Church, a Pentecostal church that believes in prosperity theology.
In a 1998 interview in Christianity Today, Bong Rin Ro of the Asia Graduate School of Theology suggested that the growth in popularity of prosperity theology in South Korea reflects a strong “shamanistic influence.” Bong pointed to parallels between the tradition of paying shamans[K] for healing and the prosperity theology’s contractual doctrine about giving and blessings. Asia’s economic problems, he argued, encouraged the growth of the doctrine in South Korea, though he claims it ignores the poor and needy. During the interview, he stated that he saw the problem beginning to be reversed, citing calls for renewed faith and other practices. Cho Yong-gi, pastor of Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, has been criticized for shamanizing Christianity. This criticism has focused on his healing and exorcism ministries and his promise of material blessings. Malaysian Christian writer Hwa Yung has defended Cho’s healing and exorcism ministries, arguing that he successfully contextualized the Gospel in a culture where shamanism was still prevalent. However, Hwa criticizes Cho’s teaching of earthly blessings for not reflecting a trust in God’s daily provision and for their heavy focus on earthly wealth.
[K]Korean shamanism, or Korean folk religion, is an animistic ethnic religion of Korea which dates back to prehistory and consists of the worship of gods (신 shin) and ancestors (조상 josang) as well as nature spirits. Hanja: 巫俗; musog or musok), the term Muism (Hangul: 무속신앙; musok shinang) is also used. Korean shamanism has been influenced by Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.
Comparisons with Other Movements
Historian Carter Lindberg of Boston University has drawn parallels between contemporary prosperity theology and the medieval indulgence trade. Comparisons have also been made to Calvinism, but John T. McNeill disputes the widespread semi-Weberian idea that Calvinism promoted the idea of prosperity as a marker of the elect. Coleman notes that several pre–20th century Christian movements in the United States taught that a holy lifestyle was a path to prosperity and that God-ordained hard work would bring blessing.
Coleman has speculated that modern-day prosperity theology borrows heavily from the New Thought movement, though he admits that the connection is sometimes unclear. Jenkins notes that critics draw a parallel between prosperity theology and the cargo cult phenomenon. While citing the popularity of prosperity theology in agrarian African communities, he argues that it can also bear similarities to traditional African religious rituals. J. Matthew Wilson of Southern Methodist University compares the movement to Black theology because it focuses on uplifting oppressed groups. However, he notes that it differs in its concentration on individual success rather than corporate political change.
Observers have proposed that some doctrines and beliefs found in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) are reminiscent of prosperity theology. This includes a similar interpretation of Malachi 3:10 found among LDS members as among Protestant prosperity theology and LDS lesson manuals teaching a “prosperity cycle” that shows material wealth follows from obedience to God. A Harper’s Magazine editorial from 2011 alleged that these similarities were behind the Republican Party’s economic policies and further claimed that “In comparison to most other Protestant denominations, Mormonism has an established tradition of entrepreneurship and less ambivalence about the pursuit of wealth.” However, it also explicitly noted that “None of the prosperity gospel’s proponents are themselves Mormon.”
Criticism of Prosperity Theology
Mainstream evangelicalism has consistently opposed prosperity theology as heretical, and prosperity ministries have frequently come into conflict with other Christian groups, including those within the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. Critics, such as Evangelical pastor Michael Catt, have argued that prosperity theology has little in common with traditional Christian theology. Prominent evangelical leaders, such as Rick Warren, Ben Witherington III, and Jerry Falwell, have harshly criticized the movement, sometimes denouncing it as heretical. Warren proposes that prosperity theology promotes the idolatry of money, and others argue that Jesus’ teachings indicate a disdain for material wealth. In Mark: Jesus, Servant, and Savior, R. Kent Hughes notes that some 1st-century rabbis portrayed material blessings as a sign of God’s favor. He cites Jesus’ statement in Mark 10:25 that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (KJV) as evidence to oppose such thinking.
Other critics of the movement assail promises made by its leaders, arguing that the broad freedom from problems they promise is irresponsible. Televangelists are often criticized for abusing the faith of their listeners by enriching themselves through large donations. Prosperity theology has been opposed for not adequately explaining the poverty of the Apostles. For instance, some theologians believe that the life and writings of Paul the Apostle, believed to have experienced significant suffering during his ministry, are in conflict with prosperity theology. Cathleen Falsani, religion writer in an opinion piece in The Washington Post, points to the conflict with basic Christian teachings “Jesus was born poor, and he died poor. During his earthly tenure, he spoke repeatedly about the importance of spiritual wealth and health. When he talked about material wealth, it was usually part of a cautionary tale.”
In their book, Health, Wealth and Happiness, theologians David Jones and Russell Woodbridge characterize the doctrine as poor theology. They suggest that righteousness cannot be earned and that the Bible does not promise an easy life. They argue that it is inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus and propose that the gospel’s central message should be Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Jones and Woodbridge see Jesus’ importance as vital, criticizing the prosperity gospel for marginalizing him in favor of focusing on human needs. In another article, Jones criticizes the prosperity theology interpretation of the Abrahamic covenant, God’s promise to bless Abraham’s descendants, arguing that this blessing is spiritual and should already apply to all Christians. He also argues that the proponents of the doctrine misconstrue the atonement, criticizing their teaching that Jesus’ death took away poverty as well as sin. He believes that this teaching is drawn from a misunderstanding of Jesus’ life and criticizes John Avanzini‘s teaching that Jesus was wealthy as a misrepresentation, noting that Paul often taught Christians to give up their material possessions. Although he accepts giving as “praiseworthy,” he questions the motives of prosperity theology and criticizes the “Law of Compensation,” which teaches that when Christians give generously, God will give back more in return. Rather, Jones cites Jesus’ teaching to “give, hoping for nothing in return.” Jones and Woodbridge also note that Jesus instructed followers to focus on spiritual rewards, citing his command in Matthew 6:19–20 “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth … But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (KJV). Jones criticizes the doctrine’s view of faith: he does not believe that it should be used as a spiritual force for material gain but seen as selfless acceptance of God.
In 1980, the General Council of the Assemblies of God criticized the doctrine of positive confession, noting examples of negative confessions in the Bible (where Biblical figures express fears and doubts) that had positive results and contrasting these examples with the focus on positive confessions taught by prosperity theology. The Council argues that the biblical Greek word often translated as “confess” literally translates as “to speak the same thing” and refers to both positive and negative confessions. The statement also criticizes the doctrine for failing to recognize the will of God: God’s will should have precedence over the will of man, including their desires for wealth, and Christians should “recognize the sovereignty of God.” The statement further criticizes prosperity theology for overlooking the importance of prayer, arguing that prayer should be used for all requests, not simply positive confession. The Council noted that Christians should expect suffering in this life. They urge readers to apply practical tests to positive confession, arguing that the doctrine appeals to those who are already in affluent societies but that many Christians in other societies are impoverished or imprisoned. Finally, the paper criticizes the distinction made by advocates of prosperity theology in the two Greek words that mean “speaking”, arguing that the distinction is false and that they are used interchangeably in the Greek text. The Council accused prosperity theology of taking passages out of context to fulfill its own needs, with the result that the doctrine of positive confession is contradictory to the holistic message of the Bible.
In April 2015, LDS apostle Dallin H. Oaks stated that people who believe in “the theology of prosperity” are deceived by riches. He continued by saying that the “possession of wealth or significant income is not a mark of heavenly favor, and their absence is not evidence of heavenly disfavor.” He also cited how Jesus differentiated the attitudes towards money held by the young rich man in Mark 10:17–24, the good Samaritan, and Judas Iscariot in his betrayal. Oaks concluded this portion of his sermon by highlighting that the “root of all evil is not money but the love of money.”
In 2015, well-known pastor and prosperity gospel advocate Creflo Dollar launched a fundraising campaign to replace a previous private jet with a $65 million Gulfstream G650. On the August 16, 2015, episode of his HBO weekly series Last Week Tonight, John Oliver satirized prosperity theology by announcing that he had established his own tax-exempt church called Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption. In a lengthy segment, Oliver focused on what he characterized as the predatory conduct of televangelists who appeal for repeated gifts from people in financial distress or personal crises, and he criticized the very loose requirements for entities to obtain tax-exempt status as churches under U.S. tax law. Oliver said that he would ultimately donate any money collected by the church to Doctors Without Borders.
In July 2018, Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa, in the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, examined the origins of the prosperity gospel in the United States and described it as a reductive version of the American Dream, which had offered opportunities for success and prosperity unreachable in the Old World. The authors distinguished the prosperity gospel from Max Weber’s Protestant ethic, noting that the Protestant ethic related prosperity to religiously inspired austerity. In contrast, the prosperity gospel saw prosperity as the simple result of personal faith. They criticized many aspects of the prosperity gospel, noting particularly the tendency of believers to lack compassion for the poor since their poverty was seen as a sign that they had not followed the rules and therefore are not loved by God.
In 2019, the documentary American Gospel: Christ Alone presented a number of critical analyses of the prosperity gospel while following the stories of individuals whose lives had intersected with prosperity teachings, including Costi Hinn, nephew of Benny Hinn.
The reality television series Preachers of L.A. follows the lives of pastors who adhere to prosperity theology. In a review, Cathleen Falsani described it as imitating other reality series with “McMansions, bling, hair extensions, luxury cars, pontificating, preening, and epic delusions of grandeur.”
Does God Want You to be Rich?
In the past, God blessed some of his servants with material wealth. For example, the patriarch Job and King Solomon. (1 Kings 10:23; Job 42:12) Yet there were far more God-fearing men, who had little, including John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. (Mark 1:6; Luke 9:58) The point? When we investigate the Bible, God deals with his people per his will and purpose for them at the time.—Ecclesiastes 3:1.
Jesus Christ gave God’s people important, imperative, and demanding work to do. Jesus said: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14) Christians need to take those words very seriously. Why?
Matthew 7:21-23 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
The will of the Father is that Christians carry out the great commission of making disciples by proclaiming the Word of God to them and teaching them. (Matt. 24:14; 28:19-20; Acts 1:8) However, almost all Christians today are not doing the will of the Father, but as verse 22 shows, they are doing their will, thinking that it is the will of the Father. And we know what Jesus will tell these ones.
However, God does not require his faithful people to be ascetics. Rather, he expects them to be satisfied with life’s essentials. This way, they will be able to focus on serving him. (Matthew 6:33) God will, then, see that their material needs are taken care of, even if it is by church assistance. Says Hebrews 13:5: “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he [God] has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” If life opportunity, or unforeseen occurrences, provides one with more than life’s necessities, God does not expect his people to give it away as though the wealth is evil. It is the love of money that is evil.
Jesus said: “I came that they [Jesus’ disciples] may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) “Jesus came for his ‘sheep’ to have life and to have it abundantly. “Have life” means “to have eternal life,” that is, “to be saved” (see 10:9). Importantly, however, this does not merely entail participation in the age to come (as was the general view among Jews); according to John, Jesus gives a full life already in the here and now (which does not imply the absence of persecution [cf. 15:18–25]). In the OT, it is especially the prophet Ezekiel who envisions pasture and abundant life for God’s people (cf. 34:12–15, 25–31). As the good shepherd, Jesus gives his sheep not merely enough but more than plenty (cf. Ps. 23; Ezek. 34; see Ridderbos 1997: 359).” “We see the contrast built around this spiritual eternal life. The sheep may have it only because the Good Shepherd gives his own life to make this possible.”
Do not be deceived by so-called prosperity theology, which, in truth, is diversion theology. Instead, listen to Jesus’ loving but vital words: “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth.”—Luke 21:34-35.
 Andreas J. Köstenberger, John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 304.
 Kenneth O. Gangel, John, vol. 4, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 197.
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