The Prosperity Gospel gets a lot of hype – both positive and negative – in evangelical circles. Let’s be honest, who doesn’t want to believe that Jesus wants us to have our best life now or that by trusting him all of our problems will disappear? Who doesn’t want to pay their bills, have a nice house, be healthy, or live in peace? Many Christians have experienced the physical blessings of God in Christ, and that is something to rejoice over and sing about.
Yet is this prosperity truly the focus of the Gospel message? Is this what Jesus came for; is it why he died? The theology of the prosperity gospel has always bothered me intellectually, but recently is has also angered me experientially, sounding like a clanging cymbal in the midst of difficult circumstances. It has been the joining together of theological reflection and experience that has caused me to take seriously the danger which the Prosperity Gospel presents. There are five key areas where I see this gospel being theologically and experientially untenable, undermining the true beauty of hope in Christ.
It Creates God in our Own Image
The cornerstone of the Prosperity Gospel is that God gives physical blessings in this life to those who trust in Jesus. Claim God’s promises and watch Him bless your socks off. While it’s true that God often blesses Christians with health and monetary gain, the underlying assumption is that God is obligated to bless our faith in these ways.
This makes our relationship with God one based on a contract or a “what’s in it for me?” mentality. The blessings God bestow become about him owing us for our good behavior and not about his goodness and grace. This is to create God in our own image, lowering His holiness to our imperfections. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and his ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8). He is not obligated to bless us and does not owe us anything. When we use the gospel to bargain with God we have lost sight of the character and holiness of the King of kings we claim to serve.
It Distorts the True Gospel
The Prosperity Gospel also distorts the Gospel’s true beauty. The Gospel is good news because it shows that humanity’s greatest problem and need is not physical, but spiritual. Our greatest need is not health, physical safety, and prosperity. Our greatest need is forgiveness and the restoration of a right relationship with God, which Jesus has accomplished for us.
Yes, Jesus came that we might have life abundantly (John 10:10). But the abundance he was talking about was not limited to the temporal abundance this world labels as ‘blessings.’ The abundance Jesus offers in his death and resurrection is abundance of safety and security in our relationship with him. The true Gospel is that through faith in Jesus Christ there is no condemnation for our sin, we are in a right relationship with God, and we have the promise that someday we will be with him forever (Romans 8; Ephesians 2; Revelation 21-22).
It Misrepresents Jesus Christ
Because the Prosperity Gospel distorts the true Gospel, it also misrepresents Jesus Christ. Jesus himself promised that in this world we will have tribulation (John 16:33). As Christians we are not guaranteed that when we live correctly evil and injustice will never win in our life. But we are promised ultimate victory because Jesus has overcome the world.
When we preach the Prosperity Gospel we ignore the fact that Jesus did not promise physical blessings for following him. But he did promise he would be with us always and never forsake us, two blessing that are worth more than all the riches this world has to offer (Matthew 28:20; Hebrews 13:5).
The Prosperity Gospel also misrepresents Jesus by ignoring the suffering he experienced. If the blessing of God rests upon how well we live, than why did Jesus suffer injustice and die a criminal’s death? If God is obligated to bless us for good behavior, than Jesus died for nothing; his life and suffering were in vain. If the Prosperity Gospel is true, than Jesus’ cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” would be answered with, “Because you weren’t good enough.” This is decidedly NOT the true representation of Jesus or the Gospel and is a message we need to reject.
It Mocks Suffering, Pain, and Injustice
Experientially, the Prosperity Gospel mocks the pain and suffering each of us experience to varying degrees. Are the tornadoes that destroyed lives in Oklahoma, the political unrest in the Middle East, the 27 million trapped in human trafficking, and the personal pain you are going through the result of our lack of faith or hidden sin? The Prosperity Gospel would say yes, because if we were truly living in the freedom of Christ these things wouldn’t happen to us. This trivializes the injustice and pain we experience.
While it is true that sin and actions have consequences, it is not true that every form of suffering, pain, and injustice is the result of personal sin or unbelief. In fact, the opposite is true. Jesus was the man of sorrows acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53); Paul experienced such suffering he despaired of life (2 Corinthians 1:8); and the writer of Hebrews reminds us that some of God’s greatest servants – whom the world was not worthy – have experienced the most injustice in this life (Hebrews 11).
It also mocks our pain and suffering by raising an interesting question. If prosperity is the sign of God’s blessing, does this mean the wicked that are wealthy and healthy are actually righteous? Are the men who use women for profit and live in luxury the ones blessed by God? Is the crooked politician who climbs to power on the broken backs of others experiencing God’s favor?
The testimony of Scripture and our lives tells a very different story than that of the Prosperity Gospel. How long will we allow it to mock not only our suffering but the suffering of others and of our Lord?
It Weakens Faith, Producing Shallow Trust
Finally, the Prosperity Gospel weakens our faith and produces shallow trust in our lives. Is it any wonder many people’s confidence and trust in Jesus Christ is superficial and flounders in the midst of suffering when we tell them, “Just believe Jesus and everything will be okay?” The reality is that everything will be okay someday, but we are not guaranteed that it will be okay in this life.
When we tell people that if we trust in Jesus we won’t experience any pain, distress, evil, sickness, or injustice, we lie about life and about Christ. We settle for a mediocre faith built upon the sand. Then when the storms of suffering come we have no foundation and crumble. This weakness is not the faith the true Gospel offers or the depth of trust God has called us to experience. Rather, we’re invited to trust in the goodness of God through Jesus in the midst of real pain and distress. We’re encouraged not to lose heart because nothing can separate us from Christ’s love; and the temporal suffering we experience will end in an eternal weight of glory (Romans 8:35; 2 Corinthians 4:16-17).
The Real Prosperity Gospel
I hope you can see the danger of the Prosperity Gospel. It distorts God and the Gospel, misrepresents Jesus, makes a mockery of suffering, and produces a faith that is only skin deep. Yet there is a promise of prosperity in the Gospel we should not ignore. There is a real health, wealth, and happiness promised to us. In Revelation we find the description of the real Prosperity Gospel.
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. (Revelation 21:2-7)
This is the real prosperity we can name and claim. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!