Public Square & Theology 101

What Is the Prosperity Gospel?

Email Print

One error Christians can make in their understanding of money is to think wealth is inherently sinful, and creating and accruing wealth is contrary to God’s plan. In fact, wealth creation and proper stewardship are consistent with human flourishing.

A twin error to the disparagement of wealth is the idea that faithfulness to God necessarily results in material prosperity. This second error is often called the prosperity gospel, or the health-and-wealth gospel.

In their book, When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert note,

At its core, the health-and-wealth gospel teaches that God rewards increasing levels of faith with greater amounts of wealth. 

In other words, wealth and holiness are intrinsically and linearly connected: the more holy you are, the richer you will be.

David Wayne Jones and Russell S. Woodbridge explain in their book,  Health, Wealth, and Happiness, how important it is for Christians to have a right understanding of the relationship between faith and prosperity. The direct connection between faith and wealth described by prosperity gospel preachers fails to provide an adequate basis for understanding why faithful Christians sometimes suffer, or why the unrighteous sometimes prosper.

That right understanding between faith and prosperity is what this three-part series seeks to set straight. This first post explains the prosperity gospel. Subsequent posts detail the biblical and economic responses to this teaching.

A Brief History of the Prosperity Gospel

Kate Bowler’s recent book, Blessed, traces the history of the prosperity gospel in America. Bowler explains that the prosperity gospel movement rose out of the New Thought movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. New Thought’s central thesis is that there is hidden power within everyone that is meant to be unlocked through positive thinking.

According to Bowler,

People shaped their own worlds by their thinking, just as God had created the world using thought. Positive thoughts yielded positive circumstances, and negative thoughts yielded negative situations. 

In the years following World War II, the resurgence of prosperity in the United States encouraged some evangelists to seek miraculous healings and supernatural financial blessings. Apparent successes were heralded as evidence of the truth of their version of the gospel. Failures could be blamed on a lack of faith in those seeking the miracles. The key to gaining supernatural health and wealth was consistent positive thought.

Characteristics of the Prosperity Gospel

The prosperity gospel can be defined by many characteristics, but three basic ones are faith, wealth, and health.

1. Faith

For adherents of the prosperity gospel, faith is defined by its efficacy. “Faith was only faith because it worked,” Bowler says. Instead of faith being the rational trust in the proclaimed Word of God in accord with available evidence, the faith of prosperity gospel adherents is positive thinking and expectation of God’s material blessing. Positive thinking, called faith, necessarily results in material blessings if it is sincere. This is the simple law of faith according to the prosperity gospel.

2. Wealth

According to the prosperity gospel, financial blessing is a guaranteed result of faith in God. Bowler explains that for prosperity gospel adherents,

Money served as a common and practical means of assessing one’s faith.

With respect to material wealth, faith was “a loose Christian equivalent to Hinduism’s karma, an explanation for causality in which all actions brought good or ill consequences.” To be a faithful Christian is to expect wealth from God.

3. Health

For prosperity gospel believers, God blesses the faithful with good health as a provision of the atonement. All prosperity gospel believers see a connection between good health and spiritual blessedness.

Health is the result of positive thinking or “claiming” the health that Jesus’ atonement has already paid for. Poor health is either attributed to satanic attack that has not yet been overcome, or a weakness of faith.

Implications

The implications of this perspective on faith and prosperity are significant.

First, if wealth and health are a result of the degree of faith a person has, this leads to the conclusion that the poor are poor because they are spiritually deficient. This is exactly the reason that Corbett and Fikkert announce the need for rejecting the prosperity gospel when they comment that repenting of a belief in the prosperity gospel is an important step in being able to help the poor in a meaningful way.

While personal sin may result in poverty, the prosperity gospel ignores the effects of the sin of others and structural evils that may be the cause of poverty. Believing harder fails to eliminate poverty and advance human flourishing.

Second, the prosperity gospel overemphasizes the importance of temporal wealth on the individual. While Scripture records examples of faithful rich men (e.g., Abraham), it also records examples of people who were poor or sick, yet were also faithful (e.g., Paul). Establishing conditions where widespread, holistic human flourishing is possible is a good thing that is entirely different from a quest for individual wealth and health.

Third, the so-called law of faith that sees a direct correlation between positive thinking and material prosperity distracts individuals from understanding the natural laws that govern economic reality. Expecting a future supernatural blessing to make a balloon payment on a mortgage may tempt someone to ignore the financial realities of an excessively large loan-to-value-ratio on a house. This could result in real, naturally caused financial ruin.

The prosperity gospel is something different from a biblically-oriented approach to stewardship. Even given the basic outline of the prosperity gospel, it is clear that there are fundamental differences between the health-and-wealth gospel and biblically-based, theological approaches to human flourishing.

Leave your comments here.

Have our latest content delivered right to your inbox!
  • EmilyStrongarm

    This article cleared up a few questions I had about what the “health and wealth” gospel really entails (aside from book covers showcasing great dental work). A friend has lent me a book that I felt was a bit fishy, and this article help put to word what I was feeling but couldn’t quite articulate. Thank you.

    • Andrew Spencer

      Thanks for reading the post and taking time to comment. I am glad that I could be a blessing.

  • Matthew Abate

    Well-written and very timely…My hope is that solid and objective analysis like this piece continues to make its way throughout the church. From my perspective, one of the biggest weaknesses to the prosperity gospel is its diminished view of suffering for righteousness’ sake as demonstrated in Christ’s life and in the apostle Peter’s first epistle. I see the prosperity gospel lulling the church to sleep on a bed of misplaced comfort and relaxation.

    • Andrew Spencer

      I appreciate the comments Matthew. And I agree that we can fall asleep if we don’t rightly understand the purpose of suffering.

  • Brian Ward

    I recently discovered your website and have enjoyed the articles immensely. I know that you have more thoughts and articles coming out on this subject but I felt a “need” to express my concern with the lack of balance found in Christianity as a whole. It seems that as humans we are doomed to extremism in all walks of life. Just as I believe that some preachers have used the gospel as a means of monetary gain, others like the Apostle Paul, preached it from the heart of love and in truth. The truth is that healing is in the atonement and to believe otherwise is to not believe in salvation. “Soteria” means wholeness and you aren’t whole if your body has death operating inside of it. The truth is that God does desire for all of us to prosper, which means to have an abundance for every good work. You can’t have peace if your light bill can’t be paid. However, stewardship of what God gives to us is at the heart of the gospel as well. Yes we should all have faith to believe for more in our life but we should also live in the boundaries of our current financial status. It bothers me to no end as a minister when people say “he or she believes in the wealth and health gospel.” This implies that others believe in the poverty and sickness gospel, which means to say that the sacrifice of Christ wasn’t truly enough to “save” us from the effects of our fallen nature. In the attempt to correct one error it appears that another error is being created by causing people to “not” believe in the truth of the gospel or in the fullness of what Christ did on the cross for all of us. When I got “saved” I was conveyed from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of the Son. In His kingdom there is no lack or sickness. Some people take this to far by implying that we will not have troubles in this world which is false. However, others imply that we can’t overcome these troubles because they are like the people Paul warned us about when he said “having the form of godliness but denying His power.” God’s power to change our lives on this side of heaven is the only thing that separates Christianity from all other religions in the world. In the attempt to correct one error let us not throw out the baby with the bath water. Christ died for our sins, he was beaten for our sickness and chastised for our peace. Looking forward to the complete series on this subject.

    • Andrew Spencer

      Thanks for taking the time to respond Brian. I appreciate your comments. I think I’ll have to lean on Paul’s teaching from Romans 8:18-30 in response to the idea of a fully realized redemption of Creation. Paul writes about our present suffering, looking forward to future physical redemption. See especially, vv. 22-24: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit,groan inwardly as we wait
      eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?”

      Paul is speaking, as someone who has been saved and is more sanctified than I am, about a future physical redemption and cessation from suffering. This is what helps me to understand that it isn’t my understanding of redemption that allows me to continue to suffer in this life, but God’s design. Again, thanks for the comments. I hope you find the rest of the posts helpful.

  • Preston G. Atkinson

    Good summary. Accurate. I will use a hyper-link to this article in hope to snatch a few from the fire. I wish this could be sent to TBN, DayStar, and those of the same ilk that peddle this poison.

Further readings on Public Square & Theology 101

  • Public Square
  • Theology 101

Economics tells us that more is always better than less. The world takes this principle one step further and claims…

  • Public Square
  • Theology 101

I saw a great bumper sticker on my way to work that read: Liberals confuse the state with charity. Conservatives…

Have our latest content delivered right to your inbox!