May 22, 2014

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!

studies unveil the historical roots of the so-called “prosperity gospel."
2 For
instance, John S. Haller Jr.’s
History of New Thought: From Mind Cure to Positive Thinking and the Prosperity
(2012) demonstrates that the gospel under consideration is grounded
on the American metaphysical movement known as New Thought.
3 Kate
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."

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.

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.prosperityGospel 1

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

2. The
prosperity gospel presents a utopic image of human existence within the context
of the great cosmic conflict.

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

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)?

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)?

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.

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

"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."

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!prosperityGospel 2

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

"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.

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).

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

"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!'”

Christ emphasized several times in His teachings that it is much more important
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.

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).

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?

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

  1. Unless otherwise indicated, all Bible references are from the NKJV.
  2. The
    prosperity gospel was largely shaped by E. W. Kenyon, Kenneth E. Hagin, Oral
    Roberts, Kenneth Copeland, and Joel Osteen.
  3. John
    S. Haller Jr.,
    The History of New
    Thought: From Mind Cure to Positive Thinking and the Prosperity Gospel
    Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation Press, 2012).
  4. Kate Bowler, Blessed:
    A History of the American Prosperity Gospel
    (New York: Oxford University
    Press, 2013), 11.
  5. 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.
  6. 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).
  7. See Caio Fábio, A Crise de Ser e de Ter, rev.
    and enl. ed. ([Rio de Janeiro]: Vinde, 1995).