I believe that Christianity is a religion founded upon the life, teachings, and example of Jesus of Nazareth. Any version of Christianity that is built on a different foundation– whether it’s founded upon “following the Bible” or some foundation other than “be like Jesus,” isn’t really Christianity at all, even if it tries to go by the same name.
Christianity, by definition, is supposed to mean “like Christ.” There are some Christian traditions that highlight certain parts of Jesus at the expense of others, and this is understandable– we’re human and and we make mistakes. However, there are some Christian expressions that simply don’t line up with Jesus at all– and how we continue to recognize them as Christian is beyond me.
The prosperity gospel is one of those “expressions” of Christianity that is at complete and total odds with what Jesus said, and how Jesus lived. Here’s 5 critical aspects of how these two differ:
5. The prosperity gospel is a gospel that associates the rich with being “blessed” instead of the poor.
In the prosperity gospel being “blessed” by God is associated with being on a path of increased abundance; God’s blessing results in the accumulation of more and more. However, this is the complete and total opposite of the *actual* Gospel.
If you read the Gospel of Luke, we see John the Baptist set the stage for Jesus. As people ask him how their lives should reflect repentance he answers them three different times, each answer reflecting that repentance is marked by rejecting the concept of having an “abundance” while others do not have enough (Luke 3:10-14). Just a few pages later we find Jesus begin his public ministry, and one of the first things he says is that the poor are blessed, but the rich are not. In fact, Jesus says “What sorrow awaits you who are rich!” (Luke 6:24).
Let’s just say that the prosperity gospel begins on a foundation that literally reverses what Jesus actually said.
4. The prosperity gospel is premised on the idea that obeying God results in a “good” life by worldly standards.
Does obeying God’s way result in good things? Well, that all depends on how one defines “good” and whether or not you’re talking in terms of temporal or eternal.
In the prosperity gospel, being obedient and faithful results in comfort and abundance now– but that’s not what Jesus taught. Jesus taught that being obedient and faithful results in denying yourself and becoming willing to give up everything– even your very life! In fact, some of the most faithful, obedient Christians in all of history have been those whose lives ended far before their natural time– all for the sake of following Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t invite us into our best life, or a materially abundant life– he invites us to join his movement and to become willing to give up everything, even our very lives, to this life-long calling.
3. The prosperity gospel can’t explain why bad things happen to faithful people– because that screws with the premise of it all.
If being obedient and faithful results in increased abundance, why do tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, illnesses, and car accidents happen to obedient and faithful people?
The prosperity gospel doesn’t have a compelling answer to this, other than “God is mysteriously doing something good for you.” Case in point: Joel Osteen recently told hurricane victims that they should “take it as a compliment“ as if losing your house is somehow a sign of coming favor from God.
Jesus, of course, doesn’t have this conundrum– he simply taught that “the rain falls on the just and the unjust” meaning that good things can happen to bad people, and bad things can happen to good people, and that this is just part of the randomness of life. He also taught that “in this world we will have many troubles” but to take heart, because he has overcome the world.
The idea that God rewards our faithfulness by good things, or that God will protect us from bad things, isn’t what Jesus taught.
2. It creates ministers who are detached from the people they minister to.
At the core or what following Jesus looks like is the calling to go out and make more disciples– it’s how the movement not only stays alive, but grows and spreads in hopes of transforming the entire world. We are called to build intimate community and to walk side by side with others as we navigate both learning ourselves, and helping others, discover how we might best follow Jesus through the joys and struggles of life.
But ministers of the prosperity gospel? They are often detached from those they minister to– and that’s not how Jesus modeled discipleship. How does one who lives in a multi-million dollar mansion and who has a private yacht, truly minister and walk with someone who is homeless, someone who doesn’t know where food money is going to come from this week, or someone whose car is broken down and preventing them from getting to work?
In the prosperity gospel, ministers get rich while those they minister to get “hope that one day they might be rich too” and that’s not how Jesus lived.
1. It teaches people to put their hopes in the wrong place.
The prosperity gospel is one where your hopes and dreams are placed in having material abundance right now, in this temporal world. However, that is not what Jesus calls us to– Jesus calls us to lives of sacrifice and obedience knowing that we are laying for ourselves “treasures in heaven.”
The true Gospel is not about what we’re building for ourselves in this world, but is about self-sacrificially investing in helping to build the next.
The true Christian hope is that we labor not in vain, that death will not be the end, and that living lives of sacrifice will not be for nothing in the end. Our hope is in the power of God to use what we offer up to him, to create something far bigger and beautiful than anything we’ll ever know in this present life.
The hope Jesus offers us, and the hope the prosperity gospel offers us, is not the same hope.
It’s true– there are many different expressions of Christianity.
It’s also true that I believe we can often find tremendous value in those various expressions, whether we belong to that tradition, or not.
But it’s also true that the foundation of the prosperity gospel is so at odds with Jesus, that I honestly don’t know how it can be recognized as a legitimate expression of the Christian faith.
Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com.