Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the Gospel of Christ?
by David W. Jones & Russell S. Woodbridge
(Kregel Publications, 2010)
The desire for a thriving, healthy, and productive life is as strong as ever, especially in tough economic times. As people become more disillusioned at the state of the economy, they also become more susceptible to the lure of the prosperity gospel and its teachings of health, wealth, and happiness for the faithful. But what happens when the promise of prosperity overshadows the promise of the real gospel — the gospel of Christ?
Believing that the prosperity gospel is constructed upon faulty theology, authors David Jones and Russell Woodbridge take a closer look at five crucial areas of error relating to the teaching of wealth. In a fair but firm tone, the authors discuss the history and theology of the prosperity gospel movement to reveal its fraudulent core biblical teachings that have been historically and popularly misinterpreted, even by today’s most well-known pastors, including T. D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, and Kenneth Copeland. After an introduction and assessment of the movement, readers are invited to take a look at Scripture to understand what the Bible really says about wealth, poverty, suffering, and giving.
Theologically sound but accessible to all readers, Health, Wealth & Happiness is sure to become a trusted resource for laypersons, pastors, and Christian leaders.
Last November, Buffalo Bills receiver Stevie Johnson dropped a touchdown pass in overtime, costing his team the game. Afterward, he tweeted an angry message, blaming God for the drop:
"I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!! YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS??? HOW???!!! ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!! THX THO..."
I don't follow football, and I don't know anything about this player or his theology. (Well, I do know a little about his theology based on the tweet, but haven't most of us felt that way at one time or another, even for just a second? I mean, I have. It's one of many reasons I'm not on Twitter.)
But the big thing I notice about that tweet is this: underneath, there seems to be a belief that, more than anything, God is all about my personal earthly flourishing. More to the point, health, wealth and success are God's reward for my faith.
The problem is, when something goes wrong — professionally, relationally, financially, physically — such faith crumbles.
To me, that's the biggest danger of the so-called "prosperity gospel": if my faith is based on God coming through for me, what happens to that faith when I get sick, or slip on the ice, or lose a job, or lose a loved one? When misfortune or disaster strikes, I'm left to assume God hates me, or that He doesn't exist.
Or there's the alternative to blaming God: blaming my own lack of faith. And as a counselor, I can't help but hurt for those who see suffering as evidence of a lack of faith, adding a layer of self-blame to the pain they're already in.
Either way, when stuff happens (and it will), we're left with nothing but despair. And that runs counter to biblical teaching.
In Health, Wealth & Happiness, authors David Jones and Russell Woodbridge discuss the prosperity gospel's recent rise in popularity, not only in the United States, but also in developing countries around the world, where followers connect American wealth with Christian faith.
The authors endeavor to show how the prosperity gospel came about, demonstrate how prosperity teaching is based on ideas outside the Bible, and offer solid biblical correction to prosperity doctrine's claims.
When I began reading this book, I wondered how it was different from others on the subject. So I emailed the authors with my question, and David Jones replied:
Our book tries to be purposefully less polemic than some of the other books on the topic. Many of the books on the PG [prosperity gospel] are self-published and take a harsh tone at times. While we wanted to name names to be helpful, we tried carefully to only quote PG advocates original words, to do so contextually, to give citations, and to overall write in a fair manner. Our goal is not so much to attack error, but to point to truth.Structure:
Our book is unique in that it has three critical chapters on the PG, but then three corrective chapters on issues of interest to PG followers. Many reviewers have identified chapters 4-6 as the most helpful ones in the book.
Of course, our book is more current than many of the other texts on the market. It seems that there really hasn’t been much published on the PG in about 15 years. There have been a few chapters in larger books, but not much by way of full length books in a while.
Jones and Woodbridge divide their book into two main sections. The first section looks at the prosperity gospel's foundations, teachings, and errors; the second seeks to correct these errors with the biblical teaching on suffering, wealth and poverty, and giving.
The three chapters of correction are followed by a concluding chapter, with tools for self-diagnosis as well as ministry to others who may have been persuaded.
The authors do a good job of reviewing the origins of the prosperity gospel and evaluating its teachings in light of the larger context of scripture. Without viewing the movement as a monolith, they reveal the common thread between many prosperity teachers: a distorted view of God, an elevation of mind over matter, and an exalted view of humankind. They sum up the problem as
...a faulty view of the relationship between God and humanity. Simply put, if the prosperity gospel is correct, grace becomes obsolete, God becomes irrelevant, and "man is the measure of all things." Whether it is the gospel, faith, the atonement, the Abrahamic covenant, the mind, Bible interpretation, or giving, the prosperity movement seeks to turn the relationship between God and individual people into a financial quid pro quo transaction. As scholar James R. Goff noted, God is "reduced to a kind of 'cosmic bellhop' attending to the needs and desires of his creation."The historic perspective is helpful, the evaluation of prosperity doctrine is well done, and the correction of its errors is genuinely compassionate.
However, the authors are not clear on why it is important to correct this teaching. What is the danger to prosperity gospel teachers, and to their followers? In the introduction, they imply followers' salvation may be at stake:
We write from the perspective that, as theologian Millard J. Erickson writes, "Theology is important because correct doctrinal beliefs are essential to the relationship between the believer and God." A corollary to this statement is that an incorrect theology will lead to incorrect beliefs about God, His Word, and His dealings with humanity. More importantly, the gospel must be rightly proclaimed because it is a matter of life and death for those who do not believe. Teaching or trusting in a false gospel has eternal ramifications. (p. 19-20)This message is stated again, just as forcefully, in the conclusion:
...prosperity gospel teachers promote false teaching about fundamental beliefs such as who God is, the sinfulness and abilities of people, and the way of salvation. These are not insignificant issues. In fact these are beliefs that either lead to God and to salvation, or away from God and to condemnation. The prosperity gospel is not a harmless movement that is slightly off; rather it is a dangerous movement that has eternal consequences. (p. 163-164)The implication here is that a person's theology could determine his or her eternal destiny. However, a couple of pages earlier, the authors seem to hedge on this point:
We are not suggesting that all (or any) prosperity gospel supporters are not saved... (p. 162)This is a difficult issue, and one that will not be solved in this post.
But my challenge to the authors is to look beyond the issue of personal eternal destination for a rationale. After all, "People with defective theologies can go to heaven." *
There is no question that false teachers will be held to account for misleading their followers. But for the followers themselves, perhaps the rationale for correction lies less with the issue of their eternal destiny, and more with the problem of basing their faith on earthly successes that are bound to perish.
As Jesus reminded His followers, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Luke 12:34)
* Dr. Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary, citing Charles Hodge and Cornelius Van Til.
Disclosure: I was provided a free copy of this book by the publisher for review purposes. I will receive no compensation for this post, nor was I obligated to write a positive review. With the exception of the quoted excerpts, the observations and any opinions expressed are my own.