Problems of the American Prosperity Gospel

Cover-of-Blessed-A-History-of-the-Amerifan-P“Outsiders call it baptized materialism. Followers call it living in the overflow” – Kate Bowler

This is my 3rd post on the American Prosperity Gospel (APG). My first two posts were primarily descriptive. These next two will be primarily evaluative as I seek to answer the first of My Top 20 Questions, “What is Wrong with the American Prosperity Gospel?” To begin with, Kate Bowler explains how this movement centers on four themes:

  1. Faith (which leads to…)
  2. Wealth (which leads to…)
  3. Health, (which leads to…)
  4. Victory

This movement conceives of faith as the activator, a power that unleashes spiritual forces and turns the properly spoken word into reality. This “faith” is then understood to be demonstrated in wealth and health. In this way of thinking, material reality is the measure of spiritual “success.” Predictably, all of this is to to lead to a “Victorious Life!”  They see a straight causal line beginning with #1, leading to #2 & #3, and ending in #4. As well, virtually all Prosperity Gospel adherents agree on three theological ideas:

  1. Healing is God’s divine intention for humanity
  2. Jesus’ work on the cross earned not only redemption from sin but also deliverance from its penalties: namely, poverty, demonic interference and sickness.
  3. God set up the laws of faith so that believers could access the power of the cross.

So in my response I will seek to show how:

  1. The above four-part process of the American Prosperity Gospel is un-Biblical.
  2. The above three core theological beliefs of this movement are un-Biblical.

By doing so, I hope to show why I am justified in believing that the American Prosperity Gospel is un-Biblical and should ultimately be rejected.

My Problems with the Above Four-Part Process of Faith Supposedly Leading to Wealth, Health and Victory:

In constructing this four-part process, American Prosperity Gospel (APG) preachers seem to ignore virtually every narrative text in Scripture (which is the largest genre of Scripture, mind you). In arguing for its validity, APG adherents utilize a very few selected verses which are always removed from their respective contexts (My next post will cite the main verses they use and why I believe their interpretations of those verses could not be correct by any reasonable or responsible stretch of the imagination). Predictably, APG proponents take these few Scriptural passages and they place them into their own system of thought. Once these passages are torn from their contexts, APG preachers then infuse these passages with their own interpretations which have no part of the original meaning in any way. All Biblical scholars agree: This is a hermeneutic nightmare. This is eisegesis at its worst. This should never be done with the Bible in the way this should never be done with any text, ever. This is never fair and it is never right. To use a text for your own benefit in this way is to commit the act of textual rape.

It should be striking – We never once see the full APG process in action in any of the stories of Scripture. Why does God never explicitly make all these promises to any one of His people, ever? This is an argument from silence, but the silence should be deafening. If the APG four-part process is a summary of what can happen in the lives of God’s people (and who wouldn’t want it to happen to them?), why does it rarely ever happen in the lives of God’s people today? Why does this process never happen in the pages of Scripture? Furthermore,  the majority of narratives within Scripture (if not all of them) are examples of the opposite. For Abram, it is disobedience (not FAITH) which leads to wealth (Genesis 12:16). The same is true for Solomon: disobedience leads to wealth and worldly “victory” (I Kings 11:1-14). For Joseph, faithfulness leads to a 12 year imprisonment term (Genesis 39:11-20). Job remains faithful, but as a result he is caused to deal with some of the most dramatic examples of un-health and un-wealth one could potentially imagine. All under God’s divine hand. Habakkuk’s faith is the one that is true, “even when there is no fruit on the vine” and that is the faith Paul constantly alludes to.

Speaking of Paul – As faithful as he was yet he never experienced wealth or health or victory (II Corinthians 11:24-31). In fact, Paul boasted about his sufferings – his un-healthiness and his un-wealthiness. And what about Jesus? Sure, Christ was given a few gifts when He was born, but it’s impossible to argue from Scripture that His life could be defined by the words, “health,” or “wealth” or “victory” in any of the ways the APG adherents define those terms. Most of Christ’s immediate disciples were reported to be martyred. The early church dealt with all sorts of accusations and trials and persecutions. It would seem Christ’s promise that if you follow Him, “You will have many tribulations” (John 16:33) is the overwhelming example of the narrative texts of Scripture. How do APG adherents respond to this discontinuity between their theology and the examples of every story in Scripture – both in the OT and the NT?

Another problem: The way the APG adherents define the term “blessed” is very different than how “blessed” is used in Scripture. God’s constant promises of blessing in Scripture to His people do not equate to God saying, “If you have the proper form of “faith,”…then I will give you lots of health, wealth and victory.” If that were true, then Christianity would simply be a system of (failing) morality – but that is what Christ came to destroy. Because morality always disappoints. Systems of morality always fail. Instead, Scripture says that God’s people are blessed by being “ministers of reconciliation” (II Cor. 5:21). In Scripture, to be “blessed” is to give our lives for our enemies. This means the way God loves and blesses His people is by sending them into a dark and hurting world in order to make known the light and hope of the Gospel which makes it clear that this life is so much bigger than just-me-right-now. This is a very different definition of “blessed” than what the APG preachers are talking about.

God’s blessing to His people does not mean that God will always heal us or even shield us from having to come face-to-face with the pain and sickness and evilness of this world. Instead, God’s love for us is the kind that propels us into the evil world to proclaim God’s love for all humanity for all times. Since we have first been loved by God while we were still sinners, then we can accept that love, live in that love and then can go love others in the same way. That is the Gospel. That is the pleasure of serving Christ. That is a Biblical understanding of what it means to be “blessed” by God. According to Jesus’ sayings and according to the narratives of Scripture, to be “blessed” is not to receive wealth, health or victory.

To be blessed is to have the opportunity to suffer for the sake of God’s name – to take up our cross, to deny ourselves, and to follow Him so that others can come to experience the same joy of Jesus we experience in the midst of pain, and trials, and confusing tribulations. That is the blessing the Gospel invites us into. The full Gospel is always bigger than me. It always pushes me past myself. All other “blessings” are counterfeit, temporary, and ultimately un-fulfilling. The APG process doesn’t even come close to representing any of the major meta-narratives of Scripture, nor any of the narratives in-between. This is a serious problem. The APG four-part process is un-biblical because it doesn’t come from Scripture.

My Problems with the Three Core Ideas of the American Prosperity Gospel Movement:

1. “Healing is God’s divine intention for humanity.”

Really? How is that statement not simply hedonism dressed up in religious language?

2. “Jesus’ work on the cross earned not only redemption from sin but also deliverance from its penalties: namely, poverty, demonic interference and sickness.” 

Really? Why do we have virtually no examples of this in post-cross Scriptural history?

Unfortunately healing isn’t the reality that most faithful humans live in, myself included. As Kate Bowler states, “In a spiritual cosmos dominated by possibility thinking, funerals mark a true ending” (174). APG preachers believe healing is God’s divine intention for humanity because they believe Jesus’ death and resurrection abolished not only sin and disease, but also poverty and sickness. For them, poverty is a demonic force that separates people from their godly inheritance. Thus poverty, as an evil spirit, requires a spiritual solution. In Leroy Thompson’s words, “Jesus took your place in poverty so you could take His place in prosperity.” To be sanctified is to be rich like Jesus! For them, sanctification is all about earthly wealth. But I’m curious, if this is true, how come so few of the people we look up to in Scripture end up attaining earthly healing? How come earthly healing hardly ever happens in Scripture? Why such a high void of examples?

Many APG adherents believe that in the “Fall,” Satan gained legal authority over Adam and became humanity’s spiritual father, the consequences of which were sickness, poverty and death. They say that at this point, without Christ, humans could not perceive the storehouse of blessing God intends for us. But then, Christ’s resurrection united humanity’s spiritual nature with God’s own, resorting their spiritual vision and “legal rights” to dominion over the earth. Supposedly the resurrection of Christ shifts believers’ ontological status so-much-so that it makes them legal shareholders of certain divine “rights” and “privileges.” Thus faith is the “confident assurance based on absolute knowledge that everything is already provided through the operation of certain immutable laws” (19). Many APG adherents believe we can all be healed because healing is simply the logical conclusion to us following the rules of Scripture… Just work harder, and you will make God notice you! “Appropriate your words” correctly, and God will fix you all up!

Thus, they never pray like Jesus did, “Lord, help me if it be thy will” – since the qualification “if it be thy will” supposedly mars God’s self-imposed promises with “doubt.” Their prayers are not requests – they are demands…contracts guaranteeing miraculous results. Much of the tele-evangelists then-and-now speak of this as the “divine law of compensation.” Give money to my organization, and you will be financially compensated by God! Plant that financial seed so you can grow into a healthy person…

Ironically, the core beliefs of the APG make Christ smaller. Their beliefs make less of Christ by making less of the “Fall,” less of the Cross and less of the doctrine of Sanctification. Their theology is a minimization of both the doctrine of the “Fall” (for them, apart from Christ we are broken, but not dead) and a minimization of the doctrine of sanctification (sanctification as primarily about our material health as opposed to our spiritual renewal). This leads to them unduly simplifying God’s message to be primarily concerned with our earthly experience. This goes squarely against the words of Jesus who said, “My Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Their theology makes less of Christ!

We read in Scripture that as children of God, we are to be “transformed by the renewing of our mind…and give our body as a living sacrifice.” But never is the early church ever commanded to be “healed.” Sure, God is pleased to heal people at different times for different reasons (and He does). But earthly healing is never the primary focus of the Gospel message. To focus on healing as if God will always heal us when we have “faith” is to create a false expectation – it is to ask God to do something He never promised He’d do. It is to make the Gospel into something it isn’t. Yes, the cross destroyed the power of death, (“Oh death, where is your victory, O death where is your sting?“) but still, the Gospel cannot get rid of every immediate consequence of sin or the Fall (For the wages of sin is death…but the gift of God is a healthy life eternal life for those who believe in Christ Jesus).

Ultimately, God never says in Scripture that earthly healing is always His intention – nor do we always see faithful people experience earthly healing. To pretend earthly healing is a central component of the Gospel message is to greatly minimize the scope and hope of God’s eternal plan for humanity. Not to mention the way this theology pits the mind against the body leaving us with a deficient view of the nature of humanity (Plato was cool but we should have moved on by now!). Perhaps the worst part of these beliefs are their proposed remedies. As if all health problems can (and should) be overcome by prayer, thanksgiving and positive confession. If only it were that easy. Simplistic remedies to complex problems don’t usually lead to permanent solutions. Disappoinment is the inevitable end.

What is true about “blessing” is also true for God’s promises of victory, and even justice. Those things are promised in Scripture, but never as if they could ever be fully realized this size of heaven. They misappropriate these promises to an age they are not intended for. To summarize, the first two core ideas of the APG effectively minimize the doctrine of the Fall, they minimize the doctrine of the Cross, they minimize the doctrine of Sanctification and they minimize the doctrine of the End. In contradicting Christ, they make less of Him. The first two core ideas of the APG bring us backward, not forward. And their last core idea is stated as the following:

3. “God set up the laws of faith so that believers can access the power of the cross.”

Really? But I thought our faith in Christ was based on His fulfillment of the law, not his re-institution of it? Not so here. In the APG system, Christianity is only an updated version of an older moralism since faith is not a part of our experiencing Christ’s fulfillment of the law. Instead, faith as a law in itself is an activator to the promises of Christ – which are, apparently, also law. In the APG, the law is for the sake of the new law… This is legalism back and forth.

In the APG movement, faith is understood as an absolute law, and as such it operates as a universal and uniform reality (46). For them, Faith is “the switch in our hand to turn on all the omnipotent power of our Lord” (Gardner). But Scripture never describes faith that way. According to Scripture, faith is the response of a repentant and regenerate heart to the love of God on our behalf. Faith is the response of people when they realize they can’t figure it out on their own. It is our acceptance of God’s grace, love, mercy and justice for our sake, “not of ourselves, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

To make faith into a law is to go back into bondage to what God came to save us from. This is a step backwards, not forward. If their third core idea WAS true, then Christianity is legalism. But we know Christianity is not legalism. Therefore, we should doubt the validity of their third core idea.

My Last Critique – The APG is not a Relational Gospel: This proposed system including direct causalities and laws-upon-laws are the last sorts of components that come to my mind when I think of what ought to be primary in any relationship, especially my relationship with God. What genuine relationships are ever as rigid as that? To me it feels like the APG makes my relationship with God into a system of giving and receiving – all propelled by a simplistic system of rigid rules. Divine prosperity rests on a simple exchange – Give, then Get! But that sounds kinda weird because life never works like that – and if it did, it would be quite overwhelming. If what they say is true, total victory requires total commitment. But no one is always either totally victorious or totally committed in every moment. Especially me!

Why would I, an imperfect person, try to join a system meant for perfect people? I know myself well enough – this is a lose-lose. I prefer the Jesus I know – who doesn’t make unreasonable promises nor does He have unreasonable requirements. We kinda take it one day at a time, Him and I. And Christ doesn’t seem to be keeping track like all-a-that. I’ll admit, there is one thing going for the people of the APG movement: The constant opportunity to attend the “Treadmill of conferences promising to improve attendees’ lives and fix their marriages, finances and emotions” (196). But for what? So they can follow the rules better? Please…that is moralism. That is legalism. That is minimism. That is what Christ came to destroy. That’s the last thing anyone should like to crawl back into.

In the end, my opinion is that the American Prosperity Gospel is a religious version of a complex transcendent materialism. Yes, as American as apple pie, but it’ll give you a heart attack if its all you eat. Christians, beware! This theology is not healthy. It’s down-right Un-Biblical.

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