The prosperity gospel and its preachers have faced a barrage of criticism from mainline Christian denominations who charge the movement with everything from theological heresy to stealing from the poor.
The most vocal complaint with the prosperity gospel is that it glorifies the accumulation of money, and turns the virtuous acts of faith, giving and obedience into mere tools for "getting stuff from God" [source: Henderson]. As we mentioned earlier, the Bible explicitly calls the love of money the "root of all kinds of evil" and Jesus frequently praises the meek and lowly of this world while chastising the rich and powerful.
The traditional interpretation of Christianity is that Christ's atonement on the cross — in which he died for the sins of the world — and his victory over death during the Easter resurrection, mean that all faithful Christians can be forgiven of their sins in this life and ultimately be resurrected with the righteous in life eternal.
Critics of the prosperity gospel accuse prosperity preachers of twisting the message of ultimate victory and applying it to this life in this world [source: Piper]. The traditional view of Christianity is that mortal life is a period of "testing," suffering and sacrifice with the promise that the faithful will be rewarded in heaven, not necessarily on Earth. This is how Christianity answers the fundamental problem of pain and offers solace to believers.
The prosperity gospel, on the other hand casts blame on the victim for not being faithful enough to overcome whatever spiritual, physical or financial "ailment" befalls them. As Duke scholar Bowler wrote in a powerful personal essay, "The prosperity gospel ... revolutionized prayer as an instrument for getting God always to say 'yes.' It offers people a guarantee: Follow these rules, and God will reward you, heal you, restore you ... If a believer gets sick and dies, shame compounds the grief. Those who are loved and lost are just that — those who have lost the test of faith."
Bowler, who spent years visiting prosperity churches while researching her book "Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel," also says that the relentless focus on positive thinking can take a psychological toll on followers who are struggling with serious problems.
She describes a practice called acting faith in which people with late-stage cancer walk around acting as if they're already cured, and people in crippling debt thank God for checks that haven't yet arrived. Instead of reconciling themselves with their problems and dealing with them productively, they "scoured their minds" of any negative thoughts that would block the much-needed blessing to come [source: Bowler].
A final overarching criticism of the prosperity gospel is one that's been levied at every televangelist since Oral Roberts, that charismatic pastors are only in it for the money. They enrich themselves by duping their followers into believing that the best way to receive God's blessings — whether it's healing their bodies or their bank accounts — is to give more money to the church.
And all that cash has led to some serious preacher scandals. To name just a few: Jim Bakker went to jail in 1988 for fraud after selling thousands of $1,000 lifetime memberships to TV viewers in exchange for free hotel stays at his theme park Heritage USA. Only one 500-room hotel was ever built. Most of the money went to finance Bakker's lavish lifestyle. Televangelist Richard Roberts, Oral Roberts' son, was ousted as head of Oral Roberts University in 2007 for using school money to pay for his home remodeling and his family's personal stable of horses, among other goodies. And Creflo Dollar, pastor and founder of World Changers Church International in Atlanta, was widely ridiculed in 2015 for asking his flock to buy him a new $65 million Gulfstream G650 luxury private plane. He described it as "necessary" to spread God's word. What was that Biblical saying about the love of money and evil again?
Author's Note: How the Prosperity Gospel Works
Each of us are looking for answers and inspiration to help us overcome personal struggles and find happiness. I don't fault or judge people that cling to the message of the prosperity gospel. When you listen to actual sermons by folks like Joel Osteen or Joseph Prince, there isn't an explicit focus on getting rich. It's much more about focusing your energy and your faith on making the changes in your life that will bring you joy and fulfillment. The implicit message is that some of that joy and fulfillment will come from being more financially secure. I worry, though, that people around the world are sacrificing their finances and psychological well-being in search of a God-given windfall that will never materialize.
More Great Links
- Bird, Warren. "The World's Largest Churches." Leadership Network (Jan. 3, 2018) http://leadnet.org/world/
- Bowler, Kate. "Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel." Interview with the Faith Angle Forum. May 2017 (Jan. 3, 2018) https://faithangle.org/wp-content/uploads/Blessed-A-History-of-the-American-Prosperity-Gospel-Dr.-Kate-Bowler-1.pdf
- Bowler, Kate. "Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me." The New York Times. Feb. 13, 2016 (Jan. 3, 2018) https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html?_r=1
- Burton, Tara Isabella. "The prosperity gospel, explained: Why Joel Osteen believes that prayer can make you rich." Vox. Sept. 1, 2017 (Jan. 3, 2018) https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/9/1/15951874/prosperity-gospel-explained-why-joel-osteen-believes-prayer-can-make-you-rich-trump
- Henderson, Rick. "The False Promise of the Prosperity Gospel: While I Called Out Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer." The Huffington Post. Aug. 21, 2013 (Jan. 3, 2018) https://www.huffingtonpost.com/pastor-rick-henderson/osteen-meyer-prosperity-gospel_b_3790384.html
- Lenora Brown, Ryan. "A top Nigerian export: fervent Christianity." The Christian Science Monitor. Sept. 28, 2015 (Jan. 3, 2018) https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/2015/0928/A-top-Nigerian-export-fervent-Christianity
- Philomin, Laura. "Singapore's megachurches look to export lucrative religion." Reuters. March 6, 2014 (Jan. 3, 2018) https://www.reuters.com/article/us-singapore-megachurches/singapores-megachurches-move-to-export-lucrative-religion-idUSBREA2509Y20140306
- Piper, John. "Why I Abominate the Prosperity 'Gospel'." Desiring God. Oct. 27, 2009 (Jan. 3, 2018) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jLRue4nwJaA
- Pulliam Bailey, Sarah. "How the prosperity gospel is sparking a change in the world's most Catholic country." International Reporting Project. Oct. 30, 2017 (Jan. 3, 2018) https://internationalreportingproject.org/stories/view/how-the-prosperity-gospel-is-sparking-a-major-change-in-the-worlds-most-cat
- Sinitiere, Phillip Luke. Phone interview with author of "Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity" on Dec. 12, 2017