We’ve all seen the wealthy televangelist in a suit and tie promising physical well-being and financial blessing if only we call now and sow our seed of faith. This false gospel is known as the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel, and its prevalence in the American Church cannot be ignored. This gospel demonstrates a misplaced hope because its adherents place their hope in their earthly comfort, namely their health, wealth, and prosperity, rather than in Christ’s eternal kingdom.
The Fall of Humanity
To be honest, the idea of a world where it is always God’s will for believers to be physically, emotionally, and financially healthy sounds pretty appealing at first, but it ignores the problem of sin. Sin is a grievous and horrible offense against God and, therefore, is a far greater problem than mere physical infirmities. The effects of the fall are made clear in the latter half of Genesis 3 when God declares that there will be pain both in childbirth and in the work of the fields. Sin has entered into the world and has corrupted the human experience in such a way that disease and poverty come upon people of all backgrounds.
Christ on the Cross
The prosperity gospel ignores this reality and teaches that through Christ’s work on the cross, we are made whole in all areas of our lives. Wife of notable televangelist Kenneth Copeland, Gloria Copeland, infamously stated that “Jesus himself is our flu shot.” Copeland is basically saying that Jesus’ work on the cross was the sacrifice that secured our health.
Now, while this statement may sound nice at first, Scripture makes it abundantly clear that Christ’s purpose on the cross was not to secure our health, but to make us right with God. Jesus took upon himself the wrath of God in order that we might obtain justification. The effects of this action are seen clearly in Romans 5. Paul writes,
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.
Paul is arguing here that through this one act of righteousness, Christ’s atoning work on the cross, mankind can be justified. Therefore, Christ’s purpose on the cross was not to make us comfortable on earth by giving us health or wealth, but to make us right with God by giving his life.
The Sufferings of the Apostles
The Bible makes it abundantly clear that the apostles faced opposition and died gruesome deaths. These men, along with the men and women of the early church, faced immense persecution. In 2 Corinthians 11:16-33, Paul describes the specific sufferings that he faced which include five times receiving thirty-nine lashes, three times being beaten with rods, stoned, shipwrecked three times, and adrift at sea for a full day along with the extended amount of time he spent imprisoned.
Though Paul’s sufferings were extensive, he was not alone in this suffering. In Acts 5:41, Luke writes about the boldness of the apostles who left the temple courts rejoicing after being beaten and nearly killed. This radical joy was rooted in the hope of a world to come and not in a false hope of comfort in this world.
An Over-Realized Eschatology
Matt Chandler would argue that this gospel is an example of an “over-realized eschatology” meaning that these heavenly promises of health and wealth are being misapplied and taught as if they were an earthly reality. The biblical gospel fills believers with unimaginable joy because their hope is in God and not in their circumstances. Nonetheless, thousands across the world gather each Sunday in stadiums or in front of a television to soak in this distorted gospel which preys especially on the poor and uneducated.
The Prosperity Gospel in the Church
Paul, in his second letter to Timothy writes,
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.
-2 Timothy 4:3-4
False teaching is not a new problem in the church and Paul knew that. Paul hear speaks of a time when the people would gather around themselves teachers, not to teach them the Word of God, but to teach them what they already want to hear. What Paul describes in this text clearly is manifesting itself in the church today.
Lakewood Church, a Houston-area megachurch pastored by notable televangelist Joel Osteen, averages around 52,000 attendees per week and thousands more viewers through television per week. 52,000 people in one church alone being taught weekly that God’s love for them is to be determined by their health, wealth, and prosperity. 52,000 people being taught that God’s greatest desire for them is to “live their best life now.” This is the heartbreaking reality of the prosperity gospel.
The Prosperity Gospel to the Ends of the Earth
This reality is upsetting, but the worst part is that this theological error doesn’t just affect Americans, but rather has been exported to the ends of the earth exploiting the most vulnerable. I recently had an opportunity to travel to the Dominican Republic with my church providing water filters and sharing the gospel.
During this trip, my group shared the gospel with a young couple and while the husband immediately expressed his desire to surrender his life to Christ, the wife had no interest in doing such a thing. As we began talking to her and asking her questions, she revealed to us that she grew up in church, but that all the church wanted was her money. As she began to describe her church to us, it was abundantly clear that this church had been heavily influenced by the prosperity gospel and was exploiting the impoverished people of the Dominican Republic.
Preaching the Biblical Gospel
Christians must combat this, but how do Bible-believing, gospel-preaching churches fight off the destructive theological error that is the prosperity gospel? Well, by being Bible-believing, gospel-preaching churches. The most effective way to combat falsehood is by proclaiming the truth.
Christians and churches who are fed up with the way the adherents of the prosperity gospel have exploited the most vulnerable in our society and promised a false hope in the comfort of this world, should channel their frustration into an effort to preach truth. We, as Christians, must emphasize the difficult parts of the Bible such as the depravity of man in light of the sovereignty of God. We must emphatically proclaim and live in such a way that demonstrates the joy that is rooted in the hope we have in the biblical gospel. And the gospel is this, that we were dead in our sins, but God, through his Son, made us alive in Christ and it is only through his grace and our faith that we can obtain this great salvation.