A humble, biblical look at health & wealth theology (the prosperity gospel)

I’ve ripped on health & wealth theology (also called the prosperity gospel) for a long time.

What I’d like to do here is slow down and examine the intent behind health & wealth theology, what parts are true biblically, and what parts come from reading the Bible incorrectly.

When the New Testament gives verse after verse promising Christians we will suffer, and most of the early Christians did suffer and die for their faith, beating up on the caricature of health and wealth theology has always felt too easy.  That caricature being something along these lines:

If you start this video from the beginning you’ll hear the theology that goes along with these sort of antics, which is essentially that you have to give money to the church (and already very wealthy pastors in a lot of these cases) in order to get blessing, a.k.a. money from God in return.  So this brand of health-and-wealth theology serves as a get-rich-quick scheme to pastors and offers God as a slot machine to churchgoers.

So this brand of health-and-wealth theology serves as a get-rich-quick scheme to pastors and offers God as a slot machine to churchgoers.

I’m beginning this article with the worst (and most notorious) form of prosperity gospel so you can see why it’s been so easy to beat up on it using basic and obvious Scriptures.  But this type of caricature is not the whole picture behind health and wealth theology.  Let’s first look at where adherents of H&W theology draw from in Scripture, followed by looking at a more complete way of understanding these texts.

The video above covers the “wealth” side of health and wealth, with the other side being “health.”  This one is more self-explanatory, that God wants you to be healthy, and has a lot more New Testament scripture to back in up.  These Scriptures focus around the miraculous healings Jesus and his disciples did and how healing is listed in the New Testament church’s spiritual gifts inventory in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11.  Another vein of New Testament scripture you will find prosperity preachers using are New Testament verses on prayer where it makes it seem you can demand something of God by having enough faith, and he must give it to you.  So you demand money or health, and he must give it to you.

It’s pretty hard to find texts in the New Testament that support any sort of “wealth” theology, outside of using the texts on prayer.  You seem to only find the opposite.  But before we throw stones at this view, we have to slow down and recognize that the Old Testament is full of direct passages about both health and wealth being attributed to those who walk faithfully with the Lord.

You not only have the narratives of insanely rich men like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and later kings such as David and Solomon, but you have a lot of explicit promises along these lines.

Deuteronomy 28:11 The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity—in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your ground—in the land he swore to your ancestors to give you.

Psalm 37:11 But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity.

Proverbs 8:18 With me are riches and honor, enduring wealth and prosperity.

Proverbs 21:21 Whoever pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity and honor.

You could hear a health and wealth sermon on any one of these texts on an average Sunday morning in an average church and it might feel like the Bible was being preached accurately.  This brings up the first point of proper biblical understanding that the prosperity gospel needs to be informed on:

The promises of the old covenant no longer apply to us

Many health and wealth sermons you hear today would have fit in perfectly if they were delivered between 1400 BC (Moses) – 30 AD (Jesus).  I’ve written a more comprehensive article on why the old covenant laws and promises no longer apply to us, but in a nutshell, they expired when Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead, which ushered in a new covenant that has nothing to do with promises of health, wealth, or land.

The old covenant was made between God and the people of Israel and was always meant to expire when the Messiah came.  It was a very specific agreement:  if they obeyed God, he would make them prosper in material ways (land, health and wealth) as a testimony to the nations around them.  This prosperity was related to the Promised Land (Israel) that Moses led the people to.  If they were faithful to God, they would get to stay in the land and would prosper.  If they worshiped idols and disobeyed God, he would punish them by taking away their land and making them destitute.  Any texts in the Old Testament, including Psalms and Proverbs, would have fallen under this old covenant promise.

All of this is laid out in the Bible in plain language:

The blessings for obedience and the curses for disobedience of the old covenant: Leviticus 26 & Deuteronomy 28.

The old covenant is temporary and will be replaced with a new covenant when the Messiah comes: Jeremiah 31:31-34, Zechariah 3.

The New Testament confirms that the old covenant promises of land, health, and wealth for faithfulness no longer apply to us:  Hebrews 8:8-13, Hebrews 8-10.

To try to make the promises of the old covenant apply today is like trying to hold a landlord to an expired rent contract that he made with an old tenant.  This is true of any text in the Old Testament that promises us health or wealth or land if we are faithful to God.  We can still learn a lot about who God is and his plan to redeem the world by reading these specific promises, but we can’t make them apply to us.

Confusing the Scriptures about Jesus’s future-second-coming as being about his original-1st-century-coming

There are a lot of Scriptures in the Old Testament that give predictive prophesy of the coming Messiah, who Christians believe to be Jesus.  While many Jews in the 1st century accepted Jesus as this Messiah and became the first Christians, most did not.  Jews (as a religion) to this day reject Jesus as the Messiah.

A primary reason the Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah is because he came in an unimpressive way and didn’t fulfill the types of prophecies they believed he would.  The Jews thought the Messiah would free them from the Roman Empire’s tyrannical grip on the Jewish people; Jesus did not.  They thought he would bring them political and economic freedom; Jesus did not.  Jesus was a humble, “normal” guy who shunned earthly power, thus did not fit the Messiah mold for many.

The Jews who rejected Jesus weren’t getting their expectations out of thin air, they had biblical, predictive prophesy behind them.  The biblical misstep they took, and it’s the same thing prosperity preachers are doing today (albeit in a different category), is that they were applying Old Testament verses about Jesus’s second coming, the ultimate fulfillment of God’s kingdom on earth, with his first coming.

Prophesies about the Messiah’s first coming are grounded in humility and humanness:

Isaiah 53:2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

They center around our need for a sin substitute, an atoning sacrifice:

Isaiah 53:3, 5, 12 He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.

because he poured out his life unto death,
    and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
    and made intercession for the transgressors.

This is a very different picture than other passages we find in the Old Testament about God’s ultimate triumph, such as Isaiah 2:1-4.  A modern day Jewish explanation of why Jesus is rejected as their Messiah explains how verses about Jesus’s second coming (God’s ultimate triumph) are being confused with Jesus’s first coming:

I do not, however, believe that the world has yet been redeemed. In a redeemed world, swords will be turned into ploughshares, nobody will go hungry, the powerless will not be oppressed, and justice will prevail everywhere. This was the vision of the Biblical Prophets, and it remains the foundation of Jewish hope for the future. Rabbi Jacob Staub, Ph.D. https://www.jewishrecon.org/news/waiting-messiah

Everything Rabbi Staub is naming here can be found in Old Testament passages such as Isaiah 2:1-4.  The website beingjewish.com elaborates on this:

(The Messiah) will be as described by the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 11:2-4): “full of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and the fear of G-d . . . he will smite the tyrant with the rod of his mouth…

The Messiah will bring an end to all suffering and war. He will rescue the Children of Israel from exile.

He will teach the world how to revere truth, and they will all return to G-d.

All forms of warfare will be abolished.

The Jews will no longer be subjugated nor oppressed by other nations. (In fact, there will be no oppression or subjugation anywhere in the world, by anyone against anyone.) The Jews will be free in the Land of Israel. We will have the Holy Temple once again. We will have the full body of the Law restored by the full Sanhedrin and all lesser courts. And the Messiah will do all this on his first try. Indeed, this is how we will know he is the Messiah.

These are the main prophecies that the Torah tells us concerning the Messiah. The man who causes these to happen will be the Messiah. Since these have not happened, the Messiah, the one foretold by the Torah, has not yet come. http://www.beingjewish.com/toshuv/whynotbrief.html

So what does Judaism have to do with Christian prosperity preaching?  When you hear the message of the prosperity gospel, it is not always coming from a heart of greed, like we normally assume based on the caricature I first presented.  In the prophesy of God’s ultimate triumph, everyone is healthy and wealthy and at peace and has everything in abundance.  This is God’s heart, but that era has not come to pass yet.  But if you got your biblical wires crossed, you could preach these second-coming verses about God’s ultimate triumph as applying to us today.

Jews reject Jesus because the era of triumph hasn’t come to pass yet, whereas Christians understand that that era will come at Jesus’s second coming.  The prosperity gospel finds itself in a strange limbo.  They do believe Jesus is the Messiah, and they believe he is coming back again, but they forget we are still in a fallen world (a world cursed by sin, Genesis 3) that is full of suffering, suffering Jesus promised we’d endure (John 16:33).

Note how similar Revelation 21:1-5 is (about the second coming) to Isaiah 2:1-4 (Old Testament prophesy).  When Jesus returns again and we are spending eternity in the new heaven and the new earth is when the health and wealth gospel could be preached in a true form (not that it would need to be at that point).  If a health and wealth gospel were actually true now, what need would there be for a new heaven or a new earth?  You could have eternal life now by simply naming and claiming your health every time death knocked at your door.  I’m not being sarcastic here, I want to show how this theology has gotten its biblical dominos out of order in such a way that it collapses in on itself.  They aren’t wrong about God’s heart for his people to live in plenty, but they are wrong about when that will happen.

When I realized my heart for community development has similarities to the prosperity gospel

I’m not sure of the black / white divide percentage-wise when it comes to the health and wealth gospel.  It feels like black churches are somewhat notorious for it.  I also know it’s something that stretches across a wide range of white (usually charismatic) churches as well.  As a white guy who grew up in a middle-to-upper class white suburban town, who has lived the last 12 years in a low-income, ethnically diverse urban neighborhood, we need to be quite a bit slower to throw stones as white evangelicals.  The big knock on prosperity preachers is that they are feeding off people’s greed for money as a way of feeding their own greed.  Only God knows when and how much that is or isn’t true, but here’s a good reason you don’t hear a lot of prosperity preaching in middle-to-upper class suburban towns:  because people already have wealth.

My nearby neighbors, most of whom are black, are very poor.  Whereas my wife get anxious when we don’t have X amount of dollars in our checking account, some of my neighbors don’t even have checking accounts, let alone savings accounts, stocks, investments, and retirement.  Many don’t have cars.  Their main concern is if they’ll be able to pay their utility bills that month and have enough food.  I make $43,000 with no benefits as a pastor of the church I founded.  I’ve had many friends from white communities over the years express concern that I don’t make enough and that I won’t be able to provide for my family (I made $30,000/year for my first 5-6 years pastoring).  To many of my friends in my neighborhood, a $30,000 or a $43,000 salary would be like hitting the jackpot.  With me and my wife’s combined incomes (she’s a teacher), we live off of more money that most of my nearby neighbors will ever see.  So when a sermon is preached that God can provide money for someone, is the motive really much different than the Christian community development practices that I’ve committed myself to?  The idea behind Christian community development (see ccda.org) is that a part of racial reconciliation is economic equality.  This is undergirded by a theology of the Kingdom of God that Jesus taught about over and over again.  It’s most simply found in Matthew 6:10, praying the Lord’s prayer that the way things happen in heaven would happen that way on earth.  That in heaven, no one is hungry or poor or oppressed, so we need to live and pray in such a way now.   So yes, I want my neighbors to know the saving truth of Jesus as their Savior, but I also want them to find solid employment, be able to provide for themselves, and overcome systemic injustice and generational poverty.  Because that’s how things should be in God’s Kingdom.  And frankly, without the heart change that only Jesus can bring, there’s not much hope for the other changes either.  My point is, it’s not surprising to see a health and wealth message being preached to a demographic where people are really struggling financially.  Does God want people to have their lights shut off or to not have food in the house?  We’d all answer no to this.

This does not give the health and wealth gospel a pass.  It is inconsistent with what the Bible clearly lays out for Christians living under the new covenant in-between Jesus’s first and second comings.  But at the end of the day, people on both sides of this aisle believe in God’s grace, God’s heart, his good plan for the world and his children, and his desire and ability to heal, to provide, and to give us full lives (John 10:10, one of my all-time favorites).

The biggest hiccup of the health and wealth gospel, and it’s a doozie, is that it often motivates people to desire what God can give them instead of desiring God; like loving the presents your parents give you at Christmas instead of loving your parents. The true gospel teaches clearly that Jesus is sufficient.

I’m not defending the prosperity gospel here.  My hope is that some of its followers might read this and realize how what they believe is unbiblical and will change their views to what the Bible actually does promise to us.  But I also want to reflect a recent conviction God has given me that I, and other evangelicals reading this, need to not assume the worst about those who have grown up under this teaching.  And while God is not a slot machine and there’s no merit-pay for obedience, God does want us to pray the realities of his will in heaven into the reality of earth today.  We are to pray and strive to make this place more like the Eden it was always intended to be.

With humility and gentle instruction, the Bible can guide all of us to riches greater than anything the old covenant could ever offer us.  If we have Jesus and nothing else, we are the richest people on the planet:

2 Corinthians 12:8-10 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.

Philippians 4:12-13 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

Philippians 3:8 I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ

 

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