The Empty Promises of Prosperity
by Paola Méndez-García
A little boy sits in front of a battered television, attempting to roll up the sleeves of a sweatshirt almost three sizes too big. A tall, well-groomed man is pacing back and forth on the screen, his face red and a little black book held tightly in his hand. “Have faith; have faith and God will do exactly what you want. He doesn’t want His children to look like peasants; He wants them to look like royalty! Have faith and He’ll heap wealth upon you, because He wants, above all else, your happiness! If you’re sick, have more faith! You’re only sick because you don’t have enough faith! Tell you what, call the number on this screen here, and search deep in your heart for what you should give, for Scripture calls us to give. If you call this number, we’ll pray for you! The more you give, the more we pray!”
Mesmerized, the little boy rushes into his parents’ room, begging them to call the nice man on television who promised so many good things. Having few options, the family calls and gives as much as they can afford, desperately hoping for monetary aid and physical healing. The money is taken, “prayers” are quickly uttered, and no one thinks about the little boy or his family again. But they certainly remember the “faith” that disappointed them when they most needed it. They turn their backs on the “God” of Christianity who promised wealth and happiness, yet failed to deliver it.
This story of disillusionment, like many others, is a repercussion of a “Christian” phenomenon known as the Prosperity Gospel, which has been perpetuated worldwide for decades. Growing up in Houston, Texas, home of the largest megachurch in the United States, I often encountered the Prosperity Gospel in conversations within Christian circles. I remember going to Joel Osteen’s infamous Lakewood Church when I was about eight years old. I can still vividly see the thousands of people shuffling to find seats, compelled by Osteen’s exuberant smile. His voice and demeanor made you feel warm inside, but by my parents’ frowning faces, I knew something was wrong. Osteen was a nice man who said a lot of nice words, but those nice words made vulnerable people believe in ideas that contradicted God’s Word, the Bible—and that made him a duplicitous source of Christian doctrine.1
The Prosperity Gospel narrative boils down to one idea: God always wants us to be happy, and therefore, if we have enough faith, good things such as health, wealth, and prosperity (HWP) are guaranteed.2 However, this also means that a lack of HWP is a sign of not having enough faith, which, according to Prosperity Gospel teachers, is a state that directly dishonors and shames God. This so-called Gospel narrative is based upon the “Word of Faith Movement,” a spiritual perspective combining Mind Science, which is a branch of New Age Mysticism, and Pentecostalism, a branch of evangelical Protestantism that accentuates divine intervention and the power of spiritual gifts.3 By promoting concepts such as radical faith (i.e., “if I believe it, I can achieve it”), an absence of suffering (i.e., “God wants me to be physically happy”), and the sovereignty of human beings over God (i.e., “I ask and He delivers”) as biblically sound, the Prosperity Gospel narrative openly contradicts the true Gospel narrative.4
Because the Prosperity Gospel is supposedly founded on Christian principles, it is crucial to evaluate the biblical texts that have been taken out of context, manipulated, or even altered to support its claims. One verse in particular, Psalm 82:6, is often used as evidence for humankind’s sovereignty. In it, God says to the rulers of the earth, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you.”5 Word of Faith teachers will deliberately ignore this verse’s context, in which God is actually condemning immoral rulers, not proclaiming their sovereignty. Although the verse metaphorically asserts that the rulers are like “gods” in that they are the “sons of the Most High,” the next verse tells them that they will die like mortals for their sinful and unjust actions.This metaphorical explanation is supported by the prior verse, where the word “gods” is in single quotations, signifying that there is a different intended meaning behind the word than its traditional definition.6 If the verse was meant to be taken literally, as Word of Faith teachers believe, the rulers would never have been identified as immoral.
Another example would be Hebrews 11:1, which is commonly used to affirm the power of faith, for it says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”7 Word of Faith teachers interpret this to mean that the focus of faith is on material things since “substance” is translated literally, referring to faith in matter, rather than to “assurance,” a foundation in faith, which its true meaning. As American minister Walter Martin contends, “True biblical faith is faith in God as opposed to faith in substance,” otherwise known as “faith in faith,” a term coined by the father of the Word of Faith movement, Kenneth Hagin. Word of Faith teachers will also employ Mark 11:22 to affirm the power of “positive confession.” However, they morph the standard text interpretation of “Have faith in God” to an incorrect “Have the faith of God.”8 The first phrase calls for humankind to place complete trust in God, while the second wrongly instructs them to be like God, having His power to speak things into being.
Furthermore, there are multiple Bible stories that challenge the fundamental tenets of the Prosperity Gospel. In these stories, followers of God, despite their great faith, suffer terribly, fall into poverty, lose loved ones, and even die. The Old Testament accounts of Job’s suffering in the Book of Job and the Israelites’ desert wandering in the Book of Numbers are key examples of how those with great faith undergo physical trials and tribulations. The suffering and persecution of the apostles, such as Paul’s imprisonments and Peter’s execution, also indicate that the physical comfort and happiness of believers are not always guaranteed.9 While this opposes the Prosperity Gospel’s belief about the dishonor in suffering, it doesn’t entail that the God of the true Gospel does not care about the physical state of His children. God might not guarantee immediate healing or contentment, but He is faithful, promising to support His children through times of suffering, and ensuring hope in a future filled with joy and significance.10
By ensnaring believers into ideologies that blatantly oppose the teachings of the Bible, The Prosperity Gospel poses a great threat to the Christian faith.11 It even prompts Christians to violate God’s greatest commandment—to hold nothing above Him—by valuing both material wealth and humankind more than God.12 The Word of Faith Movement’s fixation on material possessions and success actually stems from an American mindset, which focuses on the pursuit of happiness and physical prosperity. In 2018, papal confidantes, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro and Presbyterian pastor Marcelo Figueroa, criticized the “Prosperity Gospel” as a manifestation of pursuing “the American Dream.” In their essay, they argued that the concept of migrants obtaining riches and happiness from a plentiful land was erroneously translated into the concept that “Believers” attain wealth and contentment from “faith.”13
When proselytized in lower socioeconomic areas, the Prosperity Gospel’s ties to the “American Dream” become the sole focus of conversion. Rather than sharing the true Gospel message of eternal salvation, a promise of temporary physical flourishing takes its place.14 Furthermore, by displaying values opposite of those presented in the true Gospel, the Prosperity Gospel creates false image of Christianity. This heavily affects non-Christians, for many who fall into the snare of the Word of Faith movement are at greater risk of rejecting the true Christian faith when their misconception of it fails them, such as in unanswered prayers.15 The Prosperity Gospel cannot actually guarantee any good fortune—physical or otherwise. And, unfortunately, preachers who promise these good fortunes rarely offer any funding, medicinal aid, or further spiritual guidance to those in need—in fact, they often ask for monetary donations under the pretense of “doing God’s work.”
In actuality, the Biblical Gospel calls Christians to always be willing to give and help others as they share God’s promise.16 It also posits that God’s actions and gifts are not dependent on our faith or state of being. Being a “good person” or “having enough faith” cannot produce HWP; rather, God calls for His creation to come unto Him in any condition, since it is His promise to redeem all those who come to Him. The true Gospel does not say that human beings are maligning God when they are poor, sick, or unsuccessful.17 Nor has He ever expected His children to fix or depend on themselves for salvation or fulfilment.18 God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him—in the midst of both suffering and opulence.
A narrative of faith like the Prosperity Gospel, created by humans for humans, is void of Godly wisdom, which perverts the narrative of the true Christian Gospel and results in false ideologies. By believing in this false narrative, humans rely on themselves rather than on God, something that will continuously fail because of our fallen nature and inability to save ourselves. But if we believe in the true Gospel narrative—one that is not about mankind, but about Jesus, the Son of God—salvation and fulfilment are imminent, for He can actually save us and restore our lives. The great hope of mankind is to escape this fallen world and be able to commune, face to face, with the Creator, something that can only be achieved through believing and trusting in Jesus.19 When it comes to the Gospel narrative for our lives, it is about having faith in Jesus and what He can do, not what we can do with that faith. While the material and finite things promised by the Prosperity Gospel will one day fade away, Jesus and His promise will forever remain—Jesus is enough.By posing as the true Gospel, the Prosperity Gospel cheats many out of the wonderful gifts offered by true Christianity. In times of suffering—be it poverty, sickness, or the obstacles of life—the God of the Gospel promises to be a pillar of support and comfort. While He does not always guarantee physical aid, He is always present, using these difficult experiences as tools for spiritual growth and development of character. However, this does not mean that there should be less physical aid from Christians: the Bible calls believers to go beyond expressing love through prayer and spiritual guidance, and be willing to physically help all those in need, believers or not.20 In this command, too, the genuine Gospel narrative is one of sound truths, unconditional love, and everlasting hope that exist regardless of circumstance or material possessions–a promise which the Prosperity Gospel narrative utterly fails to fulfill.
Paola Mendez-Garcia is a sophomore from Houston, Texas (originally from Puerto Rico) studying English Literature. When she isn’t writing prose or admiring art, she can be found under a tree or in the nook of a library, coffee by her side and nose in a book
- Rick Henderson, “The False Promise Of The Prosperity Gospel: Why I Called Out Joel Osteen And Joyce Meyer,” HuffPost, 38:26 400AD, <https://www.huffpost.com/entry/osteen-meyer-prosperity-gospel_b_3790384>.
- Hank Hanegraaff, Christianity in Crisis: 21st Century. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc, 2012.
- “White Paper: Word of Faith,” Berean Research (blog), accessed April 10, 2019, <https://bereanresearch.org/white-paper-word-of-faith/>.
- Kenneth Copeland, The Laws of Prosperity. Fort Worth, TX: Harrison House Publishers, 2012.
- Psalm 82:6 (ESV)
- Albert Mohler, “The Osteen Predicament—Mere Happiness Cannot Bear the Weight of the Gospel,” September 3, 2014, <https://albertmohler.com/2014/09/03/the-osteen-predicament-mere-happiness-cannot-bear-the-weight-of-the-gospel>.
- Hebrews 11:1 (ESV)
- Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, ed. Ravi Zacharias. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2003.
- Philippians 1:1-26 (ESV); John 21:18-19 (ESV)
- Hebrews 13:5 (ESV); Matthew 11:28-29 (ESV); II Corinthians 1:3-4 (ESV); Jeremiah 29:11 (ESV)
- “Unmasking the Prosperity Gospel,” Grace to You, October 27, 1991, <https://www.gty.org/library/topical-series-library/33/>.
- “Papal Confidantes Rue Prosperity Gospel, Distorted ‘American Dream,’” Crux (blog), July 18, 2018, <https://cruxnow.com/vatican/2018/07/18/papal-confidantes-rue-prosperity-gospel-distorted-american-dream/>.
- Josephine Olatomi Soboyejo, “Prosperity Gospel and Its Religious Impact on Sustainable Economic Development of African Nations,” Open Access Library Journal 03 (November 2, 2016): 1, <https://doi.org/10.4236/oalib.1103153>.
- Matthew 12:30-3 (ESV); I John 3:17 (ESV); Isaiah 1:17 (ESV); Proverbs 31:8-9 (ESV); Proverbs 14:31 (ESV); Matthew 25:44-45 (ESV)
- Luke 6:20-21 (ESV)
- II Corinthians 12:9-10 (ESV)
- John 14:6 (ESV)
- James 1:27 (ESV)