Like all good viruses prosperity theology has mutated.
Detecting the promises of money and houses and cars booming from church pulpits used to be easy. But as financial gurus have morphed into life coaches, prosperity teaching has become increasingly implicit. The guarantees of monetary wealth have been replaced by a more general motivational-speak of God enabling the best version of you, God wanting you to prosper, and God causing you to succeed. In some ways this is an improvement. Because given a biblically nuanced footnote I could agree with each of these statements (and a number of evangelicals have jumped on the bandwagon with talk of ‘human flourishing’). But herein lies the danger; an untruth has been replaced with a half-truth.
The problem with these new kinds of ambiguous statements is that a culture of rampant materialists (of which I ashamedly see myself) is left to fill in the blanks. And we do this mostly with blank cheques. So the best version of me has a second investment property, the ways God will prosper me are more financial than godly, and my plans God wants to succeed align almost perfectly with those of my financial planner.
Prosperity theology may have mutated, but it’s still harmful because it is a lie.
It takes a bit of creative accounting to arrive at the prosperity gospel from the teaching of Jesus.
The gospel of Luke does not rate the rich/poor divide of mere variable interest. Rather taking stock of the overall theme, Jesus seems to credit wealth as a liability with any teaching to the contrary morally bankrupt. It must be taxing to attempt to reconcile the concept of God wanting material prosperity for his people in this life, with Jesus’ words that most often default to depreciate wealth.
Right from Jesus’ initial public offering he quotes from the prophet Isaiah that as Christ he is invested with the task ‘to proclaim good news to the poor’ (4:18) The kingdom of God is an asset not of the rich but of the poor (6:20) as shown by the story of Lazarus and the rich man (16:19–31). The poor not the rich should be the ones invited to your banquets lest you be seeking a line of credit (14:13-14). And again, it is the poor widow — rather than the rich — whose capital gains Jesus’ approval (21:3).
The bottom-line on the Pharisees is condemnation as lovers of money (16:14), just as the rich in general are at risk of not inheriting the kingdom of God (18:24). Jesus tells the rich young ruler to liquidate his assets and give to the poor (18:22). You can lay up treasure for yourself without being rich toward God (12:21), you cannot serve God and money (16:13), and woe to the rich for you have received your equity (6:24). Similarly, before the woman with the discharge of blood receives her fringe benefit (8:43–44), Jesus explains that riches make the word of God a distressed asset (8:14). A person can gain the entire world but forfeit his soul – the worst possible return on investment (9:25).
To be fair, not all rich people leave sadly from Jesus’ presence as the rich young ruler does (18:23). Zacchaeus is a man of great wealth who receiving Jesus joyfully saw his acquisitions as an especially gross profit and repaid his debts accordingly (19:6–8).
But when you add it all up, it is difficult to conclude that prosperity theology is anything more than a scam.
There is however a Christian prosperity that Jesus speaks of in Luke 18:28–30.
And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” And Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”
On first reading, this story quacks like prosperity theology. Is Jesus promising great financial wealth in this life?
Peter’s claim to have left his home harks back to Luke 5:1–11. After a night of unproductive fishing Simon Peter was in his boat wondering what is this net worth? Next thing Jesus comes along hauling in a miraculous load of fish that would have made the net profit [okay I’ll stop now]. However Jesus calls and says ‘Follow me’ and so Peter, James, and John get back to land and leave everything. They left a physical home, so will they get one back with interest?
It is tempting to rationalise Jesus’ promises of many more times homes (and family members) as metaphorical or heavenly. Yet Jesus makes clear that alongside the future blessing (eternal life) there are current blessing (in this time).
What specifically is Jesus promising?
Jesus is not promising wealth to his followers. If you follow Jesus you will not have a greater property portfolio or a bigger bank balance.
Quite the opposite – Jesus is promising that you will own less as a result of following him. And you will own less in two ways:
- You will accumulate less. Taking the warning of Jesus you won’t chase wealth. Thus those who live for their career will oftentimes get promoted ahead of you leaving you comparatively worse off.
- You will give more. As someone who knows God’s generosity you are generous to others. And if you give to others you will consequently own less.
Yet this in turn shows how Jesus is not misleading his followers.
It’s all about ownership. You will own less, but have more. You own less because you accumulate less and give more, but collectively you have access to many times more. Jesus fulfils this promise by bringing Christians into a community of God’s people. It is from the Christian gathering that those who are in need will have shelter provided and those who have been rejected by their family will have spiritual brothers and sisters and parents. The comfort to Peter and all Jesus’ followers is that your path of lack now is actually the path of plenty. This is Christian prosperity – less in your bank account, but together more in our bank.
But this is only the beginning. The even more impressive part of Christian prosperity is the last part of Jesus’ promise, ‘and in the age to come eternal life.’
The truly great prosperity is yet to come.
Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
– Luke 23:32–43
The promise of Paradise beyond the grave is for those who trust in Christ. And this salvation comes about through the greatest transaction of all; the innocent Son giving his life to take the debt of condemned humanity. The punishment of sin poured out on the sinless. The death of the blameless in place of the guilty.
This is Christian prosperity: those forgiven by Jesus experiencing God’s kindness in Christian fellowship both now and forever.
And unlike the virus of prosperity theology this is a message worth spreading.