The Prosperity Gospel is Wrong and Sometimes Cruel

An acquaintance of mine attended the funeral of an acquaintance of his who had died after a long struggle with cancer. He recounted the remarkable sermon he heard preached at the service. The presiding minister informed the attendees that the deceased woman’s death was their fault. If only they had exercised sufficient faith when praying for her, the preacher explained, then she would have been healed. She died because of their unbelief. I don’t know if the minister included himself as one of the unbelievers. Ascribing blame to an already grieving congregation seems to me to be more than a little cruel.

Yet such is the logic of health and wealth theology, otherwise known as the Prosperity Gospel. In Bad Religion: How America Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat explains the thinking behind the funeral sermon:

The “name it and claim it” school of prosperity theology resolves…the problem of suffering by recasting it as a simple failure of piety and willpower. It’s a brilliant solution to the riddle of theodicy: while orthodox Christianity suggest that evil is a mystery to be endured, the Word-Faith gospel suggests that evil is something that can be mastered, through a combination of spiritual exertion and the divine intervention it summons up. If you fail to master every day events, and fall into struggles and suffering, it’s a sign that you just haven’t prayed hard enough, or trusted faithfully enough, or thought big enough, or otherwise behave the way a child of God really should. The fault where any evil is concerned, in other words, lies not with God, the devil, or the fallenness of creation but with you – so stop whining about your troubles, get down on your knees, and do something about it! (190-91)

It’s hard to overstate the damage done by such teaching.

Two of my colleagues, David Jones and Russ Woodbridge, have published Health, Wealth, and Happiness: Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the Gospel of Christ? HealthWealthHappinessJones and Woodbridges’ book serves as an excellent exposé and antidote to the Prosperity Gospel and I recommend it highly. They list a number of reasons for prosperity theology’s popularity. The Prosperity Gospel:

  • Contains just enough biblical truth to be plausible.
  • Appeals to the universal desires for success and health.
  • Promises much while requiring little.
  • Generally is marketed in a winsome and attractive package.
  • Is indicative of the Church’s lack of discernment, pragmatic attitude, and acceptance of secular definitions of success. (18-19)

Jones and Woodbridge present a much healthier perspective on suffering:

Scripture presents suffering as a normative part of the Christian life. Contrary to the claims of some advocates of the prosperity gospel, suffering is not an indicator of lack of faith; rather, suffering and persecutions are likely to increase with faith. While the Bible does not present suffering as desirable, it likewise does not view suffering as a hindrance to God’s plan of redemption. While a day is coming in the future in which there will be no more pain and suffering, Scripture teaches that in the current fallen world trials are a tool that the Lord uses in order to foster the sanctification of His people. (122)

Jesus asked, “If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” (Luke 16:11). Let’s not let the Prosperity Gospel detract us from the true riches of the Gospel.

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A Nation of Heretics

Ross Douthat published Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics three years ago (2012), but I’m just getting around to reading it. Now I find I can’t put it down.BadReligion

He describes the time of post-WWII America as a quasi-golden era for the Church. Four religious figures exemplified, respectively, the four foremost religious movements of the 1940s and 50s: theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and his intellectually stimulating neo-orthodoxy, evangelist Billy Graham and his new brand of evangelicalism, Bishop Fulton Sheen and his warm-hearted Roman Catholicism, and Martin Luther King and his prophetic call for civil rights.

The growth of Christianity in America during this time was truly phenomenal. In 1930, less than half (47%) of all Americans were members of a church. By 1960–in just 30 years–the number had jumped to 69% (22).

But between the 1960s and the current day, explains Douthat, something went seriously wrong:

The Protestant Mainline’s membership stopped growing abruptly in the mid-1960s and then just as swiftly plunged. Of the 11 Protestant churches that claimed more than 1 million members in the early 1970s, eight had fewer members in 1973 than in 1965. There were 10.6 million United Methodists in 1960, more than 11 million at mid-decade, and 10.6 million again my 1970 – and it was down, down, down thereafter. The Lutherans peaked in 1968, Episcopalians in 1966, and the United Church of Christ in 1965; by the middle of the following decade, they were all in steep decline. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Lost about 1.5 million members between the mid-1960s and the late 1980s. By the 1990s, 60% of Methodist parishioners were over 50, and there were more Muslims in America than Episcopalians. (59)

One would think that the decline might have been merely the result of the country becoming more secular. However, the evidence indicates that during the last half of the 20th century the nation became more religious. “Belief in God, an afterlife, and intercessory prayer remained constant or even rose during these years (Americans were slightly more likely to believe in life after death in the 1990s than in the 1960s)” (62).

No, America is didn’t stop believing; rather, its beliefs became skewed. Orthodoxy was replaced with worship of “the god within”, the prosperity gospel and American nationalism. The message of the Cross was abandoned in favor of moralistic therapy. Douthat describes the present spiritual state of the nation thusly:

United States remains a deeply religious country, and most Americans are still drawing some water from the Christian well. But a growing number are inventing their own versions of what Christianity means, abandoning the nuances of traditional theology in favor of religions that stroke their egos and indulge or even celebrate their worst impulses. These faiths speak for many pulpits –conservative and liberal, political and pop-cultural, traditionally religious and fashionably “spiritual”–and many of their preachers call themselves Christian or claim a Christian warrant. But they are increasingly offering distortions of traditional Christianity, not the real thing.
… This is the real story of religion in America. For all its piety and fervor, today’s United States needs to be recognized for what it really is: not a Christian country, but a nation of heretics. (4-6)

America has always had its share of groups at the margins–Quakers, Shakers, Mormons, and Millerites. Douthat argues that the difference this time is the weakest of the orthodox center. Mainline Christianity wasn’t prepared to handle the pressures of late 20th century: political polarization, the sexual revolution, globalization, increasing wealth, and the rise of a new cultural elite that considered the Christian faith déclassé.

Douthat is Roman Catholic, and there are places where I would have said things differently. Still, I highly recommend the book.

The Rebirth of Scientific Racism

recent article in the Washington Post warns that “‘scientific racism’ is creeping back into our thinking”. The story reports of a woman who filed a “wrongful birth” lawsuit after delivering a biracial baby conceived through artificial insemination.midwife She sued, claiming that the mixup created hardship and injury to her and her family. The argument made by her suit called up the specter of eugenics–the science of racism so prevalent 100 years ago but since discredited. The article explains the thinking behind scientific racism:

Here’s how the argument goes. Some people are born with outstanding talents, easily mastering basketball, mathematics, languages or piano, if given the right environment in which to grow. What biologist or social scientist could argue with that? But alongside that genetic understanding, an old and pernicious assumption has crept back into the American conversation, in which aptitudes are supposedly inherited by race: certain peoples are thought to have rhythm, or intellect, or speed or charm. That’s a fast track toward the old 19th- and early 20th-century problem of “scientific” racism.

The article continues by recounting examples where eugenics is currently rearing its head. At one end of the spectrum there’s Dylann Roof, who wrote, “Negroes have lower IQs, lower impulse control, and higher testosterone levels in general. These three things alone are a recipe for violent behavior.” Ironically, he (allegedly) followed up these words by killing nine people during a Bible study in an African-American church in Charleston, SC. At the other, more respectable end of the spectrum are academic articles which claim that genetic differences are the primary causes of ethnic conflict.

As evolutionary psychology and socio-biology become more accepted, so shall “scientific racism” also. Darwinism is an ideology that, when carried to its logical conclusion, has devastating cultural and social consequences. The Gospel stands squarely against this. All are created in the divine image, and all have sinned. Christ died for all, and all the redeemed are brethren in the family of God (Gal 3:28; Eph 2:11-22). Racism must be rejected, even when it wears a scientific veneer.

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