The delusions of the prosperity gospel

People raising their hands in air in request. Many people who have been taught the prosperity gospel approach God like this.
(Getty Images)

An excerpt from “Preachers of a Different Gospel,” by Femi Adeleye

In many ways, thousands of those who follow Jesus today are no different from the crowd in John 6. Like that crowd, we want to follow him and possibly proclaim him king, but our motives are also as suspect as those of that crowd.

Many people follow Jesus today not because he is the bread of life but because they see him as the means to material prosperity. There are thousands of drifters who move from one church to the next and from a “crusade” to a “revival” meeting in search of material blessings. However, while Jesus pointed those who followed him for bread to eternal life, there are many preachers and teachers today who tell the seekers what they want to hear.

These itinerant preachers propagate a “health and wealth” gospel, a gospel of material prosperity without pointing them to the cross of Christ for eternal life. The result is a generation of Christians who cannot see that the “kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit!” (Rom 14:17).

In Nigeria, it is not an overstatement to say that the most popular gospel says, “Seek ye first the things of this world and their fullness, and the kingdom of God shall be added unto you” rather than, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” What was once covetousness is now “possessing your inheritance by faith.”

[Read more: Pushing back against the prosperity gospel in Fiji]

So, we have thousands of Christians who want Abraham’s blessings but not his trials.

The gospel of greed is always okay for those who ignore the real mission of Jesus. For when they stand face to face with the real Jesus and his teaching, they, like the crowd in Capernaum, are bound to say, “This is a hard teaching, who can accept it?”

While some two thousand years ago, the Lord drove out profit-makers from the temple saying, “My house will be called a house of prayer but you are making it a den of robbers” (Matt 21:13), many of today’s houses of prayer have been taken over by “thieves” lurking there to extort money from the faithful who can be deluded into expecting a hundredfold in return.

How have we slipped from the simplicity of the gospel of Christ — moderation and an emphasis on contentment — to an excessive pursuit of the things of this world?

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The health and wealth gospel is not biblical and must be shunned as “another gospel” on many grounds. 

Firstly, as we have discussed, the seed-faith principle on which it is based is unbiblical. It espouses a view about giving, whether of tithes or offerings, as primarily an investment rather than an act of worship. Thus, it leads people to give with wrong motives, expecting special returns from God.

The person who gives to God appears to be the one in charge, because it is his or her measure of investment that dictates God’s response. It seems that human beings take the initiative and God responds. This contradicts all that the Bible teaches about God taking the initiative to save us and worship being our response to him.

Secondly, this “gospel” gives undue emphasis to our earthly inheritance, here and now in material form. Pursuit of this is contrary to biblical faith and blurs our vision and understanding of God. Stephen Eyre has put it well:

Materialism blunts a living faith. A vibrant sense of the presence of God becomes dead orthodoxy. The reality of the Christian life becomes a shadow. Our experience of life in Christ becomes hollow. Our knowledge of God becomes empty. If we can’t see it, taste it, smell it or measure it, then we doubt that it’s real, therefore, we come to doubt that God is real. 

Defeating the Dragons of the World: Resisting the Seduction of False Values, pg. 28

Thirdly, those who teach this gospel have misunderstood Jesus and his mission.

While Jesus was not destitute, we know from Scripture that he was not as prosperous as the health and wealth teachers make him out to be. His home situation was modest.

We know his parents did not have the means to avoid his being born in a stable and had to lay him in a manger. We know that when his parents went to the temple to dedicate him, all they could give as offering was a pair of doves instead of a lamb and dove as required by the law (Luke 2:21; Lev 12:6). We also know that in his ministry Jesus often depended on the resources of other people because he did not have any of his own. He taught from a borrowed boat, rode into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey, ate the Passover meal with his disciples in a borrowed room and was buried in a borrowed tomb.

Jesus did not preach or teach a prosperity gospel.

In fact, when Jesus did talk about material possessions, he warned his disciples to “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). He also warned against the deceitfulness of wealth (Matt 13:22), referred to it as “unrighteous mammon” (Luke 16:9), and warned the Pharisees who loved money that “what people value highly is detestable in God’s sight” (Luke 16:15).

When money becomes an end in itself, it has a tendency to compete for our loyalty that belongs to God. It can easily become an idol that rules our lives. This is why Jesus warns against relating to money as we relate to God.

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:13). The health and wealth gospel contradicts all these warnings of Jesus.

Is the prosperity gospel good news for the poor?

The message of God’s kingdom has been called the “Good News.” The kingdom is about good news (Luke 4:18). John the Baptist called people to repentance and restoration (Luke 3:10–14). But the prosperity gospel no longer brings good news to the poor.

Some women skip going to church because they do not feel they have the right clothes or have nothing to put into any of the multiple collections. Many who do go to church expecting their personal miracle feel a sense of abandonment. As they see others dancing to the front, they feel a sense of diminished self-worth, even though they know that some of those who dance to the front only go through the motions without putting anything into the offering basket.

Outside church, the pains of poverty give them a diminished sense of dignity as they struggle to make ends meet. One cannot, therefore, say the prosperity gospel constitutes “good news” for the poor.

The core of the health and wealth gospel departs from the core of the gospel of Christ, whose center is the cross.

It is a “gospel” without the cross, and therefore no gospel at all. It never says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Nor does it ever say, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20).

Here on earth, there will always be “a time to mourn” as there are also times to dance. There will be times to weep as there will be times to laugh. Christ did not pray for God to take us out of this world but prayed that he should protect us from the evil one (John 17:15). 

Those who embrace the prosperity gospel have learnt to read the Bible selectively.

They embrace, “a time to be born” but reject any reference to “a time to die.” They confess that there is “a time to laugh” but deliberately avoid mentioning “a time to mourn” (Eccl 3:2–4).

Even though these are realities of our earthly pilgrimage, in the name of being “overcomers,” those who embrace this gospel think of those who suffer or weep as being either sinful or lacking in faith. While we must not go out of our way to seek pain or disease, pretending that they are unreal is nothing but escapism.

A close study of Scripture will reveal that suffering and even death are not solely the preserve of the wicked. Concerning suffering it states, “the righteous may have many troubles” (Ps 34:19).

We discover that even the godly suffer and at times die in their suffering.

Joseph lived rightly but was still sold as a slave and imprisoned for some years, though he was guiltless. Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah (better known as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) were thrown into a burning furnace because they would not compromise. And although Paul was a faithful witness and apostle, his record of suffering and hardship surpasses that of many wicked men (2 Cor 11:22–33).

Thus, we cannot categorically say that those living right will not suffer or die like others. We know from Scripture and contemporary history that many saints have suffered greatly. Physical death is a common experience that does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked. God in his wisdom has appointed it so.

We need to learn to live by the truth that, “Life, in fact, is a pilgrimage from one moment of nakedness to another; so, we should travel light and live simply.”*

*John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today (London: Marshall Pickering, 1990), 246.

About the author

Dr. Femi Adeleye is a Langham Scholar and Langham-published author who currently serves as the Director of Langham Preaching for Africa and the Director of the Institute for Christian Impact (ICI) in Accra, Ghana.

This excerpt is taken from “Preachers of a Different Gospel” (Hippobooks, an imprint of WordAlive, ACTS, Step, and Zondervan, 2011). Used with permission.