A “new gospel” is sweeping global Christianity. Jones and Woodbridge sounded the alarm a decade ago:
A new gospel is being taught today. This new gospel is perplexing—it omits Jesus and neglects the cross. Instead of promising Christ, this gospel promises health and wealth, and offers such advice as: declare to yourself that everything that you touch will prosper, for in the words of a leading prosperity gospel preacher, ‘There is a miracle in your mouth.’ According to this new gospel, if believers repeat positive confessions, focus their thoughts, and generate enough faith, God will release blessings upon their lives. This new gospel claims that God desires and even promises that believers will live a healthy and financially prosperous life.1
This new gospel is spreading rapidly and broadly beyond charismatic circles in American Christianity. Today, the prosperity gospel is being embraced even by evangelicals, especially internationally.2
In 2006 the Pew Forum found 46 percent of self-proclaimed Christians in the United States and about 90 percent in Kenyans believed that God will grant material riches and economic success if one should have enough faith. We can see the evidence all around us in this facade of a gospelized culture, as key words and phrases are plastered everywhere—on matatus, buses, signboards, names of businesses: “blessed,” “by faith,” “God’s provision,” etc.
How did we get here? What do we do to counter these peddlers of the prosperity gospel? We begin by identifying its philosophical and theological basis. There are at least three significant factors that have shaped this lens of prosperity—pseudo-Christian therapeutic psychology, animism, and bad hermeneutics.
Prosperity Gospel as Pseudo-Christian Therapeutic Psychology
In her book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, Kate Bowler proposed a convincing argument that the prosperity gospel shares the same intellectual and theological roots as Christian Science and what would later be known as the New Age Movement. She wrote,
New Thought represents a cluster of thinkers and metaphysical ideas that emerged in the 1880s as the era’s most powerful vehicle of mind-power. [New Thought]…assumed essential unity between God and humanity, declaring that separation from the divine was only a matter of degree….As many New Thought authors worked inside a Christian framework, they explored “salvation” not as an act imposed from above by God, but rather an act of drawing out humanity’s potential.
[In addition,] New Thought argued that people shared in God’s power to create by means of thought. People shaped their own worlds by their thinking, just as God had created the world using thought. Positive thoughts yielded positive circumstances, and negative thoughts yielded negative situations.
In its infancy, New Thought was largely preoccupied with healing…[offering] a religious alternative to the often harsh regimen of standard medical treatments. Bloodletting, mercury-laced purgatives, and arsenic tonics formed common “cures,” making orthodox medicine a potentially risky treatment. Early healers and systematizers of New Thought sought to explain illness as an imbalance resulting from wrong thinking.
These gospels of health stood on one side of a blurry line between Christian metaphysics and metaphysical Christianity. One prioritized the method of mind-power, while the other concentrated on its relationship to Jesus’ death and resurrection.3
Considering Bowler’s assessment, Thomas Kidd astutely noted, “As with so many types of aberrant theology, the prosperity gospel is dangerous precisely because it takes biblical themes to non-biblical extremes. It is not hard to demonstrate biblically that God wants an “abundant life” for his followers. But when that abundance gets defined in worldly terms, through the lenses of pseudo-Christian therapeutic psychology, we have the makings of a theological disaster.”4
Prosperity Gospel as Syncretized Animism
In the West, the rise and prominence of the prosperity gospel can be attributed to various philosophical and theological movements of modernity and the Enlightenment. But here in our African context, this counterfeit gospel is merely a syncretized form of animism. Per the animistic worldview, spiritual forces are behind every cause and effect in the universe and can be manipulated through the right channel. In this system, the shaman becomes the “voice” of the worldview, instructing fearful and/or hopeful pursuers of blessings or curses on what to do to bring about their desired end. Clearly this is the lens through which Joel Osteen wrote,
When you say of the Lord you are healthy, you are whole, you are free, you are blessed, you are prosperous—when you say it, God has promised He will do it. …If you are not sharing in His favor, you might want to watch your words. Here’s the key: If you don’t unleash your words in the right direction, if you don’t call in favor, you will not experience those blessings. Nothing happens unless we speak. Release your faith with your words.5
The role of shaman is a fitting one to describe prosperity preachers. Kenneth Copeland asserts that words have supernatural power—power that changes circumstances and shapes destinies. In his estimation it is our unique ability to choose and speak words that distinguishes man from the rest of God’s creation. He claims that man is created in God’s image and it was not just thoughts but words that God used to create us and the universe in which we live. When God said, “Let there be light,” light was. Therefore, words are the way God works. According to Copeland, because words are seen as spiritual; they carry power. Therefore, Copeland (and others like Joyce Meyer) have actually proclaimed that just as God looked into the void of nothingness and willed by his words, “Let there be light,” we as mini gods, can look into the nothingness of our circumstances and declare by faith and it will be.
Is it any wonder that P.U.S.H.—“Pray Until Something Happens”—is the view of prayer held by so many across our region? Unfortunately, much of the praying that we see practiced around us is syncretized animism. People acting as though they have sovereignty over God or that in them rests the power to manipulate the circumstances of their lives or the spiritual forces at work around them. Without knowledge many people pray repeating the name Jehovah one hundred times in a given prayer or claiming things in the name of Jesus, but not in the biblical sense of praying. No, this kind of praying assumes that we have authority to PUSH God to act on our demands or requests rather than to rest in his absolute authority, wisdom, and pleasure.
Prosperity Gospel as the Result of Bad Hermeneutics
A third factor in the advancement of the prosperity gospel is bad hermeneutics. Simply put, prosperity preachers hold a pervasive, overarching hermeneutic that creates the filter through which eisegesis occurs in their interpretation of most Scriptures. Their approach to Scripture is accommodation—inserting their biases into texts, allegorizing Old Testament stories, failing to consider the historical and literary context of verses, ignoring the grammatical rules and semantics as employed by the author and understood by his original audience, and dishonoring the authors’ original, Holy Spirit-inspired meaning they intended to convey—to make the text fit their theology. Therefore, any passage of Scripture may be twisted to fit the prejudices held by the one who assumes that God’s mission is to help humanity to reach its greatest potential in the abundance of life. In other words, the prosperity gospel teaches “true Christian faith results in material wealth and physical well-being.” The pursuit of “abundant life” as defined by the reader becomes the modus operandi.
There have been countless sermons on facing the giants in one’s life and overcoming them, or about going into and conquer God’s promise land—the land of overflow. But prosperity preachers will almost always gravitate to “blessings,” whether the passage includes the actual word or not. “Bless” is probably the greatest example of a word that has been hijacked of its meaning. The Old Testament uses two primary Hebrew words that are translated as “bless” — barak and esher. The former means to bow the knee as a sign of communicating one’s pleasure in another. The latter means to be happy or pleased with someone or something. Yet, in almost every use of “bless” by prosperity preachers, the implication is to receive material wealth.
Perhaps the most familiar passage for prosperity sermons is Jeremiah 29:11—”For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Again, these messages are typically not based on consideration of the historical, grammatical, or theological contexts.
As Christianity continues to shift to the global south, the gospel witness will be propagated from this continent. But what gospel will be proclaimed? To be certain, Paul clearly noted that there is in actuality no other gospel; rather, the church is troubled by those who “want to distort the gospel of Christ.” He emphatically warned that “…even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”6
Time and again the authors of the New Testament point out the presence and dangers of false teachers. As Jude urged the church in his day, let us “…contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”7
1David W. Jones and Russell S. Woodbridge, Health, Wealth & Happiness: Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the Gospel of Christ? (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2011), 14-15.
2 Ibid., 16.
3 Kate Bowler, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 13.
4Thomas Kidd, “The New Thought Roots of the Prosperity Gospel”, The Gospel Coalition, August 28, 2018, accessed from https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/evangelical-history/new-thought-roots-prosperity-gospel/.
5 Joel Olsteen, It’s Your Time: Activate Your Faith, Achieve Your Dreams, and Increase in God’s Favor (New York: Free Press, 2009), 121-123.
6 Galatians 1:6-10
7 Jude 1:3