The Prevalence of the "Prosperity Gospel"
How is the so-called Prosperity Gospel influencing today's churches?
KEVIN HARRIS: Dr. Craig, if I give a financial donation to Reasonable Faith, do you think God will give me a new car?
DR. CRAIG: [laughter] Probably not!
KEVIN HARRIS: I was hoping at least a Jaguar! Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion about the so-called prosperity gospel which is rampant. Christianity Today says that the so-called “Prosperity Gospel Taught to 4 in 10 Evangelical Churchgoers.” I’m sure that is not only in the United States. You just got back from Brazil a while back. You commented that it was prevalent there.
DR. CRAIG: Oh, very much so. In Brazil, in San Paulo where we were, there is a huge megachurch called the Universal Church which is built on the motifs of Solomon's Temple in the Old Testament but much, much larger. It's in a poor district of San Paulo where the people are living in poverty, but they give money to this neo-Pentecostal Church because it promises them prosperity and success if they do so. It's a health and wealth sort of gospel. You look at this monument, and it is just staggering. It's a huge building. It has a nine-thousand seat auditorium inside which is uninterrupted by any supporting pillars or columns. This vast roof! And at the front of this auditorium are two gigantic golden cherubim with their wings spread out over a sort of Ark of the Covenant that is then behind a thin veil that conceals this. It is just staggering in the proportions and the wealth that it represents. All around the grounds are manicured gardens, guards with neckties and suits on managing the crowds that come in, crowd control. It's really unbelievable, and this is just one of these prosperity gospel megachurches in Brazil. Unfortunately many, many Brazilian Christians have been fed the line that belief in Christ is the key to financial success and wealth.
KEVIN HARRIS: I guess that is the bottom line on what the so-called prosperity gospel is. We've talked about it before.
DR. CRAIG: I think it could be summarized by saying that it is that God's will is for every Christian to be wealthy and healthy.
KEVIN HARRIS: Bottom line is somehow God can be manipulated – if you do everything right he has to honor his word, his promises. There's kind of a manipulation thing. A lot of prosperity preachers I've noticed – they kind of have their laundry list of things that you need to do to get it. So if you don't get that Jag or that money, they could say, OK, well, did you do number seven? Did you repent? You make sure that you don't have anything against anybody and, OK, I'll go back and do that. So there's always an out if it doesn't happen – that you didn't do everything on a list. It could be varied. It is maddening.
DR. CRAIG: It is really a pernicious doctrine in that sense – if you, as a Christian, are not healthy and have a disease or if you are not wealthy but struggling, it's your fault. You didn't have enough faith. It’s God's will that you should flourish and prosper in this way. So it puts a terrible guilt trip and burden on people who do not, or are unable to claim, these false promises. I'm sure a purveyor of the prosperity gospel like Joel Osteen in Houston would say this is not manipulative; rather, it's God's will that you prosper. This is what God wants for you; he wants to bless you if you will simply believe his promises and do what he says. Therefore, I heard him on television in the aftermath of the hurricane in Houston saying to people, Don't worry if you lost your car in the floods. God’s going to give you a bigger car. Don't worry if you lost your home; God's got a better home in store for you. Just believe God. This was the comfort that he was offering – God's going to give them bigger and better, and therefore they can get through this hard time.
KEVIN HARRIS: We're familiar with that passage in 3 John – I would that you prosper and be in health even as your soul prospers. John wishes that. That's a wonderful greeting, but that's not a doctrine necessarily. A person may, for whatever reason as you pointed out, God may allow them to experience . . .
DR. CRAIG: Sure. The counter-examples in Scripture are just rife where people are not healthy, for example Paul suffered from this thorn in the flesh (whatever it was). He besought God three times to take this away. And he said God's answer was, My grace is sufficient for you because my power is made perfect in weakness.
KEVIN HARRIS: Timothy had stomach problems apparently.
DR. CRAIG: Yes, that's right. Paul advised him to take some wine for that. Of course there are other examples where people have not prospered financially even though they're sincere believers. So it's just a false doctrine.
KEVIN HARRIS: Here's how Christianity Today, which just came out, handles this in their article. They say:
Survey finds most Protestants believe God wants them to prosper financially. But views diverge on whether they must tithe [or give a tenth] to receive it.
For some Americans, dropping a check into the offering plate at church is a bit like having a Discover Card. [The card that pays you back].
Both offer cash-back bonus.
About a third of Protestant churchgoers say their congregation teaches that God will bless them if they donate money.
Two-thirds say God wants them to prosper. One in 4 say they have to do something for God to receive material blessings in return.
DR. CRAIG: Here's where I have so much problem with these sorts of surveys, and you find this over and over again. They're ambiguous, and how people respond will very much depend on how the question was worded. So, for example, churchgoers say that God will bless them if they donate money. I think that's true. The Scripture promises that – that this is part of a consistent Christian lifestyle to be giving of your money to the Lord's work and be supporting it. And God will bless you if you do that. But that's not to say that God's will for you is that you be a financial success or that you have great health all the time. These blessings could come in other ways.
Those are among the key findings of a new study on “prosperity gospel” beliefs from Nashville-based LifeWay Research, which surveyed 1,010 Americans who attend a Protestant or nondenominational church at least once a month.
DR. CRAIG: So it's important to see the limits of this survey. It's based on Protestant, or nondenominational, churches, and it only surveys about a thousand people so one shouldn't exaggerate the importance of a survey like this.
KEVIN HARRIS: He says, skipping down: “A significant group of churches seem to teach that donations trigger a financial response from God.”
A lot of people who are opposed to the so-called prosperity gospel say that you can't trigger God. You can’t manipulate God. But that is what's taught.
The belief that God gives financial rewards in exchange for offerings as a central part of the so-called prosperity gospel, which offers a “direct path to the good life,” as Duke professor Kate Bowler puts it. That belief is both controversial and fairly commonplace.
According to the article, here are some stats.
LifeWay Research found 38 percent of Protestant churchgoers agree with the statement, “My church teaches that if I give more money to my church and charities, God will bless me in return.” Fifty-seven percent disagree, including 40 percent who strongly disagree. Five percent are not sure.
Is that some of the ambiguity you are talking about?
DR. CRAIG: Yeah. That's a remarkable figure that seems to contradict some of the other things in the survey. Here it shows the overwhelming majority of people disagree (or don't agree) with the statement that, “My church teaches that if I give more money to my church and charities, God will bless me in return.” Well, I don't know about you, Kevin, but I don't have a problem with that statement. I think that if I give more money to my church and charities, God will bless me, I think. That's true. But that's not the prosperity gospel. It's too ambiguous.
KEVIN HARRIS: Yeah, and they could say, Well, in terms of the so-called prosperity gospel, I disagree, but at face value and biblically give and it should be given to you, shaking down, pressed together, and overflowing. And God will bless you and consider your needs.
“African-American (51%) and Hispanic churchgoers (43%) are more likely to agree than white churchgoers (32%).”
DR. CRAIG: I thought that was ironic – isn't it? – the people that you would think would agree with prosperity gospel (namely those who are prospering – these white churchgoers) are the ones least likely to believe in it, and it tends to be those who are less well-off that believe in the prosperity gospel probably because they want it.
KEVIN HARRIS: 69% agree with the statement, “God wants me to prosper financially.” 20% disagree. 10% are not sure.
DR. CRAIG: It makes you wonder, again, what is the source of the disagreement here because if only a third agree that God will bless me if I give more money to church and charities and yet 69% agree with the statement “God wants me to prosper financially” maybe it's that they don't agree that the realization of God's will for me financially comes about through my giving. God wants me to prosper but not necessarily to give. It makes you wonder if that's an excuse for not giving – that's the prosperity gospel without any sacrifice. [laughter]
KEVIN HARRIS: Very true! Let's skip it down here. They point out that sometimes people see that any blessing that you get are linked to action. So you have to do something.
Some churchgoers draw a direct tie from their actions to God’s blessings.
One in 4 (26%) agree with the statement: “To receive material blessings from God, I have to do something for God.” Seventy percent [that’s pretty hefty] disagree.
DR. CRAIG: Yes, exactly. So 70% of people think that you don't have to do something for God in order to receive some kind of material blessing from him.
KEVIN HARRIS: This is no surprise here; we just know it's just kind of the way it is – Pentecostal and Assemblies of God churchgoers are more inclined to believe in the prosperity doctrine. Lutherans, mainline, Baptists, and so forth – they're a lot less. On the last page here,
McConnell said evangelicals appear to be to the most eager to embrace a link between God’s financial blessings and their actions.
“A number of high-profile evangelical leaders have condemned the prosperity gospel,” he said. “But more than a few people in the pews have embraced it.”
So, is there a disparity here a little bit about what is taught in evangelicalism and what the people actually believe?
DR. CRAIG: It would seem so, though we can be thankful at least for those evangelical leaders who have spoken out against these purveyors of the health and wealth gospel.
KEVIN HARRIS: Bottom line as we end the podcast today, apparently just from looking at this, not only the ambiguity but maybe there's some confusion about giving. Another is about tithing – whether you should give a tenth. Whether that's New Testament or not. And offerings and so on. And what exactly it means for God to bless you for those things.
DR. CRAIG: Right. I think it is worth emphasizing that sacrificial giving is part of the disciplines of the Christ-centered life. A Christian disciple should not be simply hoarding material wealth and living for pleasure. He should be engaged in giving sacrificially to extend the Kingdom of God. Our wealth is meant to be used in the service of the Lord. That is important to emphasize. That emphasis is biblical, but that you do it in order to become rich – that is what is so pernicious and demonic.
 Total Running Time: 15:28 (Copyright © 2018 William Lane Craig)