The prosperity gospel, or “health and wealth” preaching, originated about 70 years ago in the United States. At various tent meetings connected to Voice of Healing and similar ministries, preachers like Oral Roberts and A. A. Allen started to teach things like financial sowing and reaping, the prosperous power of faith and that God wants us to be rich.
Their theology was influenced by Baptist theologian E. W. Kenyon, who in turn was highly influenced with ideas from New Thought. This American movement is quite similar to New Age and emphasizes, among other things, the power of the mind to influence physical reality by, for example, naming and claiming health and wealth before it actually has materialized.
Of course, a believer in the prosperity gospel will probably reject the brief historical review above and claim that they believe in these things because it is what the Bible teaches. And so, we must deal with the Biblical material. In this article, I will go through two passages that challenge prosperity teaching, and two that’s being used in its defense.
Bible Passages Contradicting Prosperity Theology
1 Timothy: not wanting to be rich
“Men of depraved mind who are devoid of the truth… regard godliness as a means of gain. Of course, godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, so we cannot carry anything out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.
Those who want to be rich, however, fall into temptation and become ensnared by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. By craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows.” (1 Tim 6:5-10)
Here, Paul explicitly states that faith is not a means of financial gain (Greek: porismos, which also can mean profit). Only godliness combined with contentment is gaining us, but in a spiritual sense. This contentment means that we should not want to be rich (v. 9), but appreciate life’s necessities: food and clothing.
I have never encountered a thoughtful response to this passage from any believer in prosperity. Most seem unaware of it, or they ignore it. It seems obvious to me that based on this passage, it is wrong to expect that an increased faith means increased financial blessings, or that we should seek to be rich and use our prayers and discipleship as means to fulfill that goal. To me, this passage alone refutes the prosperity gospel.
But there’s more.
James: Hoarding wealth in the last days
James writes in his epistle:
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you. (Jam 5:1-6)
It’s a common misconception that James only speaks to a certain, limited group of rich individuals, that kind of rich people that treat the poor exceptionally bad in contrast to all the ordinary good and kind folks who happen to be rich. But James’ point is precisely the opposite: he isn’t “only” addressing the rich who oppress the poor, he thinks that they all do! Contrary to many other letters in the New Testament, James’ epistle is directed to the whole church, not a local congregation (Jam 1:1).
What James is saying is that we shouldn’t be rich, because then we necessarily fail to pay the workers who do the hard work for us. In a world where the consumerist economy is dependent on sweatshop, cheap labor and even slavery in the Majority World, James’ words could not ring truer. To say that God wants us to be rich and enjoy luxury when Jesus’ own brother clearly states that such behavior only prepares us for “the day of slaughter”, is to read the Bible up-side-down.
Bible Passages Supposedly Promoting Prosperity Theology
Deuturonomy: Blessed baskets
The whole chapter of Deutoronomy 28 is often used in support of prosperity preaching. The Lord says to Israel:
Now if you faithfully obey the voice of the LORD your God and are careful to follow all His commandments I am giving you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. All these blessings will come upon you and overtake you, if you will obey the voice of the LORD your God:
You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country.
The fruit of your womb will be blessed, as well as the produce of your land and the offspring of your livestock— the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.
Your basket and kneading bowl will be blessed. (Deut 28:1-5)
He goes on to say that if they are disobedient they will be cursed and the opposite will happen, “Your basket and kneading bowl will be cursed” (v. 17), etc. This, believers in prosperity argue, means that godliness leads to full bellies and financial support from above, whereas disobedience to God’s word leads to poverty and misery.
While the text clearly states that obedience leads to blessings, believers in prosperity apply it in a very individualistic manner even though it is written to a whole people group. A nation prospering is not the same thing as individuals getting richer than other individuals. Furthermore, one of the commandments included in what needs to be obeyed is to never reject the request of a poor person (Deut 15:9). Are we really following that if we consume luxury products and strive towards being richer than others?
As Benny Hinn claimed to have realized not long ago, there’s a huge difference between understanding prosperity as a luxury, and understanding it as not being poor. The Bible definitely views poverty as a problem – but that’s not the same thing as wealth being something good. As Proverbs states it:
Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the bread that is my portion. (Prov 30:8)
Similarly, Deut 28 is not about everybody getting rich if they obey God, but God promising them to provide them with necessities in a dangerous world if they hold on to him.
2 Corinthians: Sowing and reaping
Finally, let’s turn to the most used Bible passage by believers in prosperity, the passage that you’ll regularly hear being quoted when it’s time for offering:
Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each one should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not out of regret or compulsion. For God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things, at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. (2 Cor 9:6-8)
It’s primarily based on this passage that prosperity preachers talk about the “principle” of sowing and reaping, promising that those who give to their ministry will receive even more money from God. They often portray offering as a transaction or an investment: you lose money now, but because God rejoices when he sees your gift, he will make sure you get the money back. I’ve even heard several stories of people taking loans from their bank to give to prosperity ministries, hoping that they will get it back by supernatural means.
And sure, God can do financial miracles for us at any moment. But we can’t control that. And the passage isn’t saying what prosperity preachers claim that it says.
For starters, the context is Paul asking the Corinthians to help the poor in Jerusalem. The collection is not for a rich man’s “ministry”. In fact, Paul is worried that the Corinthians due to their generosity will become poor themselves when helping others, so he points out in the previous chapter:
It is not our intention that others may be relieved while you are burdened, but that there may be equality. At the present time, your surplus will meet their need, so that in turn their surplus will meet your need. Then there will be equality. (2 Cor 8:13-14)
Paul does absolutely not in any way promote the idea that relatively poor people should donate money to a rich man possessing mansions and jet planes in order for God to help them. That’s promoting inequality, not the equality that Paul longs for.
Furthermore, throughout both chapters Paul switches between talking about financial and spiritual wealth, gifts and blessings. When he writes, concerning Jesus, “that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich”, (8:9) he’s not saying that we all will become literally financially rich. Some prosperity people have argued that, but then Paul’s longing for equality doesn’t make much sense (nor does the fact that several godly Christians have been financially poor, including Paul himself (Phil 4:12)). No, Paul is, of course, talking about how we become spiritually rich due to Jesus humbling himself, becoming human and dying for us on a cross. Similarly, to think that the “reaping” in 9:6 definitely refers to receiving money from God is to read the text in a very simplistic manner.
A lot more can be said on this topic, and we at Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace & Justice will do so in the future. Prosperity theology is one of the greatest challenges for Pentecostals to break free from a capitalist mindset and truly promote the economic justice the Bible urges us to promote.
As we have seen, there are huge biblical obstacles for prosperity theology to work, and the two most common proof texts for it are not at all sufficient to provide a basis for such a radical idea. God wants to bless us, yes. Sometimes he can even do so financially. But to think that he will always do so to all Christians, and that such gifts should be kept so we become rich rather than passed on to others who are in greater need, is to totally miss what the Biblical concept of blessing is all about.