ANTONIO SPADARO SJ. The prosperity gospel-dangerous and different

Aug 29, 2018

SCOTT MORRISON is described as a devout Christian who worships at Shirelive, an American style Pentecostal Church in Sydney.. He formerly belonged to Hillsong. An essential feature of the ‘prosperity gospel’ of Pentecostalists is that prosperity, success and good health is a sign of God’s favour. And the lack of faith leads to poverty and sickness. On this reckoning God does not care for the poor,the sick and refugees.

In the article below Antonio Spadaro describes the origin and spread of the prosperity gospel. These are extracts from an article in La Civilta Cattolica of 18 July 2018. The full article can be found here.  John Menadue

The Prosperity Gospel:  Dangerous and Different.

The “prosperity gospel” is a well-known theological current emerging from the neo-Pentecostal evangelical movements. At its heart is the belief that God wants his followers to have a prosperous life, that is, to be rich, healthy and happy. This type of Christianity places the well-being of the believer at the centre of prayer, and turns God the Creator into someone who makes the thoughts and desires of believers come true.

The prosperity gospel mechanically translates this vision into religious terms, as though opulence and well-being were the true signs of divine delight to be conquered magically by faith …

The prosperity gospel is used as a theological justification for economic neo-liberalism.

Spread around the world

The prosperity gospel has spread not only in the United States where it was born, but also in Africa, especially Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and South Africa. This “gospel” is spread through mega churches and a strong presence in the main media. It is sustained by its powerful influence over political life.

The origins of the movement and the American Dream

If we look for the origins of these theological currents, we find them in the United States where the majority of those doing research into the American religious phenomenology trace them to the New York Pastor Esek William Kenyon (1867-1948). He maintained that through the power of faith you can change what is concrete and real. A direct conclusion of this belief is that faith can lead to riches, health and well-being, while lack of faith leads to poverty, sickness and unhappiness.

Names such as Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, Benny Hinn, Robert Tilton, Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer and others have increased their popularity and wealth thanks to their focus on knowing this gospel, emphasizing it and pushing it to its limits.

Economic well-being and health

The pillars of the prosperity gospel are essentially two: economic well-being and health. The Holy Spirit is limited to a power placed at the service of individual well-being. Jesus Christ has abandoned his role as Lord and transformed into being a debtor to each one of his words. The Father is reduced to being “a sort of cosmic bellhop that responds to the needs and desires of his creatures.”[9]

At the same time, they teach that, being a matter of a “confession of faith,” the followers are responsible with their words for whatever happens to them, be they blessings or curses, economically or physically, in terms of generation or spirituality…

The theme of health has a key role in the prosperity gospel. In these doctrines, it is one’s own mind that has to concentrate on the supposed biblical laws, which then produce the desired power through the tongue. There is the belief, for example, that a sick person, without turning to a doctor, can be healed by concentrating and pronouncing in the present or past tense biblical phrases or prayers inspired by the Scriptures. One of the phrases used in this way is “By the wounds of Christ I have already been healed.” These would be the words, in their opinion, that could unblock the divine benediction that would heal them in that very moment.

Obviously, sad and disastrous events, including natural ones, or tragedies such as those of migrants and others in similar situations do not offer winning narratives that help to keep the faithful tied to the thought of the prosperity gospel. This is why there can be a lack of empathy and solidarity in these cases from its followers. There can be no compassion for those who are not prosperous, for clearly they have not followed the rules and thus live in failure and are not loved by God

The passages are interpreted in such a way as to serve a purpose. For example, in the book God’s Will is Prosperity the preacher Gloria Copeland writes, referring to the donations for ministries such as hers: “Give a dollar for love of the gospel and you’ll get one hundred; give ten dollars and you’ll get a thousand as a gift. Give one airplane and receive one hundred times the value of the airplane. Give one car and the return would furnish you a lifetime of cars. In short, Mark 10:30 is a very good deal.”[12]

When all is said and done, the spiritual principle of the seed and the harvest, in this evangelical interpretation that takes it completely out of context, states that giving is above all an economic act that is measured in terms of return on investment. What is forgotten, though, is found immediately after Galatians 6:7, in verse 8, where Paul writes: “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.”

Pragmatism and the pride of success

Generally, the fact that there are riches and material benefits fall once again on the exclusive responsibility of the believer, and consequently so too their poverty or lack of goods. Material victory places the believer in a position of pride due to the power of their “faith.” On the contrary, poverty hits them with a blow that is unbearable for two reasons: first, the person thinks their faith is unable to move the providential hands of God; second, their miserable situation is a divine imposition, a relentless punishment to be accepted in submission.

A theology of the American Dream?

In truth, one of the serious problems that the prosperity gospel brings is its perverse effect on the poor. In fact, it not only exasperates individualism and knocks down the sense of solidarity, but it pushes people to adopt a miracle-cantered outlook, because faith alone – not social or political commitment – can procure prosperity. So the risk is that the poor who are fascinated by this pseudo-Gospel remain dazzled in a socio-political emptiness that easily allows other forces to shape their world, making them innocuous and defenceless. The prosperity gospel is not a cause of real change, a fundamental aspect of the vision that is innate to the social doctrine of the Church.

While Max Weber spoke of the relationship between Protestantism and capitalism in the context of evangelical austerity, the prosperity gospel theologians spread the idea of riches in proportional relation to personal faith. Without any social sense, and framed within an experience of individual benefit, this conception knowingly or unknowingly gives an extremist rereading of Calvinistic theologies of predestination. .. Hence, in the Protestant sphere, many who follow traditional theology look with distrust and even with harsh criticism at the progress of these theologies, which many associate with “new age” and expressions of magic mysticism.

Salvation is not a theology of prosperity

Since the beginning of his pontificate Francis has been aware of the “different gospel” of prosperity theology and, criticizing it, has applied the classical social doctrine of the Church.

Speaking to bishops, in Korea in August 2014, Francis quoted Paul (1 Cor 11:17) and James (2:1-7) who rebuked the Churches that were living in such a way as to make the poor feel unwelcome. “This is a prosperity temptation,” Francis commented. And he went on: “Be careful, because yours is a Church which is prospering, a great missionary Church, a great Church. The devil must not be allowed to sow these weeds, this temptation to remove the poor from the very prophetic structure of the Church and to make you become an affluent Church for the affluent, a Church of the well-to-do – perhaps not to the point of developing a ‘theology of prosperity’ – but a Church of mediocrity.”

The vision of faith offered by the prosperity gospel is in clear contradiction to the concept of a humanity marked by sin with a need for eschatological salvation, tied to Jesus Christ as saviour and not to the success of its own works. It embodies a peculiar form of Pelagianism against which Francis has asked us to be alert. As he wrote in his apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, there are Christians who are committed to following the path of “justification by their own efforts, the worship of the human will and their own abilities. The result is a self-centred and elitist complacency, bereft of true love. This finds expression in a variety of apparently unconnected ways of thinking and acting,” among them “an excessive concern with programs of self-help and personal fulfilment” (No. 57).

The prosperity gospel is a far cry from the invitation of St. Paul in 2 Cor 8:9-15: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (8:9). And it is also a far cry from the positive and enlightening prophecy of the American Dream that has inspired many. The prosperity gospel is far from the “missionary dream” of the American pioneers, and further still from the message of preachers like Martin Luther King and the social, inclusive and revolutionary content of his memorable talk: “I have a dream.”


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