The Prosperity Gospel in Uncertain Times

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Slate just published this article on the prosperity gospel. The article is of uneven quality (postmillenialism tied to prosperity gospel?), but his central point, that the prosperity gospel continues to attract followers in the midst of economic recession, is significant.

The prosperity gospel is self-validating and non-falsifiable. Consider the case of the fictional (though realistic) Mr. Kilpatrick. Mr. Kilpatrick has been struggling to break through into management at his office. He happens to attend a service at Lakewood Church where he hears Joel Osteen declare that “those same winds that are trying to defeat you, God can cause to change direction and be the very winds that propel you into the destiny He has in store for you!” Mr. Kilpatrick realizes that he just needs to “sow into God’s kingdom” (tithe and purchase materials from Joel Osteen ministries) and God will fulfill His covenant by financially blessing him. Mr. Kilpatrick digs into his pocket and gives. Lo and behold, several months later Mr. Kilpatrick gets a promotion! Clearly God had rewarded Mr. Kilpatrick for giving. Now Mr. Kilpatrick can buy a new home (with an adjustable rate mortgage), get a nice, new car, and give even more generously to Joel Osteen’s ministry.

Mr. Kilpatrick’s financial success validated Osteen’s ministry. But if the opposite had happened to Mr. Kilpatrick, if his financial situation had worsened, it would not have invalidated the prosperity gospel. Mr. Kilpatrick’s financial failures were a result of his lack of faith or his insufficient giving. If only Mr. Kilpatrick had trusted God a little more or given more than he would have been rewarded. The prosperity gospel is unfalsifiable since circumstances are always interpreted as proof of its validity.

The unfalsifiable and self-validating nature of the prosperity gospel, at best, undermines its followers pursuit of sanctification. A believer in the prosperity gospel who is financially prosperous will be tempted to ignore personal sin since the prosperity gospel replaces holiness with wealth as the standard of God’s pleasure. Alternatively, a prosperity-follower who is fiscally impoverished may spiritually castrate themselves as they seek for the sin in their lives that has caused God to frown upon them.

Ultimately, as John Piper has eloquently noted, the prosperity gospel runs counter to the true gospel.

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