How the Health and Wealth Gospel Perverts Our View of Evil and Suffering
Prosperity theology teaches that God will bless with material abundance and good health those who obey him and lay claim to his promises. “We don’t have to wait for God’s blessing in the life to come,” it promises. “He’ll send it to us here and now.”
This popular “name it and claim it” teaching—also called the health and wealth gospel—is not limited to certain congregations, but has worked its way into mainstream evangelical churches where it gets subtly woven into many Christians’ worldviews.
The author of Total Life Prosperity writes, “Biblical prosperity is the ability to be in control of every circumstance and situation that occurs in your life. No matter what happens, whether financial, social, physical, marital, spiritual, or emotional, this type of prosperity enables you to maintain control in every situation.”
The author of another book writes, “Poverty is so unnecessary. Loss is so painful.... I hate pain. Your pain can stop. I want you completely healed. That’s why I wrote this book.”
This false worldview breeds superficiality, seriously misrepresents the gospel, and sets people up to believe, when evil and suffering come to them, that God has been untrue to his promises.
Prosperity theology has poisoned the church and undermined our ability to deal with evil and suffering.
Some churches today have no place for pain. Those who say God has healed them get the microphone, while those who continue to suffer are shamed into silence or ushered out the back door.
Paul had a much different viewpoint. “It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but to suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29).
“In the world you will have tribulation,” Jesus pledged (John 16:33, esv). We should count on these promises as surely as we count on John 3:16.
The first story of the post-Fall world is Cain’s murder of Abel, a righteous man who pleased God and suffered as a direct result. Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and nearly all the prophets weren’t just righteous people who happened to suffer. Rather, they suffered because they were righteous.
This continues in the New Testament, with Jesus as the prime example. Jesus said John the Baptist was the greatest of men (see Luke 7:28). Soon thereafter evildoers imprisoned then murdered John and mockingly displayed his head on a platter (see Matthew 14:6–12). What could be more utterly contradictory to the health and wealth gospel?
The Holy Spirit had hardly descended before wicked men stoned Stephen to death. Herod Agrippa beheaded James; later, Nero beheaded Paul. Tradition says Peter and Andrew were crucified; Matthew died a martyr; a lance killed Thomas; and Pharisees threw James the son of Alpheus from the temple, then stoned him and dashed his brains out with a club. First Peter is an entire book devoted to Christians suffering injustices for the sake of Christ.
Larry Waters writes, “Blessing is promised and experienced, but suffering is never eliminated. In fact, the normal life of a person who follows the Lord involves both blessing and suffering.”
Even at its best, the ancient world offered a hard life. Christians routinely suffered.
They still do. Even Christians who don’t suffer persecution still pull weeds, experience pain in childbirth, become ill and die, just like everyone else.
The health and wealth gospel’s claims are so obviously opposed to countless biblical passages that it is difficult to imagine, apart from the deceptive powers of Satan, how so many Christians could actually believe them.
In some cases, pleasing God results in suffering.
God promises suffering to Christians in general and to those in particular who honor him. Consider one of the great, unclaimed promises of Scripture: “Anyone who wants to live all out for Christ is in for a lot of trouble; there’s no getting around it” (2 Timothy 3:12, msg).
The most notable early Christians “conquered [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Revelation 12:11, esv).
We overrate health and underrate holiness. If physical health is our primary value, then why endanger it for a higher cause? While earlier Christians risked their lives to serve those dying from the bubonic plague, prosperity theology tends to encourage believers to flee from threatening ministry opportunities so that they might cling to what they cannot preserve anyway.
Yes, we should steward wisely the bodies God has entrusted to us; yet he sometimes calls on us to sacrifice our preferences, sleep, careers, vacation plans, and health to say yes to him. Does this sound demanding? Christ’s words leave no room for equivocation:
Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles....
Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved....
Anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:17–18, 21–22, 38)
Emmanuel Ndikumana explained why he returned home to Burundi when the Hutu-Tutsi conflict threatened his life. In revenge for atrocities, Tutsis already had killed his Hutu father and grandfather. Emmanuel told me, “I do not condemn those who fled; I understand. But I felt I should not treasure safety. The only way for me to prove to my people that I believed the gospel was to return and suffer with them. If I fear death as unbelievers do, I have nothing to offer unbelievers. Only when you are free from the fear of death are you really free.”
We should see our suffering as God keeping his promises, not violating them.
“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12–13).
Suffering—whether from persecution, accidents, or illnesses—shouldn’t surprise us. God has promised it. One of the great tragedies about the health and wealth gospel is that it makes God seem like a liar. When people believe that God promises to keep them from suffering, God appears untrustworthy when suffering comes.
A woman who had based her life on the health and wealth worldview lay dying of cancer. She looked into a camera during an interview and said, “I’ve lost my faith.” She felt bitter that God had “broken his promises.” She correctly realized that the god she’d followed does not exist. She incorrectly concluded that the God of the Bible had let her down. He hadn’t; her church and its preachers had done that. God had never made the promises that she thought he’d broken.
When hard times come, people should lose their faith in false doctrine, not in God. In contrast to jewelry-flaunting televangelists, Paul said, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
If you are a Christian, God will deliver you from eternal suffering. And even now he will give you joyful foretastes of living in his presence. That’s his promise.
Christians should expect to suffer more, not less, since they suffer under the Fall and as followers of Christ.
If your goal is to avoid suffering in this life, then following Christ will not help you. Jesus himself said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.... If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:18, 20).
Josef Tson was once the best-known pastor in Romania. At a time when the Christian faith had become virtually illegal, he openly preached the gospel. Police threatened him repeatedly with imprisonment and arrest. In his sixties he studied at Oxford for his doctorate, writing a dissertation that became a book titled Suffering, Martyrdom, and Rewards in Heaven.
I first opened the Scriptures with Josef in 1988, with a group of theologians discussing eternal rewards. Twenty years later, writing this book, I remembered his stories and insights and called him again. Josef explained to me how the belief that God doesn’t want his people to suffer once corrupted the Romanian church. In the interests of self-preservation, he said, they failed to speak out against injustice, tyranny, and the idolatry of turning men into gods. He recalls joining the crowd on the streets and crying, “Glory to Stalin.”
God convicted Josef. As a pastor he refused to glorify communist leaders and started to speak out boldly for Christ. Interrogators threatened him with death every day for six months. Finally he told them, “Your supreme weapon is killing.
My supreme weapon is dying. My preaching will speak ten times louder after you kill me.”
Finally, in 1981, the Romanian government exiled him.
Medical and scientific advancements and spiritual claims of healing may convince us that suffering can and will be eliminated.
In an “it’s all about me” world, we don’t accept answers that entail our inconvenience, much less our suffering and death. We assume faith healing or medical breakthroughs can eliminate suffering and cure all diseases.
According to prosperity theology, we can declare our way out of diseases. Pastor Joel Osteen writes, “Maybe Alzheimer’s disease runs in your family genes, but don’t succumb to it. Instead, say every day, ‘My mind is alert. I have clarity of thought. I have a good memory. Every cell in my body is increasing and getting healthier.’ If you’ll rise up in your authority, you can be the one to put a stop to the negative things in your family line.... Start boldly declaring, ‘God is restoring health unto me. I am getting better every day in every way.’”
Of course we should seek to be healthy, both physically and mentally. But we miss out on a great deal if we fail to see God can also accomplish his purposes when we lose our health and he chooses not to heal us.
Julia was a powerful woman who flaunted her beauty and wealth. Her volatile temper and sharp tongue put people in their place and left a trail of damaged relationships.
Then, in her mid-forties, Julia was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. Despite treatment, the disease progressed. Doctors said she had less than a year to live.
As this unfolded, Julia underwent a remarkable change. Her diagnosis frightened her; she sought spiritual counsel, started reading the New Testament, confessed her sins, and gave her life to Jesus Christ. She wrote letters, made phone calls, invited people for coffee, and sought forgiveness from the many she’d hurt. She did all she could to restore relationships with family and others. She made peace with her ex-husband, grew close to her children, and developed a loving circle of Christian friends.
Several weeks before she died, Julia told her pastor that she considered her cancer to be a love gift from God. She believed the Lord had used her disease to draw her to himself. Julia said she would gladly exchange all her years of beauty, wealth, and influence for the two years of illness that taught her the unspeakable joy of loving Jesus and loving others.
In contrast to Julia, however, after a terminal diagnosis, many people spend all the remainder of their lives searching for a scientific cure or a spiritual healing, or both. I don’t, of course, fault sick people for seeking a cure! But, like Julia, we should focus our energies not simply on avoiding death, but on investing our time in preparing for it—getting right with God and ministering to others.
Let me share some bad news: I have a fatal disease. I’m terminal. I’m going to die. But the news gets even worse. You have the same fatal disease—mortality. You’re going to die too.
Nothing could be more obvious. Yet somehow we don’t take it to heart, do we?
We do a disservice to ourselves and to others when we turn the avoidance of suffering and death into an idol.
Even if we don’t end up dying from a particular disease or accident, all of us will die unless Christ comes within our lifetime. Have you noticed there are no 120-year-old faith healers?
It’s healthy to think about death and prepare ourselves for it. Well-meaning people say to the terminally ill, “You’re going to be fine,” and, “You must have faith for God to heal you.” This can divert the dying from the gift God gives them to spend their remaining days cultivating an eternal perspective, preparing to meet him, healing and building relationships, and redeeming the time to serve him wholeheartedly.
While resisting death and fighting for life can be virtuous, it can also degenerate into idolatry if staying alive here becomes more important than anything else. Paul had it right: “Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:20–21).
C. S. Lewis wrote about seeking safety from the harder edges of God’s love:
Of all arguments against love none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as “Careful! This might lead you to suffering.” To my nature, my temperament, yes. Not to my conscience. When I respond to that appeal I seem to myself to be a thousand miles away from Christ. If I am sure of anything I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities.
In the early church, committed Christian leaders routinely endured diseases and other suffering.
If God has healed you, rejoice! God can and does heal, and we should celebrate his mercy. I have often prayed for healing and sometimes witnessed it. But if you’ve prayed for healing and not received it, take heart—you’re in good company!
Paul had to leave his friend Trophimus behind because of sickness (see 2 Timothy 4:20). Another beloved friend, Epaphroditus, became gravely ill (see Philippians 2:25–30). Paul’s spiritual son Timothy had frequent stomach disorders, for which Paul told him to drink a little wine for medicinal purposes (see 1 Timothy 5:23). Those who claim anyone with enough faith will be healed must believe they have greater faith than Paul and his fellow missionaries.
Like many of God’s servants in the early church, Paul had neither constant health nor significant wealth. When soldiers took Paul in chains from his filthy Roman dungeon and beheaded him at the order of the opulent madman Nero, two representatives of humanity faced off, one of the best and one of the worst. One lived for prosperity on Earth. The other one now lives in prosperity in Heaven.
When I became insulin-dependent, I wondered who wanted me ill, Satan or God. The obvious answer? Satan. But I’m also convinced, as was Paul, that the ultimate answer is God. Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, saw God’s sovereignty, grace, and humbling purpose of his disease (see 2 Corinthians 12:7–10). I have clearly and repeatedly seen the same in my own life.
Upon learning of my disease, well-meaning people sometimes ask whether I have trusted God to heal me. I respond that when it first appeared in 1985, I and others did ask God to heal me. After a while, when God chose not to answer our prayers that way, I stopped asking. When I say this, I sometimes get looks of alarm and quotes about persevering in prayer and having faith as a mustard seed. I point out that Paul asked God to remove his disease three times, not a thousand times or a hundred or even a dozen. Just three times he asked—but God made it clear the affliction had come from his gracious hand. Paul had no desire to ask God to remove that which his Lord wanted to use to create in him greater Christlikeness and dependence upon God.
Of course, I’d rejoice if God suddenly healed my pancreas and I no longer needed to take insulin or deal with low and high blood sugar and the toll they take. I’d feel grateful if an ethical medical technology could heal my disease. Yet if I could snap my fingers and remove my disease—apart from some direct revelation from God that I should do so—I would not use that power. Why not? Because God has chosen not to.
Mental lapses that come from low blood sugar sometimes leave me with vivid memories of a confused state I suffered only fifteen minutes earlier. It’s as if I have Alzheimer’s, but a glass of orange juice cures me. For now, I suffer only temporary mental lapses; perhaps one day I will become like my friends who suffer from “permanent” dementia. Except, it’s not permanent at all! The work of Christ on our behalf guarantees for us, in the resurrection, never-ending health of mind and body.
All healing in this world is temporary. Resurrection healing will be permanent. For that our hearts should overflow with praise to our gracious God.
We should not demand or claim healing, but humbly ask for it, recognizing our unworthiness.
A centurion wanted Jesus to heal his beloved servant. Some Jewish elders told Jesus, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue” (Luke 7:4–5). The centurion, on the other hand, sent his friends to say, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed” (verses 6–7). The leaders argued that the centurion deserved Christ’s favor; the centurion argued the opposite. Although he wanted Christ to heal his servant, he didn’t think himself worthy of Christ’s intervention.
The centurion understood God’s power and believed that Christ could heal from a distance. Jesus said to the crowd, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” The centurion’s representatives returned to find the servant well (see verses 9–10).
This is not a formula for healing; it’s an example of humility. We deserve neither healing nor answered prayers. This understanding leaves no room for the bitterness and resentment that inevitably accompany a sense of entitlement.
“A man with leprosy came and knelt before [Jesus] and said, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean’” (Matthew 8:2). Jesus agreed and healed him. Note that the man did not think himself entitled to healing. Nor did he “claim” healing. Neither did he presume to take control of the situation. He humbly requested healing while leaving it to the will of Christ. We should do likewise.
Perspective and peace in facing crisis, not immunity to crisis, testify to God’s goodness, grace, and power.
Jesus backed away from people who only followed him to be fed and get healed and enjoy benefits any atheist would enjoy. He said to the crowd who followed him after a miraculous feeding, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill” (John 6:26).
Prosperity theology claims that God’s love causes him to withhold suffering from his children. The Bible, on the other hand, insists that God’s love empowers his children to live gracefully and gratefully with their suffering. We do not testify to the world that we suffer less; we testify that God empowers us to face suffering with perspective. Paul Tournier wrote, “If healing through faith is striking, how much more so are spiritual victories without healing.”
Hudson Taylor described his little daughter Gracie’s heartfelt prayer for a Chinese man they saw making an idol. After the man expressed no interest in the gospel, they stopped under a tree and sang a hymn together, then prayed. Taylor wrote, “The dear child went on and on, pleading that God would have mercy upon the poor Chinese and would strengthen her father to preach to them. I was never so moved by any prayer....Words fail to describe it.”
Gracie Taylor died just after turning eight. That same month in 1867, her father wrote to a friend in England, “Beloved Brother, the Lord has taken our sweet little Gracie to bloom in the purer atmosphere of His own presence. Our hearts bleed; but ‘Above the rest this note shall swell—Our Jesus has done all things well.’ The Gardener came and plucked a rose.”
Some would argue that evil and the Curse and Satan (or demons), not God, killed Gracie, and to say God takes a child is to accuse him of evil. But Hudson Taylor saw things differently. Like Job, who said God had taken Job’s children in death (1:18–22), Taylor believed that God reigns over all.
Asking God to always heal us and remove adversity is like asking him to afflict us with spiritual apathy.
Scripture’s prayers deal far more with spiritual growth than with physical health. Notice the focus of Paul’s prayer for the Colossians:
And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. (Colossians 1:10–12)
It’s striking what Paul doesn’t pray for: an elder’s bout with cancer, the flu bug going around Colossae, an Asia Minor recession, kidney stones, back problems, and good weather for the church picnic. Did they have these issues back then? Sure. They had diseases, discomforts, financial strains, and bad weather. And did they pray for them? No doubt. But Scripture’s recorded prayers seldom concern such things. They involve intercession for people’s love for God, knowledge of God, walk with God, and service to God.
We should pray for ourselves and our suffering loved ones, not simply try to pray away suffering. “God, please heal this cancer” is appropriate. “God, please use for your glory this cancer, so long as I have it” is equally appropriate.
When you pray only for healing, what are you praying to miss out on? Christlikeness? Shouldn’t we learn to pray that our suffering causes growth, that God will give us little glimpses of Heaven as we seek to endure, and that he would use us? I’ve mentioned Jim Harrell, a friend and ALS sufferer. Jim wrote me,
As I contemplate what it would be like to be healed of this disease, God has caused me to focus on my own sinfulness and human condition. If healed, I genuinely fear that within a year at the latest I would begin to forget what it was like to be in this condition. I would fall into the trap of allowing life’s distractions to divert me. While I realize these distractions are not bad in and of themselves, a clear and distinct advantage of suffering is its ability to sharply focus one on what’s important.... The wonder of being healed would be indescribable; however, I seriously question whether or not that would be the best for my soul. I don’t have an answer, but I do know my own heart.
Disease, suffering, and death are part of the Curse; one day Jesus will reverse the Curse... but not yet.
Health and wealth preachers often say, “There is healing in the Atonement.” Yes, Jesus came to reverse the Curse. Yes, Jesus will remove all disease, disability, and death from us—but in his time, not ours. He will rescue us from suffering when he returns to set up his kingdom or when we go to him in death.
He also promises that, one day, leopard and lion and lamb and goat will lie down together in safety (see Isaiah 11:6). If you fail to understand God’s timing, however, you might feel tempted to put them all in the same pen now.
The Bible’s first chapters have no curse. In the last chapter God promises, “No longer will there be any curse” (Revelation 22:3). Today we do not live in the first two chapters of the Bible or in the last two. We live in between, post-Eden but pre–New Earth. Life here and now, under the Curse, involves suffering.
To lay claim now to a complete healing or freedom from evil and suffering is to do an injustice to Scripture.
Prosperity theology encourages us to spend on ourselves the unprecedented wealth God has entrusted to us for relieving world suffering.
A reporter asked Mother Teresa, “When a baby dies alone in a Calcutta alley, where is God?” Her response? “God is there, suffering with that baby. The question really is where are you?”
As God laments over the suffering child, so should we. God’s heart is stirred to bring help to the needy—normally by providing his people with the means to help. The poverty-stricken Macedonian Christians considered it a privilege to give sacrificially to help the needy in Jerusalem (see 2 Corinthians 8:1–4). Paul called upon the Corinthians to give generously to the needy (see verses 13–14). And, he added, “You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion” (9:11).
God has entrusted us with wealth that we may voluntarily distribute to those who need it most. Never have so many been in need. Never has God showered such abundance on Christians. When will we learn that God doesn’t give us more to increase our standard of living, but to increase our standard of giving?
When we stand in his presence, Christ can show the scars on his hands and feet and say, “Here’s what I did about evil and suffering.” What will we say when he asks, “What did you do?”
Some Christian leaders think living comfortably gives them credibility, but the Bible equates good leadership with perseverance in suffering.
In health and wealth circles, leadership credibility is measured by jets, jewelry, and invitations to the White House. In contrast to the prosperity preachers of his day, whom he mockingly called “super-apostles,” Paul argued for his own credibility as God’s servant based on his “troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger” (2 Corinthians 6:4–5).
Our national or familial financial struggles bring hardship but also give us the opportunity to repent of past greed and foolishness. Neither Christian leaders nor lay believers should expect God to continue making us affluent. If we do not follow God when he prospers us, he may take away our national and personal prosperity to bring us to repentance and dependence (see Deuteronomy 28:47–48).
We should not embrace a theology of triumph and healing without a theology of the Cross and suffering.
Fear of suffering motivates us to distance ourselves from Christ and his people. But unless we are willing to be hated for Christ, we are not his disciples (see Luke 9:23–24). How can one hear he should “take up his cross daily” and then present the gospel as promising short-term deliverance from suffering? To take up our crosses daily means to “suffer daily.”
Paul understood this: “I die every day” (1 Corinthians 15:31). “I have been crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20). And he taught Timothy, “Do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:8).
Christ’s followers should resist attempts to solve the problem of evil by misrepresenting God and redefining the gospel.
I don’t like suffering. Nor am I called to seek it. But when we bend over backward to avoid it, and value comfort over commitment, we do not live as Christ’s disciples. It’s not our job to be popular. We exist solely to please an Audience of One.
In America, a sharp-looking businessman stands up at a luncheon to give his testimony: “Before I knew Christ, I had nothing. My business was in bankruptcy, my health was bad, I’d nearly lost my family. Then I accepted Christ. He took me out of bankruptcy, and my business has doubled its profits. My blood pressure has dropped to normal, and I feel great. Best of all, my wife and children have come back, and we’re a family again. God is good—praise the Lord!”
In China, a disheveled former university professor gives his testimony:
“Before I met Christ, I had everything. Then I came to Jesus as my Savior and Lord. As a result, I lost my post at the university, lost my house, and now work for a subsistence wage at a factory. My wife rejected me because of my conversion. She took my son away, and I haven’t seen him for five years. I live with constant pain from injuries when police dragged me away from our unregistered church service. But God is good, and I praise Him for His faithfulness.”
Both men are sincere Christians. One gives thanks because of what he’s gained. The other gives thanks despite what he’s lost.
We should give thanks for material blessings and restored families. The brother in China would enthusiastically thank God to have them again; indeed, he gives heartfelt thanks each day for the little he does have. And while the American brother certainly should give thanks, he and the rest of us must carefully sort out how much of what he has is part of the gospel and how much is not.
Any gospel that is more true in America than in China is not the true gospel.
 Creflo A. Dollar Jr., Total Life Prosperity (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1999), x.
 Mike Murdock, 7 Keys to 1000 Times More (Dallas: Wisdom International, 1998), 13.
 Larry J. Waters, “Missio Dei in the Book of Job,” Bibliotheca Sacra 166, no. 661 (January–March 2009): 32.
 Joel Osteen, Become a Better You (New York: Free Press, 2007), 45, 114.
 Adapted from Alice Gray, Treasures for Women Who Hope (Nashville: W Publishing, 2005), 51–52.
 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Books, 1960), 20.
 Paul Tournier, The Person Reborn (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 172.
 Hudson Taylor, letter to William Thomas Berger, August 29, 1867, quoted in Frederick Howard Taylor, Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission (London: China Inland Mission, 1927), 118.
 John G. Stackhouse Jr., Can God Be Trusted? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 67.
This article is an excerpt (Chapter 36) from Randy Alcorn’s book If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Evil and Suffering.