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." (1)
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." (2)
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.
The question isn’t whether God sometimes heals, or whether we should pray for healing. Of course He does, and of course we should. But after praying three times to be healed of a serious physical ailment, Paul trusted in God’s grace to use his suffering for His glory (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). When we make God appear to always promise short-term healing here and now, we misrepresent Him.
Tragically, the prosperity gospel 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." (3)
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.
Peter wrote, “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.
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.
Check out this great animated video with strong words full of truth from John Piper about the prosperity gospel:
1 Creflo A. Dollar Jr., Total Life Prosperity (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1999), x.
2 Mike Murdock, 7 Keys to 1000 Times More (Dallas: Wisdom International, 1998), 13.
3 Larry J. Waters, “Missio Dei in the Book of Job,” Bibliotheca Sacra 166, no. 661 (January–March 2009): 32.
Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash
Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries.