I sit in a school auditorium in Soweto, South Africa where a self-designated bishop preaches to his flock of thousands. He explains that one should donate generously to the church in order to succeed in life. “Look at the Scandinavian countries – they have church taxation there. Even the godless have to give to the work of God. That is why God has blessed those nations so richly.”
Millions, perhaps even hundreds of millions of Christians around the globe, subscribe to beliefs and practices often called the Prosperity Gospel. However, many churches and Christians vehemently oppose it as totally contrary to the Gospel as they see it. Approaches to wealth and success is among the most divisive issues for Christians worldwide.
On the Origins of the Prosperity Gospel
Christians have always had difficulties to relate to money. Even the Bible, both Hebrew and the New Testament, contains a variety of approaches. On one hand, wealth is a blessing from God, and on the other hand, many servants of God were not rich, and suffered for their calling. Jesus is the paramount example of this.
Today’s Prosperity Gospel has its roots in the Protestant reformation. The Geneva-based reformer Jean Calvin taught that God has decided beforehand, predestined, some to be saved and the others to go to hell. This teaching on the double predestination led his followers wondering who has been elected to salvation and who to damnation. Eventually, many would interpret success in life as an indication for election. This elevated the strive for wealth to a new level. In due time, some Protestants would begin to think that all true believers are blessed with earthly success.
When in America from the 1970s onwards, some televangelists combined the idea of success as a sign of true faith to donating money to their ministries as another measure of it, the Prosperity Gospel proper was born. The donations are like seeds that one sows in order to later reap God’s rich blessings. The sign of divine election had become an end in itself.
Gospel Business or Faith in God the Provider?
The Prosperity Gospel opened the flood gates of merciless exploitation of the believers and for some, televangelist became the synonym of a conman. The Prosperity Gospel is condemned as a heresy by the Catholic Church, the World Council of Churches and the Lausanne Movement alike. But is the Prosperity Gospel that evil and are people subscribing to it stupid or naïve?
Many prosperity preachers are conmen. However, when I familiarised myself to an openly Prosperity Gospel church, the Nigerian background Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) in my hometown, Helsinki, Finland, I had to review my preconceived ideas. The message of the pastor was that money is not the only measure of success. Also good family relations, friends and a good relationship to God are a part of God’s blessing. When discussing with the congregants, they appeared as anything but naïve. They would point out that they did not take the sermons on prosperity literally. They saw some of the message as hyperbole to boost the sense of hope among the mostly immigrant congregants. Many of them were facing many obstacles to success in their new environment. Additionally, they would point out three types of prosperity: the normal one (like that you get your normal salary on time – there is nothing miraculous in that), God’s miraculous blessings and wealth acquired by sinful means.
Copenhagen-based researcher Karen Lauterbach has analysed the nuanced and extensive debates in African charismatic Christianity on what kind of wealth is blessed and what is not. These debates are a sign that the Christians craving for material blessings regard these blessings and ways of getting them through the lens of morality. This kind of theologising around prosperity has not surrendered completely to the capitalist ethos of amassing riches at any cost.
In RCCG one could also see a continuum between African traditional views on God as the provider and Christian beliefs. Edinburgh scholar Naomi Haynes points out that in Africa, the Prosperity Gospel can be a modified version where African pre-Christian traditions transform the American-originated hyper-capitalist message into something new. A closer look at forms of the Prosperity Gospel in America might reveal similar new less greed-oriented versions. These new versions are more easily perceived as true Christian faith even by the theological opponents of the Prosperity Gospel.
So, is the Prosperity Gospel good or evil?
Before jumping into conclusions about the acceptability of the Prosperity Gospel, you need to clarify the following: What is the measure of good and evil for you – the practical consequences (to the weakest in the community), alignment with the Bible/your convictions, the motivation of the preacher or what? Thereafter, you need to be concrete – whose Prosperity Gospel do you assess? After that, get to know that message, its (cultural, religious, and historical) background and its consequences. Only after that, you will be able to pronounce any meaningful judgment on the Prosperity Gospel.