Posted by: Damon Whitsell | August 28, 2015

John Oliver is right: If you follow the ‘prosperity gospel,’ you’re doing Christianity wrong

john oliver

SOURCE: The Bible, Christianity’s principal sacred text, contains four gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — written several decades after the death of Jesus Christ. There are also a handful of gnostic gospels, including those attributed to Thomas, Mary, and Judas, that the early Christian patriarchs didn’t include in the canonical New Testament. There is no “prosperity gospel.”

Prosperity theology — the teaching that financial rewards will accrue to those who keep faith with God — isn’t a “gospel” in the traditional sense, in that it doesn’t recount the life and teachings of Jesus. And it isn’t a gospel in the looser sense, either. Properly understood, the prosperity gospel is a form of ecclesiastical fundraising — tax-free in the U.S., as John Oliver recently pointed out — and incidentally a way to bilk the poor, take food from the hungry, and help augment the number of homeless.

It’s an “aberrant theology that teaches God rewards faith — and hefty tithing — with financial blessings,” as Christianity Today puts it. It’s a form of idolatry, a shady heresy masquerading as divine human empowerment.

Prosperity theology started in the U.S. in the mid-1900s, a beguiling and heady mixture of America’s two great religions — Christianity and consumer-focused capitalism — but it has spread throughout Africa and Latin America. Like the lottery and gambling, its pain is concentrated among the poor, and the house always wins.

In his widely watched Last Week Tonight segment, Oliver focused on the human cost of prosperity hucksterism, which promises blessings if people send in seed (cash) and an envelope full of misdirected faith:

In its first week, Oliver’s “church,” Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption, raised thousands of dollars — he was coy about just how much. (Oliver strongly suggested that he will eventually donate all that money to Doctors Without Borders, a fellow tax-exempt organization.) He does an amazing job pointing out shortcomings in the U.S. tax code, but he doesn’t discuss the theological problems with prosperity theology.

There are lots of them.

It’s not that there’s no scriptural support for prosperity theology. As Matt Lewis noted in his flirtation with the prosperity gospel, adherents are fond of certain verses from the Book of Joshua. They also cherry-pick sentences from all four Gospels, the Books of Malachi and Isaiah, and Paul’s letters to various early Christian communities.

If you stretch and twist your neck at just the right angle, you can even trace a crooked line between early Christian teachings on tithing and modern for-profit “seed faith” advocacy, as University of Mt. Olive religion teacher Hollis Phelps does.

But if you preach the prosperity gospel, you’re simply doing Christianity wrong.

Even if you peruse the New Testament as literature, not sacred text, it’s obvious that Jesus Christ never wanted his followers to chase wealth, and certainly not with a supernatural boost from God.

You probably know some of the more famous stories: The rich ruler who could not bring himself to, as Jesus asked, “sell all that you have and distribute to the poor” (Luke 18:18-24); Jesus explaining how “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24); his exhortations that “you cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24) and “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:24). Paul is pretty clear when he preaches that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Timothy 6:10).

“Jesus was born poor, and he died poor,” writes religion columnist Cathleen Falsani in The Washington Post. “During his earthly tenure, he spoke time and again about the importance of spiritual wealth and health. When he talked about material wealth, it was usually part of a cautionary tale.”

It’s easy to understand the draw of the prosperity gospel. Who doesn’t want wealth and health? And how much more righteous if there is a higher calling to get rich, a way to put your capital-F faith in a holy stock market?

But it’s not consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus isn’t your hedge fund manager.

Now, Christianity isn’t supposed to make adherents miserable or wallow in suffering. But it also doesn’t promise happiness, per se. It’s aiming higher than that. Christianity aspires to joyfulness, which is something different and less fleeting than happiness. C.S. Lewis tries to explain the difference in Surprised by Joy — joy being the feeling he says he experienced in the moment of his conversion to Christianity:

It is…an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… It might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is…. [Surprised by Joy]

Money can’t buy happiness, and it certainly can’t purchase joy. It can buy pleasure, however, and in fact we get pleasure from buying things (though the chemical that brings us pleasure, dopamine, also feeds addiction, so). That’s great for the American economy. The teachings of Jesus Christ would have you do something more selfless with your money — giving it to the poor, probably.

I won’t presume to speak for God, but I can tell you that Creflo Dollar isn’t poor. Nor are Joel and Victoria Osteen, T.D. Jakes, Pat Robertson, Robert Tilton, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, or any of the other evangelists spreading the prosperity gospel on TV and in their large churches.

I’ll leave the casting of stones (mostly) to John Oliver. And I’ll leave it to the prosperity hucksters to figure out how they’re going to get their latter-day camels (luxury private jets) through the eye of that needle.

But I will strongly suggest that prosperity gospel evangelists find a religious tradition that more closely aligns with their goals. And if they can’t find one, make one up. As Oliver notes, the IRS won’t treat them any differently.



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