The Gods of the Prosperity Gospel
Unmasking American Idols in Africa
ABSTRACT: The so-called prosperity gospel is a perversion of the biblical gospel, according to which Jesus is a means to the blessings of health, wealth, and power. The preachers of this “gospel” may quote God’s word, but twist it to support their false theology. By taking passages out of context, applying a naively literal hermeneutic, embracing an over-realized eschatology, and misapplying their texts, prosperity preachers distort the Scriptures and exploit those who follow them. The best way to challenge prosperity theology — and protect ourselves from it — is to teach Christ-centered biblical theology, which reorients our worldview and desires to cherish Jesus above all.
“Prosperity is God’s will [and] God’s best for you. 3 John 1:2.”1
“In honor of the sacrifice of Jesus, I am enjoying blood money.”
I read these words on a flyer for a local conference themed “Prosperity Conference: Wealth Transfer.” Since it was on Facebook, I scrolled through the comments and saw that several people had written “Amen,” along with comments such as “I connect myself to this program even though I will not be present in Jesus’ name.” The flyer had hundreds of likes and hearts.
I live in Cameroon, where the prosperity gospel cannot be escaped. I recently preached a sermon on God’s sovereignty in salvation at a Baptist conference. Immediately after I stepped down from the pulpit, I heard the next speaker shout, “God’s plan for you is success!” I’m hoping someone saw the inconsistency.
Recently, I visited a family to share the gospel. When I told them I had a fever and could not stay long, they all exclaimed, “A man of God, sick?” A few weeks later, a woman asked me why I returned to Cameroon from the United States. I informed her that I came back to preach and teach the old and true gospel of Jesus because there were many false gospels being preached. She asked what gospels I had in mind. I immediately sensed that she was not comfortable, but carefully and clearly, I said that there are false gospels that promise riches, health, and well-being in this life and teach that Jesus is the means to those ends. To this, she made what for her was a solid argument. “Jesus became poor so that we might become rich. We are not meant to suffer. God has not destined us for anything but riches and health. Suffering, pain, and poverty are not the portion of a true believer because Jesus died to purchase those things for us.”
I have many more stories like this. There are more than I can recount because there is nowhere to hide in West Africa from the American idols of health and wealth. They have infiltrated even orthodox churches. Preachers who are faithfully teaching the gospel cannot reach into their members’ homes and shut off the televisions that constantly broadcast healing and miracle crusades.
My aim is to unmask the prosperity gospel, particularly in its distortion of Scripture, for the deceitful and hopeless message that it is, hoping that God might use these words to protect and guide some on the narrow path away from the cancerous teachings.2 Africa needs cleansing from the foreign deities from the West, the land where health, wealth, and might have become gods.
What Is It?
Collins English Dictionary states that prosperity gospel is “a modern version or, according to some, perversion of the gospel according to which the full blessings of God available to those who approach Him in faith and obedience include wealth, health, and power.”
Although the definition in Collins is good, I would make some modifications. The dictionary mentions those who approach God in faith and obedience as the recipients of his blessings, but in the versions of prosperity teaching in Africa, obedience is unheard of. Those preachers rarely, if ever, preach against sin. Against unbelief? Yes. Only because it is a way for them to excuse their inability to come through with the miracles, wealth, health, and power that they promise. When they, like waterless clouds (Jude 1:12), fail to deliver, they blame it on others’ lack of faith. Thus, faith for them is a way to excuse their inability. Based on my interactions with prosperity theology advocates and teachers of this sacrilege, I have reworked the definition in Collins:
The prosperity gospel is an idolatrous perversion of the gospel according to which Jesus is a means to God’s full blessings, primarily of wealth, health, and might, now available to those who trust and obey certain faith principles prescribed by a particular man of God.
Although adherents may not agree that they pervert the gospel, you do not need a theology degree to know that prosperity theology is a great divergence from biblical truth. However, careful Bible interpretation that takes context seriously will help us identify the errors of the these preachers better. Before we look at some of the ways they wrongly interpret the Scriptures, let us ask why the prosperity preachers misinterpret them.
Why Is It?
One of the most dangerous parts about the “insidious disease”3 of prosperity theology is its appeal to Scripture. Prosperity teachers have to dress their teaching in scripturally fine clothing to keep followers from detecting its faults. They represent well Irenaeus’s depiction of error:
Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than the truth itself.4
Prosperity preachers use God’s word, but only for their own ends. Because of their lack of training or willful rejection of the truth, they distort God’s word to exploit others.5
These preachers twist Scriptures in order to twist the arms of their followers for money. They distort to extort. Why would anyone listen to preachers who exploit others, or why would anyone preach to exploit? Covetousness. Prosperity preachers appeal to people’s lustful desires. They seduce before they swindle. They know that people have an insatiable desire for stuff, health, power. They themselves do. So that is what they offer, and that is what they amass for themselves, leaving their followers with wishful cravings for the same.
This offer is especially appealing to people in the majority world, most of whom live in abject poverty. But it also appeals to the wealthy West. Who does not want to be wealthy, healthy, and mighty? Or in the case of Westerners, wealthier, healthier, and mightier? We all naturally love these. We cherish them. Why not? They give security. So if Jesus will get them for me, I can accept him.
We are all, to some extent, attracted to the prosperity gospel. It is, in Gordon Fee’s words, “a dangerous twisting of God’s truth, a message which can appeal ultimately only to human fallenness.”6 Fallenness? That is in all of us. We easily turn away from God in anger when he allows suffering into our lives and takes away the things we love. Covetousness is a human problem. We all wrestle with it to some extent, which means we must be gentle in correcting those who have been deceived.
But Paul charges believers to kill “covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). Covetousness, he says, is earthly, and it is idolatry. It is idolatry because it dethrones God and his Christ in the heart and crowns material things. Goods replace God. When wealth, health, and might become gods, God becomes the means to the gods — the hallmark of the prosperity theology. But such a pursuit of health only brings death; wealth, woes; and might, misery.7
In the New Testament, covetousness “always appears to involve human greed that leads to exploiting others.”8
False prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed [covetousness] they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. (2 Peter 2:1–3, emphasis added)
They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed [covetousness]. Accursed children! Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing. (2 Peter 2:14–15, emphasis added)
When the passion for material things becomes god, God and his word become means. The movement dethrones Jesus so that his word becomes merely a manual for mammon, a guide to gold, a footpath to fitness, and a means to might. Ministry becomes business. Preachers “see preaching as a way to make money. In fact, the Greek word translated exploit could be used to refer to a business transaction, as it is in James 4:13, which talks about people discussing business plans. For the false teachers, ministry has become a business aimed at satisfying their covetousness.”9 The idolatrous and insatiable love for things leads to gross distortions of God’s word. Let us look at four examples.
Error 1: Taken Out of Context
One of the first slogans you learn in seminary is “Context is king.” It is impossible to grasp the true meaning of a statement without knowing the context. Without the literary context, there is no meaning at all; all we have are possible meanings. This is fertile soil for false teachers because it allows them to put forth whatever message they think their audience wants to hear. The worst enemy to false interpretation is context. Andy Naselli rightly asserts about context, “Keeping the multiple layers of the literary context in mind will help you interpret responsibly. Otherwise, you could be guilty of laughable eisegesis.”10 Eisegesis, reading into the text, is the corrupting gift all prosperity preachers share. Here are a few common examples.
“You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2b). Prosperity preachers use this verse to teach their followers to “name it and claim it.” When you read this verse properly in context, you realize that James is not primarily instructing us how to pray but condemning our covetousness (James 4:1–4).
“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). Prosperity preachers use this verse to promise their followers greater rewards if they give greater amounts of money to the preacher. The next verses in context explain that the sowing is “doing good” and what we reap for doing good is “eternal life” (Galatians 6:8–9). The verse has nothing to do with money.
“Christ redeemed us . . . so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles” (Galatians 3:13a, 14a). Prosperity preachers use this verse to teach that God will give us the material blessings he promised to Abraham. If you read the entire verse, however, you find that Paul explains what he means by the blessing of Abraham. It is “the promised Spirit” (Galatians 3:14b).
“Though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Obviously, prosperity preachers interpret this verse to be about money. But what does Paul mean? Just a few verses before, he talks about the Macedonian churches being in “extreme poverty.” They are not rich, but Paul says they have a “wealth of generosity” (2 Corinthians 8:2).
The examples could go on and on because prosperity preachers almost always ignore the context of what they are preaching. I once attended a prosperity church and listened to a sermon titled “Your Lost Glory.” The prophetess preached from Luke 15:8, which says, “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it?” To my dismay, she came on stage with a broom and said we needed to sweep our spiritual houses and find our lost glory. She named the lost glory of marriage, education, and visas. Although I was shocked by such a misreading of God’s word, I was far more surprised by the excitement in the crowd and the number of people falling down under her “anointing.” If you read the context of this verse, you find that Jesus is giving a parable to describe heaven’s joy “over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10). Sadly, the preaching that evening did not produce any heavenly joy. No one was urged to repent; they were taught only to covet.
One easy way to protect yourself and others from false teaching is to read the literary context. That is all. Read the whole chapter of Luke. Read the whole book of Luke. Know what the author is trying to communicate so that you will not be so easily deceived.
Error 2: Too Literal
Another bad method of interpretation in the prosperity gospel movement is reading figurative language in Scripture as literal. You often hear followers say, for example, “Jesus died so we can live abundant lives.”
Jesus did say, “I came so that they may have life and have it in abundance” (John 10:10 CSB). In context, though, Jesus is contrasting himself with false teachers who are like a thief who “comes only to steal and to kill and destroy.” If we take this literally, Jesus is saying that, instead of taking from our homes and treasuries, he will fill them with abundance. However, should we read this verse literally? Is it possible Jesus is using figurative language to communicate spiritual truth?
Right before this statement, in verse 9, Jesus says, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.” Then he says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Jesus is clearly using figurative language in verse 9, since he is not a literal door. The language of verse 9 suggests that we continue reading the entire passage as figurative, in which case the “thief” and “life in abundance” are also figurative. This interpretation is confirmed by the author himself, John, who says Jesus is speaking metaphorically: “This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them” (John 10:6). It is safe, therefore, to conclude that “life in abundance” is not literal. If so, what does “I came so that they may have life and have it in abundance” mean?
When we think of the context, we not only think of the verses surrounding the verse but also the whole book. How does John use the word life throughout the entire Gospel? Life in the book of John almost always refers to eternal life. So we must consider the possibility that the life Jesus is describing is not present but future. In John 10:10, “abundant life” is rich imagery for the eternal life of the kingdom, as depicted in other portions of Scripture (cf. Isaiah 35:1–10; 55:12–13; 65:17–25; Micah 4:1–5; Zechariah 14:1–21). Bruce Milne notes that this abundant life “is glimpsed briefly in Eden, and seen in vision in Revelation as a city coming down from God, the holy dwelling of God with his people. It is the life for which we were created.”11
Error 3: The Future Now
Book titles like Your Best Life Now,12 which sell millions of copies worldwide, reveal another major misinterpretation. Prosperity preachers ignore the concept of the “already but not yet.” For them, there are no future promises. The kingdom of heaven has already come in its fullness. So, we can have perfect health now. We can enjoy suffering-free lives now. Some prosperity preachers even teach that we will not die if we have faith. “Death is not your portion,” they declare. It is very awkward when these preachers die.
In the Old Testament, the prophets predicted the fulfillment of many great promises at the coming of Christ. In the New Testament, we discover that some of these promises are fulfilled at Jesus’s first coming, while others will be fulfilled when he comes again. Prosperity preachers’ failure to grasp this concept leads to drawing too much of the future into the present.
Error 4: Misapplication
After we interpret the meaning of a text of Scripture, we should apply it to our lives. If a prosperity preacher makes a baby step toward proper interpretation of a text’s meaning, he will likely fail woefully in the application of it, a failure that says he never really properly interpreted.
A prime example is the application of the phrase “Touch not my anointed” (1 Chronicles 16:22; Psalm 105:15).13 Prosperity preachers teach that you cannot criticize or speak against them, the “men of God,” because God says, “Touch not my anointed.” That is their application of the text, and that is how they elevate themselves. This is one way the “man of God” becomes more important than Christ himself. This is how they even escape jail. A Nigerian prosperity preacher recently confessed to his congregation that he committed adultery, because his wife did the same. But there were no ecclesiastical or legal consequences because church members fear touching the “anointed man of God.”14 In these churches, it is more tolerable to speak blasphemously about Christ than to speak a word against the man of God. Because the anointed supposedly cannot and should never be questioned or touched, followers never question their teaching.
Robert Bowman examines the rise of the common usage of this language “touch not my anointed,” astutely showing that the phrase forbids killing the anointed, but it does not forbid criticizing and scrutinizing their lives and teaching.15 Prosperity preachers wrongly apply this text in order to control their congregants. Their application is wrong because it clearly contradicts Scripture, which commands us to test every spirit, every teaching, and false teachers (1 John 4:1).
Christ-Centered Biblical Theology
Given that the American idols of health, wealth, and power — or the prosperity gospel — thrive on the misinterpretation of Scripture, the only way to challenge it is with sound, Christ-centered biblical theology. Since prosperity preachers hold to the authority of Scripture, only Scripture can and should refute the misuse of Scripture.16 Christ-centered biblical theology has at least three benefits for addressing this movement.
First, a Christ-centered interpretation will make it plain that the Bible is not first and foremost about us but Christ. If the Scriptures are about him (John 5:39; Luke 24:44), he must be central in our Bible meditation, preaching, and teaching. This Christ-centered approach will make it plain that the gospel is not about health, wealth, and might; rather, God in Christ himself is the good news. Jesus died to bring us to God.17
Second, a Christ-centered biblical theology transforms our worldview so that we pray and long for health, wealth, and might only if they serve our joy in Christ and advance the kingdom of Christ. As we grow in our knowledge of Christ and his word, we learn how to patiently endure suffering for the glory of God and the good of others.
Third, biblical theology provides the understanding that health, wealth, and power are primarily reserved for us in glory, at which point God, and not his blessings, will be central in our affections. God will give us everything only after he becomes everything to us.
I recently hosted a conference in Cameroon on the kingdom of God. We taught what the whole Bible teaches on the kingdom of God from Genesis to Revelation. At the end of this conference, one attendee shared with me how convicted he was by the teaching. He repented of his belief in prosperity theology and even made a public confession to his church that he had misled them. A public confession like this is almost unheard of in our shame-based culture, but Christ-centered biblical theology empowered him to be countercultural.
As we seek to help those being swept away by false teaching, let us correct with gentleness and patience (2 Timothy 2:24–25). Let us correct false methods of interpretation. Let us open up the whole Bible to them so that they see how it is all about Christ and God’s great plan of redemption. May we also watch over ourselves, lest we end up in the same ditch. Jesus said, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).
Third John 1:2 is a foundational passage for the health-and-wealth movement. Gordon Fee accurately tackles and challenges prosperity misreading of it when he states, “To extend John’s wish for Gaius to refer to financial and material prosperity for all Christians of all times is totally foreign to the text. John neither intended that, nor could Gaius have so understood it. Thus it cannot be the ‘plain meaning’ of the text. We might rightly learn from this text to pray for our brothers and sisters that ‘all will go well with them,’ but to argue from the text that God wills our financial prosperity is to abuse the text, not use it” (The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospels [Vancouver, CA: Regent College, 1985], 10). ↩
My article mainly surveys the ways the prosperity preachers distort Scripture. For more and varied approaches to addressing this falsehood, see Sandra L. Barnes, Live Long and Prosper: How Black Megachurches Address HIV/AIDS and Poverty in the Age of Prosperity Theology (New York: Fordham University, 2012); Ken Mbugua et al., Prosperity? Seeking the True Gospel (Plateau State, Nigeria: Africa Christian Textbooks, 2016); A.J. Swoboda, “Posterity or Prosperity? Critiquing and Refiguring Prosperity Theologies in an Ecological Age,” Pneuma 37, no. 3 (2015): 394–411. ↩
Irenaeus, “Against Heresies,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature, 1885), 315. I first read the quotation from Irenaeus in Dan R. McConnell, A Different Gospel (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988), 1. ↩
N.T. Wright comments on Colossians 3:5, “In turning from the source of life, those who follow other paths are actually pursuing death” (Colossians and Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 12, TNTC [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1986], 139). F.F. Bruce adds that “the sins which precede covetousness in the catalogue appear regularly in such lists, and certainly they were sins against which converts from paganism needed to be put on their guard; but covetousness is the more dangerous because it may assume so many respectable forms” (Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984], 144). ↩
Andrew David Naselli, How to Understand and Apply the New Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2017), 190. ↩
Joel Osteen, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential, rev. ed. (New York: FaithWords, 2015). ↩
It is worth noting that this phrase does not even refer to the so-called men of God. Costi Hinn addresses this subject well in his book God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel: How Truth Overwhelms a Life Built on Lies (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019). ↩
Joshua Iginla, the senior pastor of Champions Royal Assembly, Kubwa, Abuja, said to his congregation, “When my wife cheated and had an ‘unholy’ child, I covered her up but when mine happened, she started blackmailing me,” indicating that he came forward mainly because his wife did not cover him up. Moreover, he also had a child from his adulterous relationship, making it impossible to shield from the public eye. See Valerie Oke, “Shocking!!! Popular Abuja Pastor Openly Confesses to Cheating on Wife and Having ‘Unholy Child,’” Information Nigeria, March 4, 2019, accessed October 3, 2019; “I and My Wife Committed Adultery, Abuja Pastor Joshua Iginla Confesses,” accessed October 3, 2019. ↩
For example, read the testimony of Costi Hinn, a nephew to Benny Hinn, which describes how he was overwhelmed by truth when the correct interpretation of Scripture was put right in front of his eyes. In chapter 8, “Transformed by Truth,” he narrates the power of truth in transforming one who was swimming in the ocean of the prosperity gospel (God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel, 131–48). See also Costi W. Hinn and Anthony G. Wood, Defining Deception: Freeing the Church from the Mystical-Miracle Movement (El Cajon, CA: Southern California Seminary, 2018). ↩
On the subject of God as the greatest news of the gospel, see John Piper, God Is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005). ↩