The prosperity gospel continues to plague pulpits and churches around the world. So what is the prosperity gospel? Why is it popular? Why is it dangerous? And why is John Piper so opposed to it? Here’s how he explained it, back in the fall of 2008:
So why do I feel so strongly about the so-called prosperity gospel? There is an easy answer, but before I give it, let me define it a little bit. It is on a continuum from the most radical to what would be called soft or light. And the most radical version would basically say that God wants you rich, and you should partner with him by faith to pursue riches. And the justification would be given, “You can’t accomplish much in life without money. And so go for it.” Or another rationale might be, “You are kingdom kids, and kingdom kids don’t wear tattered clothes. They dress like the king.” And so on.
The light version is simply more cautious not to say those gross things about wealth, but it minimizes sin and minimizes pain and only talks about how well things will go for you if you follow Christ.
Preaching a Different Gospel
So why do I abominate this so-called gospel? I think it is another gospel. And the first reason would be simply to go straight to the Bible and see what Paul says about those who want to be rich:
Godliness with contentment is great gain — in other words, without craving stuff — for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich — now here is the key text — fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving [the craving to be rich] that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Timothy 6:6–10)
In other words, the very thing that leads people to suicidal piercings of pangs — namely the desire to be rich — is nurtured and cultivated by the prosperity preachers. They are encouraging that this suicidal behavior happen. That is abominable.
Cursed with Wealth
Or Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:24). Why would he say that? It is because riches are such dangerous things. They are not a blessing, usually. They are usually a curse. People are cursed with riches. They are destroyed by riches. And here, again, let me qualify a little bit: I don’t mean it is sinful to make a lot of money. I just mean it is sinful to want to keep a lot of money.
And it is suicidal to want to keep a lot of money — bigger barns and bigger cars and bigger houses and bigger portfolios and finer clothes, and everything is growing with your income so that your conscience is getting harder and harder because if you are a Christian at this point, your conscience is having to say: “It is okay. This is okay. This is the Calvary road. This is what it means to deny yourself. This is what it means to follow Jesus. This is what it means to die every day. This is what it means to have my treasure in heaven.” And it doesn’t. It won’t work. So, your conscience has to be lacerated in order to keep from killing yourself.
And so Jesus says, “It is hard for a rich man to gain the kingdom of heaven.” Paul says, “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and pierce themselves with many pangs.” And along comes a prosperity preacher who says, “Yes, the Lord really wants you to be rich. We should pursue riches. Following Jesus is the pathway to riches. Riches are the sign of God’s blessing.” I would just say those are in mutual contradiction with each other and, therefore, this is deadly.
Preying on the Poor
Here is another reason I am really upset about this. These prosperity preachers don’t just talk to Americans who are already fairly well off and try to help them become a little more rich. They get on their jets — their personal jets — and they fly to Africa or the Philippines. And they land, and they gather a stadium full of one hundred thousand desperately poor people and tell them that if they will believe in Jesus, they will get rich, and all of their needs will be met, and their wives won’t have miscarriages anymore, and blah, blah, blah. And then they get on their jets with their pockets full and go home.
“Normal Christianity is pain. Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing is the pattern.”
That is wicked, because the Bible is so filled with teachings that in this life is a momentary affliction: “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17). What is Paul referring to there? He is referring to a lifetime. Light and momentary corresponds to the weight of eternal glory in heaven. He means that when you come to Christ, you come and die, and you can count on it: “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of heaven” (Acts 14:22).
Normal Christianity is pain. Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing is the pattern (see 2 Corinthians 6:10). Prosperity preachers do not prepare new converts in third world countries to endure the realities of what it will cost them to be a Christian.
To the Ends of the Earth
Here is another reason. There are around 1,568 people groups in the world out of 13,000 that don’t even have missionaries engaging them and, therefore, everybody in them is without hope. Most of those 1,500 people groups are in very dangerous places — meaning, if you go there, your kids might either get diseases and die, or your wife might be captured and raped, or your family might be butchered and killed. Who is going to go? We have to go.
Jesus said, “Make disciples of every people group,” not just the easy ones, not just the comfortable ones (see Matthew 28:19). Who is going to go? The product of prosperity preachers? I don’t think so. The people that are going to go are the people that have been taught that to follow Christ is to suffer, and it is brief. It is only eighty years. And then comes heaven.
I just read this morning with Noël and Talitha the first paragraphs of Revelation 21: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:1–2). And he will dwell with us and we will be his people and he will be our God. And then every tear will be wiped away and every pain will be gone. For the former things have passed away (see Revelation 21:3–4).
New Creation Is Coming
That is coming. One of the essential biblical problems with the prosperity gospel is an over-realized eschatology. God promises us that we are all going to be rich. We are going to own the world. We are going to judge angels. Paul used that argument in 1 Corinthians 3: Don’t you realize that you are going to inherit the world? All things are yours. Apollos is yours. Cephas is yours. Life is yours. Death is yours. And the conclusion he drew was: Why would you boast in men? In other words, why wouldn’t you take that as a means of enabling you to suffer and be lowly and kind and servant-like and walk on this Calvary road and take the pain of being a Christian? (see 1 Corinthians 3:19-23).
That is coming. But instead of saying, “We have to wait for that and pour our lives out through many tribulations here,” they say, “Bring it now. Bring it now. The kingdom is already here, right? Jesus brought the kingdom. And it is the overlap of these two ages.” They don’t understand.
The new age is a beautiful age, and there are healings that happen in this world. I don’t deny that. I just deny very vehemently that everybody is going to be healed. You let these prosperity preachers with their healing talk and their word of faith talk go to the fourth floor of Augustana Home, or go to the emergency room, or to the intensive care rooms of hospitals. Go there. Go there and preach your gospel. No, they don’t. They wear their nice clothes and stand in the lights, money strewn everywhere, with people who desperately want someone to tell them how to get rich. And then they make a lot of money that way. They don't go to places where it is impossible to deal with reality unless you have a theology of suffering.
And so for all of those reasons, and more, it is a tragic thing that one of our greatest exports of America is the prosperity gospel. People are being destroyed by it. Christians are being weakened by it. God is being dishonored by it. And souls are perishing because of it, and a lot of guys are getting rich on it.