Acton Institute Powerblog

The Heresy of the Prosperity Gospel

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We have just wrapped up Acton University, our annual conference that focuses on integrating Christian theology and sound economic thinking. In light of that, it was interesting to read this post at, “America’s Premier Heresy,” where Scot McKnight takes a look at the Prosperity Gospel, especially as presented by Pastor Joel Osteen.

If you’re not familiar with the Prosperity Gospel, it preaches that God wants all of us to be wealthy and healthy in this life, and that riches and health are ours, simply for the asking, in faith and obedience to Him. The problems of poverty, ill-health, unemployment, underemployment and general malaise are that we don’t implore God to shower us with blessings. Once we recognize that God has only positive things in store for us, and we ask for them, it’s all ours.

It was interesting – to say the least  – to have been reading this blog post while surrounded by some of the most intelligent people on the planet who had gathered at Acton University to discuss things like alleviating poverty in the developing world, business as mission and vocation, and the role of envy and fairness in economic thought. McKnight poses these interesting questions:

If you could offer a better theology to proponents of prosperity theology, what would it look like? How does an economic theory work into your critique or your offer?

Last week’s activities at Acton University offered a plethora of answers to these two questions, but I’m going to focus on just a few. First, the Rev. Robert Sirico’s new book Defending the Free Market recognizes the need for economic answers to questions of poverty. The recognition isn’t one of glamorous outpourings of wealth from a sugar daddy in the sky. It is, as Fr. Sirico puts it, “humdrum business”. That’s right: It’s just hard, creative work of human beings that lifts people out of poverty and helps them forge opportunities for themselves, their employees, families and communities. It’s not the same as asking God to simply make these things appear in one’s life; it’s being willing to partner with God, if you will, to bring about change.

Second, those who attended Acton University had the privilege of hearing Arthur C. Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute speak. (You can download a recording of his speech here.) Much of Mr. Brooks’ speech is typified in this quote from his book The Road to Freedom:

Under free enterprise, people can pursue their own ends, and they can reap the rewards and consequences, positive and negative, of their own actions.

Again, notice that the emphasis is placed on the work we must do, as free human beings, in order to create good things in our lives.

Finally, Amy Sherman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Faith in Communities at Sagamore Institute talked to us about our stewardship responsibilities in our work lives.

The big Gospel reminds us of God’s big story. He created a paradise and invited us to steward it, legitimating all kinds of work. We blew it, but God did not retract the cultural mandate from us even after the Fall. But the Fall meant that our work would be much more difficult and sometimes feel futile. Jesus’ redemption means that the restoration project is underway. Jesus’ great salvation work pushes back every aspect of the curse: redeeming the broken relationship between humans and God, humans and themselves, humans with one another, and humans with the creation itself. All of that is Jesus’ work, not just “saving souls.”

The 800+ attendees at Acton University can answer the questions posited by Mr. McKnight in his critique of the Prosperity Gospel. What economic theory and theological insights can we offer as an answer to the theology of Joel Osteen? It’s just plain, hum-drum business, free enterprise and the freedom for people to create – in cooperation with God – a better life and abundant economic opportunities.

(For more on the Prosperity Gospel, listen to Glenn Sunshine’s Acton Lecture Series presentation “Wealth, Work and the Church“.)

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.


  • Smile

    Hi Elise,

    I have been on both ends of the spectrum, prosperity and the protestant ethic of hard and honest work.  On the prosperity side, I was there only for a short while (thank God).

    I decided to comment because you said “It’s just hard, creative work of human beings that lifts people out of poverty and helps them forge opportunities for themselves, their employees, families and communities. It’s not the same as asking God to simply make these things appear in one’s life; it’s being willing to partner with God, if you will, to bring about change.”

    I live in India where most of the work is done in unethical (generally) and “non-merit acknowledging” situations.  Caste, region, language and religion play major factors in determining how you are treated.  You could work all your life (really, eg. slave labour) and not be able to lift yourself out of your terrible conditions.  My work hinges on creativity and being meticulous.  I give thanks to the Lord for all aspects of my work because He really helps me.  I wouldn’t survive otherwise.

    The problem is I am a Christian and my superiors take advantage of my non-confrontational attitude, joy in the work that I do and sincerety.  They take credit for my work and they also share the credits with their sycophant underlings.  The whole system, from the top to the bottom, exists on an atmosphere of mediocrity and back stabbing to survive.  (So I am like a God-send for them.)  I can work all my life and they will keep giving me nominal salary increases every year unless God becomes my Redeemer (not my sugar daddy) to take me out of this situation.  My hard work (as inspired by God) would only be the substance for me to get another job that God gives me.  Its also proof of my obedience wherever I am placed.

    My point is God should still get the whole credit for our prosperity for the strength to do the hard work and opening the door for a promotion.  Good hard work only makes you a good and likeable slave.

    • Catholictrad

      There is positively no basis for the “Health and Wealth” doctrine. One only has to look at Christ’s disciples who carried their crosses as commanded, and were martyred. Our suffering here for our short lives is nothing compared to eternity in the house of our Lord.

      There will always be struggle, suffering, illness and death. Christ who suffered in poverty, Who was tortured and died for us will strengthen you as you follow His way. Those who use you spitefully will pay an awful price if your prayers for them are unanswered. Feel sorry for them as they receive their comfort in this temporary life, while you will enjoy eternal joy in the next.

  • Kshimer

    Elise, I’d like to recommend a new book by homiletics Debra Mumford titled “Exploring Prosperity Preaching: Biblical Health, Wealth, and Wisdom.” Mumford succeeds in presenting a balanced view of the prosperity gospel while exposing its weaknesses.

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