The prosperity gospel can quickly polarise Christian believers. For some it exemplifies the victorious Christian life that is lived under the blessing of God, apprehended by faith in the power of the Spirit. For others, it stands as a symbol of materialism, greed and the abuse of the poor for the benefit of rich preachers and their opulent lifestyles. In this article I’d like to briefly reflect on the prosperity gospel and consider what might be problematic, but what also might be redeemable about it. In particular, I offer that despite its numerous faults, the prosperity gospel does indeed remind us that Christian faith and spirituality can and should have a resultant impact on one’s social and economic life. In other words, the Christian gospel is not just about heading to some heavenly destination in the future, it is about life in the here and now and is meant to be good news for the poor.
In the contemporary pentecostal movement(s) the belief in divine healing has long been a central feature. In the second half of the twentieth century however, this emphasis on healing of one’s physical body was extended to include God’s desire to provide for one’s wider material needs in supernatural ways. In Catherine Bowler’s research on the prosperity gospel in North America, she suggests that the prosperity gospel exists on a spectrum between ‘hard’ prosperity and ‘soft’ prosperity.[i] In hard prosperity, if one follows the principles of faith and sacrificial giving, one should expect financial blessing and breakthrough in their personal everyday life. A failure to be blessed is a failure in faith. In soft prosperity, there is an increased emphasis on managing finances, investments, hard work and discipline to go along with one’s faith and positive confession. In soft forms of the prosperity gospel, one’s lack of financial abundance may be blamed not only on one’s lack of faith, but also on one’s lack of the requisite disciplines required for success. In some sense, there is a difference in the locus of agency between hard and soft forms of the prosperity gospel. In hard forms of prosperity it is often God who delivers the prosperity via miraculous provision, albeit in response to our word of faith. In soft forms of prosperity there is a greater emphasis on one’s own principled, disciplined and entrepreneurial activity that leads to a prosperous life, and through which God’s blessing arrives.[ii]
In many cases, adherents of the prosperity gospel are encouraged to give sacrificially into various ministries in the hope that by doing so, God might reward them with financial breakthrough in their own lives. Without wanting to deny the blessedness of the generous life, it seems apparent that this can often result in the manipulation of the poor to give more than they should; an approach based on a God who is more like a miracle genie than the Triune God of self-giving love. Moreover, those who have not received their ‘miracle’ may be castigated and marginalised for their lack of faith if they question the lack of results. Having said this, Amos Yong suggests that while the prosperity gospel may not be theologically defensible, it is often understandable, especially among the poor in the Majority World.[iii] While there are numerous biblical, ethical and theological reasons for refuting core aspects of the prosperity gospel itself, the desire to eliminate poverty and suffering resonates among those who feel these realities most acutely.
So if this is the case, is there anything redeemable about the message? At the very least, the emphasis of the prosperity gospel reminds us of the pentecostal insistence that God continues to intervene in our everyday lives, and that this intervention can have an impact on our social reality. If this is true, then a wholesale rejection of this message may not be most helpful. Rather, what is needed is for us to think more deeply about the connections between the gospel of Jesus as good news for the poor, and the transformation of social, economic and political realities in the present.
In order to do so it may be helpful to re-examine the way pentecostals have anticipated the return of Jesus; something that was central to the early pentecostal movement. In early pentecostalism, there was an urgency to the belief in Jesus’ second coming: it was happening soon! In light of this soon coming King, the ‘latter rain’ of the Spirit was being poured out on the earth in radical and unique ways, thus preparing the church for Christ’s return.[iv] So while the emphasis on Jesus’ return might suggest a desire to escape this life in the here-and-now, in many cases the result was in fact the opposite; the Spirit was active in the present, transforming lives and communities.
Over time, of course, it has turned out that Jesus’ return has not been as prompt as early pentecostals might have expected. The urgency of expectation regarding his return has waned, in many pentecostal circles at least. What has not necessarily waned, however, is the belief that the Spirit continues to be poured out in unprecedented measure to transform our everyday lives. Perhaps one might suggest that despite the problematic—and clearly incorrect—belief that Jesus was about to return, this idea did provide an eschatological tension to the belief in God’s intervention. In this regard, a revitalisation of pentecostal eschatology is needed, not as a return to the temporal urgency of the early pentecostal pioneers, but as a means of exploring the social and material impact of the work of the Spirit in the present without capitulating to either triumphalism or escapism.
The kingdom of God is what theologians often refer to as both ‘now’ and ‘not-yet’. That is, that the resurrection of Jesus ushered in the coming kingdom of God as a new creation, but that this new creation emerges in the midst of the ‘old’ and, as such, will not fully come until all things are made new. In light of this tension, the empowerment of the Spirit to transform one’s social and economic realities does not guarantee material prosperity nor is limited to it. Moreover, given the realisation that the coming kingdom of God is grounded in an ethical framework that contrasts with unrestrained materialism and consumerism, our ethics and values in the present must be shaped by this ‘not-yet’ reality. However, I also offer that within this context, the work of the Spirit in the present should impact on one’s social and material reality. That is, the empowerment of the Spirit is not simply to enable one to minister to the poor; rather, the poor are themselves anointed by the Spirit to act in such a way that they might become active participants in the transformation of their own reality. Not as victims, but as agents.
My suggestion, therefore, is to move from the language of ‘prosperity’ to that of ‘materiality’.[v] The life of faith, empowered by the Spirit, should impact on our material life. It is not a magical guarantee to financial abundance, but it is grounded in the idea that God cares about our material reality and that the Christian gospel seeks to transform communities and alleviate the suffering caused by poverty.
Note: This article has been reposted to correct the stated author. The author is Michael Frost, not Andrew Youd.
About the author:
Michael has been on staff with Alphacrucis in New Zealand since 2011 and completed his doctoral studies in theology with the University of Otago in 2016. Michael’s ongoing research interests relate to the intersection of belief, experience, identity and social transformation.
[i] Catherine Bowler, “Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel,” (Doctor of Philosophy diss., Duke University, 2010), 6.
[ii] Douglas A. Hicks, “Prosperity, Theology, and Economy,” in Pentecostalism and Prosperity: The Socio-Economics of the Global Charismatic Movement, ed. Katherine Attanasi, and Amos Yong (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 242-45.
[iii] Amos Yong, In the Days of Caesar: Pentecostalism and Political Theology (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010), 264.
[iv] Peter Althouse, “Spirit of the Last Days: Contemporary Pentecostal Theologians in Dialogue With Jürgen Moltmann,” diss., Wycliffe College and the Toronto School of Theology, 2001), 10. and Daniel Castelo, “Patience as a Theological Virtue: A Challenge to Pentecostal Eschatology,” in Perspectives in Pentecostal Eschatologies: World Without End, ed. Peter Althouse, and Robby Waddell (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publishing, 2010), 234.
[v] Similarly, Miroslav Volf suggests that the pentecostal belief that healing is ‘in the atonement’ is evidence of the materiality of salvation present within pentecostal thinking. See Miroslav Volf, “Materiality of Salvation: An Investigation in the Soteriologies of Liberation and Pentecostal Theologies,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 26, no. 3 (1989).