The Dangers of the Prosperity Gospel

A few weeks ago, I came across an article in the Atlantic Monthly magazine, which bore the extraordinary title “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?”

I realize that much of the mainstream media is ready to blame Christianity for almost every societal ill, but this seemed a bit much. As I read through the article, it became plain that the culprit, in the author’s mind, is the so-called “prosperity Gospel,” the view propagated by quite a few extremely popular evangelists that material prosperity flows from the depth and quality of one’s faith in God. His argument was that the willingness on the part of many Christians to risk their savings on questionable investments conduced toward the bursting of the housing bubble and the subsequent economic meltdown. Well, I’m not sure that that particular argument carries much weight, but I’ll confess that the article piqued my interest in this influential theology.

In its American incarnation, the prosperity Gospel probably began with the theological speculations of the late evangelist Oral Roberts. Roberts encouraged his followers to “expect miracles” and to look forward with confidence to the ways in which God would reward them, materially and financially, for their trust in his providence. One of the most prominent prosperity gospellers on the scene today is Joel Osteen, the pastor of the largest church in America, best-selling author, and a former student at Oral Roberts University. He tells his millions of readers and listeners that they should not settle for mediocre lives; instead they should trust in the Lord’s ability to give them the house that they desire, the job that they deserve, and children that will make them proud. A typical piece of Osteenian advice: “friend, you have to start believing that good things are coming your way and they will!” Other advocates of this position today include the very popular televangelists Joyce Meyer and T.D. Jakes.

To give the prosperity gospellers their due, there is some biblical warrant for their position. The book of Deuteronomy consistently promises Israel that, if it remains faithful to God’s commands, it will receive numerous benefits in this world. The psalmist too assures us, “delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” And Jesus himself counsels: “seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things (food, shelter, clothing, etc.) will be added unto you.” And there is no doubt that the Bible consistently urges people to trust in the providence of God at all times. Jesus’ reminder that the birds, who neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns but who are nevertheless fed by their heavenly Father, is a summation of the Scriptural confidence in God’s care for those who have faith in him.

However, we must be attentive to the very subtle way that the Bible itself nuances and specifies these claims. The great counterpoise to the book of Deuteronomy is the book of Job, which tells the story of a thoroughly righteous man who, in one fell swoop, suffers the loss of all of his material prosperity. Job’s friends, operating out of a standard Deuteronomistic (or prosperity Gospel) point of view, argue that he must have grievously offended God, but Job—and God himself—protest against this simplistic interpretation. The deepest reason for Job’s suffering, we learn, is lost in the infinite abyss of God’s permissive will and is by no means easily correlatable to Job’s virtue or lack thereof. And Jesus himself, the very archetype of the faithful Israelite, experiences not earthly prosperity, but a life of simplicity and death on a brutal instrument of torture. If Joel Osteen and Oral Roberts were right, we would expect Jesus to have been the richest man in Nazareth and a darling of Jerusalem high society.

The resolution of this issue turns on a distinction between a conventional understanding and a divine understanding of the successful life. Deuteronomy is indeed right when it says that “prosperity” will follow from obedience to God’s will, but the prosperity in question is spiritual flourishing, and not necessarily worldly success. Obeying the divine commands does indeed lead to the right ordering of the self, and therefore to an increase in joy, even if that very obedience leads, in worldly terms, to abject suffering or failure. St. Thomas More followed the voice of his conscience and this led to the loss of his home, his family, his considerable fortune, his high political status, and eventually his life. But he died, spiritually speaking, a successful man, a saint. St. Thomas Aquinas endeavored to answer a question that many of us ask: why do the wicked often prosper and the righteous suffer? Thomas turned the question on its head by introducing the wider context of God’s purposes. Perhaps, he suggested, the good person who is deprived of material goods is actually being rewarded, since that deprivation opens him more and more to the spiritual dimension; and perhaps the wicked person who has every worldly benefit is actually being punished, since those material preoccupations close him to the only good that finally matters.

So embrace the prosperity Gospel, as long as you construe prosperity along properly Gospel lines. Following God’s will, abandoning yourself to the divine providence, will indeed give you treasure in heaven, but don’t expect it necessarily to give you treasure on earth.

Editor’s Note – Father Barron can be found on the Internet at:

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About the Author

Father Robert Barron is an author, speaker and theologian. He is also the founder of the global media ministry Word On Fire, which reaches millions of people by utilizing the tools of new media to draw people into or back to the Catholic Faith.

Father Barron is the creator and host of CATHOLICISM, a groundbreaking, award winning documentary series about the Catholic Faith. The series has aired across the country on PBS and EWTN, and has been seen and broadcast in parishes, universities, schools and media outlets throughout the world. The documentary received a Christopher Award for excellence. Father Barron and Word on Fire also released the documentary "CATHOLICISM: The New Evangelization" in 2013.

Father Barron currently serves as the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary University of St. Mary of the Lake. He was appointed to the theological faculty of Mundelein Seminary in 1992, and has also served as a visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame and at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. He was twice scholar in residence at the Pontifical North American College at the Vatican.

Ordained in 1986, he is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Father Barron received a Master's Degree in Philosophy from the Catholic University of America in 1982 and a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Institut Catholique de Paris in 1992.

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4 Comments

  1. Dear Father Barron,

    Your Post”Dangers of the Prosperity Gospel.”seems to advocate this spiritually dangerous ,diabolic plan of diverting the Christian from his avowed task of salvation of his soul,while on his earthly sojourn,.at the end of your column.I don’t think we Christians and Catholics especially,need to be equivocal on this issue.This genre of preaching Christ is the handiwork of these so called evangelical preachers.They have no Sacrements,no Cross with Christ crucified on it;no communion of Saints to follow or emulate;They live in their complacent world of material happiness and wealth,amassing filthy lucre and to get more, preach only material happiness.The cross which saves us is not preached; the sufferings we have to necessarily endure with the help of our Lord and our Mother and with the intercession of all the Saints is not there with them.Instead, they are the living Saints who will open 24 hour helpline for prayers,and employ people to pray for you.You are never asked to pray for yourself.but the team will pray,and pray only for worldly happiness.The soul and its eternal redemption is never mentioned or prayed for.They take only that which suits them from the Bible-mostly from the Old Testament, like you have referred to the Book of Deuteronomy.They will never ever mention-‘TAKE YOUR CROSS AND FOLLOW ME’.The Cross is anathema to these evangelical preachers.

    This past week and the coming Sunday ,the Liturgy preaches the narrow door to heaven,and does not ask us to pray for our worldly happiness.Yes that will be provided by Him who has clothed the fields and gives food to the birds;but we need to worry about only one thing -that of the safety of our soul and all these things will be added to us, as you have pointed;but let us be clear that our souls’ safety is the only one thing we ought to work for.These preachers do not preach so.

    They have to be shunned,if we have to save ourselves

    Emmanuel Jude.

  2. Editor’s Note:

    Fr. Barron is not advocating for the “prosperity gospel”, he is preaching strongly against it.

    Deacon Mike Bickerstaff

  3. An outstanding, much needed article, written by a priest with the gifts of the Holy Spirit in spreading the Word in today’s challenging environment. His Word on Fire web site is among my favorite Catholic sites.

    Thank you for posting Father’s material.

    Gratefully,

    Caroline McCoy-Hansen

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