Friday, September 3, 2010

The Prosperity Gospel: God In a Box

These are actual quotes from a televangelist.

“Delayed obedience becomes disobedience,” said the television prosperity preacher, “and the delivery date on your financial harvest is today. If you hesitate, if you doubt, if you stop to think before you call and sow your uncommon seed right now, the delivery date on your harvest will be moved back. If you delay, heaven will delay. Call now. Don’t think. Don’t hesitate. Just simply obey the man of God, and reap your harvest of uncommon prosperity.”

“Don’t let this hour close with your hands closed. Quickly, go to the phone now. God never opens his hands until you open your hands. Call quickly. Call now.”

“When God wants you to have a harvest, he asks you for a seed that authorizes it. When God has a future for you, he talks to you about a seed. The instruction you follow determines the future you create.”

“When I open my hands, God opens His hands. My seed talks to God. My seed is a picture of my covenant to God. When God sees my seed, it is the way he remembers me.”

“When God wants to bless you, he talks to you about a seed. Quickly go to the telephone. Call the number that‘s on the screen. Do it now.”

“Nothing leaves heaven until something leaves earth. A swift response of faith releases a swift response from God. Your seed has never had so much power. If you have ever decided to obey the Holy Spirit, do it today. If you are ever watching a program ordained by the Holy Spirit, this is the one.”

“There is an anointing on the $1,000 seed right now. God will always give you something illogical to do. God will never give you something logical to do. You can do the logical stuff yourself. God doesn’t talk to your mind; he talks to your heart. God doesn’t talk to your logic; he talks to your faith. Call now.”

The televangelist's moneymaking message is built on a “philosophy” of sorts, one that has been called by many names. It has been called Spiritualism, Occult Metaphysics, New Thought, the Law of Attraction, the Secret, Religious Science, the Power of Positive Thinking, Word of Faith, the Prosperity Gospel, the Law of Faith, and even “God.”

Does this philosophy have Christian origins? No, but it has infiltrated Christianity. There are four principle beliefs in the “Christian” version of New Thought. I will demonstrate what they are and why they are not biblical, and, therefore, why they are not Christian at all. The “God” of the Prosperity Gospel is radically different from the God of the biblical Gospel.

Law One: The Principle of Revelation Knowledge
Lie One: God is a knowable, non-material, nonphysical power that you can tap into to change the material/physical world.

As Christians, we believe that God is revealed fully in Jesus Christ. “Revelation Knowledge,” as defined by Prosperity Gospel proponents, however, has nothing to do with Jesus. It is completely metaphysical, a branch of philosophy having to do with the ultimate nature of reality.

“Revelation Knowledge” asserts that knowledge of God cannot come from your five senses because all things material are not of God, meaning God cannot communicate to you through the physical. All human understanding and science and knowledge come through the senses, so this principle is both absolutely anti-physical and anti-intellectual. “Revelation Knowledge” asserts that we cannot know God through physical or mental means, and he cannot communicate to us through them.

Origins in the Occult

The roots of New Thought and the Prosperity Gospel are in the occult. The term occult comes from the Latin occultus. It means hidden or secret. “Revelation Knowledge” asserts that the divine is hidden from our senses. “Revelation Knowledge” believes that humans may experience the divine realm through their own thought process, and in so doing actually change the material realm. It is a metaphysical philosophy of magical thinking.

 Earnest Holmes

An alternate term for Occultism is Spiritualism. Spiritualism’s “science” claims that thoughts manifest events. This new “Science of the Mind,” as it is sometimes called, flowered in the late nineteenth century. It was called “Divine Science," “Mental Science,” and the “Science of Right Thinking.” But the title that stuck, thanks to the title of a 1919 cornerstone book in metaphysics by Earnest Holmes, was New Thought.

In New Thought, God became a power within one’s own mind. To believe is to become. We become what we believe.

Becoming a god?

New Thought essentially teaches that one becomes a god as one discerns and infiltrates the divine realm, utilizing its power for use in the material world. For many New Thought advocates, the acid test of their success—of how good a “god” they are—is reflected in how healthy and wealthy they are. Yet what if one is poor or sick or other bad things are happening to one? Whose fault is that? Logically, the sick and poor are at fault. If one gets credit for health and wealth, one also get credit for illness and poverty. There is a dark moralizing undercurrent in New Thought that, if pressed to its logical conclusion, blames the victim. Another way of saying its your fault is: "you deserve it." It is rather karmic in implication: "What goes around comes around." "You got what you deserved." Or to put it in the vernacular of divine retributive justice, "God gotcha."

Jesus saw a lot of suffering in his day, and he rejected any notion of karma or God's punishment. Someone interrupted Jesus while he was teaching to report an atrocity. Pilate’s men had killed some Galileans while they were worshiping. Jesus asked the crowd, “Do you think these men were worse sinners than all the other Galileans?” (Luke 13:2). Jesus is being asked whether these men deserved what they got. Some reasoned that the catastrophe was God’s punishment. But Jesus answered his own question with an emphatic “No.”

Then Jesus brings up another incident. A tower fell on some workers at Siloam, which is an area around a pool in Jerusalem of Judea. The historian Josephus reports that during Jesus’ lifetime an aqueduct was being built there with funds reportedly stolen from the temple treasury. Perhaps the men working on the aqueduct, being paid from the stolen money, were crushed in a construction accident. Jesus asks, “Do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?” (Luke 18:4)—meaning did they deserve it, and were they perhaps the recipients of God’s retribution for their sin against the temple? Again Jesus says “No.”

What is really telling, however, in Jesus’ take on the men slaughtered by Pilate and the men crushed by the collapsing tower is his call to repentance. He warned the crowd of the peril of an unrepentant life. The word repent, metanoeo, means change-mind. Change your mind about what? Change your mind that God works like that!

Jesus rejected retributive justice and karmic reciprocity. No, he said. Twice. Do not think like that about my heavenly Father. And do not judge people who experience misfortune. That is what I hear Jesus saying. He warned everyone in the crowd, and he warns you and me: If you keep thinking like that, then it applies to you, too. You will have to consider your misfortune as God’s retribution. You will have to condemn yourself.

The underlying moralism in New Thought is bleak. Misfortune in your life is the result of your thinking misfortune into your life. Your misfortune is your failure to block bad thoughts and think only good thoughts.

Not unlike karma and retributive judgment, Occultism (or Spiritualism or New Thought or Word of Faith) makes your fortune or misfortune the direct result of your individual intentional or inadvertent thoughts, words, or deeds. Notice that these philosophies leave no room for accidents and, more alarmingly, leave no room for grace. The last time I checked the Scriptures, Jesus allowed for accidents, and he was big on grace.

This denial of accidents and grace has an underlying legalism. God is reduced to a cosmic principle. God becomes a universal law of reciprocity. You get what you deserve, whether it is payoff or pay back. It is not personal in any way, it does not involve relationship, and it certainly does not involve love. It is merely a cosmic mechanism whereby you determine your own fate. Health or sickness, wealth or poverty, good fortune or bad fortune, they are up to your own ability, your own thought process, your own religious efforts or lack thereof at tapping into “the divine.”

God Cannot Cross the Material-Spiritual Divide?

Another underlying legalism in New Thought is that God is bound by a law that regulates how he can and cannot communicate with us. New Thought would force us to know God by constantly striving to block out the material and intellectual, and constantly striving to “hear” him somehow in our “hearts.”

Isn’t it ironic that New Thought teaches and believes that we cannot reach God through the material world, yet the reason to reach God is to acquire material possessions?

The Bible says that all things were made by the Word of God, Jesus Christ. (John 1:1-4; Colossians 1:16-17; Hebrews 1:2) He made our bodies with the capacity to see, hear, taste, touch and smell. He made the brain that generates our thoughts. God, far from being banned from the material world (as New Thought would have it), made the heavens and the earth and called them “good.

The Bible, moreover, does not confirm God’s inability to breach the alleged material-spiritual divide. Quite the opposite. The Word of God became flesh. (John 1:14) The Greek word is sarx. Flesh is the ultimate in materiality. God became material. Biblically, there is no alleged material-spiritual divide. Jesus’ incarnation as a human, his death in the flesh, and his resurrection in the body contradict the principle of exclusively non-material and non-intellectual revelation knowledge.

The Bible insists that the one true revelation of God to the world, Jesus Christ, was quite material. “Revelation Knowledge,” this first principle of New Thought, with its material-spiritual dualism, more resembles Plato’s philosophy and early Christian Gnosticism, with their body-spirit dualism, than the Bible.

In Platonism and Gnosticism the body is bad and the spirit is good. The material is bad and the spiritual is good. “Revelation Knowledge,” the Prosperity Gospel’s first principle, is decidedly more pagan and Gnostic than Christian.

What is more, the God of the Bible, far from being an impersonal, non-relational principle, is personal and relational to the core. Jesus’ incarnation as a human says, if nothing else, that God is a person desiring relationship above all. In this sense, the biblical gospel is the exact opposite of New Thought’s Prosperity Gospel.

Law Two: The Principle of Positive Confession

Lie Two: You have within you the power to force the non-material God to materialize what you want by claiming that it is yours.

The second principle of the Prosperity Gospel, which flows out of New Thought, builds on its first principle. The second principle is about the power of your mind and mouth to change physical reality.

“What I confess, I possess,” they say. “Believe it and receive it,” they say. “Name it and claim it,” they say.

New Thought entered the Christian Pentecostal movement of the early twentieth century through a movement called Word of Faith. Word of Faith became part of what is widely known as the Prosperity Gospel, enormously popular within charismatic Christianity. Word of Faith is based on “What I confess, I possess” called “Positive Confession,” or alternatively, “The Law of Faith.”

The term “Law of Faith” is itself an illustration of the logical contradictions within New Thought / Word of Faith / Prosperity Gospel. It is contradictory to all logic and reason to turn faith into a law.

Who are its familiar proponents?

Secular Versions

Tony Robbins

This occult or spiritualist philosophy—re-popularized today by notables as diverse as bestselling author Eckhart Tolle and motivational guru TonyRobbins—reflects an extreme individualism and self-determination, asserting that the divine operates non-relationally and impersonally through the mastery of the mind. New Thought teaches that there is a thought-connection to a non-personal, universal force that we are able to learn to possess and control for personal success, health, wealth, and happiness. 

Tom Cruise and John Travolta

Perhaps the most well-known version of this spiritualist philosophy today is found in Dianetics and Scientology made popular by fiction author L. Ron Hubbard and celebrity proponents like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. The same spiritualist philosophy is called the Law of Attraction and was popularized by author Rhonda Byrne in The Secret, and in The Law of Success by Napoleon Hill.

Non-Pentecostal Protestant Versions

Norman Vincent Peale

Norman Vincent Peale was not the first to attempt a syncretizing of Christianity and New Thought, but he was the first to popularize it and become known worldwide. Peale’s emphasis on positive imagery and self-affirmation, outlined in his 1952 classic text, The Power of Positive Thinking, is one of the most well-known, popularized versions of self-help teachings of our generation.

In a little-known and overlooked interview, Peale regards his mentor as the giant of occult metaphysics, Earnest Holmes, the author of the foundational New Age text, Science of the Mind. The interview was for Holmes’ magazine, New Thought. Peale said that in 1920 he read Holmes’ book, Creative Mind and Success. That little book formed the basis of The Power of Positive Thinking. Tellingly, however, Peale’s biography and memoirs make no mention of Holmes.

Robert Schuller

Peale's positive thinking fueled the television messages of Robert Schuller and Joel Osteen. Schuller's book titles reveal his debt to Peale: Move Ahead with Positive Thinking; You Can Become the Person You Want to Be; and Become a Possibility Thinker Now.

Joel Osteen 

Osteen, now boasting the largest congregation in the US, followed Peale and Schuller with a message of positive attitudes, thoughts, and words manifesting health and wealth. He preaches that miracles are in your mouth, and your words become your reality.

Pentecostal Protestant Versions

Oral Roberts

The pioneer of New Thought in Pentecostal Protestant broadcasting was Oral Roberts. He coined the phrase “seed faith giving.” He mentored Kenneth Copeland. 

Kenneth Copeland

Copeland calls this Law of Faith the “faith-force.” He teaches that “the spirit world” can be commanded to do our bidding. Faith, in Copeland’s theology, is a power principle that we command to control our physical reality. This is the same principle used by occultist New Thought but under a different name. Mentored by Roberts, Copland in turn mentored Atlanta's Creflo Dollar.

Creflo Dollar

Faith, as defined by the Bible, however, is trust and rest in the good news that our relationship with God is based on his goodness rather than our own. “Come to me and find rest for your souls,” he said. Biblical faith is not a law. Scriptural faith is not an impersonal cosmic principle to be manipulated for prosperity. It is, rather, simple trust in a personal God who dares to love in relationship.

As the Pentecostal Prosperity Gospel dominates Christian television, there are many other names to mention including TV personalities as diverse as Benny Hinn, Marcus and Joni Lamb, Paul and Jan Crouch, Robert Tilton, Rod Parsley, Mike Murdock, Joyce Meyer, Paula White, Eddie Long, and T.D. Jakes. Their theological movement has been called Positive Confession or Word of Faith. It emphasizes “faith force” activation and “seed faith giving” for individual health and wealth. 

God Obeys Humans?

The legalistic lie behind New Thought / Word of Faith / Prosperity Gospel is that God is transformed into a pawn who must obey human commands. This false gospel has created a god who set up a legal, universal principle that says that he has to obey when we think and say the right things.

New Thought / Word of Faith / Prosperity Gospel emphasis is on a positive attitude yielding positive results, and a negative attitude yielding negative results. Thinking positively is said to force God to yield positive results for you. According to this unbiblical teaching, the words you think and say have direct results in the physical world.

The “Christian” proponents of New Thought are syncretists. Syncretism is the attempt to combine opposing philosophies. They scour the Scriptures for verses that support their occult philosophy. And they are good at it. But the shotgun wedding is a bad one. New Thought defines God as a universal principle to be tapped and controlled by human thought. Word of Faith defines faith in exactly the same way.

The Bible, on the other hand, defines God as a Person (more specifically, three Persons who are one), not as a cosmic law-bound pawn. And the Bible defines faith as trust in that Person, not as a cosmic principle for manipulating the material world with words and thoughts.

Law Three: The Principle of Divine Healing

Lie Three: You have within you the power to force the non-material God to heal your material body.

Just as the second principle of the Prosperity Gospel, originally known as New Thought, grew out of its first principle, the third principle is founded on the second. If and when your body is sick, New Thought teaches that your physical healing is a done deal. It is called “a faith-fact” by some of its proponents, who include the late Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science), the late Kathryn Kuhlman, the late Oral Roberts and the well-known, very much alive Benny Hinn, among many others.

Benny Hinn

According to the Prosperity Gospel, the ultimate test of your faith is to claim your healing complete when you are still experiencing symptoms. Any continuing symptoms, they say, are not real, but a trick of the devil to hinder your faith and steal your healing. The legalism should be obvious.

According to the Prosperity Gospel, your physical well-being is entirely dependent on how well you manipulate God with the faith-force. If you really get healed or if you enjoy sustained health, it is due to your prowess at naming and claiming your healing. But if you get sick or stay sick, it is your fault. Your continuing sickness is explained as your lack of faith, unbelief or sin.

The Prosperity Gospel is the worst kind of fear-driven hamster wheel because, it is claimed, “The Principle of Divine Healing” works in reverse, too. If you talk aloud to someone about the possibility of getting cancer, that might cause cancer. If you worry about it in your mind, you can actually call cancer into existence in your body. What a slavish, paranoid existence!

Joyce Meyers

Many so-called “faith-healers” have emphasized this principle and have been extremely successful in securing the funds for their broadcasts by taking up offerings prior to the healing portions of their “worship services.” I attended two Ernest Angley healing crusades, and I have friends who attended a Joyce Meyer event. Two things they have in common are the emphasis on contributions up front, and the fact that this protracted portion of their events is not broadcast on television.

Earnest Angley

Again, in this “gospel,” God is a cosmic principle, a universal law, an invisible faith-force, one that you somehow “hear” non-sensually and non-intellectually, yet one that you control with your thoughts. If you claim yourself healed, (and perhaps also apply the power of the almighty dollar in the evangelist’s offering plate), then God must heal you.

Picture this god like a slot machine. The gambling addict is seated before it, putting in quarter after quarter while chanting, “I won. I won. I won.” No jackpot, but if he only believes what he is saying, it will have to happen in the material world, and the jackpot will have to come pouring out.

If the Prosperity Gospel is correct, all Christians have a right to be healed, and have the power to force God’s hand to heal them. But, in the Bible, Epaphroditus, Trophimus, Timothy and the Apostle Paul were all sick. Paul was chronically sick. Three times he prayed to the Lord to heal him, but the Lord said “No” (2 Corinthians 12:7).

Was that a lack of faith on the part of Paul and these others? Was it their own fault that they were sick? Were they spiritually inadequate?

Law Four: The Principle of Material Prosperity

Lie Four: You have within you the power to force the non-material God to give you material wealth and money.

This fourth law or principle of the Prosperity Gospel, rising out of the earlier teachings of New Thought, like the third, flows out of the second principle. The late Oral Roberts was, perhaps, the most famous proponent of this fourth principle. He coined the phrase “seed-faith giving.” We are back to god, the one-armed bandit.

Oral Roberts

“Seed-faith giving” claims that if you give money or belongings “to God” (meaning to their ministries), then God is obligated to give you more money in return, thus blessing you with financial prosperity. Thus the name, “Prosperity Gospel.” It is a double-your-money-back guarantee—at least double. A ten-fold or even a one-hundred fold return is sometimes promised.

Mike Murdock

Other popular and successful proponents of this principle are Robert Tilton, Creflo Dollar, Paul and Jan Crouch, Rod Parsley, Mike Murdock and again Kenneth Copland (and wife, Gloria). There are many more. The Pentecostal Prosperity Gospel dominates cable broadcasting, so much so that this brand of “Christianity” might be presumed by the uninformed viewer to be representative of all Christian believers.

Robert Tilton

This fourth and final principle is more than a religious, legal trap. It is more than just another self-salvation program. It is a successful money-making scheme.

Prosperity Gospel proponents promise people that they have the key to ending their financial woes. If the victims of Prosperity Gospel preachers will just let go of the money in their pockets, they are assured God will automatically have to let go of the prosperity that is in God’s pocket for them. It is a principle of reciprocity that God is obligated to obey.

On the other hand, however, it is also your fault if you are in a financial crisis—not because you made mistakes, but because you failed to implement the “faith-force.” Or your sins have messed things up.

Let us say that you sent your last $100 to the televangelist, and that you did not get the $1,000 back from God that he guaranteed. Well, that is your fault. You sinned or lacked faith or were in some way spiritually deficient. It would have worked, they say, if there were not something seriously wrong with you. So get back on the hamster wheel, try harder, pray longer, get all the sin out of your life, and send more money next time.

The Prosperity Gospel proclaims that the poor are not blessed. Far from it. It proclaims, “When you are not blessed, your misfortune is your fault and you deserve it.” The poor, according to the Prosperity Gospel, are self-cursed and God-abandoned. What a cold-hearted message to the poor, the sick, and the otherwise unfortunate ones whom Jesus loved and embraced and blessed—“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)

In the Bible, we find Jesus warning about wealth and greed, we find Jesus showing concern for and solidarity with the poor and blessing them, and we find Paul hungry for lack of funds.

Prosperity Philosophers or Gurus of Greed?

This Prosperity Gospel, with its four principles, has its secular parallels in Dianetics / Scientology made popular today by celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, in books like The Secret / Law of Attraction made popular by author Rhonda Byrne, and in other modern prosperity gimmicks like The Law of Success by Napoleon Hill, now available by infomercial for the low price of only $49.95.

These “secular” gimmicks promote the underlying belief that you have the power in your mind, in your mouth, or in your hand to get individual health, wealth and happiness—a belief in common with the Prosperity Gospel. You can manipulate a universal principle if you learn the trick. And the proponents of this secret will sell you the trick for a low, low, introductory price.

This is oppressive religion. Underlying the Prosperity Gospel and New Thought is the very same selfish, occultist legalism—the same impersonal, individualistic hamster-wheel; the same futile, self-salvation religion.

A Summary Contrast of the Biblical Gospel and the Prosperity Gospel

The four laws of the Prosperity Gospel utterly contradict the biblical gospel.

1. God is not a faceless, impersonal force locked away from the material world. In Jesus Christ we see the face of God, flesh and bone and blood, entering and embracing this material world personally, passionately, intimately, for the sake of a relationship of love with us.

2. Scriptural faith is not a force whereby we can command a non-material God to do our bidding in the material world. It is simple rest and trust in the good news that Jesus Christ has finished salvation for the world.

3. You cannot force a non-material God to heal you by claiming yourself already healed. This is superstitious, magical thinking. It is oppressive, futile religion. Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, a healer by all accounts in the Bible, suffered pain. God in the flesh experienced suffering in the material world. Likewise, his earliest followers suffered, some were sick, and some were even killed. What entitles Christ-followers an exemption today?

4. You can’t force a non-material God to make you rich in the material world by claiming that you possess riches. Again, this is magical thinking. It is radical individualism and materialism. And it is futile religion. Jesus had few possessions and little money, he warned about wealth and greed, and he loved and blessed the poor.

Prosperity Gospel Versus the Cross

While the Prosperity Gospel promises escape from suffering, God in Christ and his cross moves into suffering. There is no escapism in the cross. God does not run from pain. In the cross, God enters raw pain, and he does so naked and vulnerable.

While the Prosperity Gospel promise is concerned exclusively with selfish, individual gain through magical thinking, God in Christ and his cross is concerned exclusively with radically humble self-giving and suffering for the sake of others.

In the same way that the Prosperity Gospel does not deal with sin or suffering, neither does it deal with death. You have to stop sinning, it says, using magical thinking to make you healthy and wealthy. You can end your suffering magically, it says, by thinking it away, too. But how do you think away death?

In contrast to the Prosperity Gospel, in the biblical gospel, specifically in the cross of Jesus Christ, God enters even death. He does not run away from death. He does not use magical thinking to avoid death. God the Son willingly lays down his life.

A Clear Choice?

Could the “God” of the Prosperity Gospel and the God of the biblical gospel be more different? One is an impersonal principle, a faceless force, a cosmic law to be manipulated for individual profit. The other is a divine Person with a face—a dear friend, a willing servant, determined to face horrific suffering though scarred beyond recognition, determined to face death though he himself is life— all for the love of us.

Will you be manipulated by the cold, hands-off, run-from-pain, get-rich-quick “god” of the Prosperity Gospel? Or will you believe in and accept the warm, hands-on, walk-with-you-through-everything-and-run-from-nothing God of the biblical gospel?

To me, the choice is clear. But, tragically, my “Christian” cable television station schedule today tells me otherwise.

For more evangelical bad behavior:

Hell House
Katrina - The Wrath of God?
The Christian Ambush: A True Story
Don't You Hate Christian Tracts?

To see the layout of this article just published in Plain Truth Magazine go here: The Prosperity Gospel: God In a Box