Overview:

The prosperity gospel preaches that money and health will naturally follow from godly behavior. Jesus clearly disagrees.

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One of the most peculiar if on-brand developments in American Christianity is the rise of the prosperity gospel movement. The champions of the prosperity gospel believe that god will reward with health and money anyone who donates to the champions of the prosperity gospel. I re-phrased this for cynical purposes, but not by much. John Oliver suggested an alternative view during a segment on Last Week Tonight. The piece claimed these church leaders abuse and manipulate the poor and the spiritually desperate for material gain.

The prosperity gospel as we know it had its genesis in a 1940 meeting between Rev. James Fifield and US domestic industrial giants including General Motors, General Electric, and Standard Oil. This meeting of the National Association of Manufacturers was the first genuine attempt to merge religious and corporate power in America.

The merger of corporate and religious power objectifies poverty as a moral crime.

It’s easy to draw a line from that meeting to perhaps the best-known current incarnation of the prosperity gospel, the televangelism and big-stadium grift of Joel Osteen (with special guest star Kanye West).

While non-Christians are often appalled by its decidedly un-Christian values, many Christians also find prosperity theology offensive. Kanye West was warned off Osteen by the Gospel Coalition, who called his religion “a perversion of the gospel of Jesus.” Best-selling Southern Baptist pastor Rick Warren called it “baloney.

Conservative Christian satire site The Babylon Bee has published many pieces mocking Osteen’s hunger for money and his disregard for scripture. There may be a good reason why Osteen and other prosperity gospel millionaires are famous for “not using the bible very much.” They appear to be reading a different book.

Jesus says no

If it isn’t enough that he singled out “you who are poor” for special blessings in the Beatitudes, Jesus also spent some time explaining in dramatic language that amassing wealth does not sit well with a godly life. 

Here are some of the direct words of Jesus from the gospels:

  • Matthew 6:24: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.”
  • Matthew 19:21: “Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor.” 
  • Luke 6:24: “But woe unto you that are rich!” 
  • Luke 16:22-23: “And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.”
  • Luke 18:25: “For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

In the gospels, Jesus repeatedly insists that wealth does not play well with Christianity. It just doesn’t work. The rest of the New Testament develops this theme:

  • 1 Timothy 6:10: “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”
  • James 5:1: “Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.”
  • Revelation 3:17: “Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable.”

Perhaps the clearest message to rich people that they need to sell everything (not just donate what they think they can afford) comes from a cautionary tale in the Book of Acts. It concerns the donation policy of a man named Ananias and his wife, Sapphira. Instead of handing over all their money to the nascent Christian community in Jerusalem, they kept some for themselves. As punishment, Jesus killed them both.

Mo money, mo problems

Jesus was clear about this. His disciples were very clear about this. The entire early church was very clear about this. Rich people are screwed. Tolstoy understood it (although his wife wasn’t too happy). Wittgenstein understood it (although his family regarded it as a sign of mental illness). Rick Warren very nearly understands it when he calls himself a “reverse tither”, giving away 90% of his income and keeping 10%.

People need money to live, and the more money you have, the better your life can be. Modern Western culture pushes this through capitalism to create myths. One such myth claims that rich people are rich because they are smarter than the rest of us and they work harder. Most rich people certainly believe that. Why not? It’s the American Dream. The chilling corollary, however, is that poor people are lazy and stupid. The merger of corporate and religious power objectifies poverty as a moral crime.

The streamlined concepts outlined here create a swirling mess of cognitive dissonance. I want to be rich; poverty is bad; I love Jesus; Jesus hates rich people. Their beliefs in the American Dream and Jesus are connected. John Steinbeck called anyone caught in this mindset “a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.”

One of the most common expressions of this cognitive dissonance will appear under articles mentioning the “eye of a needle.” These comment sections are full of desperate Christians scrambling to find some way to capsize the obvious interpretation.

Enjoy your money. Enjoy your Christianity. Just not at the same time.

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Barry Purcell lives in Ireland and writes about religion, philosophy, psychology, politics and language for a variety of paper and online publications. He has been involved in campaigns to counteract the...