Deniz Tekiner, Ph.D., is author of The Degenerate Society: Postmodernism and How You Can Oppose It and Modern Art and the Romantic Vision.
For many people these days, the only thing that will get them to a church is the prosperity gospel, which basically preaches that one’s hopes and desires can be realized through positive thinking. This teaching is also a major feature of current New Age thought and many of its teachers. These ideas are rooted earlier in the New Thought movement, an early 20th century forerunner of New Age ideas. These ideas are now also known as law of attraction and creative visualization theories, which basically say that one’s thoughts can attract whatever they focus on.
These ideas being bases for purportedly Christian churches have been happening for a long time. I recall seeing the first such preacher I was ever aware of, Rev Ike, on TV when I was in my teens. I recall him on stage with lots of bling, expensive looking suits, and fawning audiences eager to fill collection plates. Back when I still had cable TV, I would sometimes surf channels and often find imitators of such “Christian” prosperity teachers basically teaching that if viewers send them money, God will increase their money manyfold. Being skeptical from a young age, I always thought these preachers are basically flimflam and con artists out mainly to enrich themselves while dressing their cons in religion so as to have a tax haven.
But is there anything really Christian about these teachings?
In the first three centuries of Christianity, before the emperor Constantine embraced the faith for Rome, the religion was mainly about ideas of forgiveness, peace, love, tolerance, sacrifice, and martyrdom. I wonder if at that time it would be possible to find any Christians who would say that their religion was about thinking positively so as to realize one’s material and worldly longings. However, at that time, and still today, there were prevalent beliefs that one’s gods provided protections in areas of warfare, climate and weather problems, illness, and other material concerns. So perhaps all through its history, the faith entailed some beliefs that it provided protections against harms and increased chances for material kinds of successes.
The Goths, who in these early Christian centuries were achieving more and more military successes against Roman forces and who eventually sacked Rome in the late 400s, were early adopters of the Christian faith. Emperor Constantine knew this and eventually thought that the Goths’ God must be helping them, so he wanted this benefit for his soldiers also. So, in the early 300s, he legalized Christianity for Rome and from thereon encouraged his soldiers to have faith in the Christian God. Thus, from its beginnings, Roman Christianity was quite a bit about believing the faith provided blessings for material and worldly kinds of successes. The New Testament Rome commissioned from the Nicaea Council shortly thereafter well reflected the early Christians’ non-materialism and selfless doctrines. But there are hints in it here and there of the faith’s powers to achieve material successes such as Jesus’ statement that faith can move mountains (Matthew 17:20) and “With God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
These ideas have precedents in Judaism. The Old Testament, especially Proverbs and the Book of Ecclesiasticus aka the Book of Ben Sira, the latter included in the Catholic Old Testament, has many passages asserting that God can provide material protections, prosperity, and other blessings as rewards for good behavior. The many miraculous stories in Genesis and Exodus definitely assert that God provided special protections for those regarded as God’s chosen people of the time. For many centuries, ancient Jews believed that their Arc of the Covenant provided special worldly protections, especially in matters of warfare and battles. So, beliefs that one’s God provides worldly protections and blessings are certainly parts of Judeo-Christian traditions. However, there was a religious quid pro quo generally involved. Ancient Jews would not achieve their wishes merely for thinking positively but as rewards for faithfulness, for moral goodness, and for thus remaining in the good graces of their God.
In conclusion, on the question of whether the prosperity gospel is Christian, I would say that it’s not at all rooted in original pre-Romanized Christianity and so is not an authentic early Christian idea. But it does have some roots in old Judeo-Christian traditions and in early Romanized Christianity.
Still, even if the prosperity gospel does have some authentic religious roots, a question would remain: Why give your money to prosperity gospel preachers and their churches? Its basic ideas can be found in the Old Testament, in books of early New Thought writers like William Atkinson, and in the books of later writers like Norman Vincent Peale. Why not just read those books instead?
Maybe some people just don’t like to read books, especially if the books are not contemporary. And maybe some just like to go to the megachurches, find the services entertaining, find the preachers charismatic, maybe also believe that by going there, they will receive special prayer blessings, and feel all that is worth whatever they put in the collection plates. But I doubt anyone will ever prove that whatever one puts in the plates will return to donors manyfold.
© 2022 Deniz Tekiner