Jul 1, 2012

How the Health and Wealth Gospel Perverts Our View of Evil and Suffering

Randy AlcornBy Dr. Randy Alcorn
Eternal Perspective Ministries

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Prosperity theology teaches that God will bless with material abundance and good health those who obey him and lay claim to his promises. “We don’t have to wait for God’s blessing in the life to come,” it promises. “He’ll send it to us here and now.”

This popular “name it and claim it” teaching—also called the health and wealth gospel—is not limited to certain congregations, but has worked its way into mainstream evangelical churches where it gets subtly woven into many Christians’ worldviews.

The author of Total Life Prosperity writes,

“Biblical prosperity is the ability to be in control of every circumstance and situation that occurs in your life. No matter what happens, whether financial, social, physical, marital, spiritual, or emotional, this type of prosperity enables you to maintain control in every situation.” [1]

The author of another book writes,

“Poverty is so unnecessary. Loss is so painful.... I hate pain. Your pain can stop. I want you completely healed. That’s why I wrote this book.” [2]

This false worldview breeds superficiality, seriously misrepresents the gospel, and sets people up to believe, when evil and suffering come to them, that God has been untrue to his promises.

Prosperity theology

Prosperity theology has poisoned the church and undermined our ability to deal with evil and suffering

Some churches today have no place for pain. Those who say God has healed them get the microphone, while those who continue to suffer are shamed into silence or ushered out the back door.

Paul had a much different viewpoint.

“It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but to suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29).

“In the world you will have tribulation,” Jesus pledged (John 16:33, esv). We should count on these promises as surely as we count on John 3:16.

The first story of the post-Fall world is Cain’s murder of Abel, a righteous man who pleased God and suffered as a direct result. Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and nearly all the prophets weren’t just righteous people who happened to suffer. Rather, they suffered because they were righteous.

This continues in the New Testament, with Jesus as the prime example. Jesus said John the Baptist was the greatest of men (see Luke 7:28). Soon thereafter evildoers imprisoned then murdered John and mockingly displayed his head on a platter (see Matthew 14:6–12). What could be more utterly contradictory to the health and wealth gospel?

The Holy Spirit had hardly descended before wicked men stoned Stephen to death. Herod Agrippa beheaded James; later, Nero beheaded Paul. Tradition says Peter and Andrew were crucified; Matthew died a martyr; a lance killed Thomas; and Pharisees threw James the son of Alpheus from the temple, then stoned him and dashed his brains out with a club. First Peter is an entire book devoted to Christians suffering injustices for the sake of Christ.

Larry Waters writes,

“Blessing is promised and experienced, but suffering is never eliminated. In fact, the normal life of a person who follows the Lord involves both blessing and suffering.” [3]

Even at its best, the ancient world offered a hard life. Christians routinely suffered.

They still do. Even Christians who don’t suffer persecution still pull weeds, experience pain in childbirth, become ill and die, just like everyone else.

The health and wealth gospel’s claims are so obviously opposed to countless biblical passages that it is difficult to imagine, apart from the deceptive powers of Satan, how so many Christians could actually believe them.

In some cases, pleasing God results in suffering

God promises suffering to Christians in general and to those in particular who honor him. Consider one of the great, unclaimed promises of Scripture:

“Anyone who wants to live all out for Christ is in for a lot of trouble; there’s no getting around it” (2 Timothy 3:12, msg).

The most notable early Christians “conquered [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Revelation 12:11, esv).

We overrate health and underrate holiness. If physical health is our primary value, then why endanger it for a higher cause? While earlier Christians risked their lives to serve those dying from the bubonic plague, prosperity theology tends to encourage believers to flee from threatening ministry opportunities so that they might cling to what they cannot preserve anyway.

Yes, we should steward wisely the bodies God has entrusted to us; yet he sometimes calls on us to sacrifice our preferences, sleep, careers, vacation plans, and health to say yes to him. Does this sound demanding? Christ’s words leave no room for equivocation:

Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles....

Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved....

Anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:17–18, 21–22, 38)

Emmanuel Ndikumana explained why he returned home to Burundi when the Hutu-Tutsi conflict threatened his life. In revenge for atrocities, Tutsis already had killed his Hutu father and grandfather. Emmanuel told me, “I do not condemn those who fled; I understand. But I felt I should not treasure safety. The only way for me to prove to my people that I believed the gospel was to return and suffer with them. If I fear death as unbelievers do, I have nothing to offer unbelievers. Only when you are free from the fear of death are you really free.”

We should see our suffering as God keeping his promises, not violating them

“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12–13).

Suffering—whether from persecution, accidents, or illnesses—shouldn’t surprise us. God has promised it. One of the great tragedies about the health and wealth gospel is that it makes God seem like a liar. When people believe that God promises to keep them from suffering, God appears untrustworthy when suffering comes.

A woman who had based her life on the health and wealth worldview lay dying of cancer. She looked into a camera during an interview and said, “I’ve lost my faith.” She felt bitter that God had “broken his promises.” She correctly realized that the god she’d followed does not exist. She incorrectly concluded that the God of the Bible had let her down. He hadn’t; her church and its preachers had done that. God had never made the promises that she thought he’d broken.

When hard times come, people should lose their faith in false doctrine, not in God. In contrast to jewelry-flaunting televangelists, Paul said, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

If you are a Christian, God will deliver you from eternal suffering. And even now he will give you joyful foretastes of living in his presence. That’s his promise.

Christians should expect to suffer more, not less, since they suffer under the Fall and as followers of Christ

If your goal is to avoid suffering in this life, then following Christ will not help you. Jesus himself said,

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.... If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:18, 20).

Josef Tson was once the best-known pastor in Romania. At a time when the Christian faith had become virtually illegal, he openly preached the gospel. Police threatened him repeatedly with imprisonment and arrest. In his sixties he studied at Oxford for his doctorate, writing a dissertation that became a book titled Suffering, Martyrdom, and Rewards in Heaven.

I first opened the Scriptures with Josef in 1988, with a group of theologians discussing eternal rewards. Twenty years later, writing this book [If God Is Good], I remembered his stories and insights and called him again. Josef explained to me how the belief that God doesn’t want his people to suffer once corrupted the Romanian church. In the interests of self-preservation, he said, they failed to speak out against injustice, tyranny, and the idolatry of turning men into gods. He recalls joining the crowd on the streets and crying, “Glory to Stalin.”

God convicted Josef. As a pastor he refused to glorify communist leaders and started to speak out boldly for Christ. Interrogators threatened him with death every day for six months. Finally he told them, “Your supreme weapon is killing.

My supreme weapon is dying. My preaching will speak ten times louder after you kill me.”

Finally, in 1981, the Romanian government exiled him.


[1] Creflo A. Dollar Jr., Total Life Prosperity (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1999), x.

[2] Mike Murdock, 7 Keys to 1000 Times More (Dallas: Wisdom International, 1998), 13.

[3] Larry J. Waters, "Missio Dei in the Book of Job," Bibliotheca Sacra 166, no. 661 (January–March 2009): 32.