The Prosperity Gospel Is More Orthodox Than You Think

John Oliver recently skewered the fraudulent dealings of Christian televangelists. Their manipulation of the well-meaning faithful is, as Oliver emphasized, made much easier by the particularly lax regulations that govern self-identified religious organizations.

Oliver's segment also brought to the public's attention some of the beliefs and practices of the so-called prosperity gospel, namely the notions of "seed faith" and "supernatural debt forgiveness." Although teachings regarding these and similar notions vary among proponents, the basic idea is that of a divine return on investment: one gives now, trusting that God will reward one's faithfulness, both materially and spiritually, with more in the future.

It's easy to see how such a notion lends itself to abuse, so it's not surprising that it's one of the main weapons that well-manicured and wealthy televangelists use to fleece the faithful. It's also easy to malign such beliefs and practices and, as Oliver's segment shows, have a good laugh at them, even if the humor is mixed with disdain.

Many are quick to denounce such practices as contrary to the gospel. But it's important to emphasize that the basic logic of "seed faith," "supernatural debt forgiveness," and the like is not at all out of the ordinary, at least to a certain extent.

It's not uncommon, for instance, for believers to think that faithfully tithing a percentage of their income leads ultimately to God's blessing, if not in the near term then at least a bit down the road. "God loves a cheerful giver," and rewards such giving abundantly, Paul reminds us (II Corinthians 9:7-8).

Indeed, although we may bristle at the apparent similarity in thinking, the basic idea that undergirds much of the prosperity movement pushes to the extreme certain notions that are deeply rooted in the Christian theological tradition. Matthew 19:16-30, for instance, tells the famous story of the rich young man, who comes to Jesus asking what he must do to attain eternal life. Jesus counsels him to keep the commandments. The rich young man assures him that he has kept them all, but still lacks something. Jesus responds, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." (Matthew 19:21).

The basic idea, here, is that of an exchange between heaven and earth, the material and the spiritual: One sacrifices one's wealth now for an even greater, "eternal" reward. Or, as Jesus puts it elsewhere in a different context, "whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:9).

As both the historian Peter Brown and the biblical scholar Gary Anderson have recently argued, the early church tended to take such statements seriously and somewhat literally. According to Anderson, for many early Christian thinkers "giving alms is like making a bank deposit to an account in heaven." That is, one can ameliorate the consequences of one's sins in the life to come by being generous with one's wealth in this life, in effect turning judgment into reward. It is through such generosity, which specifically takes the form of giving to the poor, that one funds a "treasury in heaven." That treasury, Anderson notes, has "an outstanding rate of return." Anderson thus quotes Saint Augustine as saying, "Give a little and receive on a grand scale. Look how your interest is mounting up! Give temporal wealth and claim eternal interest, give earth and gain heaven."

From a theological perspective, then, the problem with the prosperity gospel is not so much that it assumes that one's actions have miraculous or "supernatural" repercussions, even--and perhaps especially--actions related to monetary exchange. The problem is, rather, the way in which it inverts a more "orthodox" logic. Whereas in the early church, the "seed money" flows from the wealthy to the poor to fund a "treasury in heaven," in the prosperity movement it's the other way around: the poor give to the wealthy, in the hope of gaining treasure on earth. It should go without saying that the only person gaining any "treasure" in the prosperity movement is the televangelist.

Be that as it may, the fact that such logic can be so easily inverted says something about that logic itself: "flipping the script" merely shifts the burden, without fundamentally changing anything. The real problem, in other words, is with understanding "salvation" in financial terms, that is, in terms of investment, exchange, and debt. That applies to the prosperity movement as well as "orthodox" Christianity, which in many ways mirror each other.

Perhaps "seed faith" is not as new or unorthodox as is often thought.