I have a confession.
When I was in college, I read a book by a prominent megachurch pastor. The author told me to live like a child of God. He told me God wanted to bless me. He also mentioned that if I only believed, God would give me the nicest house in the neighborhood. That seemed to make sense.
The author explained that he once wanted the nicest house in the neighborhood, and God gave it to him. Here was a man with evidence. Not only did he have the story about the house, and other anecdotes, he also had a very nice set of white teeth (Ah, supernaturally white, I thought).
This was my first introduction to what is popularly called the “prosperity gospel” or the “health and wealth” gospel. At the time, the logic seemed airtight: “If it worked for him, why shouldn’t it work for me?”
If I had dug a bit deeper, though, I would have seen the actual reason it worked for him and not for me. It’s because the prosperity gospel is a pyramid scheme.
What’s a Pyramid Scheme?
Here’s how pyramid schemes work.
Step One: A snazzy entrepreneur wants to make a lot of money. Said snazzy entrepreneur tells two little old ladies that if they sell his “Wow-What-A-Sham 3000,” they can make some dough to pay off their cat-sitting bills. That will cost them a startup investment of $401.76. And yes, Wow-What-A-Sham 3000 is a gimmick. But that’s okay, it’s not really about selling the product anyway; it’s about recruiting more salespeople.
Step Two: These two little old ladies recruit more little old ladies, and give them the same spiel.
Step Three: At some point, people realize no one wants to buy the Wow-What-A-Sham 3000, and no one is actually selling any Wow-What-A-Sham 3000s. All the buy-in money is funneling straight up to the top. Meanwhile, snazzy entrepreneur is up in his office, cackling, and swimming in wads of cash.
That’s a pyramid scheme.
3 Ways the Health and Wealth Gospel Fits the Pyramid Scheme
What does this descrption have to do with the book by the prosperity pastor? Everything. Because the prosperity gospel is strikingly similar to a pyramid scheme in at least three ways.
1. It’s based on the deceptive success of the guy at the top.
I was bamboozled by the prosperity pastor’s ploy in the same way people are fooled by pyramid schemes. They see the success of the guy at the top, and think: It’s working for him, isn’t it?
Yes, it is. And that’s because someone paid for that pastor’s house. Me. I paid, when I bought the book. So do millions of others, when they bring truckloads of seed-money to his doorstep each weekend. The people who fund the prosperity pastor’s success, in other words, are the people at the bottom of the pyramid. Of course it works for him. He’s at the top.
2. It’s a lie told to desperate people.
Like a pyramid scheme, the health-and-wealth gospel feeds on the down and out. My friend Vallerian Mganga tells me that in Kenya, the health-and-wealth message is the only version of Christianity most people ever hear. My father-in-law, who mentors prisoners, tells me that he runs into this teaching routinely in the prison system. Why? Because the health-and-wealth gospel preys on people desperate for relief.
Missiologist Paul Borthwick tells of a trip to Ghana, where he witnessed a 300-pound preacher appeal to his body as proof that God had blessed him, and would bless his listener’s seed-money as well. “When you live in poverty” the missionary with Borthwick said, “you don’t want to feel loved. You want God’s power to make you prosper. . . . [T]hey have been taught [that] money is the way to release the power.”
The prosperity gospel isn’t just bad theology. It’s a form of oppression.
3. It feeds our idolatry.
Like the pyramid scheme, the prosperity gospel doesn’t necessarily require financially desperate people. It just needs people who are sufficiently idolatrous. We don’t fall for pyramid schemes because we’re stupid. We fall for them because we want to fall for them. We want the money, health, and esteem they offer—and we want it quick. We want to believe it can all happen with the flick of a “faith” switch in our brains. We want it desperately.
I’ll never forget the time I challenged my friend’s health-and-wealth notions with the life of the apostle Paul. She replied, “Well, Paul didn’t have enough faith.” That’s what pyramid schemes do: they compel us with our idols. Then they blind us to anything—no matter how obvious—that tells us we’re being conned.
Real Promises of Jesus
Don’t get me wrong: I believe wholeheartedly God wants to bless me. I believe God favors me. I believe he wants me to have the best possible life. But I also believe the good news of Jesus is far better than the prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel climbs over people; Jesus descends to pick us up. The prosperity gospel oppresses the poor; Jesus identifies with the destitute. The prosperity gospel fuels our idol factories; Jesus smashes them with a vision of his glory.
The truly good news is this: Jesus’s dreams for us are weightier than the pursuit of health, wealth, and personal success. Jesus doesn’t offer self-esteem; he offers the esteem of God when we give up self-estimation (Matt. 5:3). He doesn’t offer positivity; he offers God’s profound comfort when we’re brokenhearted by sin (Matt. 5:4). He doesn’t offer the nicest house in the neighborhood; he offers hope in the resurrection when we forego personal power (Matt. 5:5). And he doesn’t offer “supernatural favor” from others, but instead offers God’s eternal favor when we’re despised on his account (Matt. 5:10-12).
In short: Jesus is a better God, a weightier God. He’s not a huckster standing on the top of the pile promising us worldly wealth. He’s a God who climbs down to the bottom of the pyramid. He lays himself flat in the dust and stretches out his arms at the cross, where health, wealth, and abundance are nowhere in sight, and he offers us his riches.