A recent survey finds an increasing number of churchgoers in the United States subscribe to beliefs associated with the prosperity gospel. “In the last five years, far more churchgoers are reflecting prosperity gospel teachings,” says Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, “including the heretical belief that material blessings are earned from God.” The problem, as McConnell points out, is not with the idea that God provides material blessings (all good things provided to God’s children come from him [Rom. 8:32]) but with the false teaching that we do anything to earn such favor.
Here are nine things you should know about the prosperity gospel.
1. The prosperity gospel goes by many names and brands.
The prosperity gospel is an umbrella term for the “health and wealth gospel” or “name it and claim it” theology. Many people will recognize its most popular brand, the “Word of Faith” movement. It’s a contemporary Christian movement that has garnered both a massive following and considerable controversy.
This doctrine teaches that God wills the financial prosperity and physical well-being of his people and that faith, positive speech, and donations to select Christian ministries can increase one’s material wealth and health. As Stephen Hunt explains,
The doctrine of the assurance of divine physical health and prosperity through faith is at the forefront of this expression of Christian faith. It means that “health and wealth” are the automatic divine right of all Bible-believing Christians and may be procreated by faith as part of the package of salvation, since the atonement of Christ includes not just the removal of sin, but also the removal of sickness and poverty.
2. The prosperity gospel has its roots in the occult movement known as New Thought.
The New Thought movement is a spiritual philosophy that originated in the United States in the late 19th century. While not explicitly Christian, it was influenced by Christian ideas, as well as by Eastern philosophies, metaphysical traditions, and the emerging fields of psychology and self-help.
The movement focuses on the power of positive thinking (the belief that positive thoughts manifest positive outcomes, while negative thoughts bring about negative circumstances), the law of attraction (the idea that since “like attracts like,” visualizing and focusing on desired outcomes will attract those circumstances into one’s life), and the belief that the mind has the power to heal the body and attract prosperity.
New Thought incorporates elements of Christian mysticism and Scripture but interprets them in a metaphysical context. Phrases from the Bible like “Ask, and it will be given to you” (Matt. 7:7) are often interpreted as affirmations of the law of attraction. However, New Thought also incorporates ideas from Hinduism, Buddhism, and other Eastern philosophies, making it a syncretic spiritual framework.
3. The ‘father of the prosperity gospel’ was a faith-healing preacher from Oklahoma.
The man who could be considered the father of modern prosperity gospel teaching is Oral Roberts. Born in 1918 in Pontotoc County, Oklahoma, Roberts rose to prominence in the mid-20th century and played a significant role in shaping modern Pentecostalism and charismatic Christianity. He grew up in poverty and struggled with tuberculosis as a teenager. He claims he decided to dedicate his life to Christian ministry after being miraculously healed during a revival meeting.
His ministry was one of the first to realize the potential of television as a medium for spreading the gospel, and his programs reached millions of viewers. The faith-healing evangelist became so influential that he started his own school, Oral Roberts University. At the height of his influence, Roberts oversaw a ministry that brought in $110 million in annual revenue.
4. The Word of Faith movement helped spread the prosperity gospel.
While Roberts was one of the first to combine New Thought principles with faith healing, the most prominent evangelist of the prosperity gospel—and the father of the Word of Faith movement—was Kenneth E. Hagin (1917–2003). In 1962, Hagin founded Kenneth Hagin Ministries to spread his teachings, which emphasize speaking words of faith as a way to manifest health, wealth, and other blessings.
One of his most influential ideas was his distinguishing between the logos (the written Word of God) and the rhema (the spoken or revealed Word). He argued that rhema is the means by which believers activate God’s promises. As Russell S. Woodbridge says, “More than any other factor, the Word of Faith movement was the vehicle responsible for spreading prosperity teaching across the United States in the late 20th century.”
5. The concept of seed-faith is a cornerstone of the movement.
The doctrine of seed-faith posits that financial giving—particularly to ministries that promote prosperity gospel preachers—can be likened to planting a seed that will eventually yield a harvest of blessings. You sow a financial “seed” into a ministry as an act of faith and, in turn, God will multiply that seed in the form of various blessings, which could be financial prosperity, physical healing, or other forms of favor. Essentially, it represents a transactional relationship between the believer and God, facilitated through a financial gift.
Roberts articulated the seed-faith concept using a threefold model: (1) plant a seed: give something valuable (usually money) as your seed to a ministry; (2) expect a miracle: have faith your act of giving will trigger divine intervention; (3) harvest the miracle: receive the divine blessings in a manifold manner, often expected to be in material or financial forms.
6. Television was the primary tool that helped to spread prosperity gospel teachings.
Televangelism—the practice of using television to broadcast religious services and programs—began to flourish in the 1970s and 1980s with the deregulation of broadcasting and the expansion of cable television. Many of the most famous televangelists were associated with the prosperity gospel movement and its teachings.
Roberts was one of the first to use the medium to attract large audiences. His pilot and chauffeur, Kenneth Copeland, also became one of the most notorious (and wealthy) prosperity preachers. Roberts and Copeland paved the way for the televangelists who became famous in the 1980s, including Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Benny Hinn, Pat Robertson, Robert Tilton, and Fred Price. In the 21st century, the most prominent prosperity gospel leaders got their start before a televised audience, including Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, Joyce Meyer, T. D. Jakes, and Paula White.
7. The prosperity gospel discounts what the Bible teaches—especially about wealth and suffering.
Many Christian scholars and ethicists argue the prosperity gospel’s focus on material prosperity undermines the teachings of Jesus, who emphasized humility, compassion, and the normalcy of suffering.
“I don’t know what you feel about the prosperity gospel—the health, wealth and prosperity gospel—but I’ll tell you what I feel about it,” pastor John Piper told a gathering of more than 1,000 college students in November 2005. “Hatred.”
In 2014, Piper outlined six keys to detecting the prosperity gospel:
- absence of a serious doctrine of the biblical necessity and normalcy of suffering
- absence of a clear and prominent doctrine of self-denial
- absence of serious exposition of Scripture
- failure to deal with tensions in Scripture
- church leaders who have exorbitant lifestyles
- prominence of self and marginalization of the greatness of God
8. Prosperity gospel beliefs are common among American churchgoers.
A 2023 study from Lifeway Research finds more than half (52 percent) of American Protestant churchgoers say their church teaches that God will bless them if they give more money to their church and charities, with one in four (24 percent) strongly agreeing with this teaching. In a 2017 study, only 38 percent of churchgoers made that same claim.
Churchgoers are more likely today than in 2017 to believe God wants them to prosper financially (76 percent vs. 69 percent) and that they have to do something for God in order to receive material blessings from him (45 percent vs. 26 percent). Today, three in four churchgoers (76 percent) believe God wants them to prosper financially, including 43 percent who strongly agree. Fewer (45 percent) believe they have to do something for him in order to receive material blessings from God, with 21 percent strongly agreeing.
9. The prosperity gospel is a false gospel.
In a 2015 article for The Gospel Coalition, the Christian ethicist David W. Jones explained five theological errors of prosperity gospel teaching:
- The Abrahamic covenant is a means to material entitlement.
- Jesus’s atonement extends to the “sin” of material poverty.
- Christians give in order to gain material compensation from God.
- Faith is a self-generated spiritual force that leads to prosperity.
- Prayer is a tool to force God to grant prosperity.
“In light of Scripture, the prosperity gospel is fundamentally flawed,” Jones said. “At bottom, it is a false gospel because of its faulty view of the relationship between God and man. Simply put, if the prosperity gospel is true, grace is obsolete, God is irrelevant, and man is the measure of all things. Whether they’re talking about the Abrahamic covenant, the atonement, giving, faith, or prayer, prosperity teachers turn the relationship between God and man into a quid pro quo transaction.”