The cover of the current Time Magazine asks the always poignant question: "Does God want you to be rich? The debate over the new gospel of wealth". The "gospel of wealth" is not necessarily a new gospel. It arguably began when Simon Magus offered to by the gift of the Holy Spirit from Peter (Acts 8). Paul speaks of those who preach Christ "out of envy and rivalry" as well as "selfish ambition" (Philippians 1:15-17). But perhaps the greatest evidence of the perennial heresy of "health and wealth" is found in Paul's advice to Timothy:
"[There are those] who think that godliness is a means to financial gain. But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs." (1 Timothy 6:5-10)
The Development of Prosperity Theology
Modern prosperity theology is the result of a long line of development. It begins with the dry Orthodoxy, naturalistic Liberalism, and eschatological Conversionism found at the end of the 1800's. Dry Orthodoxy emphasized teaching and learning all of the right things, but it presented a God who was largely uninvolved in our lives. Not only that, but all emotionalism was suspect in such circles, so the net effect was a religion of the head totally unconnected with everyday life.
At this time naturalistic Liberalism arose which denied that God was in the business of making dramatic entrances into people's lives. This view reduces Christianity to morality and makes faith a series of "do's" and "don'ts" with no clear "pay off" for such obedience. Furthermore, naturalistic Liberalism denies that God is still in the business of healing people (if he ever was in the first place). Along with both of these arose a version of eschatological Conversionism which stressed conversion to Christ chiefly as a means to avoid hellfire. The salient feature of this movement is that it postponed the blessings of God to post-Earthly life. Thus these three movements created an arid religious atmosphere in which God no longer worked directly in our Earthly lives. It was only time before this aridity created a thirst for something more.
This "something more" came in the Keswick and Holiness movements (1850-1900), which stressed an emotional experience of God, along with joy and peace, right here, right now. This morphed into the Pentecostal movement (1900-1950) which not only stressed emotional experience, but miraculous activity in the form of speaking in tongues and prophecy. As this movement grew and spilled out into the charismatic movement (1950-1970), another new emphasis was added: divine healing. It was taught that God wanted us healthy and whole in body, spirit, and soul (cf. 1Th 5:23). Not only that, but healing is something God wanted to do, right here, right now.
This led to "Third Wave" charismatic churches, such as John Wimber's Vineyard Churches. These churches push divine healing in the direction of relevance and psychological wholeness (which is actually a good thing). In addition, classical Pentecostalism, with its emphasis on the power of the spoken word in prophecy and tongues, led to the "Word of Faith" movement. In this movement (exemplified by Robert Tilton and Kenneth Copeland) we have to "name" a faith-vision given to us by God, and "claim" it through faith and action, in order to make it become a reality in our lives.
Current Forms of Prosperity Theology
Today have two main types of prosperity theology today. One is "personal fulfillment" theology, exemplified by folks like Ed Young (of Fellowship Church) and Joel Olsteen (of "Your Best Life Now"). In this theology God is primarily a tool to make us self-actualized people who are successful and can realize the potential God has placed into us. The other type of prosperity theology is the standard "health and wealth" version that states that it is God's will that you be rich. This is exemplified by folks like Creflo Dollar.
The development of prosperity theology into a heresy can be easily traced in three stages: First, something of God's work is denied and excluded (in naturalistic liberalism, dry orthodoxy, and eschatological conversionism). Second, there is an effort to affirm and re-include what was missing (in Pentecostalism, the Charismatic movement, and the Third Wave). Third, this missing ingredient is elevated to the center of the gospel, combined with selfishness, and Christ is made a mere tool to procure blessings (in Word of Faith and prosperity movements).
The Recipe for the Health and Wealth Gospel
The recipe for health and wealth is simple: It is one part "God-as-vending-machine" combined with one part "blessings-come-through-obedience", mixed with a generous helping of "Christ-took-my-punishment-so-I-don't-have-to-suffer". Let me explain: Each of these ingredients is a partial truth, but when combined they create a blatant lie. First of all, God is seen rightly as the possessor and dispenser of material blessings. He causes "sun to shine on the righteous and unrighteous" and he gives us what we need if we "seek first his Kingdom" (cf. Mat 5-6). And, so the logic goes, if God is the King with all the treasure, and we are children of the King and heirs of his treasure, then we get it all! They forget the part in Romans 8 that says it is only by co-suffering with Christ that we become co-heirs with Christ.
The second ingredient is doing works of merit to gain blessings. This is oh so very close to what started the Reformation. Yet, instead of the blessings gained being postponed until after death (Catholic indulgences are supposed to lessen one's time in purgatory), they blessings "earned" come in this life in the form of material wealth. It is all found in the Deuteronomic Law: You obey in faith, you get blessed. You are faithless, you get cursed (cf. Deu 27-28). Thus, if you plant a "mustard seed" of faith by giving money to God's work, then you can expect that gift to be blessed and return to you a hundredfold (cf. Luke 8:8). Yet again, this identifies God's blessings as primarily material, and ignores much Biblical material about how we must suffer with Christ and suffer for Christ to be whole.
The third ingredient is really the genius of prosperity theology, because prosperity theology would be ship-wrecked on the problem of curses from sinfulness if it were not for Christ's substitutionary atonement. But, now that Jesus has taken all the pain for us, there is no more pain for us to bear! So, when we do bad he gets the rap, and when we do meritorious acts, we get the blessing. It is a win-win situation… Well, I guess not for Jesus, but who cares as long as I am happy and self-fulfilled. Again, this has no place for redemptive suffering such as that Paul mentions when he says he "fills up what is lacking in Christ's sufferings on behalf of His Church" (Col. 1).
Forget Redemption, Give Me "Success"
The two biggest flaws in prosperity theology is in what they focus on, and what they leave out. They leave out redemptive suffering. There is no place for it. I have read tracts by prosperity preachers that even state that Jesus was wealthy and had many "mansions" (based on John 14). They systematically ignore or explain away passages that indicate we will have to suffer for Christ, or re-interpret them in such a way as to state that we will only temporarily have to suffer as a means to prove we are worthy of, and ready for, material blessings.
As for what they focus on, it is me, me, me! The focus is not on Jesus or God. They become mere means to benefit the real goal of the theology: ourselves. They say they don't do this, and they do talk about Jesus a great deal in their sermons and teachings. But if you look close they only talk about Jesus as a tool to be blessed, instead of talking about ourselves as the tools to be used by Christ. Needless to say, this inverts the whole Gospel. It is no longer a Gospel focused on the Kingdom of God, with Christ on the throne. It becomes a gospel about the Kingdom of me, with myself on the throne.