The Prosperity Gospel, simply put, is the belief that God’s favor (and our own justification from sin) is experienced as material or earthly success. It is ubiquitous throughout America (and indeed, the West generally) but it takes many forms. The most obvious example is the often-caricatured Joel Osteen and similar mega-evangelists who preach success as the will of God.
Some examples are harder to recognize. One is the assumption that poverty is a sign of laziness, of vice and not only should we avoid poverty, we should avoid the vicious poor. Another is the feeling that if we’re not doing anything “significant” in the world, we’re not doing God’s will. Another is the idea that the efficiency or success of a political action is enough to make it right.
The corollary of the prosperity gospel is that suffering is a sign of God’s displeasure, or put more bluntly, we think that God doesn’t love us because we are poor, sick, in pain, lonely etc. When we’ve been told all our lives that if God shows us his favor, we will be happy and free and successful, our misery, burdens, and failures can only be a sign that God has abandoned us.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. God himself, who is Love, as the apostle John reminds us, showed his love by giving us his beloved son to suffer torture and die, unsuccessful in the world’s eyes. St. Paul asks:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Romans 8:35, 37-39)
The Prosperity Gospel is, at its roots, the offspring of Reformation theology/anthropology, specifically the idea of the total depravity of the human soul and the arbitrary justification by the gift of Faith from God. In this understanding, we can do nothing virtuous by our own free will, but all the good we do is God working through us, covering up our total depravity with direct intervention. But this also implies we can do no evil without direct intervention from God, and so our actions themselves don’t tell us if we are saved. We cannot know if we are saved unless we can show that God is working through us. Material success is God’s sign that he has saved us, otherwise we are clearly punished with misery and failure.
This is a gospel of despair and is completely antithetical to the promise of God in the scripture and through the sacraments of the Church. We are all in need of forgiveness. Success doesn’t mean we are virtuous and on our way to heaven. Nor does suffering mean we are wicked and damned. But this despair has taken hold of our country (and even our world where we have insisted on spreading it.) If God inflicts suffering on us because we are evil and depraved, we must all be evil and depraved and unworthy of love. If God grants success to his elect, then most of us experience a sad absence of election.
This insidious gospel is in fact not good news at all, and it is no wonder so many turn away from the Prosperity God. He is a vindictive and spiteful God, and heaven with Him would likely be as hellish as earth.
Yet, for all our rejection of the Prosperity God, we still seek after and desire earthly prosperity, for what else is there if heaven is hell? This leads to a viciously competitive culture and an ideal of progressive positivism; all of history ought to lead to an ever-increasing freedom of humanity from the shackles of pain and misery. We thus seek out pleasure as the main goal of our existence. Let nothing stand in our way, and certainly not a vindictive Prosperity God. This is liberalism, and it is the bastard son of the Prosperity Gospel who has rejected his profligate father.
Of course, the real Gospel holds the hope that we can do good, not just “have success.” Heaven is real, and the glories of it make the suffering of this world less than dust on the scale. God is not vindictive, but loving, and he calls us to reject earthly success so that we do not choose this life of suffering over the the afterlife of bliss.