Major theological issues can sometimes show up in the most surprising places.
The Financial Times reigns as one of the most influential periodicals in the world—it is the reading assignment of the Davos class, and it rivals the influence of The New York Times and The Washington Post. The Financial Times leads the newspaper world in its insightful analysis, cultural critique, and economic breakdown of the most pressing issues facing the globe. It is a paper not read by the faint-hearted.
And, it is the very paper that recently ran this surprising headline, “A Preacher for Trump’s America: Joel Osteen and the Prosperity Gospel.”
Edward Luce, the American Editor for the Financial Times, penned this article, which chronicles his visit to Lakewood Church, the most significant temple to the prosperity gospel in America. Luce marshals all his prowess and analytical skill to craft this insightful article—a story that explores the friction between the prosperity gospel of Joel Osteen and the historic, orthodox Christian faith.
Luce’s report not only details what is present in prosperity theology, but what is absent. He attended a men’s support meeting and wrote, “Optimism, hope, destiny, harvest, bounty—these are Lakewood’s buzzwords. Prosperity too.” Then, he reveals the glaring absence of crucial theological terms: “Words that are rarely heard include guilt, shame, sin, penance and hell. Lakewood is not the kind of church that troubles your conscience.” The supervisor of the men’s support group said to Luce, “If you want to feel bad, Lakewood is not the place for you. Most people want to leave church feeling better than when they went in.”
This statement distills the essential message of prosperity theology—a theology not centered on God and his glory, but an anthropocentric psychological message aimed at making individuals merely feel better about themselves.
Indeed, self-promotion undergirds the success of the prosperity gospel. All meaning and significance in the universe revolves around the self. Thus, meaning and identity have shifted away from the self-revealing, self-existing God and towards the self-important, self-worshiping individual whom God loves.
God certainly loves us. Indeed, the Bible says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” The prosperity gospel, however, shifts the impetus of that love away from the praise and glory of the Creatortowards the praise and glory of the creature. Luce captures this sentiment in his report, noting that Osteen said, “If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it. If he had a computer, your face would be the screen saver.”
Osteen has reversed the entire theological order of biblical Christianity—an order that begins with the supreme priority, glory, and holiness of God. God and God alone receives the glory. The manifestation of his love through Jesus Christ demonstrates himself to be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Christ. Osteen, however, reverses the polarity and makes God the great admirer of the individual.
Luce had the opportunity to meet with Osteen and interview him privately. During that interview, Osteen candidly offered his biblically anemic theology that in no way resembles the teachings of Christ. Luce asked Osteen how he managed to keep sin and redemption out of his supposedly Christian message. Osteen responded, “Look, I’m a preacher’s son, so I’m an optimist. Life already makes us feel guilty every day. If you keep laying shame on people, they get turned off.”
The secular reporter for the Financial Times seems to have a stronger grasp on the teachings of orthodox Christianity than Osteen. Luce rightly asks how a message can parade as Christian when it avoids the idea of sin and redemption? Osteen’s response was not theological but psychological.
He offers that no individual should experience guilt or shame—not even for their sin against a holy and righteous God. Luce asks Osteen, “How does telling people to downplay their consciences tally with the New Testament?” Osteen retorts, “I preach the gospel, but we are nondenominational. It’s not my aim to dwell on technicalities. I want to help people sleep at night.”
Osteen exchanges the eternal consequences of the gospel’s redemptive power through Jesus Christ for a thinly veiled mash of modern psychotherapy and positive thinking. His teaching is pop psychology that resembles the mantras of Oprah rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ.
After detailing his conversation with Osteen, Luce turned to analyzing his time with the prosperity preaching, writing, “Osteen knows his audience. We want fatted calves slaughtered in our honor. There was no hint in his message of the fire and brimstone of a Billy Graham or a Jerry Falwell, two of America’s most celebrated 20th century evangelists. Osteen is more like Oprah Winfrey in a suit. He is not peddling the opium of the masses. It is more like therapy for a broken middle class.”
As Luce’s article makes clear, Osteen’s message is a gold-mine. Indeed, Osteen’s false gospel works for him financially. As the article makes clear, Osteen received a $13 million advance for just one recent book. Luce details, “With a fortune estimated at $60 million and a mansion listed on Zillow at $10.7 million, Osteen is hardly living like a friar. His suburban Houston home has three elevators, a swimming pool and parking for 20 cars including his $230,000 Ferrari 458 Italia.”
Luce also cites in his report this quote from another prosperity gospel preacher, Paula White: “Anyone who tells you to deny yourself is Satan.”
Someone needs to tell Paula that Jesus actually said that we should deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him. If you get Jesus confused with Satan, you have made an eternally fatal error.
Yet, the entire superstructure of prosperity theology peddles false theology from top to bottom. Osteen is quoted by saying, “If you do your part, God will do his. He will promote you. He will give you the increase.”
This amounts to an entire reversal of the gospel of Christ revealed in the Scriptures. Nowhere do the Scriptures tell mankind that if we just do our part, God will do his. Instead, the Bible reveals that God accomplished everything needed for our salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on his cross.
Perhaps the most horrifying statement in the Financial Times articles pertains to Osteen’s exegesis of Jesus’ last words on the cross, “It is finished.” Osteen does not believe that Jesus declared those words as an attestation of his imminent death and the atonement he made. Instead, Osteen preaches that “It is finished,” means, “The guilt is finished. The depression is finished. The low self-esteem is finished. The mediocrity is finished. It is all finished.”
Osteen has replaced the entire biblical message of Christ and what he accomplished at Golgotha. He has exchanged sacrificial atonement for self-absorption. When Christ declared, “It is finished,” he declared far more than the watered-down psychotherapy of Joel Osteen—indeed, Christ declared that salvation had been secured; that death and the devil were defeated. The temple veil was torn in two, declaring the end of the sacrificial system because the perfect sacrifice had been made. Through Jesus Christ, we now have direct access to the Father.
That is the good news of the gospel; that is what Christians have understood to be the foundation of our hope as God’s people.
Osteen tragically exchanges the hope of gospel centered on Christ and his accomplished work for a wishy-washy, self-centered, self-exalting message of psychotherapy. He does not proclaim the gospel but a false hope. He turns the eyes of his audience away from the glory of the eternal God to a god who is a cosmic butler, waiting on our beck and call to give us health and wealth.
When we think about the theological competitors to the gospel of Jesus Christ, we immediately turn to the major world religions like Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. We might even lump modern secularism into that category of theological competitors to the truth claims of Christianity.
But, in many parts of the world, the greatest competition for the hearts and minds of people is between biblical Christianity and the prosperity gospel.
And the central problem of the prosperity gospel is not that it offers too much, but that it offers too little. The gospel of Jesus Christ brings salvation, the forgiveness of sin, and life everlasting. The prosperity gospel promises a Ferrari. At least it did for Joel Osteen.
Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr. serves as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.