The Prosperity Gospel in a Time of Plague

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As the entire world faces a public health and economic challenge the likes of which none of us has ever seen, we can, sadly, see the hucksters and grifters of the “prosperity gospel” movement, and their enablers, taking every opportunity, once again, to destroy lives and enrich themselves. This ought to matter to every disciple of Jesus Christ, with urgency like never before. 

On a broadcast of the The Jim Bakker Show last month, the scandal-plagued televangelist hosted Sherrill Sellman a “natural health expert” hawking a coronavirus treatment known as Silver Solution. On the show, Bakker’s guest said the product “hasn’t been tested on this strain of the coronavirus” but on other strains it “has been able to eliminate it within 12 hours.” Sellman added that the product “has been proven by the government that it has the ability to kill every pathogen it has ever been tested on, including SARS and HIV.” Peddling fake treatments to Covid-19 is a violation of both state and federal law. The state of Missouri quickly filed a lawsuit against Bakker and his production company, and the organization has stopped selling the solution online.

Kenneth Copeland, standing behind an on-screen banner that read “STANDING AGAINST THE CORONAVIRUS,” instructed viewers to place their hands on the televisions in order to receive their healing. Elsewhere Copeland downplayed concerns about Covid-19, “forget about corona. It’s another form of the flu.” And in response to churches not holding services to combat the spread of the virus Copeland said, “I want you in my church. If we have to pass out thermometers. If we find one with a fever, let’s get him healed right there.”

The Florida-based pastor, Rodney Howard-Browne, posted a video in which he says he has cursed the coronavirus in the name of Jesus, just as he claims to have done to the Zika virus during the outbreak several years ago. In a recent church service, after acknowledging the guidance to avoid shaking hands, he instructed congregants to turn and greet one another. And during the same service Howard-Browne said “we are not stopping anything. I’ve got news for you. This church will never close. The only time this church will ever close is when the rapture is taking place. This Bible school is open because we are raising up revivalists not pansies.”

Some would dismiss all of this because, they would reason, only the most gullible of people could listen to these Elmer Gantry types, selling almost-literal snake oil. But this attitude fails to see, first of all, how many people, worldwide, actually do listen to these people. Moreover, this attitude is a kind of social Darwinism, thinking that people gullible enough to fall for such frauds deserve to do so. This is not the way of Christ. 

We should see an example here of what has always been true. The prosperity gospel claims for itself the name and authority of Jesus Christ, while hawking a different Christ and a different gospel. Some so-called evangelicals are willing to accept all of that, sometimes because of the political power or mass appeal of these teachers. The prosperity gospel, though, is not Christianity, by any definition of the word. The prosperity gospel is a combination of ancient Canaanite fertility religion with a modern multilevel marketing pyramid scheme. And because these teachers are so media-savvy and attention-grabbing, many people associate their message with the message of Jesus. 

These false teachers capitalize on the most vulnerable around the world—the poor, the lonely, the elderly, the sick—using their desperation as leverage to sell them something. As we can see in this crisis, this leverage can end up getting people sick, overwhelming the medical systems for others, and even killing people. More than that, the prosperity gospel leaves people not just exposed to physical disease, while promising them invulnerability, it also leaves people helpless to the even greater crises of sin and death and judgment. 

Following the guidance issued in response to Covid-19 is not about fear but faith, faith in the one who calls us to consider the needs of others ahead of our own. Those of us who claim the gospel—the real, Christ-anchored, cross-focused gospel—should be the first to love our neighbors enough to keep them from illness and harm and to point them away from the wolves and toward a Good Shepherd. 

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).