There was a rich young ruler who once had the opportunity to sit face-to-face with God. Like a child humbly seated at the feet of his father, this ruler had a question and knew where to go for the answer. Surely God Himself could provide an adequate solution to his longing soul. In an instant, a weighty inquiry burst forth. He asked, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” On the outside, this rich ruler appeared to be a cut above everyone else. He was wealthy, powerful, and seemed to be a model of morality. Eternal security was all but guaranteed, right? But there, concerning the state of the ruler’s soul, Jesus brought the sobering reality of heaven down to earth.
Jesus said, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come follow Me” (Luke 18:22). The ruler’s response? “But when he had heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. And Jesus looked him and said, ‘How difficult it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!’” (Luke 18:24).
Wealth is not a sin, but chasing it can cloud even the sharpest of minds. That is why in God’s economy, it is not the balance in your bank account that matters; it is the affections of your heart. God is not partial to those who are rich with pride and presumption; it is the poor in spirit that move Him.
This ancient temptation still rears its head today. There is not a more blinding, arrogant, and myopically presumptuous belief system than the “prosperity gospel.” While it promises a long list of earthly treasures to those who will succumb to its lusts, it leaves its victims spiritually bankrupt. Like the rich young ruler, the prosperity gospel appears big and bold on the outside, but when compared to the true gospel, its bleak return on investment is suddenly revealed. Those who adhere to the prosperity gospel possess a view on prosperity that is too small.
A Vicious Cycle
The wake of devastation the prosperity gospel leaves behind stems from selling a version of Jesus that overpromises and underdelivers. Instead of rightfully putting their primary emphasis on lavish spiritual blessings unlocked in Christ (Eph. 1:3-12), prosperity preachers twist Scripture to put the emphasis on temporary pleasure, promising that Jesus is a Heavenly Banker who wants everyone to be healthy and wealthy on earth. According to the prosperity gospel, Christ’s goal is your comfort. Sadly, there is no comfort to be found. Many people who make donations in exchange for the “American Dream” only end up broke. They are told to sow a seed of faith into the fertile soil of a prosperity preacher’s ministry on the grounds that it will produce a hundredfold return! The painful reality is the only people getting rich are the prosperity preachers themselves. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Is this the picture of the gospel that we see in the Bible?
There Will Be Suffering
When a prosperity preacher and a faithful preacher stand in front of Christ on Judgment Day, two very different outcomes will occur. For these two preachers, suffering will be inevitable. For the faithful preacher, he would have likely suffered on earth and will be rejoicing as Christ welcomes him into the eternal rewards and riches of heaven! In stark contrast, the prosperity preacher will have lived his best life on earth—free of suffering and peril. Yet, there in front of Christ’s throne, his knee will bow and his tongue will confess Jesus as Lord, then he will enter into eternal suffering.
Each of these preachers will suffer. When they suffer and for how long they will suffer depends on their faithfulness to the gospel here on earth. Temporal suffering on earth is but a molecular moment in comparison to infinite ages of heavenly glory. For those who trample the gospel in seeking temporal gain, the suffering that awaits them in eternity is insurmountably greater than all the royal comforts of earth combined.
Infinite Promises and Eternal Glory
The Bible repeatedly turns our perspective upward into the vast expanse of eternity. The prosperity gospel calls us into a downward spiral that leads to a desolate perspective. Jesus promised that treasure in heaven could not be destroyed (Matt. 6:19-20). Jesus promised suffering saints eternal crowns and glory in His kingdom (Rev. 2:9-10; 3:10-12). Jesus promised that anyone who sacrificed something for His sake would receive many times as much and inherit eternal life (Matt. 19:29).
In Christ’s kingdom, the first shall be last and the last shall be first (Matt. 19:30). To the poor in spirit belongs the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:3). The infinite promise of Christ is that in this world we will have trouble (John 16:33), but He has overcome it and prepares a place for us that is beyond anything the prosperity gospel can deliver (John 14:12). When suffering comes upon us, we can find comfort in the arms of the Prince of Peace (Phil. 4:6-9). Blessings, joy, riches, and comfort are now and will always be found in Christ — but not always in the ways we imagine. These treasures will not always be realized on earth, but for those who choose Christ no matter the cost, these things will be enjoyed for all eternity in heaven.
When I was living the dream as a prosperity gospel benefactor, my confidence soared. I was a “big success.” It was only when Christ opened my eyes to the one true gospel that I was set free from the chains that held my soul. It was then that I realized how bankrupt I truly was. Compared to the eternal riches found in Jesus Christ, the biggest earthy promises of the prosperity gospel will forever be too small.
***This article was originally featured in the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s inaugural issue of “Permanent Things: The Annual Journal From The Center for Public Theology.” The entire issue can be downloaded for free.