The Dassault Falcon 7X jet is a seriously lavish plane. Its creators claim the aircraft is “stretching the boundaries of what a business jet can do”. It has a top speed of 592mph and can fly from Paris to Tokyo or Shanghai to Seattle on a single tank of fuel.
It’s the sort of product normally reserved for the wealthiest of private business people. But the latest high-profile individual to consider parting with a cool $54m in order to purchase this private jet isn’t an entrepreneur or a celebrity. Jesse Duplantis is a preacher.
The 68-year-old released a video earlier this year, in which he said: “I’ve owned three different jets in my life; just burning them up for the Lord Jesus Christ…We believe in God for a brand new Falcon 7X so we can go anywhere in the world, one stop.”
After widespread media furore at this apparent request for funds, the preacher released another video, this time explaining: “I’m not asking you to pay for my plane. The Lord said, ‘I didn’t ask you to pay for it, I asked you to believe for it.’”
Such rhetoric is typical of the prosperity gospel. According to this teaching, faith and positive speech will yield miraculous results. You can believe a plane into existence! Moreover, financial blessing and physical well-being are always God’s will for a believer. And donations to Christian ministries will increase one’s health and wealth.
Well-known advocates of the prosperity gospel include the American preachers Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland and Joel Osteen. Yet the prosperity gospel is growing fastest not in the US, but in Africa, where I originally come from. I still remember the very first church service I ever attended in Nigeria. During the service, a man came forward to give a testimony of how God had blessed him for tithing. He’d told God that if he was blessed with the large sum of money he had prayed for, he would “roll on the ground before all the saints in church”. He then promptly proceeded to do so. The rest of the church cheered wildly and applauded this man’s faith.
The seriousness with which many Africans view spirituality seems a world away from the atheism of Western societies. Unfortunately, poverty-ridden communities in some African countries have provided fertile breeding ground for the abuse of the true gospel message.
Where Africans once went to traditional witch doctors for spiritual guidance, pastors have now taken on that all-powerful role in the lives of their congregations. In Nigeria, it’s quite common for several churches to be seen within a few yards of each other. In my naivety, I once thought that this was a sign of how spiritual their society was. But many of these churches are more like cults, in which the pastor is elevated to the status of a mini god.
When so many people live in poverty and have lost faith in government institutions, a message which promises instant solutions is very appealing. Desperate people are less likely to question their leaders, and this leads to a shallow Christianity. There are more messages about how God wants to help you prosper than about holiness and repentance.
God never says his people are entitled to material prosperity
The prosperity gospel has even led to the phenomenon of religious tourism. Figures released by the Nigerian Immigration Service in 2014 indicated that six out of every ten foreign travellers coming to Nigeria for religious reasons are bound for TB Joshua’s The Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN). When TB Joshua hinted at relocating his ministry from Nigeria to Israel, there was much wringing of hands, even by people outside the church. This was because of the billions it was believed the country would lose from religious tourism. Due to the influence they have, African pastors are increasingly wooed by celebrities and political leaders alike.
The popularity of prosperity preaching is not confined to parts of Africa. I became a Christian at a Pentecostal church in the UK and have worshiped in these kinds of churches for much of my adult life. Born in Nigeria, I was 16 when I came over to the UK for my high school studies. In my late teens I began to ask big questions about the meaning of life. Despite my educational achievements, I felt hollow inside.
The Christians I knew seemed so happy and had a sense of assurance and security that I lacked. I wanted to enjoy that same level of meaning they seemed to have in their lives. So when I was invited to a church service in London, I accepted. It was at that service where I answered the altar call and accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and saviour. As that particular church was Pentecostal, I simply went along with what everybody else believed. Thus, I got hooked on the prosperity gospel very early on. It’s a teaching so insidious that people believe it without realising how it’s a warped version of true biblical teaching.
Every single Sunday, a message would be given about the need to tithe. Pastors told us our finances weren’t in better shape because we weren’t giving enough. I got used to hearing Bible passages such as Malachi 3:9: “You are under a curse – your whole nation – because you are robbing me” being used to condemn people into giving more. People would give out of fear because they didn’t want God to curse their finances.
While it’s true that church leaders who preach these things bear a huge responsibility for watering down the true gospel, we’re all responsible for what we choose to believe. I began questioning the prosperity gospel when I found it difficult to reconcile the idea that God wants everyone to be healthy and wealthy with the fact that many Christians are being persecuted for their faith. There’s an unwillingness among prosperity advocates to accept that God uses our trials to shape our trust in him, even though the Bible explicitly states this (James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:6-9). This wasn’t a realisation that came to me in just one instant, but rather through a gradual process. It was crystallised for me by my experience of what churches taught and some of the conversations I had with people that didn’t tally with what I was reading in the Bible.
I realised the teaching I’d heard on tithing lacked a biblical foundation. Firstly, tithing was for the old Levitical worship system and is not applicable to the Church today. Cheerful giving, not tithing, is what the New Testament makes mention of. Prosperity gospel churches use 2 Corinthians 9:6 to justify tithing: “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously”. However, that very verse, if taken in its proper context (v1-7), is actually talking about cheerful giving. Secondly, the Bible says that Jesus redeemed us from the law by becoming a curse for us (Galatians 3:10-14). Therefore, I don’t have to fear God cursing my finances if I don’t give enough money to a church.
I also became increasingly uncomfortable with the sense of arrogance, entitlement and superiority these beliefs were breeding in Christians around me. I was once part of a church where people got offended when I said it was about Jesus, not that particular ministry. This particular local church behaved as if they had exclusive access to God’s revelation, and that God’s will for their city revolved around them. The large number of church attendees was seen as evidence of God’s pleasure. Smaller churches would be spoken of condescendingly as churches that didn’t reflect the manifestation of God’s power and would eventually die out.
The true gospel
As I began to study the scriptures for myself I realised Jesus spent more time warning about trials in the world than he did espousing physical and material blessing. He told his disciples that in this world there would be trouble, but to take heart, for he had overcome the world (John 16:33). Jesus never experienced financial prosperity, nor did any of the original disciples. He taught his followers to carry the cross and follow him (Matthew 10:38). That implies trials, not comfort. The Bible says we’re soldiers in a spiritual battle (Ephesians 6:10-18; 2 Timothy 2:3-4) and there’s no such thing as a comfortable war.
Nowhere in the Bible does God say that his people are entitled to material prosperity. The type of prosperity which the Bible most emphasises is spiritual prosperity. The blessings of the atonement are primarily spiritual in nature. Salvation, sonship, being righteous in Christ, being a king and priest in Christ; every Christian is automatically guaranteed all those blessings. However, not all Christians are in good health and many of us are not financially prosperous. God is more concerned about our salvation and spiritual growth than he is about our happiness on this temporal earth.
‘Jesus died so you can be rich’
Prosperity leaders take advantage of their people by telling them that tithing and donations will bring a financial breakthrough. So people, in essence, end up trying to buy God’s favour. In some instances, these leaders are living in comfort, while their congregations are struggling to make ends meet. Rather than question this, many hope that the pastor’s blessings will be replicated in their lives, or at least trickle down to them.
Creflo Dollar is one of those prominent church leaders to whom his followers look for a trickle-down blessing. Like many other prosperity preachers, Dollar preaches a message of blessing that is tied to sowing a financial seed. He lives in an expensive mansion, has two Rolls-Royces and a private jet. The titles of his many books include: The Holy Spirit, Your Financial Advisor: God’s plan for debt-free money management (FaithWords) and Total Life Prosperity: 14 practical steps to receiving God’s full blessing (Thomas Nelson). Dollar once posted an update on his Facebook page, which read: “Jesus bled and died for us so that we can lay claim to the promise of financial prosperity.”
Dollar preaches that Christians can speak wealth into being because our words have the same creative power as God’s. He also says that God has no choice but to answer our prayers when we pray in faith believing that we’ve received. Thus, prayer becomes a tool for forcing God to prosper us.
Leaving prosperity behind
Benny Hinn is another well-known prosperity-preaching televangelist. His worldwide healing crusades attract millions. The documentary Do You Believe in Miracles? showed the choreographed manner of Hinn’s crusades. Those who were severely disabled or didn’t get their healing were prevented from getting on the stage. This is not to deny the authenticity of any true testimonies of healing. However, we shouldn’t confuse how gifted or anointed a person is, with God’s grace. God is more interested in touching lives than in the vessel he uses to do it. After all, he used Balaam, a false prophet, to bless Israel. Prior to that, he’d used a donkey to correct Balaam (Numbers 22, 23). Most pertinently, Jesus said that not all who do works in his name will actually be honouring God (Matthew 7:15-23).
People are trying to buy God’s favour
Benny Hinn’s nephew, Costi Hinn, revealed in 2017 how he came to question and reject the prosperity gospel. Writing in Christianity Today he recalled his lavish lifestyle as one of the Hinns: “Though Jesus Christ was still a part of our gospel, he was more of a magic genie than the King of Kings. Rubbing him the right way – by giving money and having enough faith – would unlock your spiritual inheritance. God’s goal was not his glory but our gain. His grace was not to set us free from sin but to make us rich. The abundant life he offered wasn’t eternal, it was now. We lived the prosperity gospel.”
But Costi began to have nagging doubts about what he believed: “We only did healings in the crusades, where music created the atmosphere, money changed hands and people approached us with the ‘right amount of faith’.”
As he studied to preach on Jesus’ healing of a man at Bethesda (John 5), Costi had a revelation. “The passage showed that Jesus healed one man out of a multitude, the man didn’t know who Jesus was, and the man was healed instantly! This left three treasured beliefs in tatters. Isn’t it always God’s will to heal? No, Jesus only healed one man out of a multitude. Doesn’t God only heal people if they have enough faith? No, this crippled man didn’t even know who Jesus was (let alone have faith in him). Doesn’t healing require an anointed healer, special music, and an offering collection? No, Jesus healed instantly with a mere command. I wept bitterly over my participation in greedy ministry manipulation and my life of false teaching and beliefs, and I thanked God for his mercy and grace through Jesus Christ. My eyes were completely opened.”
Is it possible that Costi Hinn’s walking away from prosperity theology has had an effect on his uncle? In February, Benny Hinn made some surprising remarks, admitting “some have gone to the extreme” with prosperity theology and “sadly, it’s not God’s word that is taught. I think I’m as guilty as others. Sometimes you go a little farther than you really need to go, and then God brings you back to normality and reality. The more you know the Bible, the more you become biblically based and more balanced in your opinions”.
If prosperity theology is the real deal, it means any Christian who is sick or struggling to make ends meet is somehow either not exercising enough faith or has hidden sin in their lives, which is keeping them from getting their blessing.
I personally know other Christians who attend prosperity gospel churches and believe what they teach. They are lovely people who have a genuine faith. However, their understanding of biblical prosperity differs from mine. Thankfully, I also know of others who once agreed with prosperity theology, but have since come to a realisation that it is flawed teaching. It is my prayer that more of God’s true Church would come to the same realisation.
Leaders take advantage by telling their people tithing will bring financial breakthrough
Are we better than Jesus and the original disciples to think that we’re entitled to what they never experienced during their lifetime of service? That would mean that the likes of Paul, who wrote two-thirds of the New Testament but was beheaded for his faith, were failures. God doesn’t have a problem with people being rich, but he warns against “the love of money” calling it “a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). I believe that Jesus dealt with sickness and disease at the cross (Isaiah 53:3-5; 1 Peter 2:24). However, the reality is that not everyone will experience the full physical manifestation of that healing in this fallen world.
The good news is that Christians already have the true kind of prosperity and the best type of wealth: that which is eternal. It’s just that sometimes, because we can’t see this with our physical eyes, we’re tempted to seek a different kind of comfort. We must remember that what we can’t see is more real and lasting than what we can see. As Christians we must have a proper biblical understanding of what true prosperity is by studying God’s word for ourselves. We’re in the days when we need to be able to discern the truth and separate the wheat from the chaff.
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Premier Christianity. Click here to request a FREE copy of the print magazine