When I was a kid, my earliest theological instruction amounted to the following:
- God made everything.
- Jesus is God’s Son.
- Jesus died and came back from the dead.
- Good people go to heaven.
- Bad people go to Hell.
As I grew, others explained to me that Jesus died for our sins. I hadn’t quite connected the dots about sin, though.
Then, when we moved to a town in the southeast, my stepmom began taking us to a Church of God (the denomination based out of Cleveland, TN).
I couldn’t stand the service: the pastor yelled and screamed a lot, but my stepmom liked him. I thought he was a blowhard.
So, as a compromise, my stepmom sent us to children’s church. The other kids in there were jerks who made fun of me, as I didn’t know the Bible at all.
But I had received a children’s Bible for Christmas that year. So I started reading that.
I also started reading a real Bible; there were plenty around, given that my dad worked in a hotel and The Gideons always left them in the rooms. (I’m not in the KJV-only camp, but I really enjoyed, and still enjoy, reading the Bible in KJV.)
Things started clicking.
Yes, good people go to heaven. But none of us are any good! I began to realize that, if it were up to us to be good enough, we would all fail.
Yes, bad people go to Hell. But we’re all bad!
So if none of us are any good, and all of us are bad, and God is good and heaven is only for good people, we are otherwise screwed. Hell is what we all deserve.
Enter Jesus, who took the punishment we deserve, and came back from the dead, and acts as our High Priest in heaven.
So easy a third-grader can understand, but so complicated that many adults won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.
I can’t recall the exact nanosecond, let alone the date that I received Christ, but it was definitely in the Spring of 1976. I was 9.
Before long, I was the one in children’s church who knew the Scriptures better than everyone else. And it wasn’t an intellectual pursuit, either; I believed it.
I would get baptized that Summer, along with others in that church. I never embraced Pentecostalism–the only tongues I have ever spoken are English and Redneck–but I can’t say that my experiences at that church were all bad, either.
Nine years later, as a college freshman, I began to hang out with the Christian Fellowship Club. They were dominated by Pentecostals, good folks but definitely overzealous. They were members of the local Assemblies of God (AoG) church, and I typically hitched a ride on Sunday evenings. (I worked Sunday mornings in my first semester.)
That AoG church was a mixed bag.
On the positive side: the pastor at the time–JA–was a good man who preached the Gospel faithfully. One of the engineering professors–JJ–was also a member there, and occasionally preached. He was a good man.
On the negative side: many folks within the church were steeped in Prosperity Theology and her bastard cousin Word of Faith Theology.
There were folks within that church who taught that, if you are living “in the Spirit”, you will never get sick and will have more material wealth than you know what to do with.
While I had no doubt that God could–and did often–heal people, and while the Bible was very clear that God will provide for your needs, these “Prosperity” teachings did not seem to ring true with Scripture.
And Word of Faith theology? That was even more insidious.
I remember, during my time at a Fundamentalist school in 7th grade, spending significant time in the library. In that time, I stumbled across a pamphlet about three popular cults: Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists.
Word of Faith theology struck me as straight out of the Mary Baker Eddy School of Christian Science, all with an evangelical/charismatic spin.
I remember a tract that was on display in one of the charismatic churches: How To Write Your Own Ticket With God. By Kenneth Hagin, one of the granddaddys of modern Word of Faith theology.
It struck me as downright arrogant. I wasn’t an expert in Scripture, but I couldn’t recall one instance where someone went to God and said, “Here is what I want…give it to me.” (The closest thing to that, the prayer of Jabez, still does not cross that threshold.)
In Scripture, it is God who tells His people what to do, not the other way around. Clay, meet Potter.
At my school, we had a flight instructor who was a Christian. He had become paralyzed, from the waist down, in a car accident. He was a faithful member of that AoG church.
He had prayed many times for healing, and many fine men of God had laid hands on him and prayed for healing. And yet he remained paralyzed.
“Is this man living in sin?” I doubted that was the case.
“Is God’s word not true?” That was a logical possibility.
“Does God’s word really mean what these Prosperity peddlers tell us?” That was also a logical possibility.
But as I looked at Scripture, it became clear: while God does heal people and deliver from suffering, there are times where God allows suffering. I was well aware of the historical persecution of Christians by hostile governments from the Romans of old to the modern Communists and Islamic governments.
If Prosperity Theology or Word of Faith theology was valid, then why have Christians suffered so much in the past? Why do Christians in the Communist bloc suffer so much? Do they not pray for deliverance?
I figured if Robert Tilton or Brad Champion (a Word of Faith hothead who was big for a season in the Daytona Beach area) were so right, then surely all they had to do is go to the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, and Iran and preach their bold word, and all those people would be free! Surely all Champion had to do was go to the Halifax Medical Center and lay hands on the sick…he could put the hospital out of business!
But of course they wouldn’t do that…because they were full of crap!
If we are concerned about finances and physical health, I’d say American Christians have it pretty easy. Today, we speak in terms of “First World Problems”.
During those years, the Christian world would be rocked by scandals among the Prosperity peddlers: Jim Bakker would go down in flames and even end up in prison; Jimmy Swaggart would be caught in a sex scandal of his own; Peter Popoff would be caught using a transmitter, exposing his faux “spiritual gifts”. Pat Robertson, during his Presidential run, would have his own premarital scandal–more importantly his lying about it–exposed.
But others would arise to fill that vacuum. Robert Tilton, Paul Crouch, Benny Hinn, Keneth Copeland, and Marilyn Hickey would rise to prominence. Tilton would get his cover blown by network television, and Benny Hinn would get caught–time and time again–making theological pronouncements that were not just heretical but downright bizarre.
P.T. Barnum once said it: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” And there will always be a critical mass of people looking to have their ears tickled.
Those contentious years–the 1980s–gave me a boot camp of sorts on what the Gospel is and is not.
Jim Bakker, as he languished in prison, began to study everything the Bible taught about money and prosperity. He would arrive at the conclusion that would be the title of his best work: I Was Wrong.
Jesus, when preaching about material things, rarely had good things to say to those who had lots of money.
When He challenged the rich, young ruler, the man chose his riches over Jesus. A man asked Jesus to intervene in an estate dispute–to force his brother to divide the estate with him–and Jesus would have none of it. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus punctuates a comparison against the parable of the shrewd steward: the former, knowing his reckoning was imminent, taking action to prepare whereas the rich man arrogantly disregarded the most basic form of compassion for Lazarus, who begged at his gate for food.
He also had a terse word for those who expected Him to bring political revolution: “My kingdom is not of this world.”
The prosperity He preached pertained to eternal life, not life on earth. In fact, regarding this earth, He said it plainly: “Heaven and earth will pass away.” He promised He would prepare a place for us, and that He would come back and receive us. He did not promise to make this earth better; He did not promise us great wealth on earth.
In fact, Jesus told the Disciples that things would get very bad for them: many would pay the ultiimate price for following Him.
He did, however, promise ultimate prosperity:
He promised that He would go and prepare a place for us;
He promised that He would come back;
He promised that, when He came back, He would receive us unto Himself.
While we humans are created a little lower than the angels, when we–those of us who are in Christ–are resurrected, we will be like the angels in heaven.
And yet we will have it even better than the angels. You know why? None of the angels are children of God. And yet, when you receive Christ, you receive the gift of adoption as His child.
That gives you a privilege that even the angels don’t enjoy.
You know what that means? Even the lowliest toilet scrubber in Heaven will have more wealth than the richest men on earth–combined–ever had.
Think about that the next time you hear Joel Osteen or Benny Hinn or Paula White or Joyce Meyer or Creflo Dollar or any of the other Word of Faith wackos.
They wouldn’t know real wealth if it bit them in the nether regions. And unless they repent, this earth is the closest to heaven they will ever get.