Book Review

Confronting those deceived by a false gospel with grace

"God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel"

September 13, 2019

Even as a child, I was fascinated by the Trinity Broadcasting Network. Where I lived, it was the only regular religious programming on television, and on it, I found a tawdry mix of the familiar and the different. It was commonplace in the sense that several of the preachers were preaching end-times sermons with big charts like I had seen in my church but very different in other ways. The personalities looked and dressed differently from the people at my church. I remember a lot of phone numbers being flashed on the screen, allowing people to call in their prayer requests or their credit card numbers. But the most fascinating person on the screen was always Israeli televangelist Toufik Benedictus Hinn, better known to the world as Benny Hinn. 

Benny Hinn is famous for large miracle crusades and collarless suit jackets. For millennials, he gained newfound fame and notoriety for a viral video that combined clips of him “slaying people in the Spirit” with the song “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor” by heavy-metal-band Drowning Pool. Underneath all the pageantry and theatrics was a theology of health-and-wealth—the “prosperity gospel” or Word-Faith movement. In sum, the Word-Faith movement teaches that God wants you to be healthy, wealthy, and blessed and that even God is subordinate to the laws of faith that govern the universe. God cannot bless you until you speak blessings into your life by your words of faith. When you give your “seed of faith” (i.e., your money) to prosperity teachers, you can receive a manifold blessing in return. While this “gospel” of prosperity is attractive to the undiscerning and untutored, it more closely resembles New Age philosophy than the gospel proclaimed by the apostles.

God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel: How Truth Overwhelms a Life Built on Lies is a close-up, insider’s account of the prosperity gospel movement by Costi Hinn, the nephew of Benny Hinn and the son of Canadian megachurch pastor Henry Hinn. In this autobiographical and theological book, Costi details the luxurious lifestyle he had growing up, moving from crusade to crusade with his father and uncle. Costi was an heir to a multi-million-dollar ministry empire with a lot of perks: private Gulfstream jets, European sports cars, lavish gold-plated hotel rooms, expensive meals, and shopping sprees on Rodeo Drive. Following the lead of his famous family members, Costi had begun his training as a member of the next generation of prosperity preachers. That is, until he realized the prosperity gospel paraded by his family was a false gospel contrary to the one Paul preached (Gal. 1:8).

Like other evangelical books on the subject, Costi does eventually detail the historical roots of Word-Faith in the New Thought movement and traces them to the present through figures like E. W. Kenyon, Kenneth Hagin, and Oral Roberts. Costi offers sound biblical and theological criticism about the “gospel injustice” surrounding the prosperity gospel. He also paints a biblical picture of health and wealth that resorts to neither of the errors of prosperity theology or its mirror, “poverty theology.” But Costi only arrives at these criticisms after describing his journey as someone thoroughly convinced and seemingly “blessed” by adherence to these ideas. With brokenness and humility, he writes about the deceptive doctrines which still keep his famous family from coming to biblical faith and about the great grace he encountered despite losing everything he had to follow the Jesus of orthodoxy.

The remarkable thing is while we who are evangelicals often caricature prosperity televangelists like Benny Hinn as deceitful charlatans, Costi paints them in a much more sympathetic light. He condemns their unbiblical teaching and materialistic practices, but he paints them as men who really and truly believe they are receiving the God-given benefits of their theological system. As Costi became more and more exposed to the money-making mechanisms of the ministry and the effect they had on the underprivileged who followed the ministry, he wrestled with conviction from the Holy Spirit. At first, he attempted to rationalize these prayer-for-money exchanges with proof-texts and the seemingly critic-proof theological architecture he had been taught. Later upon closer study and reflection, he discovered what he initially feared to be true: that this movement was not of God.

Those who lovingly spoke the truth into Costi’s life made a far greater impact than those well-meaning “noisy gongs” or “clanging cymbals” who harassed him because of his family name.

Even as someone who has studied the Word-Faith movement for years, this book gave me some much-needed perspective about ministering to those affected by it. Costi tells horror stories of mistreatment by those who eagerly and ungraciously told him his family members perpetrated a false gospel (something Costi eventually would come to believe himself). There is a place for corrective polemics directed toward erroneous doctrine—and Costi’s book is, in fact, an exercise in that—but many of the tactics of theological shock jocks and social media polemicists would not have won Costi out of heresy. He knew of these things and was repulsed by them. They did nothing to draw him closer to Christ.

Instead, the turning points in Costi’s life came through the personal relationships God brought into his life: a professor who taught him how to read the Bible in its original historical contexts; a baseball coach, who taught him about the sovereignty of God; his future wife, who showed him grace and patience in the midst of family turmoil when she refused to participate in the antics of her new family’s ministry; and a pastor, who pointed him to sound teaching by challenging Hinn to read John MacArthur’s commentary on the Gospel of John.

In that great chapter on love, the apostle Paul said, “If I . . . understand all mysteries and all knowledge . . . but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2). Costi’s conversion story brought Paul’s words here to life. Those who lovingly spoke the truth into Costi’s life made a far greater impact than those well-meaning “noisy gongs” or “clanging cymbals” who harassed him because of his family name. Those who were "dogmatic about certain truths" but "flexible and patient with those who were stuck in their ignorance" made the most significant impact, like his pastor friend, Tony.

Costi closes the book with constructive and practical advice on how to reach people who are deceived by false gospels. He does not encourage proud, mean-spirited, and confrontational evangelism centered around winning arguments and making people look foolish. Instead, he talks about gentle, prayerful, humble, and loving conversations that can compel people out of darkness.

I pastor in an area saturated by Word-Faith churches. Many of the members of our church live in the same neighborhood as one of the prominent TBN personalities. Over the years, I have criticized his "ministry" and theology and even made jokes about his luxurious lifestyle and private jets from the pulpit. But reading Costi’s story, I was convicted of my own insensitivity toward people who were caught up in prosperity gospel doctrine. Costi provides a much-needed reminder that the people who live in these movements are not just detached, heretical ideas, but embodied persons loved and valued by God even if they are deceived by sin and falsehood.

This gospel-centered resource will be valuable for both those inside the movement and those outside of it. Costi speaks truthfully about theological error but graciously speaks about loving people out of it. I highly recommend this book.

Rhyne Putman

Rhyne Putman is associate vice president for Academic Affairs, director of Worldview Formation, and professor of Christian Ministries at Williams Baptist University. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24