Despite the fact that my alma mater has strong historic ties to the seed-faith movement and its offspring the Prosperity Gospel — I have always viewed these sorts of theologies with suspicion, if not downright contempt. But while reflecting today on the intersection of theology, singularity theory, and the future of the church, it dawned on me for the first time that perhaps the prosperity gospel is a natural outgrowth of western technological and medical progress (and a necessary one, at that). This is an outgrowth that is still only in its earliest phases, and may eventually come to dominate the church and assimilate itself into orthodox Christian thought. Of course, that’s probably a mouthful to swallow for people who, like me, tend to view the Prosperity Gospel as borderline heresy. So how did I get to this point? Allow me to play Charles Dickens for a moment and walk any skeptical readers (you’d be Ebeneezer Scrooge, of course) through the three ghosts of Church Past, Church Present, and Church Future…
In the earliest days of the church (extending throughout the medieval period as well), life was a fragile thing. Medical science was also in its earliest days: sickness, disease, plague, and accident claimed lives at enormous rates, and life expectancy was relatively short. Death was inevitable, and sooner more likely than later. A great share of the hope offered to the world by the gospel was one of new, incorruptible life after this one — but also the hope that, through prayer, a loving God might magically intervene in human circumstances so as to divert death, sickness, plague, etc. Medieval prayers and liturgies reflect this twin focus on the afterlife and divine intervention in this life. And of course, where these fail, there is also in early and medieval texts a “repackaging” of suffering itself as something noble, something that identifies one with the holiness of Christ.
Bottom Line: In the early and medieval church, faith and prayer are focused on the most pressing and widespread early/medieval concerns: suffering, death, and the afterlife.
With great advances in medical science during the modern period, life expectancy rates are significantly longer, infant mortality rates are significantly lower (even in developing countries), and many diseases that once afflicted humanity are eradicated or significantly diminished. Hospitals, emergency rooms, and paramedics are often able to prevent serious accidents from becoming fatal. Death is still an ultimate reality, but for large portions of the world’s population, there is a reasonable expectation of a long, relatively healthy life. This inevitably has an impact on the way we see God, prayer, and faith — or perhaps more precisely, what parts of the “gospel” we emphasize. Even the renewed emphasis on “social justice” in some branches of the church can be seen as a shift away from eternal concerns towards quality of life here and now. Likewise, the Prosperity Gospel emerges in response to the question, “well, what should we pray for, now that we have this longer life?” One may argue about what exactly “prosperity” entails (wealth? fame? happiness? family?) and I suspect that those who advocate a prosperity gospel would define it more charitably than those who critique it. But a desire for a better “quality of life” seems to be a motivating factor however one defines it, and this seems largely an outgrowth of the fact that there is now more lifetime to occupy one’s self with. That said, there are still things that plague our modern civilization–cancer, natural disasters, and those accidents we have not learned to prevent or cure. Often, our prayers are still turned to these things, asking God to intervene miraculously where our technology cannot, and placing our hope in an afterlife when those close to us die.
Bottom Line: In the modern church, faith and prayer are still focused on the widespread concerns of suffering, death, and the afterlife, but we are now in a time of transition — as life becomes longer and more certain, we focus our prayers and faith more on quality of life than on quantity (or at least more and more people are starting to do this).
Predicting the future is nothing if not controversial. The future I am about to paint is no exception to this, and so I should say at the outset that I take my cues unapologetically from Ray Kurzweil, and I believe his record of accuracy speaks for itself. You can disagree with me, but please don’t label my views of the future as unrealistic or impossible until you’ve thoroughly read what the man has to say! Let us proceed:
Continuing the trend of the past segment, life spans will continue to increase (dramatically) and medical science will continue to advance (dramatically). There will, of course, be new challenges, new threats, new dangers, and new manifestations of evil — but sickness, disease, and ultimately even death will not be among them. Few bodily accidents will be fatal or beyond repair. Without any remaining need for miraculous healing or for an eternal afterlife, the early/medieval focus of Christianity will finally be brought to a close. At this point, I believe that the Prosperity Gospel, in whatever form it will have evolved to, will be dominant, and will be the orthodox representation of Christianity (although there will still be small pockets of dissenting theology, as there always have been). Christians may still disagree about what kind of prosperity we ought to pray for, and what kind of prosperity God grants — but “quality of life” will be the last remaining frontier beyond our control, and the place where God’s miraculous intervention is still most needed and sought after.
However, it is in this era that a challenge to the Prosperity Gospel will finally arise: It will finally be made irrelevant by the same technological and cultural forces that made its predecessor irrelevant. Prosperity (however it is defined) will begin to become widespread. Converging developments across a wide array of fields will contribute to the ultimate breakdown of the economic principles of supply and demand, ushering in an era of abundant food, energy, material resources, and information (in our own era, the economics of abundance are already breaking down traditional paradigms in information management). The prayers and faith of Christians will begin once again to shift toward whatever aspects of their lives seem beyond their control, whatever ways in which they feel a need for miraculous, divine intervention.
Bottom Line: In the future church, faith and prayer are no longer focused on sickness, suffering, and death, because these are no longer significant factors in people’s lives. Quality of life (prosperity) is the dominant concern of Christianity, but we are again in a time of transition — as prosperity itself becomes widespread, and no longer beyond the reach of most Christians.
All this raises a good question: If “technology” supplies all of humanity’s needs, will there still be a need for God? Personally, I view technology as part of God’s creation. Human achievements reflect human agency in God’s plans. To ask if God will still be needed in a world without sickness, disease, death, or lack of resources is not unlike asking the question: Will God still be needed in Heaven? Of course God is still needed, if one views all things as flowing from God. I doubt everyone will see it this way, and that’s fine. Humanists will sing the praises of Human achievements, while Christians (and other people of faith) will give thanks to God for these things (we already do that when we praise God for the skill of the surgeon, or for life-saving technologies). Nor do I think that this world I described necessarily “equates” to Heaven or the Kingdom of God (although I’m open to that possibility too!). If there are new challenges, dangers, manifestations of evil, my premise is simply this: The predominant focus of Christian prayer, faith, and theology will shift itself to emphasize the aspects of the Gospel that best align themselves with the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of humanity. That’s not a bad thing for an incarnational Gospel.
UPDATE: Since writing this post yesterday, I’ve also come across a couple of very thoughtful and positive perspectives on Prosperity Gospel, especially in developing countries as an alternative to the colonialist, paternalist approach that Western Christians in mainline AND evangelical traditions are often guilty of.
- The Case for the Prosperity Gospel by Grant Brooke (one of my classmates at Princeton Seminary) in Huffington Post
- Pennies From Heaven by Peter Berger in Wall Street Journal