Prosperity Theology and Transactional Salvation in the Global South

By Ava Rawson

Prosperity Theology dictates that physical ailments and poverty are the symptoms of Satan’s hold over God’s people, and that through the sacrificial death of Jesus, this relationship was severed. Believers in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are thus immune from poverty and physical sickness, and are entitled to material and spiritual prosperity through the covenant sealed with his death. Once material wealth became imbued with religious significance in the early 20th century amongst Protestant and Neo-Pentacostal congregational leaders in the United States, the methodology of the Prosperity Gospel allowed for monetary wealth to once again enter into the wider symbolic system of the Christian religious tradition, allowing for it to cyclically take on new meanings within this same system. 

A marxist interpretation of Prosperity Theology and Neo-Pentacostal teachings shows the roots of its teachings serve as a justification of class stratification; those who have accumulated material wealth have not done so through means of exploitation, their circumstances serve as evidence of God’s blessings upon them. With the inverse being true, those living in poverty or material squalor are so because of their lack of faith in God to provide for them. When material wealth becomes representative of the love of God, surely the love of his followers speaks the same language. Just as God loves you and thus you are rich, if you love God you are obligated to make him (and his ministries here on Earth) rich as well. A central tenet of the largest growing denomination in the 21st century, Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (IURD), in Brazil, is donations to the church with the expectation that they will receive a larger blessing from God in return: 

“Tithes and offering are so sacred, as sacred as the Word of God. Tithes and offering signify the loyalty and love that the servant has toward the Lord. One cannot disassociate tithes and offering from the redemptive work of the Lord Jesus; they signify, in truth, the blood of the saved for those who need salvation” (IURD, n.d.).

The propensity for salvation to become transactional is not an unheard of calamity in the history of Christianity (ex. Martin Luthers’ 95 theses and the Protestant Reformation). What is unique about this late-capitalist brand of commodification is not how religion has become entrenched in this system but where. Despite the origins of Prosperity Gospel teachings in the United states, the majority of Neo-Pentacostal ‘mega-church’ congregations lay in the global south, most notably in Brazil and Africa. The intense popularity of Prosperity Theology within regions that have been systematically and economically restricted, molded, and dominated over the course of centuries by foreign actors and interests is not a coincidence. In a drastic statement of oversimplification, their history of exploitation stiffles contemporary measures in poverty reduction, leaving communities with little to no opportunities for social mobility. 

Communities within this context are extremely susceptible to Prosperity Theology in the absence of governing structures that address their circumstances. The Lausanne Theology Working Group (2009) recognized “that prosperity teaching flourishes in contexts of terrible poverty, and that for many people it presents their only hope in the face of constant frustration, the failure of politicians, and NGOs etc. for a better future or even for a more bearable present”. Any attempt to claim this movement as a novel non-secular poverty reduction initiative falls on deaf ears when studies show that the individuals, families and communities that make up these congregations do not benefit in the ways that their pastors promise.

The popularity of Prosperity Theology can be attributed to how its teachings speak to the material circumstances of its followers. Rather than answer abstract questions regarding the afterlife or the creation of the universe, the church “speaks to the material wants and needs of people living in a world in which success is measured almost exclusively by affluence and consumption, where sin and grace are defined, respectively, by poverty and wealth.” (Garrard-Burnett, 2013:22). The immediacy of the problems that they face as a direct result of the economic exploitation and abject abandonment trumps imaginative musings about their eternal souls or guardian angels. 

Whether or not it is ethical to target impoverished communities in such a manner is a different argument entirely. The reality of this intersection between the personal and religious economies shows an attempt by the millions of followers to not accept their circumstances as a part of God’s plan for them, but taking a page from capitalist propaganda-like folk tales and picking themselves up by the bootstraps. Material success is not merely success or wealth in and of itself, it is wealth through and with the love of God— it is success as imagined for you by Jesus on the cross. Showing that the practices effectively sanctify capitalist ideology in places popularly viewed as on the periphery of the commodity sphere. This intersection shows that individuals can neither escape the religious paradigm they operate within nor the economic context of a wider capitalistic system. They are not mutually exclusive; they build and shape how individuals and communities see themselves in relation to others and the commodity sphere. 

Many faith traditions hold an accumulation (or rejection) of wealth as a symbol representative of their proximity to divinity (keep in mind this article is not debating the legitimacy of these believers’ religious fever or the truth they seek through Neo-Pentecostalism and the Gospel of Prosperity). It is placing the undying will of the millions of followers to change their circumstances through any means necessary within a wider system of capitalist exploitation that, from an exterior perspective, appears to corrupt religious doctrine, perpetuates their material circumstances, and denies them the future they pray for.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

Image Source: Catedral Mundial da Fé

Text Sources: 

Garrard-Burnett, V. (2013). Neopentecostalism and Prosperity Theology in Latin America: A Religion for Late Capitalist Society. Iberoamericana – Nordic Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, 42(1-2), p.21.

Okosun, E. (2018). Poverty, Illiteracy cum Prosperity Theology: A Quantitative Study. International Journal of Social Sciences (IJSS), [online] 8(1), pp.83–92. Link. (n.d.). Pentecostalism in Brazil. [online] Available at:

Schwarzkopf, S. (2020). The Routledge handbook of economic theology. New York, Ny: Routledge. Link.

Yong, A. and Attanasi, K. (2012). Pentecostalism and prosperity : the socio-economics of the global charismatic movement. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Link.

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