Have you ever been conned? Most of us have, to varying degrees, experienced the sense of violation at being ripped off or extorted. Even more egregious are the actions of those who swindle people in God’s name—breaking the third commandment—blasphemy—in their efforts to break the eighth—theft.
As we saw last time, religious extortion was rampant in the sixteenth century. The Roman Catholic Church pressured the poorest of their parishioners into purchasing bogus promises of God’s favor in the afterlife, called indulgences. In fact, it was so crass and widespread that it provoked Martin Luther to write his Ninety-Five Theses.
While Luther’s protest stymied that particular form of religious racketeering, God’s grace and blessings are still for sale today in the religious marketplace. And modern indulgences are no longer the exclusive domain of Roman Catholicism. Protestantism has now been infiltrated by a modern breed of indulgence salesmen—charlatans every bit as skilled as Tetzel when it comes to swindling contemporary churchgoers.
Without a doubt, the most blatant form of modern indulgences are peddled by charismatic faith healers. They hawk all sorts of ridiculous trinkets, promising to impart God’s grace and favor. With an uncanny resemblance to the massive Catholic relic industry, modern faith healers sell bottles of miraculous spring water, vials of holy land anointing oil, and scraps of ancient prayer cloths. Anything that even remotely resembles a point of contact with the biblical world can be sold as a portal between man and God.
However, for most of the prosperity preachers who dominate Christian television, the trinkets aren’t even necessary. Instead their indulgences are sold through a verbal promise of healing, favor, or financial breakthrough, if viewers will first sow a financial seed—of course payable to the preacher. Here’s how John MacArthur describes the ruse:
On program after program, people are urged to “plant a seed” with the promise God will miraculously make them rich in return. It’s known as the seed-faith plan, so named by Oral Roberts, the key pioneer in using television to spread charismatic doctrine. Most charismatic televangelists and faith healers use Roberts’s seed-faith plan or something similar to manipulate viewers to donate more than they can really afford. John MacArthur, Strange Fire (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 9.
John sees an unmistakable parallel between Johann Tetzel and the television charlatans of today as seen on TBN. In fact, he argues that their modern version of indulgence racketeering far exceeds the tactics of Tetzel in both scale and sin.
If the scheme seems reminiscent of Tetzel, that’s because it is precisely the same doctrine. . . . Like Tetzel, TBN preys on the poor and plies them with false promises. Yet what is happening daily on TBN is many times worse than the abuses that Luther decried because it is more widespread and more flagrant. The medium is more high-tech and the amounts bilked out of viewers’ pockets are astronomically higher. (By most estimates, TBN is worth more than a billion dollars and rakes in $200 million annually. Those are direct contributions to the network, not counting millions more in donations sent directly to TBN broadcasters.) Like Tetzel on steroids, the Crouches and virtually all the key broadcasters on TBN live in garish opulence, while constantly begging their needy viewers for more money. Elderly, poor, and working-class viewers constitute TBN’s primary demographic. And TBN’s fundraisers all know that. The most desperate people—“unemployed,” “even though I’m in between jobs,” “trying to make it; trying to survive,” “broke”—are baited with false promises to give what they do not even have.
Clearly the Tetzel blueprint has been replicated and exponentially abused through modern media platforms: target the poor and most vulnerable; make grandiose promises that aren’t yours to make; squeeze every last drop of revenue out of the victims; use the proceeds for your own extravagance. It’s like Robin Hood in reverse! But it doesn’t end there. Giving money in response to a television sales pitch is invariably the gateway to further extortion.
In his support letters, Benny Hinn—perhaps the foremost faith healer and prosperity preacher of our day—has shamelessly pushed such modern indulgences on his constituents. On one occasion, he asked for donations in excess of one thousand dollars. In return he promised to put each donor’s name on a plaque that would adorn the interior of his private jet, so he could remember to pray for them by name while he traveled. Another letter promised that for a gift of any size, Hinn would supernaturally protect the donor’s relatives against dying from cancer.
But Hinn’s outrageous and narcissistic claims are nothing new or out of the ordinary. They are the stock-in-trade of charismatic fundraising going back at least three decades. The practices pioneered by Tetzel have been revised and upgraded.
Whereas Johann Tetzel held dead relatives ransom in purgatory, Oral Roberts essentially held himself ransom in one of the most obscene and bizarre indulgence sales of all time. In January 1987, Roberts told his television audience that they needed to donate eight million dollars before March 1, or God was going to take him away from them. Strange Fire, 112. Roberts’s ploy succeeded, and he was able to pay off some impatient debt collectors.
Like the Pharisees who “devour[ed] widow’s houses,” (Luke 20:47), these modern peddlers of indulgences prey on the vulnerable and naïve. It’s often the people who can least afford it who buy into their scams, blindly hoping that God will unleash financial blessing on them in return for their seed gift. But the only ones who ever get rich are the faith healers and prosperity preachers themselves.
Most of us can see through that spiritual shell game. But there are plenty of softer and more civilized versions of indulgences that still plague the church today.
Joel Osteen is a prime example. While he holds to all the central tenets of prosperity theology, he shies away from the outlandish behavior and obscene promises of other health and wealth preachers. Like Roberts, Osteen is essentially selling himself and his lifestyle—the opulent wealth and worldwide fame he enjoys is supposedly evidence of God’s favor. And for the price of a book or a ticket to one of his rallies, you can learn how to unlock the same kind of blessing in your life.
And who wouldn’t want to be like him? Osteen embodies the American dream in human form. He looks good, is always happy, and marches through life in an endless procession of victories. If you buy a Joel Osteen book or attend one of his motivational rallies, you are promised Joel’s secret formula to “Become a Better You,” live “Your Best Life Now,” make “Every Day a Friday,” and discover “The Power of I Am” declarations so you can positively confess your desires into reality. Just as Tetzel preyed upon a populace who feared death, Osteen fills his coffers with the money of people who fear failure.
In his New York Times best-selling book, “Your Best Life Now,” Osteen promises its readers that:
We can live at our full potential right now! In this book, you will discover just how to do that! Within these pages, you will find seven simple, yet profound, steps to improve your life, regardless of your current level of success or lack of it. I know these steps work, because they have worked . . . in my own life. Joel Osteen, Your Best Life Now, revised and expanded ed. (New York: FaithWords, 2015), xiv.
Osteen is confident his indulgences work because they work “in [his] own life.” And he’s right! Indulgences do work—at least for the people who sell them. Especially when he has a vast customer base of people who lap up every idea he puts on the market.
Hillsong’s global ministry blazes a trail that is eerily similar to Osteen’s. Their central message is more concerned with your present satisfaction and fulfillment than your eternal well-being. It is a gospel of success, self-esteem, and sensuality—what they summarize as a blessed life—all available through their media outlets and concert events.
All those examples fall—to one degree or another—into the charismatic corners of the Protestant church. But there is another strain of indulgence sales that has managed to escape those confines and run rampant in modern evangelical churches. And we’ll examine that next time.