Cheap Grace, Prosperity Theology, etc.
By Eric Stetson — October 17, 2020
Today, many people are searching for spiritual truth, and there are many ideas competing for attention and support. Unfortunately, a lot of the ideas in the modern-day spiritual marketplace are what I would call “junk food religion.” By that, I mean that they are the equivalent of empty calories that cause a sugar high or cheap chemical rush, but are not healthy and nutritious for the body, or in this case the soul.
Some of the junk food religion that people consume is so strongly identified with mainstream religious traditions that it has twisted them almost beyond recognition. This is especially the case with American Protestant Christianity. Other junk food religious ideas are associated with the New Age movement, pop psychology, and the excesses of individualism and pluralism.
Although there may be some truth in the “salt sugar fat” religious philosophies that provide superficial relief for human spiritual cravings, there is more and greater truth — and more ultimately satisfying and nourishing truth — in a religious worldview that transcends such shallowness of understanding. It is time to put aside the temptations of junk food religion and choose the “meat” of mature spiritual growth.
“Whipping Boy” Atonement Theory and Cheap Grace
One of the most common religious concepts that has the effect of junk food for the soul is a legalistic misinterpretation of the meaning of the cross of Christ. As the theory goes, Jesus died on the cross as a technical action so that God could forgive people’s sins, much like the offering up of a bloody animal sacrifice to appease God’s supposedly incredible wrath — in this case the sacrifice of a perfect human being. All punishment for the sins of the world is transferred to the shoulders of Jesus, who functions as a whipping boy, so that we don’t have to face the just consequences of our own sins.
Many Evangelical Protestants believe that if you simply accept that “Jesus is Lord” and that he “died for your sins,” you are automatically spared any moral or spiritual accountability for your actions. That is because you are “washed clean in the blood of the Lamb” — i.e. the blood of Jesus shed on the cross, plus your faith therein, cancels out any sins you commit. In theory, a person could live a life of constant and abominable evil, but right before they die, fall on their knees and pray the “sinner’s prayer” and instantaneously receive God’s forgiveness and be guaranteed to go straight to heaven; whereas a person who lived a life of great moral rectitude and tremendous spiritual discipline, but who never “confessed Christ” as their personal Lord and Savior, would die and go straight to hell, burning in torment forever.
The injustice and absurdity of such a theory should be obvious. It means that if Hitler, on his last day alive in his Nazi bunker, wanted to make sure his sins would be covered by a magical get-out-of-hell-free card, and prayed the correct 30-second prayer to gain entry to eternal fellowship with God and Christ in paradise, he was good to go, but the six million Jews he murdered went from the Nazi ovens to the Devil’s ovens because they had “incorrect” religious beliefs. A religion whose tenets could produce such monstrously perverse outcomes is itself, by definition, incorrect, unless the God of our universe is the Devil himself.
Some liberal Christians called Ultra-Universalists remove the hell part of the theory, and instead say that everyone goes to heaven when they die, because of the atoning power of the cross that covers all sin, even the sins of the wicked and unbelievers. Although this idea eliminates the injustice of good people going to hell, the injustice of evil people going to heaven remains very much a problem. Both the extreme Evangelical view and the Ultra-Universalist view of the atonement deprive life on earth of its moral purpose as a test for our souls to choose good or evil. Both are examples of a philosophy of “cheap grace.”
Biblical authors such as the Apostle Paul did compare Jesus’s death on the cross to an animal sacrifice, but they did so because their audience was Jews, Greeks and Romans, who lived in cultures in which the ritualistic slaughter of animals was routinely practiced as a way to beg God for mercy and forgiveness. The point was to say that such sacrifices were ineffective and contrary to God’s will and loving nature. By analogizing Jesus’s death as the ultimate sacrifice for all sins, early Christian teachers were calling for an end to primitive religious systems that viewed God as angry and vengeful and desirous of a transactional relationship with humans who were constantly trying to make payment for their sins with offerings of other beings’ flesh and blood.
Ironically, it was the Christians who were saying that moral righteousness is what God wants from us, not some technical, legalistic action of killing an animal or a human being as a substitute for ourselves in order to win God’s mercy. By accepting the “final sacrifice” of Jesus Christ on the cross, ancient people became free to move forward in their moral and religious thinking, no longer fearing the wrath of a bloodthirsty God, but focusing instead on living a life in harmony with divine love and justice as the method by which to attain a positive experience in the afterlife.
Many modern Christians fail to see the context and the irony in the Biblical depiction of the cross of Christ as an infinitely effective human sacrifice for sin. Instead, they take it literally, turning their religion into a vehicle for sin to flourish and multiply — for if the only consequences of our sins rest on the bloody shoulders of Jesus 2,000 years ago, then why can’t we sin as much as we feel like? Perhaps this is why so many Christian churches that adhere to extreme Protestant theories of the atonement and reject any notion of “purgatory” or reformative and proportionate divine justice upon sinners have become largely amoral institutions, accepting gravely immoral conduct even by religious and political leaders, rather than holding high expectations of decency and rectitude among self-professed Christians in positions of power, let alone the rest of us. Cheap grace, like sin, truly does have consequences.
Prosperity Theology and the Not-Quite Law of Attraction
Another popular form of junk food religion is the notion that by thinking positive thoughts or asking God for things in prayer, we can get what we want in life and avoid what we don’t want. This basic concept goes by many names, including the “prosperity gospel” and “word of faith” among Christians, and the “law of attraction” among New Agers. Many bestselling books have been written promoting this philosophy, such as The Secret and The Prayer of Jabez.
There is nothing wrong with focusing the mind on good things that we desire, and it is entirely appropriate to pour out our heart to God in our prayer life, communicating to the spirit world our hopes and dreams and requests for assistance. However, we begin to go astray when we think of such practices as something of a mechanical process, like pushing a button to get a guaranteed result, as if our own will is the only force that determines what happens in reality.
God is not a cosmic gumball machine. Sending out prayers and affirmations into the universe is not like putting quarters in the slot — there is no guarantee that a metaphorical colored ball will come out and provide us with the sugary chew we crave, whether that be financial success, robust health, a better love life, or whatever else.
The problem with the “input-output” theory of spiritual reality is that in many cases people put in the input but do not get the expected output. This can destroy people’s faith both in God and in themselves, unless they transition to a more mature faith that acknowledges that Higher Powers actually have power, and in fact have more power than we do and can supersede our own relatively limited agency. One of the most notorious examples of this is when people are accused of lacking faith or having a secretly negative attitude because their prayers for cure of an illness are not answered. In reality, what is happening is that God is saying “no,” for reasons that remain mysterious at the time. The challenge of faith is to accept that God’s will does not always coincide with our own — even in situations such as a good person dying of a terminal disease. Far too often, people lose their faith because either they themselves or their fellow believers cannot accept that the law of attraction does not always work.
New Agers, especially, like to talk about how you can “create your own reality” through the power of the mind. “Thoughts are things,” as the saying goes — what you think about, whether positive or negative, becomes the reality you experience. Although there is some truth to this, it is not the whole story. It may in fact be the case that God has sent us or we have chosen to come to a world where we cannot always create our own reality through our thoughts, precisely so that we can learn how to maintain faith and integrity despite not always getting what we want. That might be the primary purpose of souls coming to earth. In heaven, we get to enjoy anything that we can dream of; but here in the physical world, with laws beyond our own willpower and competing plans of other beings both visible and invisible, we must endure the struggle of striving for our goals against frequent resistance, like an athlete lifting weights. Persistence and patience in the face of obstacles is how we attain spiritual growth. This takes initiative and discipline, and the wisdom to discern how heavy a weight we can lift.
No matter how strong we might become, there are always greater powers who can throw their weight around. Sometimes their will may overcome ours. But the good thing is, the greatest Power of all is a God who has our best interests at heart. There are many cases in life where God has a plan for us that we don’t understand — a plan that may include poverty, illness, or other things that make us sad or angry. But God intends to use these negative things for our ultimate good. Taken to an extreme, the ideology of “create your own reality” is essentially a form of atheism, because it denies the agency and plan of a greater Being than ourselves. We are not the only ones who get to choose and create what happens. That is especially true for the individual, who is like a tiny candle flame compared to the Divine Sun.
Sometimes people’s choices, in their limitations and immaturity, lead them to dark and dreadful places where “reality creates you” and “things become thoughts,” rather than the other way around. Prosperity theology and the law of attraction offer no hope in such situations, only condemnation. But God does not necessarily leave us alone when are stuck in a vicious cycle from which our own free will has insufficient efficacy to enable us to escape; on the contrary, in God’s own way and timing, God may intervene for our benefit. But the intervention might not come in this lifetime, or as a seemingly automated response to our prayers for relief. The plan is up to God, according to a higher knowledge and purpose.
Beyond a Lukewarm Pluralism
Many people today are becoming “spiritual but not religious” — which typically means that they see the value in spiritual ideas and practices but don’t want to commit themselves to a specific belief system and religious community. Often this is because they have come to see the flaws in traditional religion, so they prefer to pick and choose from the vast smorgasbord of religious options. Compared to orthodox believers, the spiritual but not religious are usually much more tolerant of the different choices of others and are less dedicated to their own self-constructed faith.
In some ways and to some degree, this way of thinking can be healthy and mature. But it becomes junk food religion when it leads people to an excessively relativistic view that “everyone has their own truth” and that it’s not important for people to pursue a rigorous search for the higher truth beyond their own personal preferences and biases. Another unhealthy tendency of people with a vague and pluralistic spirituality is the tendency to avoid commitment to the kind of religious disciplines that can lead to serious spiritual growth.
It is understandable that many well-educated and sophisticated people in a postmodern society would choose to be in some sense “spiritual” and to respect the various religious paths, without feeling passionate enough about any of them to walk the path in a consistent and committed way. But this is taking the easy way out. A deeper and more meaningful spirituality requires a coherent worldview, diligent practice, and communal fellowship with others on the journey.
People who see the flaws of traditional religion should not be content to be lukewarm and noncommittal in their spiritual life, nor should they limit themselves to sampling the dessert table of various equally flawed New Age philosophies. Instead, they should seek the meat of a more mature faith that can enable them to grow powerful spiritual muscles. Such a faith is based on holistic and transcendent truths, rather than archaic dogmas or popular errors.
When a sincere seeker is ready for a religious diet that can take them to the next level in the growth of the soul — no matter where they are currently in their development as a child of God — it is vitally important that they put aside the junk food religion. Religious belief is not “fire insurance” to protect us from the consequences of setting our lives ablaze with sin. We don’t come to earth to get whatever we want, and we can’t think or meditate or pray our way to riches and easy escapes from the challenges of life. There is an omniscient and almighty God who loves us and has wonderful plans for us, even if we can’t see it at the time; and there is real truth out there waiting to be discovered, if we will seek it in all places with humility and passion.