Osteen’s Alternative Gospel

Yesterday I finished up chapter 3 of Horton’s book Christless Christianity. The chapter, “Smooth talking and Christless Christianity”, is a detailed expose/refutation of Joel Osteen’s theology – if you can really call it that. It wasn’t what I expected when I picked up the book, but it was a good reminder of how unbiblical, pervasive, and dangerous the ‘health & wealth’/’name it and claim it’ brand of Christianity is.

It’s the ‘dangerous’ element that struck me with a new weight as I read Horton yesterday. This is true at the corporate level (we celebrate the explosion of the church in the 2/3rds world, yet Horton points out that much of this explosion is of this ‘health and wealth’ variety where no real gospel is preached at all) and at the individual level. We laugh at Osteen and those who drink in his sweet drivel. The message Osteen preaches leaves people feeling good about themselves and their relationship with God. Osteen is never condemning, always positive, ready to encourage and tell people to live up to their potential as ‘children of the Most High God’. While he seems like a nice guy, this message is utterly cruel on several levels.

First, as there is no preaching of sin and God’s just condemnation of sinners, there is no sense in which Christ is offered (even needed) as one’s mediator and atoning sacrifice. Horton writes, “There is no condemnation in Osteen’s message for failing to fulfill God’s righteous law. On the other hand, there is no justification. Instead of either message, there is an upbeat moralism that is somewhere in the middle: Do your best, follow the instructions I give you, and God will make your life successful.” He continues, “…there is a determination to assimilate the gospel to law, an announcement of victory to a call to be victorious, indicatives to imperatives, Good News to good advice. The bad news may not be as bad as it used to be, but the Good News is just a softer version of the bad news: Do more. But this time, it’s easy! and if you fail, don’t worry. God just wants you to do your best. He’ll take care of the rest.” Horton does an excellent job detailing the various ways sin has been trivialized in Osteen’s (and other like him) preaching and writing. It has lost it’s vertical element (it’s not sin against God). It’s even lost its horizontal element (it’s not against a neighbor). Essentially sin is against self – not living up to potential, robbing oneself of God’s best for our lives, etc. In this climate, salvation isn’t legal, it’s therapaudic. The question is, ‘how do I feel better about myself and get more out of life’, not ‘how can a sinner be right with God’. No one is being urged to repent of sin and throw themselves at the feet of Jesus pleading for mercy before a just judge. There at thousand, tens of thousands, of people who have heard Osteen preach and think they are ok with God because they’re doing their best, or at least close to it, most of the time.

Essentially, the Gospel has been turned into a salvation by working (doing your best, obeying the instructions, etc.). This is also incredibly cruel. Horton comments, “to those who are burned out on trying to merit God’s favor, Osteen’s only answer – though said with a smile – is to do more. ‘Believe more for your miracle and God will turn it around.’ Is this the kinder, gentler God or a more than slightly sinister tyrant who keeps raising the hoops for us to jump through before he gives us what we want.”

Moreover, it’s cruel because it teaches people that all their problems are because they don’t believe enough – even genetic problems. Horton quotes a sermon by Osteen (hard to believe he wasn’t sued by the diabetes foundation): “you need to put your foot down and say, ‘Grandmother may have had it [diabetes]. Mother may have had it. But as for me and my house, we’re redeemed from diabetes. I’m going to live under the blessing and not the curse…This type of blessing is for believers, not doubters.” Osteen’s theology is utterly unable to deal with pain and loss in life, simply adding more to it by pointing the finger at the suffering individual telling them it’s their fault – they should have more faith and stop being the doubting Thomas.

Finally, it’s cruel because it robs people of the ultimately glory we have been promised and offers them instead cheap substitutes that tarnish, rust and get moth eathen. Instead of offering deliverance from God’s eternal wrath and everlasting life free from pain, sin and death, Osteen offers salvation from feeling bad about ourselves and unhappiness. Horton quotes CS Lewis, “I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle fo Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

A fair chunk of this chapter is a reproduction of an essay Horton wrote a couple of years ago (Oct. 2007) after being interviewed on 60 minutes about Osteen. Looking ahead at the next chapter I don’t see Osteen’s name anywhere…but I do see McLaren. I’ll keep you posted!