One of the most destructive departures from biblical teaching spreading around the world today is what is known as the “prosperity gospel.” Scott and Sean interview pastor Costi Hinn, nephew of the well-known televangelist and proponent of the prosperity gospel, Benny Hinn. Join us for an inside look at the prosperity gospel from someone who has been on the inside and has re-examined it, and left the movement.
Costi's book is titled God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel: How Truth Overwhelms a Life Built on Lies
More About Our Guest
Costi Hinn is Executive Pastor of Discipleship at Redeemer Bible Church in suburban Phoenix, Arizona.
Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics at Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University.
Sean McDowell: I'm your cohost, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot school of theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: We're here today with our guests. You may be familiar with his family though you might not be familiar with him individually. Costi Hinn is a pastor and author. He's pastoring in Arizona, author of several books and the latest one entitled, God, Greed and the Prosperity Gospel. You may wonder what motivated him to write a book on this subject. Well I think when I say a little bit about his extended family, this might make a little bit more sense. Costi is the nephew of the fairly well-known televangelist, Benny Hinn. For several years Costi was involved in the Benny Hinn evangelistic ministry before writing his book God, Greed and the Prosperity Gospel as a way of, I think... Would it be fair to say distancing yourself from what we might call the family business?
Costi Hinn: Yes, somewhat. I think, at least in my view, that that happened a little bit before with different articles. I had a blog and we were in our local church there in Irvine dealing with some of these issues because people would say, "Oh, Hinn, are you related to Benny?" I would explain it and was doing a lot of that locally. Then a publisher came and said, "Would you be willing to share the story and then maybe add some teaching in your pastoring and go through seminary and all of that?"
I saw it as a chance to tell the story but also equip people and really make sure that people that maybe didn't have a voice or they were out there in the middle of nowhere wondering if anyone ever has gone through the abuse they have or the confusion they have, that there are a lot of us. Whether we're Hinn, Jackson, Johnson, Smith, whatever, there are a lot of people that have been exploited and hurt by the so-called prosperity gospel. So, yes, I really just wanted to reach and equip and give people a tool for evangelism.
Scott Rae: Again, we appreciate you coming on with us. Costi has been a student at Talbot. In fact, we just reconnected here because I had sat with him at the introduction dinner when he was first starting his theological education here at Talbot. But I think for some of our listeners who may not be familiar with your uncle, tell us a little bit about what it was like growing up in that family and what were some of the primary messages that came out of the Benny Hinn Ministry?
Costi Hinn: Growing up in it was full of comforts and privileges and also a lot of entitlement. I knew the Bible, like a lot of pastors' kids growing up. I grew up watching Christian shows like any other kid. I've often joked even with friends now that, I don't know if you guys remember these, but I watched Superbook and McGee and Me! and The Donut Man and all these great shows. My kids watch them now. Scripture memory was on the tip of my tongue.
I went to private Christian schools, played sports, et cetera. So you're normal kid in a Pentecostal charismatic stream of evangelicalism and everything was pretty copacetic in that regard. Then around 12 or 13, a lot of things started to change. My dad traveled a lot more with my uncle Benny, who if you don't know who he is and you were to Google him, a guy in a white suit would come up.
There'd be a lot of theatrics and what have you, and then certain teachings. Those teachings are associated with money and seeing God as a cosmic banker or a magic genie. If you rub Him right with enough faith or if you give the right offering or you chant the right phrases and finish those prayers with, "In Jesus name," then anything you ask in Jesus name, he'll do.
As we grew up in our teen years, my dad traveled a lot more with my uncle. My dad was a pastor in Vancouver, British Columbia, and started preaching a lot less on Sundays. Paychecks got bigger and bigger. My uncle left his local church in Orlando and begin holding worldwide crusades. Picture crowds filling the Honda Center, picture crowds filling the United Center in Chicago back then, or American Airlines Arena in Dallas, and even having hundreds of thousands of people overseas in stadiums all trying to get healed.
I remember thinking one time after a trip, my dad had made a very large paycheck from the trip in the tens of thousands of dollars. I thought, I can't wait to get a little older and stop riding on the coattails of this stuff like a little sidekick on trips as a young man, but start leading in this thing. We rolled with the entourage. We had family vacations to Europe and Mali and everywhere else you can think of. We drove luxury cars, had two homes, one in Canada, nearly 10,000 square feet. We had a second home in San Juan Capistrano overlooking the Pacific.
You can imagine around that season, the news media started coming to our door and they wanted to know as well as a lot of conservative evangelicals, how do you justify teaching what you teach, preaching what you preach and then living like rock stars or celebrities. We were flying on a Gulf stream jet. We were staying in the nicest hotels in the world. When I was working in the ministry, we stayed in the Burj Al Arab, the hotel in Dubai that shaped like a sale, $25,000 a night US for the Royal suite. We stayed in it.
That was our lifestyle. People wanted to know because this wasn't the old should you pay your pastor a decent salary debate. The laborer is worthy of his wages or helping men in ministry ensure the lights are going to stay on while they're serving the church and they can focus on ministry. Which by the way is a very common reality in a lot of places around the world. This wasn't that discussion. This was pretty airtight. You guys are living like LeBron James and a rock star band, but you're doing it all on donations and then you're saying Jesus wants to do this for everyone.
How does that reconcile with the Bible? How does that reconcile with Christian ethics? It did not come without controversy and it also came with a lot of confusion for me and other family members as we wrestled through a lot of those situations.
Sean McDowell: You talked about for a while in the book, ways that you justified this in your mind, could you walk us through some of those ways and then how you started to change your perspective of that over time?
Costi Hinn: Yes. One of the justifications was that we were doing God's work and we were taking the healing, anointing power of God to the nations, and we were seeing them restored and healed and set free from the bondage of sickness and demonic powers. For doing that, we were living the blessed life. We were justified in that. Why would not God take care of his elite servants?
Why would not God bless lavishly the greatest man of God in the world, which is what I was taught growing up. My father would often say, and we would talk about the reality and the perspective. My dad would say to me, do you realize your uncle, the man you know, you spend time with, you share a last name is the greatest man of God on planet earth right now. We would all be wowed of course, and drinking the Koolaid so to speak. It's easy to justify. But also, when other questions came, for example, I'd see different scenes in crusades that almost reminded you of those war movies where everybody's injured and screaming and the camera's panning really quick like a saving private Ryan idea and you're just seeing Gore and horrific scenes everywhere.
It was like that at one of the crusades that we were at. It was in India and I remember crying after thinking, God, what is going on? Why doesn't this reconcile? We say it's your will to heal everybody. We say that if you just have enough faith, God will do it. If they give, these people came by the hundreds of thousands, sat in a field all night and they just want you to move on their behalf. I was very confused and the way that I justified that particular issue is not something I'm proud of even now.
By the grace of God, I'm saved and I know His grace covers. But looking back, I'll tell you the guys, the honest truth, when you leave that arena or that field, you go to your hotel, you wake up in the morning. Your rear-end hits the leather seat of a Gulf stream jet and the Benz's and Bentley's and Maserati's pick you up and the entourage and the stewardess or steward on the plain brings out your favorite meal without you even asking and you're back off to orange County to land there off Burch in the OC.
You forget and you start thinking, you know what? God's sovereign. So now we would appeal to his sovereignty. He's got that, he'll make it okay, we're just going to go ahead and do our best and present the gospel and plant the seed of faith in those hearts. That's really how we justified it.
Scott Rae: Costi let's go back just a little bit. Some of the primary doctrine or teaching that came out of these crusades is what's known as the prosperity gospel. Sometimes known as the health and wealth gospel, but some of our listeners might not be quite familiar with what's meant by the prosperity gospel. What exactly is taught by the prosperity gospel as your dad and your uncle taught that in these crusades?
Costi Hinn: It fits in the category of Galatians 1:6-12 where Paul says, something that's another gospel is really not a gospel at all. The term that I would prefer anyway is prosperity theology, but that doesn't really have the same ring. Prosperity gospel, literally prosperity good news, or the good news about prosperity is this. Believing in Jesus is going to lead to being healthy, wealthy, and happy here on earth.
It was always his will and always is that you be healed, that you be rich, that you have amazing relationships. Suffering is very taboo. Death is not something that we talked about. The Bible passages that the prosperity gospel preachers will emphasize are fixated on how if you do the right works, if you have enough faith, if you give money, God's going to give you what you want.
And that could be healing, promotion, salvation for a child, a baby you've been trying to conceive. I'll give you two quick verses that often get pulled out of context theologically. You've got Romans 10:9, believe in your heart confess with your mouth and you'll be saved. Well, the concept is this. If you can confess your salvation with your mouth and by faith you can obtain salvation. Well guess what? By faith, you can obtain everything else you need in life as well.
Prosperity theology says Jesus on the cross definitely atoned for sin. Oh, he did that. But he also paid for sickness. He paid for death. All those tears that you've cried and all that pain you've experienced. If you just have faith and you just receive the gift, he's already paid for, you're going to get it. Obviously we understand that when we read the book of revelation and we read just the New Testament at large, a lot of the promises and guarantees that are wrapped up in the atonement are sort of a now, but not yet.
Like our salvation, I'm guaranteed eternal life. I've got the assurance of salvation, I see fruit in my life and I'm walking with the Lord. As I persevere and go on to the end and I die one day, I have to die. It's appointed to a man wants to die so I die. Then all those other promises are unleashed. The abundant life of heaven, the eternal glory. Christ is the ultimate treasure. On and on and on. Actually, when you read the New Testament, we're guaranteed suffering and persecution more than we are health and wealth.
Last thing I'll say on that would be the reminder of balance here. 1st Timothy six, Paul speaking to Timothy says, instruct the rich to be rich in good works, not fixing their hope here on earth or in their stuff basically if I were paraphrasing, but to fix their hope on heaven. Be generous, ready to share. There's rich people in the church. Wealth is not a sin. It's a responsibility. We want to use it well, but the gospel is not a get rich plan. It's a get saved plan. That's what we want to be focused on when we're preaching faithfully.
Sean McDowell: To make sure I understand, you're not saying this idea of prosperity theology is just something Christians can agree to disagree over, but it gets to the heart of the gospel itself and compromises it. If so, why is prosperity theology so dangerous?
Costi Hinn: Well, first it demeans the character of God. God is good even when you're sick, even when you don't get healed, even when you're struggling working two jobs trying to make ends meet. Even if you are experiencing a season where you're not able to conceive a child. When your grades are good, when your grades are bad. When you're buried in student loan debt, and when you're paying it off. God is always good. It's who he is and the prosperity gospel emphasizes all that he can do.
It also takes the Bible very clear passages that aren't even debated really and makes them mean something they were never intended to mean. Now we're into, I think in authority of scripture issue and taking the Bible and God's Holy and Aaron precious word, and using it as a means to our own end. You have the demeaning of Christ. Some of these movements in prosperity gospel circles are starting to teach what Stephen J Welham explains in a great book.
You guys probably read it in your systematic theology classes called God incarnate. It's about Jesus. The term they're using or he uses is Ontological [inaudible] Christology, which is this in simple terms. That Jesus came to earth, laid aside his divinity, and then did all his stuff as just a man in right relationship with God to model for us how we can do miracles, how we can live a supernatural life. He became poor so we could become rich so we could tap into all the riches of heaven now. He was really just a stencil for us.
You can see it just continues to go down the line. It's man-centered and it's driving people not towards the cross, not towards repentance, not towards faith in Christ for who he is, but into a transactional and works-based relationship with a God that is barely recognizable, who is not really sovereign. We're sovereign, we're the puppet masters. He's the puppet. Our faith and our money and our big declarations make him do what we want. I don't know about you guys, but that just does not square with the God of the Bible.
Scott Rae: Costi, let me go back to your own personal story just for a moment. When did you first start to become disillusioned and re-evaluate the prosperity theology that your family was teaching? I'm really curious to know how your family started to react when you started to distance yourself from this.
Costi Hinn: Well, I was coming out of high school and my uncle had asked me to work with him and my family had encouraged it and I really believed that if I put a pause on college and on baseball, which I played at the time, then God would bless me and he would give me my desire to play professionally and all of that stuff. I planted a "seed" of faith in my uncle's ministry and I worked for him and took a year and a half off school, almost two years.
I lived there in Dana point. I drove an Escalade and lived the high life. I even lived with my uncle for a bit. What I ended up doing was going through that season, seeing all that and then going to Saddleback college first. I played baseball there and got first few years of college done with, and then I went to Dallas Baptist university.
I ended up in Texas. It's a good D1 school. Coach Heefner, the man there starts talking to me about different things. I drove a Hummer. You can picture rolling onto an SBC campus and I'm driving a Hummer. I got a $10,000 watch, I've got a big... The H2 on 22s and it's just TV's in the headrest. Not a recipe for disaster at all. I roll onto this Baptist campus and coach just started to give me the gospel.
He started to talk to me about the sovereignty of God. One day he told us when there was a scout in the stands, "You know guys, relax. Your God is sovereign. Everybody is really uptight." He quoted Proverbs 21:1. He said, The heart of the King is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord. He turns it wherever he wishes.
Then he said something, "God controls Kings. He controls Scouts. He's got the world in his hand. Boys don't worry about the future. God's in control. He's sovereign. You just go out and control what you can control, which is today. Play the game hard, go out there and have fun." I'm sitting there on the field thinking in my mind, what is this guy talking about? Sovereignty. God's in control. We do nothing. This sounds like crazy stuff.
I remember really arrogantly thinking... This coach I love him, but he drives a white Camry. Wears khaki pants and those old man runners every day to practice. I'm driving a 80, 90, $100,000 dollars car by the time all the customizations are done. I've got a $10,000 watch in my locker and I'm thinking, coach, I know about sovereignty. I know about getting God to do what I want. His cute little platitude from the book of Proverbs didn't really land.
But I'll tell you guys what, a few years later, that was a crack in the dam that burst in my life. I later met a girl after I graduated. She was from the Inland Empire, Christine. She was an Azusa grad. Very young in her faith and understanding of God. I know you guys forgive her for not going to Biola, but in the end-
Scott Rae: She's excused.
Costi Hinn: She drove a Yaris. It was blue color, putting herself through that school and very different. She started to question things. My family thought, well, we need to fix this girl if she's going to marry in. She went through a season of spiritual abuse. One thing in particular that no matter what your theological background, a lot of people understand and agree that you don't have to speak in tongues or operate in certain gifts of the spirit to be saved.
They're not evidence of salvation so much as they are the out workings of the Spirit of God through the life of a saved individual. Well, she was told no tongues, no conversion. You don't have the spirit, you're not marrying Costi. She tried so hard to speak in tongues. Well one day we came upon 1st Corinthians 12:30 and we were going through this tough season. I look and there's Paul saying, not all do they. Not everyone is going to operate in the same gifts. Not everyone has to operate in the same gifts.
Sure enough, clear as day there it was. We started to cry and figuring out what else we needed to learn. That started a split in the family. I ended up getting an opportunity to serve at a church in Tustin. While I was there, I have to preach a sermon. Sermon is the healing of the pool of Bethesda. I figured I got it nailed because I'm a Hinn preaching on healing is low hanging fruit.
As I'm studying, my pastor who became a dear mentor threw me a commentary. I'd never used one guys, never. Not one time in my life. I pull this commentary open after making observations of the passage. I'm seeing things for the first time, even before opening the commentary, which is why I opened it. I see Jesus targets one guy out of a multitude in John 5:1-17. Then he heals the man immediately. Then he heals him on the Sabbath so the pharisees get all bent out of shape and they tell the guy, "Who told you, you can pick up your pallet and walk?" He goes, "The guy who healed me."
Then John records something very interesting and says he didn't know who Jesus was. I look up the word and I'm thinking, he didn't even perceive who Jesus was. Well, how did he have enough faith if he didn't even know the guy? I'm confused as ever. I opened up this commentary and the commentator unpacks the passage and points to different other keys and then says this, God is sovereign in healing. He is a healer, but you can't turn Jesus's ministry into a formula. He starts going on about the cruel lies of faith healers today, that the people who fail to get healed are guilty of negative confessions or unbelief.
That here is a man with no faith at all, let alone knowing Jesus who Jesus healed. There's other examples where people came to Jesus with faith and he's moved with compassion. The takeaway there is you can't swing to either extreme. You must live in the balanced tension of God is sovereign. Jesus is a sovereign healer. We ask, we request and then he moves according to his will and we trust and obey.
So I'm wrecked. I bawl my eyes out. I realized that I probably believe other things that are not right. Long story shorter, I go to my pastor's office, I tell him everything that was in my mind and my heart and he strips my title. I preach the sermon on Sunday and then he strips my title and I become pastor in training. I end up starting shortly after taking some online classes through this non-accredited, just online resource center. Then he tells me, listen, you're getting the beginnings here, but you need to go to real seminary. So I'm like, okay.
I end up at Talbot, taking Greek and learning and loving it, and then my church comes and says, "Hey, driving two days a week and just leaving the office to go enjoy yourself there in La Marotta isn't going to fly because we need you to do more. Can you transition to more of a hybrid program?" And so I did and seven years later, thankful to the Lord graduated and then also have just seen the Lord work through the situation and we're just trying to be faithful to the truth.
Sean McDowell: Your story is just so fascinating and insightful and instructive on so many levels. We have a couple of questions for you, but now that you have theological training, you've separated yourself from the prosperity gospel pretty clearly. Do you look back and say, you know what, there really is still some good in that. Like some of the accounts of healing. Some people have sworn to me it really happened, or do you think those are just not true at all? With this theological training where you are, how do you look back on some of those events and say, "Maybe God did heal some people in spite of it." What's your take of that?
Costi Hinn: I want to move beyond the weeds, so to speak when I'm analyzing these situations as best as I can as a human being. What I do guys is I end up just to God and his people. That's the view I take and go, could God and does God reach down and intervene in beautiful ways on behalf of... That's one of his. That's his sheep there in a crusade. God can supersede and transcend any false teacher and any faith healer.
To say that anything happening in an arena, any person's experience is not valid because they had it at a healing crusade where my uncle was there is actually to elevate the authority and power of that false teacher or that faith healer above God's. God can move at any time. He's the creator of every human life and he's holding human hearts in his hands.
Where I landed after theological training and allowing God's word to be the filter for my experiences, not the other way around, I landed very similar to where Talbot has landed. I view healing as for today, God does heal. He is a supernatural God, the greatest miracle of all, no doubt being healing for the soul, salvation. But we ought to pray and he does heal and he does do great things, but we're praying like Jesus did in the garden. Not my will, but yours be done. Trusting him in the midst of trial.
Then beyond that, I would say I see a more of a non-normative pattern where we don't have Peter and Paul coming to all our churches and just healing people left and right. They're not clearing hospitals and they're not going around saying silver and gold have I none, that which I have give I thee, in the name of Jesus Christ, rise and walk. We're not seeing that similarity exactly like the New Testament picture.
I would be of the position that Christians going around wielding signs and wonders and just doing miracles at will in hospitals or whatever would be the non-normative pattern. I don't like some of the extremes that different scholars go to. I prefer to live in balance and just let God's word do the talking. If it matches scripture, I'm looking at it through the lens of scripture. If it doesn't, I'm going to look with a cautious lens and I'm going to simply say, I can't discredit the experience, although I can't affirm it because I wasn't there.
I want to be really fair. I'm a pastor, I'm not a professor, parenthesis yet. Maybe one day it'd be a joy as I grow older a bit to get involved in seminaries and different places to train. But overall I'm a pastor so I'm on the ground floor with people working this out. They're not going to work on Monday and doing the taxes for some person at H and R block, make or break moment. Gosh, if I don't figure out this big cessationism debate, I'm going to get fired from H and R block.
These precious people are just trying to go and live the Christian life. That's where I'm at. I'm walking with people through that, really trying to point them to God's word as the standard. Then I think there's other forums for those other kind of discussions, if that makes sense.
Scott Rae: It does. I think that's a really healthy balanced view of how we need to do this. Costi, my understanding, I'm not exactly sure where I've gotten this from, but I've heard through the theological grapevines is that your uncle is backing away a bit from the prosperity theology that's been so characteristic of his ministry for a long time. I guess my first question is, is that true? And if so, why do you think that's the case?
Costi Hinn: Yes, he came out with a statement recently saying that he was sick and tired of it and he thinks God is. Putting numbers to the miraculous. In other words, give $1,000 tonight, we would say that. There's an anointing here. There's a $1,000 anointing or there's an anointing for conception God wants to give. How many of you... Will say raise your hand. How many of you are believing God for a baby? Raise your hand. You'll get people raise their hands. How many even know someone? Because you want to get more hands so you need to manipulate the room.
"How many of you know someone who's believing God for that." Now you got most of the room lifting their hands because everybody knows somebody who maybe is trying or whatnot. From there you say, I believe that God has an anointing tonight, but he wants you to give $1,000 seed and you can make a miracle happen with your money. Money is the thing that you love the most. If you'll give that up, God will give you what you want. That's the delivery.
He repudiated that and said he won't do that anymore. I applauded that. I sent him a message right away, I said I'm so proud of you. Thank you. I'm so excited you took steps in the right direction. Then... I'll be honest with you guys, the rest of my message to him, I said, "I pray and encourage you to keep going down this road and be willing to pay the price and count the cost and follow Christ no matter what." I told him I'd be the first one at his door no matter what friends I lose or what people think. I don't care. If Zacchaeus is having his moment, I want to go have dinner with him. I want to be right there when he comes out of the tree.
There's that. The other side to it though is there's been some stalling on moving further than that statement. There's a lot of bad press about the prosperity gospel right now. There's a lot of tension with it and some of it can get political and real sticky. We got to be really careful jumping to conclusions about things. But overall, my prayer is that it's full repentance. It's not just remorse because of bad press or family pressure and that all out repentance and becoming accountable to faithful leaders.
All in on Jesus, no matter what the cost. Paul the apostle and Zacchaeus style is what this turns into, even if it means taking a break from ministry. That's where I'm at now. That's how I would encourage him and how I talk with family. I love him. I pray for him often. My dad said it best when I asked him not long ago where are things at? Because they talk. They're pretty close and he would open up to him more than me or others right now.
My dad just... He used an Arabic phrase, which is [foreign language]. Our family speaks Arabic and so I understand a good bit and he says, [foreign language] means just easy, easy. Take it easy. Just go slow. Let him go through a process, discern and test. Examine yourself, examine him. Just wait and see and let God do his work and we'll see if it's genuine. I thought that was a good wisdom. I'm almost 36 years old this year, but I'm still entrapped when my father spits good wisdom. I can't say anything to that. I am going to [foreign language] and take it easy and just let time do the heavy lifting.
Scott Rae: I think that's okay to take good wisdom from your father. In terms what you've described already, as long as it's consistent with what the Bible is teaching and consistent with scripture. One last question. Costi, in one sentence, what can we learn from your journey in and out of the prosperity theology movement?
Costi Hinn: I've said it before, so it's easy to remember. If you have everything but you don't have Jesus. You have nothing. If you have nothing but you have Jesus, you have everything. He's worth it.
Scott Rae: Wow. That's really well put. That's a drop the mic moment. This is such a good way to end this. Costi, we so appreciate the journey that you've had. Your faithfulness to Christ as you've come out of the prosperity theology movement. Your desire to see everything you do framed by faithfulness to scripture. We wish you all the best as you continue to pastor, continue to be faithful. We pray for your family as I'm sure you do and long to see them come back to the same kinds of biblical faithfulness that you're experiencing in your own life.
Again, many thanks for coming on with us. It's a fascinating story and I think for your life, there's still a lot of the story that's still left to be written. We look forward to seeing what God will do in the future through your own ministry and how He will use the background that you've had to increase your impact for Christ. Thanks again for coming on with us.
Costi Hinn: Thank you guys. Appreciate you.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast. Think Biblically: Conversations On Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest Costi Hinn and his book, God, Greed and The Prosperity Gospel. To find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and please consider sharing it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.