By Hank Hanegraaff
(Christian Research Institute, Charlotte, NC: 2014)
Reviewed by Lee Duigon
Chances are someone in your family is getting religious instruction from Joel Osteen. He’s on TV, he’s all over the Internet, he’s on the radio, and he’s had six books No. 1 on The NewYork Times Best Seller List, with more than 22 million copies sold (p. 2).
But it’s very bad instruction, according to “The Bible Answer Man,” Hank Hanegraaff.
Behind Osteen’s perpetual toothy grin, sold-out “worship events” in major stadiums, and folksy patter, charges Hanegraaff, we find a mix of bad theology, distorted Scripture, nonsensical stories, and “a puny view of God and a bloated view of humanity” (p. 6). And those are just the nicer things he says about Osteen’s teaching.
A Solid Case Against Him
It’s rare to come upon a book by a Christian teacher so scathingly critical of a supposed Christian teacher. Osteenification is only seventy pages long, and you can read it in a sitting; but it’s packed solid with quotes, examples, and other information, requiring 137 footnotes. Many of the notes refer to Bible verses in support of Hanegraaff’s argument. Quotes from Osteen’s books, sermons, and interviews are provided in abundance, with the sources given either in the text or among the notes.
The point is, Hanegraaff backs up everything he says by using Osteen’s own words and measuring them against the Scriptures. The end result is a terrible indictment, and a case that compels us to render a verdict of “guilty as charged.”
But it’s not just Osteen who’s guilty. Hanegraaff doesn’t say so, but Osteen could never get away with this if the churches diligently taught the Bible and the congregations diligently read it. Osteen’s success is testimony to our ignorance of God’s Word and our lack of commitment to it.
How to Get Everything You Want
Hanegraaff calls Osteen’s teaching “The glory of the cross transposed to the glory of consumerism—a fast-food Christianity long on looks, dreadfully short on substance. The triumph of technique over theology. Style over substance. The preeminence of psychobabble over precept and principle. In short, Osteen is the de facto high priest of a new brand of Christianity perfectly suited for a feel-good generation” (p. 2).
The teaching is absurdly simple—I probably should say simple-minded. God wants you to be happy in this world, so He has endowed every human being with the power to make anything, good or bad, come true—just by saying it or thinking it. As you speak, so shall you reap.
So if you didn’t get that high-paid promotion that you wanted, or the snazzy new car, or that miraculous recovery from illness, it’s only because you, bubba, had negative thoughts, or uttered a discouraging word, that blocked God from carrying out your wishes.
“What his message is not, however, is biblical,” writes Hanegraaff. “If God can be controlled through positive or negative confessions, He is reducible to the status of a cosmic servant subject to faith formulas. Indeed, Osteen would effectively be God, and God would effectively be Osteen’s bellhop” (p. 5).
On the face of it, Osteen’s teaching sounds preposterous. How is he able to bamboozle so many people with it? How does he dress it up so that they don’t see through it right away?
Osteen is fond of tweaking Scripture—a little twist here, a little turn there, until the Bible says what he wants it to say.
For instance, in the story of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, in Luke 1—as presented by Osteen on television, May 3, 2004 (p. 14, note 33)—God took away Zechariah’s power of speech not as a sign, but “because God knew that Zechariah’s negative confessions—Are you really sure this is going to happen? Do you see how old we are? I just don’t think this would be possible—would stop His plan … He knew that Zechariah’s negative words would cancel out His plan” (p. 14).
To arrive at that arrantly anti-Biblical conclusion, all Osteen had to do was skip over those verses (Luke 1:6, 13, 18, 20) that make it clear that God will give a son to Zechariah, that this will indeed happen, and that, as a sign, Zechariah will lose the ability to speak until it does happen.
Hanegraaff calls this technique of Osteen’s “scriptorture” (p. 13) and provides a whole chapter’s worth of examples. “As should be obvious to anyone paying attention,” he writes, “ … Isaiah’s prophecy [Isa. 61:1–2] is hardly reducible to a personal promise of prosperity in the present” (p. 24). Osteen has here reduced the promise of the Messiah to the fulfillment of the individual hearer’s worldly aspirations. He has marked it down drastically. One might say blasphemously.
On and on he goes, twisting Scripture to make it conform to his message of “get it here, get it now.” Never mind eternal life, forgiveness of sins, regeneration of the believer’s heart, or sanctification by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. To an audience steeped in Biblical illiteracy, it must sound pretty good.
Stories, Stories, He’s Got Stories
Everyone likes stories. Everyone wants to be entertained. So Joel Osteen tells stories, lots of them. That the stories are not true doesn’t seem to perturb his audience. Hanegraaff charitably calls these stories “urban legends.” They might more accurately be described by an Anglo-Saxon term whose initials are B.S.
Take this howler, for instance. Hanegraaff plucked it from a book by Osteen titled, Become a Better You (note 40).
Osteen spoke of “an interesting study done in 1993 by the United States military … Researchers extracted some white blood cells from a volunteer and they carefully placed them in a test tube. They then put a probe from a lie-detector machine down in the test tube, to measure the person’s emotional response. Next, they instructed the same volunteer to go a couple of doors down and watch some violent scenes from an old war movie on television. When this man watched the scenes, even though this blood that was being tested was in another room, when he got all uptight and tense, that lie detector test shot off the page. It was detecting his emotional response even though the blood was no longer in his body” (pp. 18–19).
Maybe it just doesn’t occur to the reader that a famous “Christian” teacher would retail a story no more credible than the tales of Baron Munchausen.
“Despite stupendous successes,” writes Hanegraaff, “the sad reality is this: Osteen’s sermons are plagued by undocumented anecdotes and urban legends buttressed by misinterpretations of the Bible” (p. 17).
Some of Osteen’s stories sound like the ones exchanged among ten-year-olds on the playground, or those related by slightly tipsy, poorly-educated drinkers in a tavern. Why is he so careless about truth?
Maybe 22 million books sold, and more than 135 sold-out “worship events” in major stadiums and arenas around the country (p. 2), are hints that being careless with the truth can be enormously profitable.
Why Does Anybody Listen?
To sum up Joel Osteen’s patently un-Biblical religious teaching, let’s turn again to his own words, these from a book titled, Your Best Life Now (note 84).
“Your words have enormous creative power. The moment you speak something out, you give birth to it. This is a spiritual principle, and it works whether what you are saying is good or bad, positive or negative” (p. 49).
By what insane standard can this be called Christianity? It seems God’s only job is to transform our words into reality. And again, if we don’t get what we want, it can only be because we spoiled it by letting a negative thought flutter through our mind or slip past our lips.
How can any message so obviously crazy sell out a stadium? Are people so bedazzled by the grin, the slick sales pitch, the appeal to subtly or not-so-subtly altered Scripture, the stories that roll so smoothly off his tongue, and the intensity of their own worldly desires, that they just can’t recognize it as the very same false message delivered by the serpent to Eve in the Garden of Eden, back in the beginning?
“And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat [the forbidden fruit], then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods …” (Genesis 3:4–5).
That, too, is Osteen’s message in a nutshell.