The Delights of Dante’s Hell: Paula White and Oral Roberts Meet Robert Schuller

Gauging progress in the faith depends upon how one perceives the race. Another jet and a bigger mansion for Robert Tilton, more Rolls Royces for Creflo Dollar, and for their followers perhaps a desperate last attempt to be miraculously healed or to escape perpetual poverty.  In Dante’s definition of inverse progress in hell (hell being the “realm … of those who have rejected spiritual values by . . . perverting their human intellect for fraud or malice against their fellowmen”) it would seem that Bob and Creflo would land at the 8th ring. Dante reserves the depths of hell for those who have committed fraud – with spiritual fraud qualifying for the inner portion of the 8th – 9th circle. Those who “pervert and falsify ecclesiastical office, counsel, authority, psychic influence, and material interdependence” or those who made money for themselves out of what belongs to God: “Rapacious ones, who take the things of God, / that ought to be the brides of Righteousness, / and make them fornicate for gold and silver! / The time has come to let the trumpet sound / for you.” The violence done to the dispossessed (Kenneth and Gloria Copeland rail against modern medicine as the money is better spent on their jets) certainly puts them at the 7th circle. Kenneth and Gloria and all who have “plundered” their neighbors, according to Dante, will apparently be immersed in boiling blood forever. Oral Roberts, the father of seed-faith (promise of prosperity in return for giving) televangelism, televised faith-healing, can probably now report whether his “head is twisted around such that he is compelled to walk backwards for eternity,” but Dante would consign all false-prophets to the 8th circle of hell where they are “blinded by their own tears.”

Jets and mansions, raising the dead (a power Robert’s claimed), creating wealth from seed-faith, or simply “a better life now” (Joel Osteen’s claim for his gospel), are an easy measure of power. This measure is not simply that of the lunatic fringe but accounts for the faith of Donald Trump and his key spiritual adviser, Paula White. (White has recently warned her listeners that they had better send her their January salary, their “first fruit” donation, or “I don’t know what you’re going to face.”) The health and wealth gospel not only describes the most egregious charlatans but seems to account, perhaps in a more nuanced fashion, for the evangelical faith and voters that put Trump in office. It is no huge leap from a faith which could make Oral Roberts a figure of national prominence and which supports an army of imitators (Copeland, along with several of the health and wealth gospelers, are direct disciples of Roberts) to a faith which could admire a Donald Trump. While evangelicalism cannot be equated with the health and wealth gospel it is susceptible to a doctrine, arising directly from John Calvin, which equates financial success with God’s blessing – and according to Calvin is a sign that one is part of the elect.

The specific force in shaping a more “benign” and more pervasive version of the health and wealth gospel can be traced to the Church Growth Movement and the teachings of Donald McGavran, who along with Robert Schuller, represent the key shapers in a movement which has produced Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Bob Russell, and a host of institutes, conferences, and books telling preachers how they too can be successful. The Fuller School of World Mission, founded by McGavran and headed and developed further by C. Peter Wagner, along with the Robert Schuller Institute for Successful Church Leadership, provided the impetus to a movement that largely paralleled the rise of the health and wealth gospel, both historically and in several shared ideas. The difference is that Church Growth philosophy is a developed set of beliefs, formulated by McGavran (the intellectual force behind the movement), and popularized by the rise of the phenomena of the mega-church improvised first by Schuller – such that this is the understanding promoted in seminaries and Bible colleges throughout evangelical churches.  The lure for young preachers to learn the ways of McGavran is the example of those preachers who command the attention of thousands in churches numbering in the tens of thousands. Ostentatious wealth is not the immediate lure but ostentatious numbers and buildings translate to something quite similar – the difference is the mainstream acceptance (perhaps unwittingly) of McGavran’s principles.[1]

With Church Growth, numbers of bodies and not specifically money, is the sign of blessing. McGavran emphasized, “The lost are always persons. They always have countable bodies.”[2] Thus, preaching and mission should be judged by numerical results and not the effort put forth. Pure American pragmatism in the choice of how this is accomplished is the result. Mission fields and methods, including those which are aimed at providing physical relief, which do not produce more countable bodies for the faith are considered “poor stewardship” (an unwise investment). As a result, this seeker friendly form of the gospel focuses on discovering the needs and sensibilities of the lost.  As Rick Warren has put it, “It is my deep conviction that anybody can be won to Christ if you discover the key to his or her heart. . . . It may take some time to identify it. But the most likely place to start is with the person’s felt needs.”[3] The Church is designed to meet needs and thus draw in more countable bodies (which in extremis makes for a product very similar to that of the health and wealth gospel).

Schuller identified the primary need as greater self-esteem: “Where the sixteenth-century Reformation returned our focus to sacred Scriptures as the only infallible rule for faith and practice, the new reformation will return our focus to the sacred right of every person to self-esteem! The fact is, the church will never succeed until it satisfies the human being’s hunger for self-value.”[4] (As a freshman in Bible College our professor had us read Schuller and several mega-church preachers arose from the lessons learned at this school.) Peter Wagner has seen the need as continuing Apostolic revelation: “Apostles who receive the word of the Lord translate it into a concrete vision and announce to their followers that it is what the Spirit is saying to the churches for this time and place, thus opening the way for powerful ministry.”[5] Rick Warren’s sees the need as a “purpose driven” focus on action rather than on doctrine.

A gospel focused on self-esteem as the mode of success accompanied by new Apostolic authority and a focus on action more than teaching, echoes the worst of the health and wealth gospel.  The notion of pandering to self-value (a value added gospel) for “success” by means of an alternative prophetic authority which would by-pass doctrine may fall short of the greasy self-serving of a Paula White or Robert Tilton but only by degree. In terms of Dante’s Inferno, it may be that the “rejection of religious norms” (a new authority in place of the “rule of faith and practice” – new apostles with alternative goals) means that Wagner and Schuller have descended only to the sixth circle of hell. Given the perversity of the form of faith expressed on the national political scene it is not entirely clear that they are not perpetually eaten by Harpies (the seventh circle of hell) or are being consumed by the Devil himself in the inner-most circle of hell reserved for those who commit treachery against their Lord.

Dante may not be the best guide to the working out of eternal justice but there is something perversely satisfying in imagining Paula White, Oral Roberts, and Creflo Dollar, lined up head-first in stone bowls having their heels heated by flames they have lit. On the other hand, I can imagine for Schuller, McGavran, and company a justice along the lines of C.S. Lewis – a hell furnished according to one’s own desire (a “new authority”) – perhaps a great crystal cathedral populated by lifeless “countable bodies” rendered brain dead by the gospel they have preached.



[1] I have referenced the piece by Bob DeWaay at

[2] Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth; (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970, 3rd edition, 1990) Revised and edited by C. Peter Wagner, 28.

[3] Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995) 219.

[4] Robert Schuller, Self-Esteem the New Reformation, (Waco: Word, 1982) 38.

[5] C. Peter Wagner, Apostles and Prophets and The Foundation of the Church, (Regal: Ventura, 2000) 34.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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