Q&A: Why is America Rich?

Why is America Rich?

Question

Do Old Testament blessings and curses apply to modern nations? More specifically, is America rich because we've had a relatively faithful past, and are poorer countries poorer because many of them have (as a whole) worshiped false gods?

Answer

Generally speaking, the answer to your question is "yes," but the reasons for wealth and poverty are numerous, and so we have to qualify what we mean when we relate wealth and poverty to faithlessness to God. People sometimes amass wealth through evil means, and many of the poor are righteous. But the Bible also teaches that, all else being equal, God prospers the righteous and not the wealthy (e.g., Ps. 1).

You've already mentioned the Old Testament blessings and curses as they relate to the nations. Probably the best known of these are in Genesis 12:3, in which God says to Abraham, "I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse." But in fact the Old Testament is replete with these associations. For example, in the books of Isaiah and Ezekiel, these blessings and curses are not confined to the Gentile nations. For example, some of the results of betraying God are spelled out in Isaiah 3:16-26, and this passage specifically relates "to the women of Zion." So, the association of wealth and poverty with faithfulness (or lack of it) is very clear in the Old Testament.

But is this true for the nations of today? Evidence from Scripture, as well as empirical evidence, would seem to indicate that it is. First of all, Paul indicates in Romans 4:16 that God considers the "children of Abraham" to be those who have the faith of Abraham: "Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring — not only to those who are of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham." So, if nothing else, Scriptural considerations seem to indicate that these blessings and curses are applicable to those who have the "faith of Abraham" today, that is, Christians, both Gentile and Jewish Christians.

It seems, then, that it is more than coincidence that the parts of the world in which Christians are most persecuted are often the most poverty-stricken. In contemplation of your question, I could not recall any prosperous nation that persecuted Christians that has survived for any great length of time. Germany's Third Reich lasted only 12 years, and while the Soviet Union was never considered "wealthy" it was certainly very powerful — but it too has not survived. It will be very interesting to see what will happen in communist China in the coming decades. Not only has that country been opened up to more capitalist ventures, but the church in China is far larger than most people realize. As Christianity thrives and grows in China (an enterprise in which we at Third Millennium Ministries are intimately involved), it is my prediction that China will no longer be considered "communist" by the end of this century — and quite possibly much sooner.

Today, the wealthiest nations of the world are concentrated in Western Europe and North America. Why is this so? Among several contributing reasons is the fact that Christianity is largely responsible for creation of the modern world. It was the Christian understanding of a benevolent, wise, personal, and consistent Creator that led to our modern concept of "science" (in which the elements and forces of nature are seen to behave in predictable, measurable ways) and the resultant phenomenon of "applied technology" that has given us electricity, mass production, automobiles, computers, etc. Not only this, but the Protestant Reformation, with its emphasis on private interpretation of the Bible, was in very large measure responsible for the creation of political freedom. The combination of a so-called "Protestant work ethic," political freedom and individual initiative, as well as a mastery of science and technology, has proven to be an engine of stupendous economic growth and prosperity (cf. https://thirdmill.org/answers/answer.asp/file/99842.qna/category/ch/page//site/iiim).

Having said this, some might conclude that the cause of poverty is simply a privation of these forces, but in truth poverty is often caused by unbiblical views of the world. Certainly this is obvious in crime, violence, selfishness, indolence, exploitation of workers, and similar manifestations of sin, but poverty is also caused by faulty understandings of human nature. The familiar Marxist dictum "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" has numerous problems, not the least of which is the fact that most of us don't produce according to our ability, and most of us want more than we need. For all of capitalism's faults (and they are many) it is in my opinion successful because it assumes that all of us tend to act primarily in our own best interest. Adam Smith's "invisible hand" was God's provision for his people in a fallen world.

This naturally leads us to wonder about the wealthy nations of today that have a Christian heritage, but have become largely "secularized." Can the mechanisms that produce wealth continue to operate now that a Christian world view has been largely replaced by a postmodern stance? The world would tend to say "of course," but it is my opinion that nations that operate under these premises are largely coasting on the momentum of Christianity's benefits, and as for all movements that depend on momentum, it will eventually slow down, and even stop. We could be seeing the beginnings of this in Western Europe today, in which worker productivity lags far behind that of the United States, and six week vacations and four-day workweeks are the norm. It appears as if the "work ethic" is beginning to wind down. Not only this, but we cannot assume that scientific progress can survive in lieu of its Christian underpinnings? Scientific and technological progress have been departures from the history of the world, not the norm.

None of this is to say that we as Christians have to be pessimistic about the future. In fact, the future of the world is in the hands of Christ's church. What will we do with it? Aside from making provisions for our future in the kingdom of God, the economic future of this world is in large part contingent upon what we as Christians do with the resources we have right now.

Answer by Larry Gwaltney

Larry Gwaltney is Vice President of New Production Initiatives at Third Millennium Ministries.