Christianity and Capitalism: Do They Go Together?

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Christianity and Capitalism

Do They Go Together?

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Last November, after barely eight months in office, the Catholic Church's Pope Francis launched a firestorm of controversy with his recent dictum, Evangelii Gaudium, or "The Joy of the Gospel."

Probably no religious writing in recent history has raised the eyebrows—and ire—of so many for its controversial views on economics and balance of economic power in society. While Catholics do not consider it commanded teaching from the Vatican, the papal exhortation nonetheless spells out the views of the current pope and thus commands respect from Catholics worldwide.

Evangelii Gaudium begins with Francis comparing the joy of receiving the Christian faith and the joy of missionary activity. He calls for reforms in the Catholic Church's missionary outreach—among them a greater emphasis on evangelizing efforts and a renewed call to help the poor.

But the exhortation does not stop there. Francis goes on to call for greater income equality, redistribution of wealth, and fundamental changes to the economic order. This statement from section 204 underscores his concern: "We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market." And he calls for action "beyond a simple welfare mentality" that "attacks the structural causes of inequality."

He goes on to call for a redistribution of wealth and reform of economic structures that would ensure greater equality of income and opportunity. The rich, he says, should share their wealth and calls for a new commandment: "Today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality."

Pros and cons weigh in

Economists, politicians and pundits from both the left and right have lauded or attacked the pope's exhortation. Some called parts of the document "pure Marxism" and suggested that someone else may have written the papal document for him.

Writing for the conservative Townhall magazine, John Goodman commented that a search of almost any introductory economics textbook would fail to turn up the terms "survival of the fittest," "trickle down theories," or "powerful feeding on the powerless," which he termed "slurs used by the left to cast aspersions on free markets and pro-growth markets" ("Papal Economics," Dec. 21, 2013). He went on to maintain that free-market economics, far from being a detriment to society, are the single greatest cause of the prosperity millions enjoy today.

Those on the left, predictably enough, lauded the document. In the Guardian, a popular liberal newspaper, Jonathan Freedland said, "Francis could replace Obama as the pin-up on every liberal and leftist wall" ("Why Even Atheists Should Be Praying for Pope Francis," Nov. 15, 2013). The New Republic praised Francis' stance on economic issues, while attacking his—and the Catholic Church's—views on abortion and homosexuality.

Even prominent Catholics differed in their reaction, some wondering if the pope has gone too far. Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest who cofounded the liberty-oriented Acton Institute and authored the book Defending the Free Market, says in a YouTube video response that while Francis is not motivated by political beliefs, he fails to note that economic prosperity over the past century is largely the result of free market economics.

"How are we to respond to his warnings about mere temporary responses to poverty ... with the demonstrable benefits that we see accruing to the poorest of the poor ... which were made possible by markets globalizing?" (Acton.org, Nov. 27, 2013). How, he asked, can the pope ignore the reality that millions have greater access to jobs and health care, and have risen out of poverty because of the globalization of markets?

To Francis' concern about the dangers of "markets that are unhampered," Sirico asks, "Where are these unhampered markets?"—pointing out that markets everywhere are bounded with regulations of every sort.

All of this raises very important questions about Christianity and economics. Is it God's will that poverty be eradicated in this present age? If not, what is Christianity's responsibility to the poor? Does the Bible espouse any one economic system?

Why has God not eliminated poverty?

Poverty and income inequality are as old as mankind. It may surprise you to learn that the Bible has much to say about poverty, the distribution of wealth, and other economic matters.

"The poor will never cease from the land," Moses was inspired to write in Deuteronomy 15:11 Deuteronomy 15:11For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command you, saying, You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor, and to your needy, in your land.
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. Jesus Christ Himself seemed to echo that reality when the subject of His anointing for burial came up shortly before His trial and death. Asked by His disciples why He approved the use of expensive oil for His anointing rather than having it sold and the money given to the poor, Christ may have shocked the disciples with His answer: "The poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always" (John 12:8 John 12:8For the poor always you have with you; but me you have not always.
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).

We know that a powerful and loving God could eradicate poverty at any time. Yet He has not chosen to do so thus far. Is there a reason? The surprising answer is that a time is coming when God will eradicate poverty—but more about that later. The fact is that our Creator has not chosen to do so in this present world.

Yet the Bible is replete with instructions on how to properly treat those less well off. Students of the Bible know that more than 3,000 years ago God began dealing with one nation, ancient Israel. That nation of 12 tribes that descended from Abraham was an agricultural society, and it was given one of the most fertile areas of the Middle East as a result of promises God made to Abraham (Genesis 12:7 Genesis 12:7And the LORD appeared to Abram, and said, To your seed will I give this land: and there built he an altar to the LORD, who appeared to him.
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; Genesis 13:14-15 Genesis 13:14-15 [14] And the LORD said to Abram, after that Lot was separated from him, Lift up now your eyes, and look from the place where you are northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward: [15] For all the land which you see, to you will I give it, and to your seed for ever.
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).

Those with large landholdings tended to be better off, while many small farmers eked out a modest living. Those without land or marketable skills often found themselves in poverty. But God did not forget the poor of the land and in His laws made provision for them.

For example, God provided a food supply for the poor to gather, telling landowners: "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them to the poor" (Leviticus 19:9 Leviticus 19:9And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, neither shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest.
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). It's noteworthy that the poor had to put forth the effort to gather the food for themselves. They couldn't just go to a warehouse and claim it or have it delivered to them.

It was also widely understood that family members took care of other family members. And if a woman lost her husband, her children were responsible for taking her in and caring for her.

Jesus' teaching and examples

Jesus Christ lived and taught in an area that was under crushing Roman oppression. During His ministry, He taught and showed by His personal example the right attitude toward those less well off.

Matthew's gospel records a time early in Christ's ministry when more than 5,000 men, plus thousands of women and children, flocked to Him to hear the gospel of the Kingdom of God. Many came from considerable distances, and at the end of the day, rather than send them away hungry, Jesus miraculously fed them from five small loaves of bread and two fish. Read about it in Matthew 14:13-21 Matthew 14:13-21 [13] When Jesus heard of it, he departed there by ship into a desert place apart: and when the people had heard thereof, they followed him on foot out of the cities. [14] And Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick. [15] And when it was evening, his disciples came to him, saying, This is a desert place, and the time is now past; send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves victuals. [16] But Jesus said to them, They need not depart; give you them to eat. [17] And they say to him, We have here but five loaves, and two fishes. [18] He said, Bring them here to me. [19] And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and broke, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude. [20] And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full. [21] And they that had eaten were about five thousand men, beside women and children.
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. Not long afterward He repeated the miracle, this time with a slightly smaller group of 4,000 men, plus women and children.

Each of the Gospel accounts relates dozens of miraculous healings that Christ performed, mostly of poor people. Matthew alone relates many of these acts of compassion. Jesus cleansed lepers (Matthew 8:1-4 Matthew 8:1-4 [1] When he was come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him. [2] And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if you will, you can make me clean. [3] And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be you clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. [4] And Jesus said to him, See you tell no man; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a testimony to them.
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), healed a paralyzed man (Matthew 9:1-6 Matthew 9:1-6 [1] And he entered into a ship, and passed over, and came into his own city. [2] And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus seeing their faith said to the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; your sins be forgiven you. [3] And, behold, certain of the scribes said within themselves, This man blasphemes. [4] And Jesus knowing their thoughts said, Why think you evil in your hearts? [5] For whether is easier, to say, Your sins be forgiven you; or to say, Arise, and walk? [6] But that you may know that the Son of man has power on earth to forgive sins, (then said he to the sick of the palsy,) Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.
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), gave sight to two blind men (Matthew 9:27-31 Matthew 9:27-31 [27] And when Jesus departed there, two blind men followed him, crying, and saying, You son of David, have mercy on us. [28] And when he was come into the house, the blind men came to him: and Jesus said to them, Believe you that I am able to do this? They said to him, Yes, Lord. [29] Then touched he their eyes, saying, According to your faith be it to you. [30] And their eyes were opened; and Jesus straightly charged them, saying, See that no man know it. [31] But they, when they were departed, spread abroad his fame in all that country.
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), and even cast demons out of the daughter of a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28 Matthew 15:21-28 [21] Then Jesus went there, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. [22] And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried to him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, you son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. [23] But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and sought him, saying, Send her away; for she cries after us. [24] But he answered and said, I am not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. [25] Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. [26] But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs. [27] And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table. [28] Then Jesus answered and said to her, O woman, great is your faith: be it to you even as you will. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.
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).

Christ certainly showed compassion for the poor, a compassion He taught to His disciples and by extension to us, both by word and example. Just before His betrayal and death, He summed up what our attitude should be toward those suffering from sickness, isolation and poverty: "In as much as you did it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you did it unto Me" (Matthew 25:40 Matthew 25:40And the King shall answer and say to them, Truly I say to you, Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me.
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).

Christ's disciples didn't forget those examples, and carried on His example of mercy and compassion. Notice Acts 3:2-9 Acts 3:2-9 [2] And a certain man lame from his mother's womb was carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, to ask alms of them that entered into the temple; [3] Who seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple asked an alms. [4] And Peter, fastening his eyes on him with John, said, Look on us. [5] And he gave heed to them, expecting to receive something of them. [6] Then Peter said, Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk. [7] And he took him by the right hand, and lifted him up: and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength. [8] And he leaping up stood, and walked, and entered with them into the temple, walking, and leaping, and praising God. [9] And all the people saw him walking and praising God:
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. The apostle Peter didn't have gold and silver to give to a lame man who asked for alms. But he was able to give the man something of far greater worth, telling him, "In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk" (Acts 3:6 Acts 3:6Then Peter said, Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.
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).

The New Testament teaching is clear. Today God is not performing such dramatic miracles before the public through His people (though He still does miraculously heal, and we should pray for that). But when we see needs and have the ability to do something to help, it is our duty to respond. That's what our Savior commanded.

Does this mean we literally sell all that we have and distribute it to poor people around us? Many will point to Christ's encounter with a rich young ruler as proof that income redistribution is the duty of all Christians. But let's take a close look at Matthew 19:16-23 Matthew 19:16-23 [16] And, behold, one came and said to him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? [17] And he said to him, Why call you me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if you will enter into life, keep the commandments. [18] He said to him, Which? Jesus said, You shall do no murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, [19] Honor your father and your mother: and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. [20] The young man said to him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet? [21] Jesus said to him, If you will be perfect, go and sell that you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. [22] But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. [23] Then said Jesus to his disciples, Truly I say to you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.
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. Christ told the rich young ruler to "sell what you have and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me" (Matthew 19:21 Matthew 19:21Jesus said to him, If you will be perfect, go and sell that you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
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).

When the young man went away sorrowful "because he had great possessions," Christ used it to illustrate the point that it is often difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. He didn't tell His disciples to proclaim a gospel of income equality, but to understand that devotion to material wealth can be a major hindrance to spiritual growth.

Indeed, the young man here was placing his wealth before God, which is precisely why Jesus told Him to give it away. This wasn't a rule for every person, for some are able to possess wealth while maintaining proper perspective and living by love toward God and neighbor.

The early Church was characterized by wide spreads of income. Some Christians were wealthy and powerful, as was the case with Philemon, to whom the apostle Paul wrote. Others, such as Philemon's slave Onesimus, were certainly much poorer. Yet Paul never condemns wealth. His concern was for people's spiritual, not physical, wealth.

Does the Bible reveal a proper economy?

The Bible reveals that God has much to say about money and wealth. Many of the most famous personalities of the Bible were clearly quite wealthy. Genesis 13:1 Genesis 13:1And Abram went up out of Egypt, he, and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the south.
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tells us that "Abraham was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold." His son Isaac inherited much of his father's wealth and increased it. Genesis 30 relates how Isaac's son Jacob was blessed with vast herds of cattle, sheep and camels, so many that he had to come up with a method for distinguishing his large herds from those of his uncle, Laban.

Centuries later, King David became wealthy during the time of peace he was able to bring to Israel. But it was his son Solomon who became one of the richest men of all time. We find a detailed account of Solomon's wealth and power in 1 Kings 4.

When God gave Israel the Promised Land, it was to be divided up so families received property portions relative to their size (Numbers 26:54 Numbers 26:54To many you shall give the more inheritance, and to few you shall give the less inheritance: to every one shall his inheritance be given according to those that were numbered of him.
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, Numbers 33:50-54 Numbers 33:50-54 [50] And the LORD spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by Jordan near Jericho, saying, [51] Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, When you are passed over Jordan into the land of Canaan; [52] Then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their pictures, and destroy all their molten images, and quite pluck down all their high places: [53] And you shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land, and dwell therein: for I have given you the land to possess it. [54] And you shall divide the land by lot for an inheritance among your families: and to the more you shall give the more inheritance, and to the fewer you shall give the less inheritance: every man's inheritance shall be in the place where his lot falls; according to the tribes of your fathers you shall inherit.
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). Even if land ownership changed hands due to economic or other hardship, title to the land reverted to the original families every 50 years (Leviticus 25:10 Leviticus 25:10And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee to you; and you shall return every man to his possession, and you shall return every man to his family.
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, Leviticus 25:13-17 Leviticus 25:13-17 [13] In the year of this jubilee you shall return every man to his possession. [14] And if you sell ought to your neighbor, or buy ought of your neighbor's hand, you shall not oppress one another: [15] According to the number of years after the jubilee you shall buy of your neighbor, and according to the number of years of the fruits he shall sell to you: [16] According to the multitude of years you shall increase the price thereof, and according to the fewness of years you shall diminish the price of it: for according to the number of the years of the fruits does he sell to you. [17] You shall not therefore oppress one another; but you shall fear your God: for I am the LORD your God.
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). This provided for a generally even playing field economically, and prevented individuals from permanently amassing huge amounts of land at the expense of others.

It's clear that God does not condemn wealth or the acquisition of wealth. The fact of wealth means inequality of income. Many today accept that fact but attack the methods used to attain wealth. Throughout history, much wealth has been attained through trade, business and investing. Are these activities wrong? Notice what Jesus Himself taught about the value of increasing wealth through proper investments.

Shortly before His death, Christ gave some final teachings to His disciples. In the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 Matthew 25:14-30 [14] For the kingdom of heaven is as a man traveling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered to them his goods. [15] And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey. [16] Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents. [17] And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two. [18] But he that had received one went and dig in the earth, and hid his lord's money. [19] After a long time the lord of those servants comes, and reckons with them. [20] And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, you delivered to me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more. [21] His lord said to him, Well done, you good and faithful servant: you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things: enter you into the joy of your lord. [22] He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, you delivered to me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them. [23] His lord said to him, Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things: enter you into the joy of your lord. [24] Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew you that you are an hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not strewed: [25] And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the earth: see, there you have that is yours. [26] His lord answered and said to him, You wicked and slothful servant, you knew that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strewed: [27] You ought therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received my own with usury. [28] Take therefore the talent from him, and give it to him which has ten talents. [29] For to every one that has shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that has not shall be taken away even that which he has. [30] And cast you the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
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, He tells of a man taking a trip to a distant country. Before he leaves, he apportions his goods to each of three servants, with the understanding that they will try to increase what they are given.

Those who received five talents and two talents (a talent was about 6,000 denarii, probably ten years' average wages at the time) went out and through various business dealings managed to double their money. A third servant, who received only one talent, dug a hole in the ground and hid it.

What did the wealthy man do on his return? He praised the actions of the two servants who had doubled their money. But his reaction to the lack of return of the third servant was far different. "You wicked and lazy servant ... you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my return I would have received back my own with interest" (Matthew 25:27 Matthew 25:27You ought therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received my own with usury.
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).

It's difficult to make a case that Jesus condemned wealth or legally acquiring it. He did teach on several occasions, however, that wealth and the pursuit of wealth can be a snare that distracts us from the pursuit of righteousness. What this parable teaches is that we should exercise and build on our spiritual talents, skills and abilities, which to God is infinitely more important than our material wealth.

The Bible does make a case for a liberty-oriented economy—what we would today call true capitalism or, perhaps better put, private property and free exchange.

What then are we to make of the time when the early New Testament Church practiced a communal economy? Notice this in Acts 2:44-45 Acts 2:44-45 [44] And all that believed were together, and had all things common; [45] And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.
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: "Now all who believed were together and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need."

Does this teach that Christians should practice a communal economy and way of life? First of all, we must understand that this was a completely voluntary sharing of resources (see Acts 4:32 Acts 4:32And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.
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;5:4)—not to be confused with a communist system wherein shared ownership is mandatory, amounting to theft of private property.

Secondly, this was a temporary circumstance during a time of persecution and of thousands of new converts in Jerusalem, many from foreign lands who were remaining for a while to learn from the apostles. Sharing took care of an immediate need. The account in Acts shows that these disciples were soon scattered to other regions (Acts 8:1 Acts 8:1And Saul was consenting to his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles.
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, Acts 8:4 Acts 8:4Therefore they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word.
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). Later writings give us no indication that this short-term experience with communal living lasted very long.

Universal prosperity will come

For centuries, mankind has tried various systems to arrive at prosperity for all and the elimination of poverty. Monarchies, socialism, Marxism, fascism—all have failed. So-called capitalism, too, despite some free-market benefits, has left millions in its economic wake—being a system of government overregulation and cronyism in which government colludes with business.

What has not been tried is true economic liberty through the government of God and God's economic system. While on earth, Christ's mission was to preach the gospel (good news) of the Kingdom of God. This gospel foretold a time when Christ would return to earth to set up His Kingdom. Longtime readers of The Good News know this has always been the major focus of this magazine.

The good news is that the universal prosperity, greater equality of income, and lives free from want that Pope Francis writes about will come. But it won't come through man's political parties, papal encyclicals, the churches of today's world or other human organizations. It won't come through political movements calling for redistribution of wealth, for "taxing the rich" or a higher minimum wage.

Your Bible makes hundreds of references to that coming time of peace and prosperity unparalleled in human history. Bible prophecy foretells a time when Christ Himself will return to the earth to rule. 

God's Word gives us a few hints about the economy of this future Kingdom. It will be an economy that values and preserves private property rights, a hallmark of a capitalistic economic order: "Everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid" (Micah 4:4 Micah 4:4But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken it.
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).

Those privately owned farms will produce abundant harvests: "Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him who sows seed; the mountains shall drip with sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it" (Amos 9:13 Amos 9:13Behold, the days come, said the LORD, that the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him that sows seed; and the mountains shall drop sweet wine, and all the hills shall melt.
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).

This economic order will allow those who work and profit to enjoy the fruits of their labors, but it will also ensure a level economic playing field that gives everyone a just opportunity to prosper.

God will then pour out His Spirit on the nations, and people the world over will receive the loving character of God, meaning that the way of the world will then be to help others in need. This will be accomplished not through government taking from some to give to others, but through an internal change in the hearts of people everywhere to motivate them to generosity and showing true concern for their neighbors. Best of all, God invites you to be part of this exciting future!