How is Kingdom Optimism different from the Power of Positive Thinking?


In 1952 the minister Norman Vincent Peale published his best-selling book, The Power of Positive Thinking. It sold 2.5 million copies from 1952 – 1956 and serves as one of the pillars of the modern self-help movement.[1] It also influenced psychology, sports, health, and religion.

Peale was part of a broader shift in evangelicalism that included Dale Carnegie’s self-improvement and Robert Schuller’s theology of self-esteem. Schuller’s message, influenced by Peale, was “possibility thinking.” It replaced theology with therapy. He delivered messages rather than sermons and adopted the substance of a therapist in the pulpit. Schuller’s 1982 book was called Self-esteem: The New Reformation.  

The Power of Positive Thinking[2]

Even though Norman Vincent Peale was a Methodist, he took a call to be Pastor at Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, a conservative Dutch Reformed Church. The congregation wasn’t interested in the Bible or theology, but Peale still wanted to make a practical difference in their lives. Peale presented God as an available power that pours his loving energy into people during their daily lives. Peale’s message introduced the congregation and millions of readers to the notion that spiritual power is channeled through their thoughts. People should act with the assurance that God’s power eliminates the cobwebs so people can achieve their goals.[3]

Peale’s power of positive thinking is a version of New Thought, a mental healing movement related to Christian Science. New Thought was inspired by the work of Phineas Quimby (1802-1866). It advanced in the 1870s with leaders such as Ralph Waldo Trine and Charles Fillmore. It was the promise that thoughts could shape reality. The prescription was to identify a goal such as health, spiritual well-being, or wealth, and meditate upon it. Peale was especially concerned with the misery caused by spiritual poverty. The ordinary demands of life in the twentieth century, including the daily pressures of work and family, stole a sense of life’s meaning that needed to be recovered. People are spiritually sick and need heightened self-awareness to be restored. Then they can be productive members of society.

Peale urged each person to develop a positive subliminal self, a forward-moving subconscious fixed on achieving their stated goals. The method is to create a mental picture of a desired goal, pray for the resources to reach it, and take action to bring it about. Picturize, prayerize, and actualize. This cycle of mental suggestion is a way of life where people can imagine new possibilities. It’s a new life of sustainable, individualistic, self-hypnotic self-empowerment. It is a personalized, experiential encounter with God’s formative impact on the power of the mind. People have an abiding terror of disgraceful dishabille as if the structure of the things they want the most will turn dim. Personally guided positive thinking seeks to eliminate the source of sickness such as dark thoughts, discouragement, and depression. Peale told his audiences “What the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve.”  

Optimistic Eschatology

The Bible presents an optimistic eschatology. On the surface, an eschatology of optimism might begin to sound like the power of positive thinking. In truth, the two are straining toward very different things.

The Kingdom of the Lord will start small but eventually spread to the whole earth (Mk. 4:30ff). The nations are ruled by the Lord and over time they will remember him, turn to him, and worship Him (Ps. 22:27ff; 86:9). Yahweh’s rule will be from sea to sea, from the river to the ends of the earth (Ps. 72:7f; Zech. 9:9f). All the kings of the earth will bow down before Him and all the nations will serve Him (Ps. 72:11). The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Is. 11:9). In the last days, the Mountain of the Lord will be established as the highest of mountains, to which all the nations will stream. God will judge between the nations and they will learn war no more nor lift their swords against each other (Is. 2:2-4; 1:6-9; Micah 4:1-4).

Scripture testifies that Christ is ruling sovereignly in the world. All things are put under his feet (Mt. 22:44). While Christians live under the weight of pressure from the modern world, there is a need for restoration. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only thing that mightily liberates his children from anxiety and political panic. There is a temptation to be entranced with the world of rabble-rousing and the seemingly unstoppable movement of the enemy. We are told to get on the “right side of history” as if destiny has certain extremities of “progress.” The secular power habits allege an alluring possibility for success. Some might presume that the glitter and promises of the brave new world render it unbeatable. Since we can’t overcome it should we join it or adapt our message to fit inside of it?

The Gospel of Jesus Christ says we don’t have to worry about overcoming the world because it is already beaten by its sin. Sin always pulls down and it never lifts up, driving life into the abyss of singular pain. Our job isn’t to win the victory but to see the victory that Christ has won on the cross, a victory that doesn’t have to wait a distant millennium to be realized.  In Evelyn Waugh’s novel Helena, Lactantius, a Christian, denies that Christ will become just one god of many, saying, “Christianity is not that sort of religion, ma’am. It cannot share anything with anybody. Whenever it is free, it will conquer.”  The more the church believes in Christ, prays like it believes in Christ (Mark 11:20-25), humbles itself before Almighty God (James 4:6), and cuts off its idols (Micah 5:10-15), the more its vision will be cleared to behold the conquering greatness of Christ spread across the earth.


One difference between the power of positive thinking and optimistic eschatology is that the former nurtures a form of individualized narcissism. It shuns theology, authority, and the church. In the process, it significantly trims down the meaning of Christ’s death.

Christ doesn’t just die. He dies for his people. This is their salvation, by faith. It’s salvation where Christ corrects and perfects humanity. All those in Adam inherit Adam’s sin. This is true of all humanity. Jesus Christ is the new Adam who consummates and inaugurates a new humanity. All those in Christ inherit Christ’s righteousness. This is true of all those who have faith in Christ. Together, in Christ, they are a new humanity.[4] Christ’s atonement is about making humans Christ-like, not as disparate parts, but as the people of God. This is how the effects of the Fall are reversed so that God’s people rise higher than el diablo and set their feet upon him (Rom. 16:20).

[1] The book has sold over 15 million copies  since publication.

[2] Carol V.R. George, God’s Salesman: Norman Vincent Peale and the Power of Positive Thinking (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 114, 130f, 132-136, 139, 141, 144, 158, 210f, 217, 222f.

[3] Robert C. Fuller, Spiritual Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 124, 146–8.

[4] E.F. Osborn, Irenaeus of Lyons (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 97-98.

Published by Jason Cherry

Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call and The Making of Evangelical Spirituality (Wipf and Stock).