“COVID-19 is a hoax!”
“Wearing masks is a government manipulation strategy!”
“Vaccines are implanting the Mark of the Beast!”
It’s 2021 and these are just some of the latest iterations of the age-old phenomenon of conspiracy theories. From flat earthers to holocaust deniers to anti-Christ identifiers to hyperactive heresy hunters, conspiracy theorists have been around for a long time and will continue long after this pandemic is out of sight in our rear-view mirror.
Unfortunately, within the Christian Church (my main concern) there is a large sub-group of Christ-followers who pour fuel on this fire rather than working to bring people’s attention back to Jesus. I grew up when Evangelical subculture was fixated on using Bible prophecy to figure out the next great news event, rather than simply following Jesus here and now. The Russian president was the anti-Christ, bar-codes on products were the Mark of the Beast, and Jesus was about to rapture true believers to heaven any second. (That last one messed me up a few times as a child when I couldn’t find my parents for a few minutes.) Evangelicals didn’t wake up every morning wondering how they might follow Jesus today according to the Sermon on the Mount, but how today’s news might confirm their particular brand of eschatology based on their stretched interpretation of cryptic passages in the book of Revelation.
I am less concerned in this article with presenting a better eschatology (don’t get me started!), but with helping us practically respond to the latest crop of Christian and secular conspiracy theories.
Here’s the thing: When people’s lives lack enough meaning, purpose, and value, they will invent meaning which generates purpose and then derive their value from there.
We are meaning making machines.
In and of itself, our myth-making story-telling capacity is a good thing and can help us understand reality better, solve problems quicker, and reflect God’s image into this hurting world with creative compassion. But when we are not tapped into the real epic drama of this universe – the story of Jesus, from first to last – we will produce and project unnecessary drama into a variety of situations in epically unhelpful ways.
I understand how and why this happens, but I am especially saddened when I see it happening to and through Christ-followers. Too many Christians seem to suffer from this propensity to promote conspiracy theories in order to infuse the world around them with epic drama, meaning, and purpose, as though they are not aware of the greatest and most epic drama that they are already a part of.
So let me share three perspective-shaping encouragements to help us “repent” (rethink and reframe how we think) on this important and timely issue:
1. God is using everything for our good, so don’t sweat it.
At the centre of our faith is the cross of Christ – from the human perspective, it is the greatest and grossest miscarriage of justice of all time. An innocent man – pure love, walking and talking among us! – was tortured to death as a disposable nobody, a subhuman inconvenience, and a political pawn. See it! At the heart of our faith is the WORST WRONG ever perpetrated, and God turned it into the GREATEST RIGHT that we have ever experienced. In fact, God knew it was coming, and he planned it for our good right from the start (1 Peter 1:20; Revelation 13:9).
When Jesus was arrested and standing before Governor Pilate, he wasn’t panicked. His secret was his perspective – God is using everything, including this thing right here and right now, to bring about something beautiful. When Pilate asked Jesus why he wasn’t worried, since Pilate held the power of life and death over Jesus, Jesus responded:
You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.
~ Jesus (John 19:11) [For more on this, see here.]
So it seems to me that Christ-followers, of all people, should be the least and last to get their knickers in knot over issues of politics and power. We care about politics and fighting injustice, yes, but our motivation is this: we act against injustice because we want to love others well, not because we fear the “wrong” leader might take away our liberties.
The apostle Paul puts it this way:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
~ The Apostle Paul (Romans 8:28) [Again, for more on this, see here.]
God may not directly cause all things, but God is always one step ahead of everything that happens, and is actively engaged in bringing good out of the bad.
Fear, then, is never our motivation, never our driver. We follow the one who is perfect love (1 John 4:8, 16) and perfect love is always driving out fear.
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
~ The apostle John (1 John 4:18)
The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”
~ The apostle Paul (Romans 8:15)
Christ-followers should be always inviting people TOWARD Jesus, not trying to scare them AWAY FROM anything else.
So when someone tries to suck me into some anxious vortex of political fear-mongering, I know their focus isn’t in tune with the ultimate reality of the universe: God is love, so fear has no place here.
Remember: Whatever the situation, God’s got this. God can and does use everything to bring good into this world. God has planned for this. Everything is going to be alright.
2. Prophecy is meant to be encouragement for our future, not a puzzle for our present.
Christians have been especially vulnerable to conspiracy theories because they have hundreds of years of practice at reading their own scriptures with a conspiracy theory mindset. We call it, “PROPHECY”, and for a very long time we have used Bible prophecy to do more harm than good.
Jesus tells his followers that the purpose of prophecy is not so that we can figure out the future before it happens, but so that when it does happen, we will reflect back on the prophecy and be encouraged that God’s got this, God has planned for this, and everything is going to be alright (see point #1).
When Jesus predicts the future for his disciples, he says things like…
I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am who I am.
~ Jesus (John 13:19; also see John 14:29; 16:1, 4)
When the apostle Paul talks about the future, he concludes:
Therefore encourage one another with these words.
~ The Apostle Paul (1 Thessalonians 4:18)
We don’t have to figure out the details of Bible prophecy ahead of time. And if we do study prophecy, we should be encouraged, never worried! Most prophecies are intentionally obscure enough so we won’t be tempted fixate on puzzle-solving ahead of schedule, but clear enough so that when they do come to pass we will have an “Ah hah! – THAT’s what this passage was talking about!” experience, which is simply meant to encourage our hearts and increase our faith.
Every hour we spend trying to figure out the details of Bible prophecy ahead of its fulfilment is another hour we are not living and loving in the present, being salt and light in this world, the way Jesus teaches us to (Matthew 5:13-16).
When fellow Christians come to me with their latest conspiracy theories about who is the anti-Christ – even though we have always had “anti-Christs” (plural) among us, which is anyone who is (now get this) anti-Christ (1 John 2:18-22; 2 John 1:7) – or how this or that technology is the mark of the beast (from bar codes to implanted vaccine microchips), or how the government is removing our liberties so we might all end up in jail just for worshipping Jesus, I tell them to “get behind me Satan” (not in those words, but you get my point). This obsession is a stumbling stone that Satan can use to distract good and godly Christians from our primary mission. And speaking of which…
3. Our mission is (still) the Great Commission.
Christ-followers have one purpose in this world – we wake up every day to experience and extend the kingdom of heaven on earth. Helping people follow Jesus as his disciples, his apprentices in this world, is what we live for.
Life is short and you’re going to die soon. It doesn’t matter if you live to be 100, you’re going to die soon! In the words of Tony Campolo, they’re going to put you in a box, throw dirt in your face, and go back to the church to eat potato salad. You’re going to die soon! This means every moment is meaningful, every person is precious, every relationship is infused with infinite value, and every day is meant to be fully lived today rather than worrying about tomorrow.
God is doing something today that he will only do today. Tomorrow he will do tomorrow’s thing. So raise your gaze! Look up, listen, learn, discern where God is at work and then work with God.
After teaching about the priority of the kingdom of heaven on earth, Jesus says we should:
Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
~ Jesus (Matthew 6:33-34)
Jesus’ word for “worry” here is captured by the Greek word merimnao, which means to have care or concern. When focused on true spiritual priorities, this same word (or derivative) is used positively and is usually translated to “care” or have “concern” (e.g., see 1 Corinthians 12:25; Philippians 2:20; etc). But when our care and concern is not focused on Jesus and his priorities, it becomes purely negative “worry” or being “anxious”.
So in this world awash with a continually increasing flood of conspiracy theories, adopting an “I don’t care” attitude toward them and their drama is right on target for Jesus followers.
These Jesusy thoughts are all true and always true, whether or not any one conspiracy theory is true or false. So, debating the details of any one theory is less important than inviting our fellow brothers and sisters in the faith back to what should be the central themes of our lives together.
Aikido is the Japanese martial art that uses your opponents’ strength and energy against them. I’m over-simplifying for illustration, but in general, rather than the block-and-kick-and-block-and-punch approach of Karate, Aikido lets your opponent make the first move, then moves with rather than against their energy and momentum to redirect their trajectory.
Practically speaking, when someone comes at me with their latest conspiracy theory, I use conversational Aikido rather than Karate. I don’t debate the details, and may even, for the sake of argument, agree that they might be right and adopt their perspective for the rest of the conversation. Then I dismantle the power of their position by helping them see that even if they ARE right about the facts, they are not right about the focus. Their worry is nothing for a Christian to be concerned about or focused on.
I might say something like, “Huh. That may be true, but if it is, can I ask you a question to help me take my next steps? … How is this going to change how I live my life when I wake up in the morning? It seems to me that even if I’m convinced this theory is true, I’m still going to get up tomorrow morning the same way I did today: ready to experience and extend the kingdom of heaven on earth. I’m going live my day asking Jesus how I can follow him according to his teaching and example, and I’m going to do my best to help minimize distractions while I help people focus on Jesus. Should I be changing this approach?”
I’m told that, when talking with someone with mental illness who is in the middle of a psychotic episode, the best approach initially is not to challenge their reality directly, but to enter their worldview and help them make wise and loving decisions within their own framework. When talking with a fellow Christian, our ultimate framework is Jesus, and so we have shared ground upon which to begin a conversation about the “so whats” and next steps of life.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for sharing your comments!