A Christian Evaluation of Conspiracy Theory


By Scott McClare

A few decades ago, conspiracy theories were the exclusive domain of a few Americans with fringe beliefs and a shortwave radio. However, in the last few decades, they've become mainstream. I credit the Internet for this: it was much more difficult to get a hearing for unconventional ideas before Web sites, blogs, and social networks gave everyone a nearly equal voice.

Theorists used to spread their views through typewritten, mimeographed mailings and late-night radio programs. Today, they are a lot more sophisticated, understanding the power of social media to broadcast information. The most infamous conspiracy theory is so-called "9/11 Truth," the belief that the American government allowed, or even caused, the destruction of the World Trade Center towers. Truthers have made extensive use of video to present their case, sharing it on YouTube. New theories crop up all the time: a recent one alleges that convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was framed. It was spread last year by a Twitter hashtag campaign.

Unfortunately, the church has not been immune to buying into conspiracy theory. Prophecy study is awash in rumours of one-world government and new technology that will be the "mark of the Beast" foretold in Revelation 13:16-17, which will prevent anyone from buying or selling unless they give their allegiance to the Antichrist. These dark days are always just around the corner, especially when a major crisis occurs (the Gulf War, Y2K, or 9/11, for example), but never actually come to pass.

Of course, I am not denying that conspiracies exist. A conspiracy is simply a secret plan formed by two or more people. Some are bigger than others. 9/11 and the Boston bombing were conspiracies, but so is a home invasion. Conspiracy theory, on the other hand, is a worldview. I define it as a philosophy of history, based on fear, that claims secret alliances of evil men are manipulating world events to create a totalitarian world government. In this worldview, nothing ever happens by accident: wars, assassinations, depressions, and elections are all planned in secret by an intellectual or political elite. Someone can be persuaded by the occasional conspiracy theory without buying into the entire worldview. After all, some conspiracy beliefs have become mainstream, such as the various JFK assassination theories. (I believe Oswald acted alone, which puts me on the lunatic fringe!) However, many other people have allowed their thinking to become more and more conspiratorial, and ended up swallowing the whole system, hook, line, and sinker.

I can imagine that in a time of crisis, it might sound plausible. However, when viewed through the lens of the Bible, conspiracy theory seems like a less and less realistic way of interpreting world events.

During the ministry of the prophet Isaiah, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah had a combined total of 13 kings. It was a time of uncertainty and instability. No doubt, many people felt that events were spinning out of control, or that someone was secretly plotting to bring about the nation's downfall. Their time was not terribly different from ours in that respect. Yet, God warns Isaiah not to live in fear:

[T]he Lord spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: "Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread." (Isaiah 8:11-12)[1]

Conspiracy theory may sound like a plausible worldview, but it is not a biblical worldview.

Conspiracy theory is based on fear. Popular conspiracy theorists give the impression that every crisis is a step toward totalitarianism, and that wars, recessions, and even natural disasters are a means for powerful people to take control. The powerful people may be government, the police, the wealthy, foreigners, or someone else. Sadly, scapegoating of this kind has been used to justify genocides such as the Holocaust.

But a biblical worldview is not based on fear, but confidence. 2 Timothy 1:7 says, "God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control." Thirteen times the New Testament says to "fear not." As Christians, we need not fear for the future because God cares about us; we know it will work out for the best because Romans 8:28 tells us so: "we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose."

Conspiracy theory says that conspiracies are the driving force of history. As I said earlier, conspiracy theorists don't seem to believe in accidents. In 1999, when John F. Kennedy Jr. crashed his plane into the ocean, killing himself along with his wife and sister-in-law, the authorities ruled that the accident was due to pilot error. Nonetheless, assassination theories started circulating within 24 hours. The assumption is that important or famous people never have bad luck or make mistakes—especially if their name is Kennedy.

But if grand conspiracies drive history, why is the Bible silent about them? Instead, it puts them in their proper place: conspiracies are an occasional spectacle in history.

Conspiracy theory says that despite Biblical assurances, men, or Satan, are in control. However, the Bible says that despite present appearances, God is in control. Read the book of Daniel. Every chapter virtually screams this out. God, not men, determines who rules the nations, as Nebuchadnezzar learned (Daniel 4). The handwriting on Belshazzar's banquet-hall wall pronounced the end of his kingdom, and Babylon was conquered by the Medes the same night (Daniel 5). The prophecy of the seventy weeks shows that God has a definite plan for history (Daniel 9:24-27). God even shut the mouths of lions so that Daniel would not be executed unjustly (Daniel 6:22).

Finally, conspiracy theory says that our only hope is escape. For some, this means sitting tight and waiting for the Rapture. For others, it means stockpiling food and weapons and living in the wilderness. But both of these attitudes are defeatist. Our real hope is in victory. If God is in control, if He is the real mover behind history, and He is working for our good—and He is—then in the end, God wins! John wrote that for everyone who is born of God, faith is the victory that has overcome the world (1 John 5:4). It has not been overcome by it.

The manipulations of the grand conspiracy supposedly go on in secret. If so, they are the best-kept secrets in history. But God does not work in secret; He works in the open. Amos writes, "the Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7). While the Bible doesn't tell us everything about God's plan, we can catch a glimpse of it through the prophets.

Neo takes the red pill in The Matrix (1999).Conspiracy thinking is not Christian thinking. There's a strong element of pride in claiming to have insider information. (Ironically, conspiracy buffs are rarely in a position to be insiders.) In that respect, conspiracy theory is less like Christianity than Gnosticism: those in the know possess the key to understanding the world, and offer enlightenment to those willing to take the red pill, so to speak, and join them. However, God mocks those who claim they can interpret history on such a grand scale. "Tell us the former things, what they are, that we may consider them, that we may know their outcome," He demands of the idols (Isaiah 41:22), which are, after all, only human inventions.

After telling Isaiah to disregard conspiracy theories, God tells him: "But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread" (Isaiah 8:13). We can't tell the whole future. We don't know what God has in store for us, or whether it will be easy or hard. Yet we have no need to be afraid of men who have no real control over history. But we should be in awe of the awesome God who has determined the path of history from beginning to end.

[1] Biblical quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).