It was just a few weeks ago when I suggested to a church leader that world events have divided the church into two factions. He corrected me: there are three—I had left out the conspiracy theorists.
I do not recall a time in my life when conspiracy theories have been so widespread, especially within the Church. I’ve come to expect conspiracy theories from the talking heads of the right-wing and left-wing media, but I never imagined such a plethora of paranoia within the congregation of Christ. On a weekly basis, parishioners ask what I think about this theory or that one, and nearly every time I’m amazed at how the conspiracy has grown. Most astounding to me is how much the Church has been so infiltrated by far-fetched explanations, and how toxic they have become within congregations, church facebook groups, and social gatherings. It is, I believe, time for pastors and Christian leaders to take up the prophetic mantle and warn the Church against caving to the anxiety and distrust that conspiracy theories create, and call one another back to bearing witness of the care and control of God.
It is time for pastors and Christian leaders to take up the prophetic mantle and warn the Church against caving to the anxiety and distrust that conspiracy theories create.
None of what follows is meant to deny that there are people out there conspiring against the Church, or against our nation, or against one’s particular social circle. Surely there are. Instead, what follows is a call to the Church to remind us that the congregation of God is called to be a witness to Almighty God’s care and control over human history. The Church must not become a conduit for conspiracy theories or to the anxiety, distrust, fear, and division that often results from them.
What is a Conspiracy Theory?
A conspiracy theory is the belief that events are being covertly controlled by a group of people for their personal gain and to our detriment. In the web of conspiracies, the ambiguous subject often known only by the pronoun “they” usually refers to a political group, government entity, or secret society, presumably with the power to execute a large-scale plan that aims to harm their enemies. To be called a conspirator is pejorative; to be a conspiracy theorist is to teeter on the brink of paranoia. To believe a conspiracy theory is to prefer an alternate explanation while rejecting the most obvious and natural one.
Conspiracy Theories in the Bible
Some conspiracy theories do pan out; otherwise people would have stopped believing them a long time ago. The earliest cabal was devised in the shadows of Eden when Lucifer colluded with the serpent to deceive Eve who, in turn, became the conspiratorial companion in Adam’s downfall. Has anything good ever come out of a conspiracy? Genesis three affirms that a devilish conspiracy led to the tragic failure of our original parents.
The most familiar conspiracy in Scripture is the secret dealings between the Pharisees and the Herodians to kill our Savior. God was in control of that conspiracy.
The most familiar conspiracy in Scripture is likely the secret dealings between the Pharisees and the Herodians to kill our Savior. The short version appears in Mark 3:6, “The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” Of course, as the Apostle John reminds us, God was in control of that conspiracy as well, though not in the sense that He made them act against their will.
Another nefarious plot occurred against the Apostle Paul in Acts 23:12-22. An unnamed group of forty Jews convinced the chief priests and elders to conspire with them to murder the Apostle. Thanks to his vigilant nephew, Paul’s life was spared on that occasion.
Isaiah 8 and Conspiracy Theories
A lesser known conspiracy is recorded in Isaiah 8. In the eighth century before Christ, Isaiah witnessed some dangerous surmising percolating among the Israelites. The Assyrians were threatening the northern kingdom, and Isaiah’s fellow countrymen couldn’t understand how they were so easily being devastated by these barbarians from the north. Were there traitors in the midst of Israel? Theories arose that there were. Was there a faction of Israelites aiding the enemy? This too may have been theorized. Was the prophet himself trading information to the enemy in exchange for protection? It is possible that Isaiah was even the subject of conspiracy theories. It is then that God issues this warning to Isaiah in 8:12, “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread.”
God cautions Isaiah in a time when faith in Israel was nearly depleted. The conspiracies are so pervasive that perhaps even the prophet himself was in danger of overlooking the care and control of the God of Israel. If the prophet lost faith, who would remain to call the nation back to trust in the Almighty God of Israel? Therefore, God speaks to Isaiah.
Note the difference between Satan’s conspiracy in the garden and Israel’s conspiracy theories in Isaiah 8. One is true and the other is false. The challenge facing Christians today has everything to do with truth: believing the truth, speaking the truth, and spreading the truth. We don’t know what the actual content of Israel’s conspiracy theories was in Isaiah 8; we only know that they were false. The Israelites were attributing God’s judgment to a secretive movement of unknown persons who had the power to undermine their kingdom and aid the enemy.
Israel’s paranoia, as described in Isaiah 8:19, led people to trust mediums and necromancers rather than God. Rather than turning to God in humble prayer, they sought the explanations of charlatans. Their faithlessness brought confusion, fear, and darkness to the land. And it is not far-fetched to think that Isaiah may have even had doubts because God warned him “not to walk in the way of this people” (8:11). Through the rest of the passage God reminds Isaiah that He has never lost control, and has never stopped caring for His people. In fact, God unfolds a bit of His plan to Isaiah in the following chapter, foretelling of a day when it will be said: “The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness, on them has light shone…For unto us a child is born…”
And we know the rest.
The point is that while unbelieving Israel was distressed and anguished with conspiracy theories, the God who is Immanuel (“God with us”) still cares and maintains control over human history.
The conspirators of Isaiah 8:12 are small beans in the big picture. Neither God nor the prophet give them much attention. The focus is rather on how speculation, paranoia, and preoccupation with human conniving affects a nation’s faith in God. We don’t need to argue and wonder if there are human forces at work behind the scenes. We ought to expect that there are. But don’t fret about it; whether schemers work openly or covertly, God is the One who is in control and cares about His people. This may sound like pious soothing, but it is exactly the reminder God gave Isaiah and the reminder we need now. So let’s talk truthfully about conspiracy theories.
Here are some truths about conspiracy theories that we can learn from Isaiah 8.
1. Conspiracy theories are generally believed when events work against us and disbelieved when events work in our favor.
Did your candidate lose the election? There must have been a conspiracy. Did your candidate win? Then the process was fair and square. When all is well, we don’t feel the need for a conspiracy theory. But when the winds change course and the tide shifts against us, suddenly it is easy to believe that something devious is happening behind the scenes.
Israel was clearly in dire straits when the Assyrians stood on their doorstep. Had everything been smooth sailing along the eastern Mediterranean homeland, there would be no reason for such theories. But the expected prosperity preached by the false prophets had vanished. Instead of listening to the call to repentance issued by the true prophets, Israel sought out alternative explanations. God replies to Isaiah, “Don’t believe the conspiracy theories.”
While unbelieving Israel was distressed and anguished with conspiracy theories, the God who is Immanuel (“God with us”) still cares and maintains control over human history.
The scene is a bit different in our own day. It is not Assyrians on our back doorstep, but a pandemic, social unrest, political battles, and so on. Of course we want explanations. They help us cope with difficulty. But God’s people are people of truth, and not every possible explanation is based on truth. Many are based on fear, anxiety, distrust, and division. In Isaiah 8 God reminds His man, Isaiah, not to be flustered by conspiracy theories but to maintain a steadfast trust in God’s care and control. The man or woman of God must not become fickle in his or her faith when times get hard, and this includes turning to conspiratorial explanations for why bad things happen.
2. Conspiracy theories are contagious because they appeal to the human desire for understanding and control.
Conspiracy theories prosper during times of uncertainty and confusion. Commenting on Isaiah 8, John Oswalt reminds us “how easy it is, when situations go against us, to become paranoid and react accordingly.” Explaining is one way we cope when things are not right or at least to our liking. We are people captivated by cause and effect. If we feel the effect, we want to know and understand the cause. Understanding gives us a sense of control. If the people of eighth-century B.C. Israel could have ascertained whether Isaiah himself was conspiring with the Assyrians, they would have dealt with him severely and, they believed, turned the tide back in their favor. They didn’t understand that it was God Himself who had brought up the Assyrians against them. The writing was on the wall (well, that happened a couple of centuries later, but you understand the metaphor); Israel could not change the outcome.
There are people within the Church today who buy into conspiracy theories because it gives them a sense of understanding and some semblance of control. We are liable to believe almost anything when there are no other natural explanations. And this is where we need to hear the word of God to Isaiah loudly and clearly: some things happen for no other reason than that God wants them to; there are no other secondary human causes beyond the obvious. It is just how God has chosen to show His care and control in the world today. Does that raise questions? Yes, plenty of them. Does God use human instruments for His work? Yes. Does God use evil and wicked people to accomplish His larger purposes? Yes, in fact, He does. He did in Isaiah 8, in Mark 3:6, and many other times throughout Scripture. Can I explain how a good God can use evil while not being personally responsible for it? Not simply, and perhaps not even to your satisfaction. The point is that our search for understanding must be guided by the one invariable: that God cares and is in control. God warned Isaiah not to be held up by speculations about how far human causation goes.
3. Conspiracy theories lead people to leave the care and sovereignty of God out of the equation.
Again, the care and control of God is the one invariable. John Oswalt notes that the Israelites in Isaiah 8 were forgetting the sovereignty of God: “God is the one fact that we dare not overlook. It is sheer foolishness, when he has made his way clear, to resort to some other means to find a path out of darkness.” God gave Isaiah a clear mandate: challenge Israel to reject paranoia and believe again in God’s care and sovereignty. Oswalt continues, “To refuse [the prophet’s call to reject conspiracy theories] … is to become more and more fearful, more and more unstable, for it means that our lives are ultimately in the hands of unknown powers, too devious for us to know or control.” Israel can deny God, reject His prophet, and explore all sorts of alternate explanations for their plight—but they can’t get rid of God. God just doesn’t go away. And we can’t get around the God factor either. This is part of Isaiah’s message in 8:14 in his description of God, “[God] will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense ….”
In Isaiah 8 God reminds His man, Isaiah, not to be flustered by conspiracy theories but to maintain a steadfast trust in God’s care and control.
Again, I’m struck with Oswalt’s comments in Isaiah 8: “Those who will not make a place for [God] will keep colliding with him and tripping over him, for he is there, whether they acknowledge him or not.” Where God is should be a safe place. But if one doubts God, the sanctuary becomes a stumbling stone. “The attitude we take toward God will determine what aspect of him we will experience.” One danger of conspiracy theories is that they lead people to leave the care and control of God out of the equation. How? By engrossing a person along a path of increasingly implausible speculations.
4. Conspiracy theories go beyond the apparent truth and into increasingly implausible speculations.
A conspiracy theory must keep growing in order to continue making sense. As long as a person is theorizing along the path of human conspiracy, there is little concern for the care and control of God. Of all the people in Israel, Isaiah was the one who had been consistent in faith and in his message. Yet a theory apparently arose in Israel that concerned the prophet himself in some way, otherwise God would not have found it necessary to warn Isaiah about them. Oswalt allows that the prophet himself may have been the subject of Israelite speculations. This would certainly fit in a pattern of accusations against the prophets.
When Jeremiah was accused later in the sixth century B.C. of conspiring with the Babylonians, he was imprisoned and physically abused with the intent of death. In this case, the Jerusalemites felt justified because Jeremiah had become the face of the enemy, at least according to their scheme. They believed a falsehood—why did Jeremiah purchase land? He must be in cahoots with the Babylonians—but it was a falsehood that came about slowly through an increasingly speculative explanation of the prophet’s behavior.
Trekking down the road of conspiracy requires countless little leaps of faith and reason that may seem insignificant at the time, but are really moments in which God is warning, “Don’t forget me.” Nonetheless, the human desire for understanding and control propels a theorist deeper into a dubious pit of despair. Leaders are especially susceptible to suspicions because they are usually able to exercise a greater level of control and when their control is threatened, they are quick to seek an explanation.
5. Conspiracy theories are often propagated by influential people using far-fetched assumptions and somewhat believable yet unlikely explanations.
Israel’s trouble would have been compounded if Isaiah the prophet of God had also fallen under a spell of paranoia. When a person of influence propagates a conspiracy theory, it distracts others from faithfully factoring in God’s care and control. People generally follow a leader, which is why conspiracy theories have become rampant in the Church: church leaders have propagated them as loudly and rapidly as anyone. Political motivation, social status, and economic advantage are just a few reasons a leader may espouse a conspiracy theory. One thing seems clear: the leader pushing a conspiracy theory probably has something to gain by others believing it. Church leaders, pastors, and teachers should, of all people, be issuing a clarion call to the Church to recognize the care and control of God. As a pastor, I have to remember that some people will believe me just because of my role as pastor. Church leaders, above all the pastors, have a unique responsibility of shepherding the flock of God. “Shepherding” means caring for and leading God’s people in faithfulness to God. Contributing to people’s fear and anxiety over unlikely explanations is in conflict with our shepherding role as pastors, teachers, small group leaders, and spiritual mentors.
6. Conspiracy theories that contradict the plain truth of Scripture are necessarily false.
Amazingly, conspiracies have the power to so subtly move people along a path of speculation, that one is liable to believe something that contradicts the plain truths of Scripture. For example, there are many fanciful schemes surrounding the “end times” and the return of Christ. I believe, as most evangelical Christians have throughout Christian history, in the imminent return of Christ; that is, that Jesus Christ may return at any moment. Yet many Christians today fret over the “signs of the times” supposing that some series of events must be fulfilled before Christ returns. Amazingly, the same people also tell me that they affirm the imminence of Christ’s return. Have they missed the logical disconnect in this line of thinking? How can Christ return at any time if there are still events that must take place before He returns? Either Christ’s return is not imminent and certain events are still yet to occur, or Christ’s return is imminent and all that needs to take place prior to His return has already happened. I believe the latter. Christ’s return is imminent; He could return at any moment. Yet occupation with “signs of the times” only conjures up theories that raise fear of what we must endure before Christ’s return.
Perhaps the most fearful conspiracies have to do with “the mark of the beast” described in Revelation 13 and 19. Some believers are fearful that Bill Gates or some other tech mogul is going to deceive them into taking the mark of the beast and, as a result, they will spend eternity in conscious torment. The implicit theology is that some will inadvertently end up in eternal hell against their wishes and against the whole course of their life with Christ. This kind of thinking contradicts the plain teaching of Scripture. No one will end up in hell accidentally or against their will. The condemned are those who have the light but choose to walk in darkness (John 3:19) or, as Paul puts it, those who know the truth yet refuse to accept it (2 Thess. 2:10). The kind of conspiracy theories surrounding the mark of the beast only raise unnecessary fear and dampen a believer’s eager anticipation of the coming of the Lord (Rom. 8:23, 25; Philippians 3:20; 1 Cor. 1:6-7; Gal 5:5; Hebrews 9:28; Titus 2:11-13; 2 Peter 3:10-12; Jude 21).
7. Conspiracy theories compromise our Christian witness to the hope and certainty that Christ provides.
Propagating conspiracy theories compromises our witness to the hope and assurance that Christ gives. If non-believers see believers driven more by farce than by faith, how long will it be until they believe that our faith in the resurrection is also a farce? Christians are marked by faith, not fear; by patience, not paranoia; by kindness, not conspiracy. When a believer is quick to believe highly speculative theories, it makes their Christian faith seem shallow, as though it is just easy believism. Furthermore, it dampens the sense of hope and trust in the care and control of God. Consider this conclusion by John Oswalt in his description of Israel’s conspirators: “Because [God] is a fact of which their hypothesis does not take account, their experiment will keep failing and he will be the cause of it, not because of some vindictive streak in him, but simply because he is and they are trying to live as if he were not.” The Church is called to bear witness to the God who is, always has been, and always will be. His care and control are not, and cannot be, diminished when life doesn’t pan out the way we thought it would. The Church is where people should find confidence, not conspiracy.