A well-concocted rumor can circulate for many years and do considerable damage. Let us think of the hoax whereby Christians of the first centuries worshiped a God with a donkey's head. By Pier Francesco Abortivi.
There are topics that chase you everywhere, and even if you want to avoid them, sooner or later must be addressed. Conspiracy theories is one of them.
The Church is experiencing a real division between those who support and disseminate conspiracy theories and those who consider them only the result of ignorance. The main channel used for this kind of discussion is social media.
We all know how difficult it is to have constructive and calm discussions on social media networks or on messaging groups. This is the result of a combination of several concurrent factors, including the absence of body language, the presumption of knowing other’s ideas before he or she expresses them, and a limited knowledge of the medium and its communication rules, the so-called "netiquette".
Yet, we persist in using them to proclaim our truths to the world expecting to solve, with a few posts, issues that have been discussed for centuries.
Social networks also produce another problem, what we call "confirmation bias", that is, the mechanism by which all news, information and posts that are selected to be presented on our screens, tend to confirm our already well-established pre-conceptions.
The result of this is people who are increasingly convinced to be right, even when they are absolutely wrong, and a radicalization of their initial opinions. If we add to this the fact that there are companies and individuals who earn a lot of money by making false but popular claims (fake news, click baiting…), we understand how serious the problem is.
This phenomenon is independent from the topic discussed, and it produces an ever ‘angrier’ political environment, totally polarized discussions on social problems, and (alas!) a partisan church divided even on non-fundamental issues.
But let's get to the point, are conspiracy theories a biblical concept?
There are some examples of conspiracies in the Bible. For example, in Nehemiah 6 we find the story of Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem who, concerned about the reconstruction of the walls of Jerusalem, invented a rumor reported by others: “It is reported among the nations—and Geshem says it is true—that you and the Jews are plotting to revolt, and therefore you are building the wall. Moreover, according to these reports you are about to become their king and have even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: ‘There is a king in Judah!’ Now this report will get back to the king; so come, let us meet together.”
Was it true? No, and Nehemiah rightly rejected the accusations without giving his enemies the opportunity to stop him: “Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.”.
This episode tells us how easy it is to invent lies aimed at discrediting and manipulating people. All you need to do is to make sure that the lie receives many "likes", which means that it must be in line with what a certain group of people wants to hear and believe, in this case that the Jews were rebellious and therefore punishable by the king.
We find another conspiracy in Matthew 28, concerning the resurrection of Jesus. Here is the passage:
“While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble. So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.” (that is, many years after the resurrection).
Once again, a lie was instrumental in obtaining a personal benefit, which was to make sure that Jews would not become disciples of Christ in order to maintain religious control over them.
A well-concocted rumor can circulate for many years and do considerable damage. Let us think of the hoax whereby Christians of the first centuries worshipped a God with a donkey's head. It was witnessed by the church fathers Tertullian and Minucius Felix, as part of the rumors aimed at fomenting Christian persecution, that included the accusation of being cannibals and pedophiles.
Tertullian also points to the culprit for spreading this rumor: it would have been Cornelius Tacitus in his description of Jewish customs. We might also remember the fire in Rome attributed to Christians by Nero, a thesis still maintained by some historians today.
In more recent times, we can mention the anti-Semitic text "Protocols of the Elders of Zion", written in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century that contained a supposed Jewish-Freemason plan to conquer the world. It was immediately proved to be a false, yet it was used for decades in fascist and neo-fascist circles to justify the anti-Semitic persecution.
Sometimes conspiracy theories don't even arise voluntarily. I remember a discussion with a young man who, in order to justify his thesis on Mary Magdalene as being the wife of Jesus, quoted Dan Brown's “Da Vinci Code” as a source, saying it revealed part of the real story that “people” wanted to hide. The book maintains a certain narrative ambiguity, but it is just a historical novel, not a history book.
A conspiracy theory is, according to Wired, ”An unfounded, deeply held alternative explanation for how things are—often invoking some shadowy, malevolent force masterminding the coverup.”.
I like this definition because it tells us something about the reason why so many believers, even mature and normally scrupulous ones, can get caught up in the "conspiracy zeal".
Firstly, as Christians, we live our faith as an alternative to this world. We preach this on Sundays in church and we teach it to our children every time we tell them not to believe all they are taught in public schools or on TV/the Internet on topics such as evolution or ethics.
For this reason, it is easy for us to consider ourselves among the few individuals who possess the truth - not meaning the Bible or Christ, rather in an absolute sense of truth on every topic - with the risk of creating an anti-scientific and anti-authority culture that has nothing to do with the love for the truth and the submission to authority that the Bible teaches us in so many passages.
Of course, this kind of thinking is encouraged by the fact that both men of science and politicians are fallacious sinners, who sometimes accept bribes or can bend the results of scientific research to make more profit.
Is that always the case? No, but conspiracy mentality and generalizations come together, creating oversimplifications that fail to explain the reality of what happens around us, which is usually more complex than we would like. (see Proverbs 1:22)
Secondly, we believe that our faith must be strong and militant, so we are called to proclaim in a radical way what we believe (evangelization and apologetics).
Then it goes without saying that we believe in the existence of a dark dominant force that somehow wants to control the world: the prince of lies.
If we put all these elements together, it becomes easy to see how short the necessary leap to move from "I believe in Christ" to "I believe in the ‘xyz’ conspiracy theory" is.
It is certainly legitimate to believe that there are people who come together to plan evil conspiracies against other people, in fact it is a reality that has always existed both biblically and historically. We read in Psalm 83 that the evil men plot against those who God protects.
The mistake lies in thinking that these plots will never come to light, and that they will always be successful, basically excluding God’s protection.
As Benjamin Franklin said, “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead”. The biggest operations against the Mafia were carried out after some of its former members started to speak and the same is true for most of the criminal gangs. There is always a disgruntled mob who seeks revenge.
Sometimes evil is stopped by "chance". In the eighties Italy saw a huge scandal linked to a secret Masonic lodge called P2, whose members were politicians, military officials, lawyers, business men, even ministers and MPs, and it aimed to control the Italian society and the government in all its aspects. Its activities were discovered by the police during a search of a house for a totally different crime.
Our God is sovereign and protects us. Proverbs 11:21 says, “The wicked will not go unpunished, but those who are righteous will go free.” and in Proverbs 24:19-22 we find: “Do not fret because of evildoers or be envious of the wicked, for the evildoer has no future hope, and the lamp of the wicked will be snuffed out. Fear the Lord and the king, my son, and do not join with rebellious officials, for those two will send sudden destruction on them, and who knows what calamities they can bring?”
As Job's story teaches us, evil is not free to do whatever it wants, but only what God allows. There are times when God seems distant and disinterested in what is happening, but he is always there, ready to intervene.
We are called not to be worried in the face of evil nor to be envious of the wicked. Sanctification includes not to mix with rebellious men because they will come to a bad end.
So, what drives us to embrace theories that are sometimes plausible, but in other cases decidedly fanciful? There are at least five general aspects that lead us to believe conspiracy theories:
1. Need for justice. As believers we desire greater social justice and a world that follows God's will in the moral field. The clash with our corrupt reality of things can lead us to embrace crusades that aim to 'straighten out' things using the weapons of political struggle or verbal violence on social media, rather than spiritual weapons and example.
2. Little discernment. We trust unverified sources or unreliable people. This can happen not only to less educated people, but also to those who are qualified and mature, because issues are often actually complex and our innate push for schematization brings us to accept easy explanations.
3. Overestimation of our abilities. Humility is an excellent antidote to the presumption of omniscience, and believers are not more intelligent than the rest of the world just because they believed. The word reminds us that “…the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” (Luke 16:8) So, do not “think of yourself more highly than you ought” (Romans 12:3). We can certainly have greater spiritual discernment than the rest of the world, but only if we are rooted in the word of God, hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit in us.
4. Siege mentality. It is typical of minorities and I live in Italy, where evangelical Christians are less than 1% of the population. We are in many ways socially besieged, if not victims of a creeping persecution. I noticed that this kind of attitude has grown a lot also in countries, like the US, where the Christian culture has moved in the last decades from being mainstream, to becoming a minority, especially in education environments and on the media.
We can become wary of everything and everyone and in particular of everything that is officially imposed from above. This sometimes brings us to live in a state of fear and suspicion.
5. Fear. The lack of control over the surrounding reality produces anxiety. This is even more true in times of transformation and crisis like the one we are experiencing. Conspiracy theories are a simple answer to a legitimate need for inner security. Once we identify an enemy, we find some temporary peace in the fact that we can keep an eye on him.
At this point I have to make a confession. I too had my period of in-depth investigation of everything that was hidden, controlling and potentially dangerous to my vision of life, to Christians, or to the 'free' world. I got to know a lot about Freemasonry, 666, Microchips, Illuminati, New World Order, Bilderberg, secret services, etc.
What did I get? A lot of wasted time, several suspicions, a few certainties, some anxiety. But I thank the Lord that in trying to create a synthesis from everything I was reading, I found myself looking for what the Bible thought about it. What follows are my simple conclusions.
First of all, the Scripture does invite us to watch and be careful about what is happening around us, to investigate times and watch for the plots of the enemy. Here are some of the passages on this topic:
- Matthew 16:2-3 “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”
- 1 Peter 5:8 “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”
- 2 Corinthians 2:10 “Anyone you forgive, I also forgive. And what I have forgiven—if there was anything to forgive—I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes.”
It is therefore right to try to understand whether a given fact or circumstance is from God. Indeed, we must learn to accurately discern good from evil, but - and here we come to the second point – even if satan can use men, our struggle “is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12)
As already mentioned, there have always been groups of people who seek to control, manipulate, lead peoples or communities in order to obtain money, power, fame (see Psalm 35:19-20), but behind every evil plan there is the true enemy, that the word of God describes as a spiritual enemy.
That is why we must fight it with spiritual weapons, through prayer above all.
Reducing our Christian lives to political striving is a lack of faith, replaced by the trust in our personal or group strength. This is true even when we do it in the name of God or in the name of Christian morality. The one who has already won the battle is Christ on the cross and us in Him.
The problem with this apocalyptic dystopia in which many believers fall, is that it is based on a wrong theological vision that produces a bad counselor, fear.
Let me explain. If we foresee a future controlled by evil men who will triumph and we put God's sovereignty into the background, we will be humanly driven to react in an un-Christian way, attacking the supposed enemy, or anxiously living the expectation of what the future will bring.
All this happens because we start from the false assumption, more or less conscious, that this world and society as a whole, are an enemy to be fought, rather than a land to be conquered with the Gospel.
The parable of the weeds of Matthew 13 tells us something important: “Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
Good seed and weeds are growing and will grow together until harvesting. Persecution will increase, but this does not mean at all that the church will decrease. If we look at history the opposite is true.
In 1 Peter 4 it is written: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”
Persecution is an integral part of our being Christians. If we think to avoid it by conquering the world through our strength, we are deceiving ourselves. Instead, we are called to overcome evil with good and to consider it a grace when we suffer unjustly for Christ.
Through this sacrificial spirit, the early church conquered the world for Christ; today we would like to be esteemed and appreciated without paying the cost of proclaiming the Gospel.
Worse than that, we would like to transform the world by forcing it to adopt Christian ethics as a substitute for Christ's message of hope and repentance. We are called to evangelize, not to moralize.
It is incredible how people who call themselves disciples of Christ, of that Christ who chose to die on the cross, are ready to wield their sword to assert their rights, testifying more to their arrogance than to the love of Christ.
It is not a question of carrying forward a message all "peace & love", but to fully live the message of the Gospel, which is revolutionary only when it overturns the values of this world: my neighbor’s good comes before mine. There can be no self-centered Gospel, even when the “self” you think you are defending is the church.
Going back to the main theme and to summarize:
Zeal without knowledge can do a lot of damage. A falsehood perpetuated as an absolute truth by a naive Christian can distance someone from the true and pure Gospel for a long time.
Let us limit ourselves to presenting the Gospel through the "faithful word", leaving the rest within the discussion of personal opinions.
Frankly, I think the enemy is extremely pleased to see how we attack each other on vaccines, politics, ethical issues, wasting precious hours that we could use in more constructive ways that give glory to God.
My humble invitation is to not be distracted by conspiracy theories, true or presumed, but to focus on our original mandate, to show Christ to the world by inviting people to reconcile themselves with God.
Hebrews 13:6 “So we may boldly say: “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?”
Pier Francesco Abortivi lives in Italy and is EU director for ACCI and president of Progetto Archippo.
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