Following comments in the article, ‘Covid-19. What are the ‘prophets’ saying?‘, here are some further reflections on ‘hidden agenda and conspiracy theories’.
As I pointed out in that article, allegations, theories and ‘exposés’ of conspiracies are by no means an exclusively Christian phenomenon. But Christian commentators and ‘prophets’ are among those who have played a significant role in advancing these.
However, addressing current events from a biblical perspective may call for attention and even giving credence to minority viewpoints on. This risks being misrepresented as a conspiracy theorist, although it also risks being drawn into an unedifying or even ungodly world of ‘plots and paranoia’.
So, some evaluation of these issues is necessary if we are to ‘understand the times and know what to do’.
The unseen realm
The reality of ‘hidden agenda’, of a ‘behind the scenes’ ‘conspiracy’, is, of course, intrinsic to the biblical worldview. The Old and New Testaments both assume and reveal the ‘unseen realm’. For example, angels appear seven times in the accounts of the earthly life of Jesus; in the wilderness, He is tempted by the devil, who has authority over all the kingdoms of the world (Luke 4:5-6), who is the ‘ruler of this world’ (John 14:30), and in whose power lies the whole world (1 John 5:19).
As Paul says, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Peter urges believers to, “be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). The book of Revelation is “an ‘unveiling’ of unseen spiritual forces operating behind the scenes in history and controlling its events and outcome”, both “divine prediction of future events but also divine diagnosis of the present state of affairs” (ESV Study Bible).
And, my approach to Covid-19 here is predicated on the proposition that ‘behind visible states of affairs is God’s hidden governance’ – to which must be added the cosmic struggle with the forces of darkness as above.
A conspiracy theory, however, is defined as “a belief that an event or situation is the result of a secret plan made by powerful people“, or as “the belief that the government or a covert organization is responsible for an event that is unusual or unexplained, especially when any such involvement is denied” [my emphases].
Conspiracy theories are both attractive and problematic.
Conspiracies have occurred throughout history and are an “inevitable component of human civilisation”. As Jovan Byford comments, “actual conspiracies occur quite regularly. Political assassinations, scandals and cover-ups, terrorist attacks and a lot of everyday government activity involves the collusion of multiple people in the attempt to bring about a desired outcome”. So, it is almost certain that aspects of current events and states of affairs will be similarly influenced.
The Bible makes it clear both that sinful, fallen humanity ‘conspires’ and that the unseen powers as above work through human agents: the wicked ‘plot against the just’ (Psalms 31:20, 37:12, 64:2); “the rulers of the world conspire together against the Lord and His anointed” (Psalm 2:1-2). And, things will get worse in the ‘last days’ (2 Timothy 3:1,13). Hence, as above, we should expect events in our present time to be likewise determined, and more so if we are approaching the last of the ‘last days’.
People want to know. The desire for knowledge has been there from the beginning (Genesis 3:5-6). Conspiracy theories appear to provide ‘signposts’ in the quest for knowledge. When received, accepted or official explanations seem inadequate, conspiracy theories fill in the gaps, join the dots, and explain inconsistencies and mysteries.
Everyone likes a good story and conspiracy theories are good stories Stories help us both to make sense of a complex world and to communicate complex ideas, meaning and truth.1)One of the most distinctive things about the Bible among the books of the world’s religions is that it is a book full of true, historical, stories that communicate eternal truth; especially, stories (ie parables) were central to Jesus’ method of teaching. “Narrative is a basic human strategy for coming to terms with fundamental elements of our experience, such as time, process, and change”, and narrative theory plays a major role in understanding the psychology of conspiracy theories.
Some conspiracy theories, like the ‘Popish Plot’, Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal or even apparently wilder theories, have proved to be true, or widely accepted as true, after the event. It is illogical to suggest that this legitimates any theory, but it does suggest that at least the more rational sounding ones deserve a hearing!
According to recent surveys and studies, lots of people believe conspiracy theories. A 2018 survey concluded that, “sixty per cent of British people believe at least one conspiracy theory about how the country is run or the veracity of information they have been given”. A survey in the same year revealed that 61% of people in the US endorsed at least one conspiracy theory. Time Magazine suggests the proportion may be much higher. [However, a careful reading of these sources suggests that the researchers and commentators made little distinction between reasonable, justified scepticism and irrational belief in conspiracy theories; the proportion of the population that believes in conspiracy theories sensu stricto is likely to be much smaller.]
However, while conspiracy theories might be attractive, they also serve to advance the agenda of a particular counter-cultural grouping (‘social clustering’) or a particular meta-narrative or grand theory, or attempt to join up completely unconnected phenomena (apophenia).2)This article makes an interesting distinction between an ‘epiphany’, “a true intuition of the world’s interconnectedness” and an ‘apophany’, which is a false realization. For Christians, ‘epiphany’ connotes the commemoration of the revealing of the Messiah to the world at the visit of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus and His first miracle at Cana. A true epiphany is a theophany. A true search for connectedness ends not simply in a grand story or a unifying theory, but in knowing the One who is all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28). This, Byford argues, makes them “notoriously poor” at uncovering actual conspiracies, compared with, he avers, “solid journalism, official state-sponsored inquiries, or the actions of whistleblowers”.
Conspiracy theories are inherently difficult to prove or disprove. Indeed, they are sustained by the inability to incontrovertibly substantiate or refute them. Attempts to debunk them simply serve to strengthen their case. As Scott A Reid comments, conspiracy theories “reject the accepted narrative surrounding events; indeed, the official version may be seen as further proof of the conspiracy”. For example, from the viewpoint of those claiming that 5G causes Covid-19, the banning of their allegations from social media only served to strengthen their claims! There is even a conspiracy theory that the CIA invented the term ‘conspiracy theory’.
Both conspiracies and conspiracy theories militate against truth. The former, by definition, seek to conceal plans and plots from general view and scrutiny. The latter, by constructing a story that even if partly true is adulterated with false connections, fabrications and unproven or unprovable claims, obscure and obfuscate real facts of a matter.
Deciding what is right
Given the above, how do we decide which conspiracy theories to accept and which to reject?
Critical of conspiracy theorists, but accepting that conspiracy theories may sometimes be correct, psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky proposes that the answer is found in science and reason – applied both to the theory and theorists. “One of the reasons to trust science to deliver truthful insights into the world”, he writes, “is because of the way it works. Many (though not all) philosophers of science believe that the way in which knowledge is socially constructed can give us insights into the likely utility of that knowledge.” Hence, he argues: “a conspiracy that is revealed by conventional cognition—such as investigative journalism or the actions of whistleblowers—has sufficient potential virtue to be taken seriously”, but “if all evidence for a theory is based on conspiracist cognition” (eg nihilistic skepticism, seeing pattern in randomness, incoherence, self-sealing reasoning), “it is likely a conspiracy theory that ought to be dismissed rather than a true conspiracy”.
Lewandowsky is, of course, writing from a ‘secular’ viewpoint and Bible-believing Christians will only wish to go so far with his reasoning. Especially, we would wish to test any theory against, not only the criteria of observation, reason, common sense and godly wisdom, but also against the truth revealed in God’s word, the Bible.
In a simpler take on how to evaluate conspiracy theories, prominent US conservative evangelical theologian, Al Mohler also emphasises fact checking. He also points out that the worst plots and plans for evil are in plain sight; humanity, he says, is always in a conspiracy to rob God of His glory.
US-based INcontext Ministries is a Christian organisation that has sought to combine fact-checking and reason with a biblical worldview in evaluating hoaxes and conspiracy theories.
They have recently examined two of the most prominent Covid-19 conspiracy theories – the purported linking of a Covid-19 vaccine and implanted digital ID and Bill Gates’ role in this, and the claim that 5G technology causes or exacerbates Covid-19. There are innumerable promulgators and versions of both these theories circulating on the internet.
For the first, INcontext Ministries base their critique on a video by Florida pastor, Rick Wiles, promoting the “Bill Gates – Coronavirus end-times conspiracy”. Wiles is also reported to have said that the spread of coronavirus in synagogues is a punishment of the Jewish people for opposing Jesus. They examine three of Wiles’ claims, ie that Gates has developed a microchip that could be used to track every human being on earth, that he is a member of the ID2020 initiative, which aims forcibly to collect information on every person on the planet in order to control their movements, and that Gates wants to control population growth by killing millions of people with vaccines. They conclude that Bill Gates has been involved in digital identity, population control and vaccination initiatives, but that Wiles grossly misrepresents his motivations and intentions and provides no evidence to support his claims. Their main criticism, however, is of Wiles’ demeanour, attitude and language, which, they conclude, do not at all reflect the character of Christ. Read their findings here.
For the 5G story, INcontext Ministries published an evaluation of a podcast by a British Christian pastor claiming that Covid-19 is not a viral disease, but is caused by the body’s reaction to 5G radiation and is part of a global strategy to roll out 5G as a means of global social control. It is, the speaker claims, the largest global cover-up in history. The next stage, he goes on, will be the administering of Covid-19 vaccines with a tracking device to monitor every citizen of the world, along with a global financial crash, which will usher in a cashless society. All this will set the stage for the rise of the anti-Christ.
The pastor was later named as Jonathon James of Light City Christian Ministries, Luton, by Logically, a UK ‘fact-checking’ organisation. The story was then published by the Guardian.3)The original podcast was published on YouTube, but deleted on 2 April; it has, however, been uploaded elsewhere.
INcontext Ministries, Logically, and the Guardian list a series of factual errors and false claims made by James, including regarding his own credentials. INContext concludes that James’ theories have little to no substance, “which makes them difficult to prove or disprove. However, all the ‘facts’ he mentioned clearly illustrate that his theories are built on falsehoods and blatant lies.” In other words, we are none the wiser.
It is important to recognise that these evaluations focused on two conspiracy theorists, both of whom appear extreme and implausible. They are not evaluations of the theories themselves, nor, more importantly of the facts that are freely available in the public domain (eg of the genuine and substantiated concerns about the detrimental effects of non-ionising radiation). As I suggested above, conspiracy theories hinder rather than help the search for truth. And there is plenty in plain sight in our society and culture to concern us as believers seeking to be faithful to Christ in our world and advance His kingdom in our time.
This brings me to my final and most important point. Generally, and especially in the Christian context, conspiracy theories can have a very debilitating and even destructive effect, and are more likely to prompt factions, fear, anxiety and stasis, than fellowship, confidence, prayer and action. This, in my view, is the critical issue, and one that applies to excessive speculation about the ‘end-times’ in general.
When Jesus set out the signs that would precede His return, His aim was intensely practical. His concern was neither to interest nor frighten, but to encourage and prepare. Like the message of Jeremiah, which I am using as the basis for this series of articles, His message also was one of ‘sober realism and overarching hope’. Our response to the unfolding of the cataclysmic events of the end time is not to be fearful, but to ‘look up, because our redemption draws near’ (Luke 21:28). Our action should be to both watch and pray (Luke 21:26) and to get on with the work entrusted to us (Matthew 24:45-51).
As I have written elsewhere, I do not know for certain whether this is the eleventh hour or an eleventh hour, any more than I know, for sure, whether or not particular alleged hidden agenda or conspiracy theories are true. Certainly, there are aspects of the current Covid-19 crisis, along with many other signs, that call for our attention in the light of Scripture. But whatever the case, the imperatives are the same – understand the times (Luke 12:54-56), watch and pray (Luke 21:36), preach the Gospel (Matt 24:14), be ready (Matt 25:44) and stir up one another to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24).
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||One of the most distinctive things about the Bible among the books of the world’s religions is that it is a book full of true, historical, stories that communicate eternal truth; especially, stories (ie parables) were central to Jesus’ method of teaching.|
|2.||↑||This article makes an interesting distinction between an ‘epiphany’, “a true intuition of the world’s interconnectedness” and an ‘apophany’, which is a false realization. For Christians, ‘epiphany’ connotes the commemoration of the revealing of the Messiah to the world at the visit of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus and His first miracle at Cana. A true epiphany is a theophany. A true search for connectedness ends not simply in a grand story or a unifying theory, but in knowing the One who is all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28).|
|3.||↑||The original podcast was published on YouTube, but deleted on 2 April; it has, however, been uploaded elsewhere.|