by Bob Stevenson
I was in college when I encountered my first real conspiracy theory from a real person who really believed it. It was during a street evangelism session at Moody Bible Institute. After the session, I approached a bystander and asked what he thought of the presentation. Ten minutes later my head was reeling. The fellow had lots of thoughts about the Bible that sounded like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, Bart Ehrman’s writings, and a few tabloids thrown in a blender. As a Bible student studying textual transmission, I knew this guy was off his rocker, and I tried to engage rationally. But he was a believer. He had it all worked out. Nothing I could say would change his mind.
What struck me about the exchange was the impenetrability of this man’s theories. No matter what I said, he always had a rebuttal. How did I know that my sources were stronger than his sources, that my evidence was more robust than his? Especially when his own theory felt so coherent to him.
Conspiracy theories have been around a long time. But they have surfaced with a vengeance in recent years, serving up a counter narrative to the official explanations for all sorts of things. Conspiracy theories are fringe beliefs but have become increasingly popularized and believed by average voters, citizens, and—important for our purposes—church members.
What’s a Conspiracy Theory Anyway?
A recent article defines a conspiracy theory as a “secret plot by two or more powerful actors … [who] attempt to usurp political or economic power, violate rights, infringe upon established agreements, withhold vital secrets, or alter bedrock institutions.” These are theories about “what’s really going on” in the world and serve as explanations to the complex and frightening problems in our society.
Conspiracy theories have often maintained a fringe, tinfoil-hat aura (“Did we really land on the moon?”). Yet they entered the mainstream in recent years. As our society has become increasingly politically polarized, conspiracy theories seem to have become more and more prevalent. This is problematic not merely for society at large but also for churches.
What motivates belief in conspiracy theories? Three reasons seem likely.
First, conspiracy theories offer simple solutions to complex problems. If you’ve ever gone down the rabbit hole, you know that conspiracy theories aren’t simple. They weave, bob, and make wide-ranging connections between events and persons. It can be a nightmare to keep up with all the pieces. Yet all the disparate pieces mask a desire to find a central reason for events that feel shockingly out of control. What’s easier to believe: that a virus mutated and entered the human viral ecosystem, leading to worldwide devastation with no end in sight? Or that a cabal of nefarious geniuses constructed and weaponized the virus? It depends. The latter solution has a clear villain, someone we can hold accountable, an enemy we can defeat. The former is just uncontrolled tragedy. Conspiracy theories boil down otherwise chaotic events into single causes, which are easier for the human brain to accept and digest.
Second, conspiracy theories provide empowering narratives for the powerless. Why exactly has QAnon, for example, gained purchase among so many? Conspiracy theories provide a narrative that empowers those who feel vulnerable, victimized, or marginalized by society. Adrienne LaFrance noted in her article “The Prophecies of Q” that such people “see themselves as victim-warriors fighting against corrupt and powerful forces.” Such ideas give people something to get behind and get excited about. They give a sense of power to those who feel increasingly powerless.
Third, conspiracy theories provide hope. The world is a frightening place. While we hold many of our eschatological beliefs for good exegetical and theological reasons, it’s also true that eschatology is (at least at a popular level) informed by our perception of the state of the world. Consider the fertile ground that the 20th and early 21st centuries have provided for premillennial dispensationalism: the enthusiastic optimism of the Enlightenment was squashed by world wars, a holocaust, the threat of nuclear annihilation, terrorism, and on and on. In this context, the idea of a cataclysmic end culminating in the return of Christ makes good sense!
While this can be true for our eschatology, it is also true for many conspiracy theories. Whereas good theology provides an enduring bulwark for hope in the return of Christ, conspiracy theories provide a shot of hope and perspective for the short-term. After all, if we know that the world really is run by a cabal of evil figures, then we can do something about it. Conspiracy theories don’t offer hope in eschatological proportions, but they do offer hope for next month or next year.
Three Reasons Christians Should Be Wary of Conspiracy Theories
If conspiracy theories provide stories of hope in dark times, what’s the problem? Is it okay for Christians to mess around with them? No, for three reasons.
1. Christians are stewards of the truth.
Conspiracy theories proffer secrets held by only a select few. These theories are attractive for their gnostic-like pursuit of hidden truths that promise understanding and illumination for the knower. Dig in, however, and one quickly discovers that the so-called truths are usually based on flimsy evidence, vague allusions, and happenstance pattern-matching. This matters for Christians because we are stewards of the truth. The apostle Paul makes this clear in 1 Timothy 3:15 when he calls the church “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (ESV).
Someone once told me he thought the early disciples would have been viewed as conspiracy theorists despite having the truth. His belief is quite wrong. The disciples saw the risen Christ. They were witnesses of an event. As crazy as their story may have seemed to the world around them, they weren’t concocting an elaborate scheme to promote a new religion. They saw Jesus, and they simply told the world what they saw.
When we flirt with wild theories, we compromise the very message we have been entrusted with. Like the boy who cried wolf, if we preach faked moon landings and satanic shadow governments running the US—and then try to tell people that, yes, Jesus really rose from the dead—why would we expect anyone to believe us?
If Jesus really rose from the dead, then everything changes. If Jesus really rose from the dead, then there really is hope for all people. And because Jesus really rose from the dead, we cannot afford to compromise our credibility by playing around with far-fetched speculations and theories.
2. Christians are stewards of the gospel story.
The Bible tells a beautiful and epic story. In fact, the Bible has an arc shared by the best stories: paradise, a tragic fall, deep struggle, sacrificial redemption, restoration, and renewal. The Bible is lovely because of its content, and it is lovely because it reflects real life and real history. And because it is real life, it is neither flat nor simple. The dark threads woven throughout the Bible correspond to the brokenness, evil, and heartache we all know so well. Scripture never offers a simplistic solution to the darkness of our sin. Jesus is God’s central solution, but He is in no way a facile solution. The cross work of Christ accomplished a reconciliation we can barely fathom (Col. 1:20).
Conspiracy theories tell other stories. They ooze shock and awe, and they promise a kind of redemptive arc, but they are tepid and always overpromise. They are stories about humans and are limited by the capacity of finite actors in a broken world. Of course, there is an immediacy or immanence about these narratives that can be deeply attractive, particularly when God’s work in the world feels abstract to us. But conspiracy theories underestimate the pervasiveness and banality of evil and overestimate the capacity of human beings to fix that selfsame evil.
There really are conspiracies in our world. History has shown that politicians and the powers that be have lied and concealed far too many times. But these situations are neither justification for an infatuation with wild speculation, nor cause for panic. The Story we have been entrusted with has more than enough room for such real conspiracies. According to the True Story, the world is worse than we realize—but God is bigger and better than we could dream, and He has acted in grace to restore all things. The beauty of the gospel is that we can face the depth of both the world’s evil and our own with open eyes and steady hearts, not because we are brave realists but because God has made the gospel known to us and has worked to save us from the depths of our misery.
3. Christians are stewards of hope.
We are a people who have hope built into our spiritual DNA (Rom. 5:1ff.; 12:12; 1 Cor. 13:13; 1 Thess. 5:8). Biblical hope is far more than mere optimism; it is the confidence of a future based on a promise. Christians are people who hope not in possibilities but in the certainty of what God will do, even if we cannot make out exactly how it will all work out.
All conspiracy theories provide a kind of hope: hope that the evil actors will be exposed, hope that their plans will be foiled, hope that we can participate in a great resistance. But it is a cheap hope, frail and worthless. Consider the track records of the conspiracy theories you know. Conspiracy theories thrive as long as they remain in shadow and uncertainty. When their claims are exposed to the light of truth, they typically fail.
What good is a hope that fails time and time again?
If the gospel is true, if Jesus truly lives as Lord, if the triune God will make all things new, why would we dabble in flimsy optimism offered by conspiracy theories? We have been entrusted with something concrete and real, lasting and solid. If we put our hopes in conspiracy theories and their alleged heroes—rather than trusting in and delighting in the real, powerful, and wonder-working God—we are not only bound to be disappointed, but we are abdicating the great stewardship that God gave us and that the world desperately needs to see.
Trusting in God
We live in a complex world with complex problems. Wrapping our normal-size brains around the enormity of a global pandemic is exceptionally difficult. Watching political regimes change is destabilizing. And feeling swept along by massive cultural change is unsettling. Our finitude and fear will never be assuaged by trusting in secret knowledge and shadowy actors. Our hearts will find purchase only in the truth of the God Who reveals Himself in grace.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2021 Baptist Bulletin. Copyright © 2021 Regular Baptist Press. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Bob Stevenson (MDiv, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is lead pastor of Village Baptist Church, Aurora, Ill. For a helpful survey of the scholarly literature that informs parts of this article, see “Understanding Conspiracy Theories” by Karen M. Douglas, Joseph E. Uscinski, et al. in Political Psychology 40, no. S1 (February 2019): 3–35.