In 2015, charismatic evangelical Jeremiah Johnson, who worked as a pastor and church planter in Florida, USA, made a bold claim. He announced that a voice from God had told him in a dream that Donald Trump would become the President of the United States. When this prediction came to pass, Johnson gained nationwide fame.
The intertwining of religious and political messages attracted significant financial support for Jeremiah Johnson’s organisation. In October 2020, he had another dream, predicting Trump’s re-election. Johnson saw it as a divine prophetic vision and shared it publicly. However, in the elections held on November 3, 2020, Joe Biden was elected as the 46th President of the United States. Shortly after, Johnson claimed to have received a new message from God: “You are wrong, and I will use this to humble you.” After publicly apologising for his mistake, Johnson temporarily withdrew from the public scene, losing his financial backing.
The failure of this religious leader, who believed in the continuity of the prophetic gift and considered himself a prophet, did not diminish the American public’s trust in self-proclaimed prophets who often spread conspiracy theories within a Christian context. The presence of conspiracy theories within American Protestantism is not a new phenomenon. Instead, it is a symptom of an ongoing trend. For instance, in a Lifeway Research study that included 1,007 Protestant pastors, 49% of them stated that their church members were adopting conspiracy theories they encountered. Unfortunately, the fusion of prophetic populism with various conspiracy theories led to the events of January 6, 2021. On that day, a crowd attacked the United States Capitol building in the nation’s capital, resulting in significant material damage and loss of life.
Conspiracy theories find fertile ground among religious believers. In the present context, where people are overwhelmed with information, they tend to seek a trusted authority to guide them. Promoters of conspiracy theories offer precisely that. By promising to reveal state secrets, scientific ones or of a different nature, they present their opinions as objective information, giving their followers a sense of independent thinking.
Conspiracy theories are attractive because they provide those who already hold particular views about reality with a mechanism to validate and justify their opinions, thus elevating those beliefs to the status of objective certainties.
For example, those who already believe that the Bible predicts a restriction of religious freedom, as outlined in chapter 13 of the Book of Revelation, are highly sensitive to any voice or sign that might indicate religious constraints. During the recent Covid-19 pandemic, religious gatherings were restricted all over the world, temporarily, like other public meetings, only to later be allowed with social distancing measures. Some interpreted these restrictions as an attack on religious freedom and the fulfilment of biblical prophecies. Vaccination was associated with the apocalyptic mark of the beast, and the requirement to present proof of vaccination when entering certain stores was linked to the number 666. However, these reactions are more aptly categorised as the “religiously justified anti-vaccination irrationality.”
The previous examples illustrate an important aspect: conspiracy theories propose an understanding of reality that is similar to religious and implicitly Christian conceptions. Hence, a conspiratorial worldview encompasses the struggle between good and evil, believed to occur in secret. The initiators, promoters, and followers of conspiracies contend that (a) nothing happens by accident, (b) nothing is what it seems, and (c) everything is interconnected.
Conspiracy theories promise to explain societal ills, typically doing so through a series of interconnected hypotheses: (a) the existence of an elite group working in secrecy; (b) the group conspires to advance its own interests or impose a particular worldview; (c) the well-crafted and concealed conspiracy can only be unravelled through a specific mode of evidence analysis; (d) evidence analysis often requires a systematic suspicion of others, which frequently devolves into religious, ethnic, or political discrimination.
Conspiratorial narratives can be used by major religious groups as an argument to maintain the status quo or demonise opponents. Minority religious groups may also use the same type of narrative to legitimise themselves in a particular context.
Comparing the structure of a conspiracy theory with Christian theology, we find that biblical prophecy, in its turn, presents a cosmic conflict between good and evil, occurring in both the visible and invisible realms. This biblical metanarrative offers an explanatory paradigm in which God, motivated by love, grants all His creatures the freedom to choose, even at the risk of them choosing to rebel against Him. When people chose to sever their relationship with God, theologically termed as sin, the entry of sin into the world had effects on both nature (natural evil) and society (moral evil). From a biblical perspective, the source of evil lies in the misuse of the freedom of choice by supernatural beings (fallen angels) and humans.
Whenever evil is present, with the suffering and pain it brings, the need to explain it arises. Theologians and philosophers have been at the forefront of those seeking an answer to the problem of evil, to whom the representatives of conspiracy theories have been added. While theologians and philosophers seek an explanation for evil in relation to divine goodness, conspiracy theorists seek an explanation in the backstage of alleged conspiracies, plots, and secret machinations.
Christians assert that God does not entirely prevent evil because He does not limit the freedom of created beings. Doing so would affect the integrity of His cosmic governance principles. But He will do so when He ends evil at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ (Revelation 21:4). In the meantime, divine plans have not been kept secret. They have been revealed to humanity through prophets who have presented orally and in writing what has been disclosed to them (2 Peter 1:20, 21).
The prophets have unequivocally stated that there is a “god of this age” who has “blinded the minds” of those who choose not to believe in the Christian message (2 Corinthians 4:3, 4). The Christian mission involves presenting the truth (2 Corinthians 4:2), “with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience” (1 Peter 3:16). This truth includes a foretelling of the future when several events characterising the end times will occur. No one is required to accept the truth without evidence. On the contrary, the presentation of the truth is always accompanied by convincing evidence (Acts 1:3; 28:23). The Christian perspective, though built upon compelling cumulative evidence, is ultimately received through faith (Ephesians 1:13), which entails both the rational acceptance of a set of truths and personal trust in Jesus Christ.
Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, promise to resolve the problem of evil by unmasking the alleged conspiracy, turning its disclosure into the ultimate solution. Special interest groups and their activities, whether hidden or public, are considered responsible for the present evils in nearly every aspect of life. Proponents of conspiracy theories emphasise a single interpretation of facts or events. The selection of information, evidence, and their superficial, context-deprived, or biased interpretation gives this single interpretation coherence and explanatory power capable of justifying expressed conspiracy opinions and, at the same time, conveying the certainty of knowledge and understanding of the present and future. The conspiratorial perspective is attractive because it simplifies complex issues into simple causes that it claims to reveal. The potential follower is required to believe that the indicated causal link is true and to trust the theory’s promoter. In other words, in the end, a conspiracy is accepted through faith.
Since conspiracy theories address the human desire to understand reality, they cannot be dismissed as manifestations of ignorance or mental instability, even though some conspiracies are based on the lack of education of their supporters or on a specific pathology. In addition, some conspiracies may be real, such as the scandal related to mass surveillance of the population by the United States National Security Agency (NSA). However, conspiracy theories are interpretations that must always be evaluated rationally, with discernment and based on verifiable rather than hidden information. When it is proven that the theories are superficial or false, they must be abandoned.
Even though each of us has our own difficulties in discerning the truth about reality, we must ensure that our knowledge formation mechanisms—starting from our opinions about the world and life—function correctly without being tainted by conspiracy thinking. When someone is attracted to or has even accepted a conspiracy theory that has been proven false, (a) they should examine why they were drawn to that theory, as well as (b) how they reacted to the evidence and reasoning that debunked that theory. Ultimately, that person must seriously question their source of authority in understanding reality.
For a Christian, it’s quite easy for a particular theory—whether personal or coming from others—to be confused with a prophetic fulfilment. It’s important to emphasise that often, our cherished scenarios regarding the end of the world are not in line with the evidence provided by a sound interpretation of the Bible. In such situations, it becomes even more evident why there’s a need to compare our own opinions with those of the faith community and with the insights of experts in biblical interpretation. The willingness to listen, analyse, compare, evaluate all evidence, learn, and be open to change provides an essential safety net to prevent falling from faith in biblical prophecy into faith in conspiracy theories.
Adrian Petre is convinced that we can combat conspiracism primarily by embracing the biblical perspective on the world and life, and secondly, by maintaining a healthy critical attitude towards conspiracy theories.