If you’re anything like me, you eye roll at conspiracy theories. Or perhaps you are unconvinced and still think the moon landing was not in space but in a movie studio somewhere outside of Phoenix. What’s the big deal, you might say? Does it matter if a few people indulge in far out ideas? Who cares if our Thanksgiving meals are punctuated by wild tales of wicked deeds? Does it matter?
It does. For several reasons. Even if speculating about the Kennedy assassination or sending an email insisting your most reviled politician is a tool of the Russian mafia seems harmless, as Christians we should be committed to the truth. Paul urges the church at Philippi to think on “whatsoever is true and whatsoever is honest” (Philippians 4:8). Sadly, some followers of Jesus who claim to so boldly stand for truth are willing to create, spread, and post misinformation about people with whom we disagree or indulge fanatical tales about our ideological foes. Often we are the most gullible, the most willing to believe things that are not true.
Perhaps this is why Paul often warned the early church against “silly myths or fables” (1 Timothy 1:4; 4:7). This is not just “going too far.” Ed Stetzer, professor at Wheaton College and contributor to Christianity Today, says, “When you share such fake news and conspiracy theories, you are simply bearing false witness. That is a sin and it is time to repent.”
Christians need wisdom to discern between what is true and what is false. While we should hope that “unfruitful works of darkness” are exposed, we should avoid the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories because they both distract us from pursuing what is true, good, and beautiful and because untruths damage the witness of the church. And while most crazy ideas from the internet are harmless, there are many conspiracy theories that, when spread, cause real harm. They spread misinformation, stoke fears, and can even lead to violence.
In 2016, a conspiracy about Hillary Clinton and a supposed trafficking ring led a heavily armed young man to show up at a Washington, D.C. pizza place. Thankfully he was stopped before committing any real violence, but #pizzagate became more than harmless internet chatter. The same is true of the growing movement of white nationalist ideology fueled by dangerous conspiracy theories that see people of color as societal problems. A young man from Plano, Texas indulged these fantasies so much he murdered twenty-two people in an El Paso Walmart in cold blood. And the rise in Holocaust denial has often led to violence against Jewish people around the world.
The Corrosive Effect of Conspiracy
These are extreme cases. But even when there is no violence involved, conspiracy theories damage reputations and hurt real people. Parents of children killed in mass shootings like Sandy Hook have had people stalk their property because they listened to conspiracy peddlers who insisted the entire tragedy was part of an elaborate “false flag” operation. Can you imagine the pain of not only losing a child to violence but also having someone track you down and harass you with such wild accusations?
To indulge in these kinds of ideas is not harmless. It’s corrosive to the soul, damaging for our public witness, and hurts neighbors we are called to love. In the church, this kind of fearmongering conspiracy causes unnecessary division.
On several occasions, during my time working for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, I had people approach me after a speaking engagement, insisting that the organization was part of a left-wing conspiracy funded by George Soros. Even though our funding sources and budget were public record and our trustees were voted on by the members of the Southern Baptist Convention every year in an open parliamentary process, the false rumors still circulated.
It’s mostly annoying to me at this point, but it’s also distressing to know that thousands are being led to believe vile things about fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Stetzer is right when he says, “Spreading conspiracies and fake news directly violates Scripture’s prohibition from bearing false witness against our neighbors. It devalues the name of Christ—whom we believe to be the very incarnation of truth—and it inflicts pain upon the people involved.”
We also need to examine the motivations that lead us to fall prey to such wild theories. If conspiracy theories give us a measure of comfort in troubling times, perhaps we are looking for peace where it cannot be ultimately found. Just before he urges the Philippian believers to think on what is true, Paul says that “the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). Conspiracy and intrigue give us a sense of control, of knowing all things and being able to keep our fears in front of us. God calls us to a quiet peace, fueled by both trust in him and the mystery of faith.
Our connecting of unconnected dots is a cheap substitute for believing the ultimate story that explains the world. The Bible tells us evil, tragedy, and sin find their root not in a smoke-filled room in Switzerland, but with the “ruler of the power of the air, the spirit now working in the disobedient” (Ephesians 2:2). Satan is the ultimate conspirator and sin is the virus that has woven its way into every human heart. But we believers know that the man behind the curtain is on a leash, limited in power, and defeated when Jesus uttered those agonizing words from a Roman cross: “It is finished!”
The dots, for us, have been connected. And Jesus, the victor, has triumphed over the enemy. So while we participate with him in renewing and restoring the world, we can rejoice when evil is exposed without indulging dark and false fantasies.
This article was adapted with permission from Daniel Darling’s latest book, A Way With Words: Using Our Online Conversations For Good. Copyright 2020, B&H Publishing Group.
Cover image by Greyson Joralemon.