Conspiracy Theories, pt. 3

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It’s also a Friday, as was November 22,1963. (Likewise, December 7 will be a Sunday this year, as it was in 1941.) A simple interpretation of the data points to Lee Harvey Oswald as the sole assassin that fateful day. But conspiracy theories reject a plain interpretation of the data in favor of hidden, marginal evidence and obscure speculation from less reliable witnesses. Secrecy and inside knowledge are motifs among conspiracy theories.

For the past couple days I’ve been thinking about conspiracy theories in the Bible and the contemporary church. A “conspiracy theory” is a claim that God has spoken, when he has not actually spoken. An assertion may be either sincere or fraudulent, but it’s not genuine. In the first part of this blog, I described a conspiracy theory in 2 Kings 18:25. The second installment noted parallels between that story in the Bible and conspiracy theories which surround the assassination of JFK. Today I’m thinking of three conspiracy theories in the church today. Two of them are fairly old; one of them is new and very current.

My first encounter with a conspiracy theory came my freshman year of college at BGSU. I was a music major. My theory professor, a gifted, intense, young man, saw my interest in spiritual things and handed me a small booklet called “Bible Numerics.” It had been written by a brilliant Russian mathematician who was exiled from his land and became a Harvard scholar who tutored Albert Einstein. His name was Ivan Panin. He made some amazing claims that have nothing to do with the message of the Bible. (That’s what conspiracy theories do!)

Pavin counted words and letters in certain Bible passages and noticed some interesting patterns. Only “numbers” people can relate to Bible Numerics. It’s really complicated. The patterns are extremely difficult to test. One reason for this is they don’t always work, so Panin set up a dizzying set of criteria to qualify everything. It’s all pretty harmless until he claimed the numerics statistically establish divine authorship of Scripture.

When his formulas didn’t fit the text, Panin devised his own Greek New Testament by constructing a text which fit his numerics. There are thousands of variant textual readings in the manuscripts. If you do enough counting of obscure words and letters, you can create a critical text which add up to the totals you want. It’s an easy conclusion: Bible Numerics is a conspiracy theory. This doesn’t mean Panin was an evil man or an unbeliever, just that God has not spoken through Bible Numerics. I haven’t run into Panin’s book in decades, so I thought his conspiracy theory was dead. But last week when I googled his book, I found a strong following, including endorsements from Christian television personalities who appear on late night religious cable networks.

A second conspiracy theory was developed in the early 1990s by Michael Drosnin called “The Bible Code.” Like Pavin, Drosnin counted the letters and created patterns. Unlike Pavin, Drosnin found coded messages hidden in the Scriptures. Most famous is his claim to have discovered a prediction of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1994.

The Bible Code has given rise to a whole genre of new writers who create coded messages, not only from the Bible, but from nearly any major piece of literature. For those who know how, there are enough lines in any large book to find a coded message. If you write your own rules, you can create a coded message from any text. No, God didn’t predict modern events through a Bible code. It’s just another conspiracy theory. The people who do it are smart, but Bible codes don’t prove anything. You can ignore Bible codes. Just read the plain text instead!

Conspiracy theories ignore the basic rules of Bible interpretation (hermeneutics). Telltale signs include an emphasis on secrets, hidden mysteries and codes. That’s not how God speaks in Scripture. Even apocalyptic literature like Daniel and Revelation are not secret, coded messages. Apocalyptic books use symbolism, but not a secret code.

That brings us to a third conspiracy theory: The Harbinger, by Jonathan Cahn. It was published in 2012 and immediately became a best seller. Key words “mystery” and “secret” are right on the cover of the book, along with an endorsement from a Christian television personality. The book is written as as fiction novel which interprets the terrorist attack of September 11 and events following as a warning from God to America. The conspiracy theory is based on a single key verse: Isaiah 9:10.

In open dialogues with critics, Cahn freely admits Isaiah 9:10 is about Israel, not America. But he claims it’s a “sign” to America. That’s where it becomes a conspiracy theory. The Harbinger reads as if Isaiah 9:10 was a prophesy directed to America, even though the author admits it’s not. That’s a head scratcher. It’s like admitting Adrian Peterson stepped out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage at the Vikings 1 yard line, but the subsequent 99 yard run was so amazing and statistically improbable that the touchdown counts anyway.  No, in football when a runner steps out of bounds, there is no touchdown. It doesn’t matter how amazing the run.

A Bible text always means what God intended for it to mean – nothing more and nothing less. If God meant Isaiah 9:10 to be a sign to America in the 21st century, then it must have been a sign to America in the 8th century B.C. But there is nothing in the text to suggest it’s about America and the terrorist attack on 9-11. The rules of Bible interpretation don’t let you add that meaning later. The Harbinger is nothing more than a conspiracy theory.

Let’s me pause for balance, here. A blog like this can too easily turn into a runaway train firing a loose cannon. (Or in this case, a loose canon.)

We might say, “Wait a minute! I know what the Bible teaches. The Harbinger actually has a good message: America needs to repent.” Yes, it does teach that. Yes, repentance is a good message for America. Jonathan Cahn is almost certainly a believer. He’s a good guy. I’m not disputing that. But The Harbinger abuses the Scriptures to present its message. The Bible is suffering at the hands of its friends.

Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” is another conspiracy theory. It also abuses the Bible, but in a different way. Brown’s book claims God has not spoken in Scripture when he has. Cahn’s book claims God has spoken when he has not. The Da Vinci Code destroyed the faith of many weak Christians. The Harbinger gives false hope to the faith of weak Christians. If we don’t recognize when the Bible is abused by its friends, we won’t recognize when the Bible is abused by its enemies.

Here’s where conspiracy theories take us: Once we stop handling the Scriptures correctly and fall victim to conspiracy theories, no Scriptural standards remain. Anything goes. There is no stopping it. Once you start counting touchdowns by breaking the rules of football, the rules no longer control the game. Anything goes. There is no stopping it.

If we accept conspiracy theories, we can no longer say the Bible means what God intended for it to mean and nothing else because we can make it mean anything we want. That’s why we must handle the Bible correctly and deconstruct conspiracy theories – whether they’re friendly or not. If God had intended Jonathan Cahn’s interpretation of Isaiah 9:10, anyone with a Bible could understand it just by reading the text and following standard interpretation.

But that’s impossible with The Harbinger. Isaiah 9:10 has probably been read over a billion times. Nobody interpreted it as a warning to America for a one very good reason – it’s not in the text. The only way you can connect Isaiah 9:10 to the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, and subsequent events is Jonathan Cahn’s conspiracy theory. God does not speak that way. Ironically, customers at the website where this book is sold have rated The Harbinger 4.7 out of 5. Purchasers have high praise for this book. WHY? Contemporary evangelical Christians don’t know how to interpret their Bible. We’ve strained out a gnat and swallowed a proverbial camel. That’s the power of a conspiracy theory. We love ‘em and they hook us!

I’m a pastor in a small, rural church. We’re not going to make a big splash in the world, even if a few people read this blog from far away. But if you live nearby and happen to visit our church, this is how I would encourage our people to respond to conspiracy theories:

1) Follow King Hezekiah’s example. When you are faced with an uncertain message which might be a conspiracy theory, turn to a recognized, authoritative source. For us, it’s Scripture. The Bible is our sole authority.

2) Handle the Scriptures correctly. Learn and follow the rules of good Bible interpretation. It really matters!

3) Be alert for warning signs like mysteries, secrets, and  coded messages. When God speaks, he speaks clearly. Plain verses help interpret obscure verses. Probable meanings are preferred over speculative meanings.

4) Turn off your TV. Conspiracy theories thrive with Christian television personalities. Those who promote them are not worth hearing. Use your remote well.

I hope New Life Church will be a congregation full of grace and truth.

Grace: No gossip or letter writing campaigns! We don’t need to go after conspiracy theorists or their followers. We’re not to be a church known for what we’re against! We’re to be a church known for being a friend of sinners. Broken people with a history of failure are welcome at New Life Church.

Truth: If you’re not reading the Bible for yourself, start now. Develop a pattern and a habit. Learn the methods of proper interpretation so you won’t be carried away by every wind of sensational doctrine. The secular world already knows conspiracy theories are false. It’s Christians who are buying the conspiracy books. It’s Christians who have the itching ears. If you want to read The Harbinger or another conspiracy theory, that’s fine. Just understand you’re reading a conspiracy theory.

It’s been fifty years since JFK died and conspiracy theories became popular. Maybe it’s time we learned something good from them.

Conspiracy Theories, pt. 2

Tomorrow will mark fifty years since the tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy, shot by a gunman in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. I can barely remember it. If you’re older than me, you probably recall exactly where you were on that fateful Friday afternoon. It was the defining moment of my generation, much as Sunday, December 7, 1941, changed my parent’s world and Tuesday, September 11, 2001, shaped my children’s lives.

The physical evidence and the testimony of those who were present that terrible day in Dallas point plainly to a sixth story window of the Texas Schoolbook Depository building as the source of all three shots. Not everything that happened that day is fully known, but what is known generally is not difficult to interpret: Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy with three shots. That was the conclusion of the Warren Commission. Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman who was responsible for the assassination. But many Americans rejected the official report and theorized a plot was behind the murder. After all, there remain several unanswered questions about that horrible, no good, very bad day for America: November 22, 1963.

Many conspiracy theories have been advanced over the years. Some of them are wildly speculative, creating a circus-like atmosphere. Those accused of killing Kennedy include Cuba’s dictator Fidel Castro, the Russians, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the mob, the secret service (both intentionally and accidentally), Vice President Lyndon Johnson, the driver of the limousine in the motorcade that day, and even Texas Governor John Connally, who himself was shot while seated in front of the president.

JFK conspiracy theories tend to exhibit several common characteristics: They mistrust the testimonies and motives of others, especially government officials. Some of them even claim the pictures which recorded the events that day have been doctored in a massive cover-up. They favor the testimony of a few, less-reliable witnesses over the testimony of the many, more-reliable witnesses. They favor a speculative interpretation of obscure evidence over a plain interpretation of clear evidence. They hypothesize on what is possible rather than build on what is probable. They are fanatical in their beliefs and may devote their whole lives trying to convince others of their theories. 

Credible or not, conspiracy theories saturate the internet and dominate the media. Their following is cult-like. Here’s the irony: Conspiracy theorists have been extremely effective in convincing people they’re right. One report estimates three quarters of Americans still believe President Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy. The facts no longer matter to many people. Those “under the influence” believe what they want to believe, regardless of evidence. Such responses are emotional, not rational. That’s the power of a conspiracy theory. It happened to Jerusalem in 701 B.C. It happened to America in 1963 A.D.

To clarify and set the record straight, I’m not interested in debating JFK assassination theories. It doesn’t matter what you believe about the assassination of President Kennedy. This is just an opportune moment to illustrate the destructive power of conspiracy theories.

The problem with conspiracy theories is they appear to be true. It appeared to the people of Jerusalem that God may have spoken to Sennacherib and sent him to attack the city (2 Kings 18:25). They needed to sort out the facts and find out whether God really had spoken. In facing the conspiracy theory of 701 B.C., Hezekiah did exactly the right thing. He sent a message to Isaiah, a proven and recognized true prophet of God, explaining the situation about Sennacherib. He asked Isaiah to pray for the remnant of the nation. Hezekiah probably was convinced they all were about to die.  But they were not about to die. Not only had God not spoken to Sennacherib, he was going to take him out.

Isaiah refuted Sennacherib’s bald lie with bold truth. He answered Sennacherib’s confusing message with clarity. The conspiracy theory—a secret, hidden mystery of God’s supposed word to Sennacherib—was exposed as false. If you keep reading in Isaiah 37, you’ll find that King Sennacherib tried to keep intimidating Hezekiah. But now Hezekiah had a clear word from a prophet to refute the obscure word from an enemy. God had not spoken to Sennacherib and Hezekiah knew it. He was equipped to respond to the empty threat of a conspiracy theory – with effectual prayer and a proclamation of faith.

I believe that’s how we should respond to an abuse of God’s word. We’re not to argue with people about it. If you’ve talked with someone who’s hooked on a conspiracy theory, you already know they’re not going to be argued out of it. When Paul instructed Timothy to correctly handle the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15), in the immediate context the great apostle instructed him to warn people against quarreling about words. It’s of no value. Instead, we are to be kind to all and gently instruct (2:24-25).

Bible conspiracy theories tend to exhibit several familiar characteristics: They mistrust the ministries and authority of others, especially pastors with large churches. So conspiracy theorists willfully bypass the leaders and speak directly to the people, much as Sennacherib bypassed Hezekiah’s authority and spoke directly to the common people. They favor interpretations of a few, less reliable scholars over the interpretations of many more qualified scholars. They favor a speculative interpretation of obscure passages over a plain interpretation of clear passages. They hypothesize on what is possible rather than build on what is probable. They are fanatical in their beliefs and may devote their whole lives trying to convince others of their theories. 

Spiritual conspiracy theories are all over the church. Many popular Christian personalities are twisting the Word of God, inventing hidden, secret codes in the Scriptures that aren’t really there at all. We shouldn’t be surprised at this. Paul said this would happen in 2 Timothy 4:3-4. Conspiracy theories don’t die. They keep coming back.

Tomorrow I will write about three conspiracy theories in the church today. Two of them are relatively old; one is very recent.

Conspiracy Theories, pt. 1

In two days our nation will mark the the fiftieth anniversary of the tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy, shot in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. It’s been all over the news this week. Maybe it has caught my attention because I used to live just a couple miles from Dealey Plaza. Or maybe it’s a fascination with conspiracy theories. I’m amazed at how many Americans believe a conspiracy was behind the assassination.

Conspiracy theories are not new. They even can be found in the Bible. One of them is in Isaiah 36-37. It took place in 701 B.C., which was a bad year for Hezekiah, King of Judah. Israel, the northern kingdom, had been destroyed eight years earlier by Shalmaneser, King of Assyria. Now Sennacherib, the new head of state in Assyria, had returned to the area and leveled the cities around Jerusalem. Hezekiah was intimidated. He sent a message to pacify the king of Assyria, who was camped at Lachish, about 30 miles away, ready to pounce again.

“I have done wrong,” Hezekiah said to Sennacherib. “Withdraw from me, and I will pay whatever you demand of me,” (2 Kings 18:14). It was a cowardly gesture of near capitulation. The Bible tells us the King of Assyria exacted from Hezekiah king of Judah about 11 tons of silver and one ton of gold. It came from the temple of the Lord and from the treasuries of the royal palace. In fact, Hezekiah stripped all the gold from the doors and doorposts of the temple and gave it to the king of Assyria (2 Kings 18:16).

That made Sennacherib happy for a little while. Then like a typical bully, the King of Assyria decided he wanted to squeeze even more out of Hezekiah. Sennacherib sent a high ranking delegation, along with a large army, from Lachish to Jerusalem to intimidate the Jews again. The Assyrian spokesman encountered King Hezekiah’s officials in a public site near the wall of the city and began to mock Hezekiah’s leadership team in the Hebrew language so the citizens who were nearby could listen to what they said.

The Assyrian commander urged the people of Judah not to listen to King Hezekiah and to make a bargain with Sennacherib instead. He promised them a new home in a new land with good food and drink. He threatened them with eating their own filth and drinking their own urine if they refused. He boasted about Assyria’s conquest of all the other nations around them, including their kinsmen in the northern kingdom of Israel and its capital Samaria, which had fallen to Assyria eight years earlier.

King Hezekiah had been assuring the people of Jerusalem that the city would not fall to Assyria and urging them to trust the Lord to carry them through this crisis. So it came as a shock and confusion to the people when they heard Sennacherib’s commander shout out this game-changing statement in their own Hebrew language:

“What’s more, do you think we have invaded your land without the LORD’s direction? The LORD himself told us, ‘Attack this land and destroy it!’ ” Isaiah 36:10

That’s the heart of the conspiracy – the Assyrians’ claim that God had sent them to destroy their city. Can you imagine the shock and confusion these words caused for Hezekiah and the people of Jerusalem?

“God told the Assyrians to attack us??? Is this true? We already know God sent the Assyrians to destroy Samaria and the northern kingdom Israel. And we know they have destroyed the other nations, just as  King Sennacherib claims. Maybe he really has heard a word from the Lord.”

No, Sennacherib hadn’t received a word from the Lord. It was merely a conspiracy theory he was playing against the Jews. Sennacherib’s claim was false. But he had presented a very convincing case to the people and created much confusion and distress. In fact, King Hezekiah and his officials all tore their clothes and put on sackcloth in their distress. They had no answers. For Hezekiah and the people of Jerusalem, this was a horrible, no good very bad day. At the heart of it was a message from someone claiming to have heard from God when they hadn’t really heard from God. That’s a conspiracy theory. Nobody had heard God speak to Sennacherib, of course. It was a hidden, secret, mysterious communication with the Almighty. Only it wasn’t real.

Hidden information, secrets, and cover-ups are all over JFK, too. In conspiracy theories, plain evidence is denied as wrong and error is presented as hidden truth. Clear meanings of words are twisted into mystery. Secrets and special knowledge are standard in conspiracy theories. Historically, this concept is called “Gnosticism.” The key to the power of conspiracy theories is inside information, facts not available to just anyone. In Gnosticism, meanings of events are hidden and can be unlocked only by those who have coded inside information. To understand conspiracy theories (Gnosticism), think: “hidden,” “mystery,” “secrets” and “codes.”

We who are listening for the voice of God need to recognize conspiracy theories when we see them. We also need to know how to respond. That’s where I want to go in the next few days as we mark fifty years of conspiracy theories about the tragic death of President Kennedy.