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.