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.