In a 1952 essay on the return, or Second Coming, of Christ, C. S. Lewis wrote that our “ears should be closed to any future William Miller in advance. The folly of listening to him at all is almost equal to the folly of believing him.” It’s a warning not to fall prey to the heedless disregard some people have for Christ’s own words about his return. To typify this, Lewis looked back to William Miller, a nineteenth century American farmer who also served in the War of 1812. But Miller was also a religious enthusiast. During the 1830s, he preached and published pamphlets of lectures proclaiming the world would end in 1843, with the bodily return of Jesus Christ.
Miller justified his belief from Bible passages he had strung together and put his own spin on. He preached with such passion that many who at first just listened ended up believing that he had actually decoded from Scripture the unknown; that he actually knew. Tens of thousands of people, called the Millerites, amassed around his view, convinced that he knew. Of Miller’s folly, Lewis, relying on the words of Jesus – “of that day and hour knoweth no man” – writes that Miller “couldn’t know what he pretended, or thinks, he knows” (Lewis’s emphasis). But Lewis goes further. In the essay he shows the folly not only of claiming to know when “the world’s last night” (the title of the essay) would arrive but even of listening to the claim.
While reading the essay it hit me that we today would do well to listen to Lewis’s warning about listening. But not about dating systems for Christ’s return. Every generation of Christians since Miller’s has learned its lesson about that. Today we need to learn it about conspiracy theories. And if we say, “well, we don’t really believe them,” with how much honesty can we say that we aren’t listening?
I learned my lesson the hard way. In the late 1970s, a newish believer, I listened to Christians who spoke in hushed tones about secret organizations that had strange names such as the Illuminati, the Bilderbergs, and the Trilateral Commission. Most people don’t know anything about them, I was told, but they have a lot of money and power, and they control world leaders, and through the European Union they’re going to usher in the anti-Christ and set up a new world order. It’s all in the Bible, they said, the signs are everywhere if you look for them.
I came to regret my naivety, but what did I know? I was a young believer. Aren’t we supposed to listen to older believers? But I wasn’t going to take anyone’s word on conspiracy theories. Not even a Christian’s. The stakes were too high. During my years in the occult, before becoming a follower of Jesus, I listened to, and then believed in, and then taught what I later found out were the most unbiblical ideas and views. Christ had delivered me from those subtle yet powerful beliefs and I wasn’t going to let myself get fooled again. So after earnest prayer for guidance and my spiritual antenna tuned up, I plunged down the rabbit hole.
During that labyrinthine journey I saw how even well-meaning people might spin into dark webs of intrigue any number of conspiracy theories from twentieth century human history. But after awhile I also saw that all such listening-journeys were a waste of precious time. A distraction from following Jesus and listening to him.
Trying to pin down the truth about conspiracy theories is like trying to trap a wet watermelon seed between the tabletop and your fingertip: just when you think you have it, it darts of at the last second. Time and time again. That personal experience was supported by a sense of the occult that I discerned on occasion drifting around the dark corners and cul de sacs of conspiratorial thinking.
Besides, I thought, if I were a member of a cabal that really could take over the world but did not want the public to know what our plans were, the first thing we would do would be to concoct a conspiracy theory that had nothing whatsoever to do with our plans; but to a naive public it would seem credible enough to be listened to, if not also believed. Once we had devised that, we would then cleverly use our vast resources to start leaking it out to the public. Its purpose would be to create an on-going distraction in the minds of a gullible public from our real plans. Surely, I thought, any cabal with the money and influence to take over the world would certainly have brains enough to include that kind of misdirection in its plans.
I should add that my decision to have nothing whatsoever to do with conspiracy theories anymore was not an easy decision to make. For the pull into listening is fascinatingly hypnotic, the spell hard to break once you’re lured. But it was such a relief to break free. Knowing the trap even of listening, I refuse to waste time looking into even the popular whisperings available to our ears today. I have done a little look-see into recent offerings, but only briefly, to know what all the fuss is about.
The bottom line is that listening to conspiracies reveals a childish ignorance of God’s sovereign rule over history and opens the door for replacing the fear of the Lord with one of the worst kinds of fear: “the fear of man, which brings a snare” (Proverb 29:25). It ought to be second nature to Christians to know that time and time again the Bible records various interventions of God to stop the wayward plans of rulers and their nations while simultaneously admonishing God’s people to “fear not” the plotting of cabals but instead to “fear the Lord.”
Yet through belief in a conspiracy theory the people of God become ensnared by fear. That is partly the topic of Isaiah 8:10-17, where the prophet announces God’s rebuke to the people for their belief in a conspiracy:
“Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it. The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread” (v. 12).
The prophet brings lack of trust in God’s sovereignty and both kinds of fear into sharp focus during a time of international intrigue, secret alliances, and public confusion. The message is clear. A faith-based confession in God’s sovereign rule had been replaced by a fear-driven belief in the sovereignty of man. Like severe arthritis can cripple the use of one’s hand or knee, the fear of man had stopped the ability of God’s people to think rightly as God’s people.
Isaiah is in effect disclosing a tragic irony. Bad times are indeed looming for the people of God, but its source is not going to result from the conspiracy being fulfilled but from God’s judgment (vv. 14-15).
But there is another significant part to the text, one that is often missed: even a prophet of God can be about to step into the trap. Using his own words, not the Lord’s, Isaiah includes an explanatory note to his audience that God had warned him not to follow the way of the people. The prophet was in jeopardy of being caught in the same snare, of not thinking rightly.
“The Lord spoke to me with his strong hand upon me, warning me not to follow the way of this people…” (v. 11).
This personalized warning to the prophet needs to be heard and internalized by God’s people today. Pervasive fear in many Christian circles, particularly in American Evangelical communities, is greatly harming the church’s witness and damaging the nation. So it is encouraging to hear David French, for one, a notable writer in the conservative Christian world, speaking to this. As a pastor and friend of mine said, it’s admirable that one of the things to be admired about what French is doing is that he is writing not only as a member of conservative Christianity but as one who makes sense and appears to put Scripture above party platform.
French has been offering not only incisive analysis of why the fear is rampant but why it is rampant now, during a time in America when political and legal movements of the last forty years, at both federal and state levels, have favored conservative Christians, colleges, and businesses more the ever. And yet excessive fear reigns. Here is a recent piece of insightful analysis by French to get you going: “How American Christendom Weakens American Christianity.”
In his essay on the return of Christ, Lewis writes that believing in dating systems for the end of the world has “led Christians into very great follies… To write a history of all these exploded predictions would need a book, and a sad, sordid, tragi-comical book it would be.” We would do well to hear that today about our own folly.
We Christians have made ourselves into a sad, sordid, and tragi-comical lot in the eyes of the world, deservedly so. By listening to conspiracy theories, whispering to our friends about them, blurbing about them on social media, we are not thinking rightly. Enough is enough. “God has not given us the spirit of fear but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).
Best we repent and seek God for mercy and grace to close our ears to conspiracy thinking and to instead live in the fear of the Lord. And then, following Isaiah’s lead, let us publicly confess to our Christian friends and on social media how the Lord got our attention and warned us. Whether we are prophets or not. It would be a good start.
Charles Strohmer is a Christian minister and writer. He blogs at www.wagingwisdom.com
©2021 by Charles Strohmer
Images courtesy of Creative Commons.