A few weeks back I wrote a post about Christians and conspiracy theories. The point of that article was that Christians should be the last people on earth getting sucked into—let alone divided by—conspiracy theories. As I make that statement, I am in no way suggesting that all conspiracy theories are false. Some of them may very well be true. My point is that they shouldn’t matter. As citizens of God’s kingdom, whether or not these alternative narratives are true or not should make no difference for our kingdom priorities, our unity as brothers and sisters, and our witness to the world.
Why is it, though, that so many Christians seem so intrigued by conspiracy theories? I does appear that, as Ed Stetzer has recently written, “Christians seem to be disproportionately fooled by conspiracy theories.”
I wonder if our fascination with Biblical prophecy has set us up for this. Since Hal Lindsay’s 1970 bestseller “The Late, Great Planet Earth,” many western Christians have accepted a view of Biblical prophecy which makes some pretty big connections between the pages of Scripture and the pages of the newspaper.
I’m sure you’ve heard many of these proposals: that the “ten kings” in Revelation 17:12 refers to a one-world government, or that the “mark of the beast” in Revelation 13:16-18 refers to an advanced technological system, like a chip embedded under our skin connected to a computer database.
If we accept these conclusions, a certain posture tends to follow. We’ll be decidedly against globalization. We’ll be wary of each new advance in payment technology. We’ll keep our eyes on world news, following any developments that could fit in with our prophetic scheme. (“Could this world leader be the antichrist?”) In short, we’ll be on the lookout for conspiracies.
Christians who adopt this posture are not deterred by failed predictions, of which there have been many. They adapt and adjust their predictions based on trends in news and current events, always convinced that the latest big story (in our days, COVID-19) is a key part in the end times.
Why do I believe that this approach—which I’ll refer to as “Newspaper Theology”—is fundamentally mistaken? It’s not because I don’t believe that Jesus is coming back, or that there won’t be signs of His return. Rather, it’s because I believe that Newspaper Theology significantly misunderstands biblical prophecy on several points.
For starters, it misunderstands the point of prophecy in general. It tends to treat the book of Revelation like a giant crossword puzzle for biblical prophecy experts to solve. But this is not accurate. The book of Revelation is a book written to ordinary Christians in ordinary churches in the first century (Revelation 1:10-11). It’s purpose was not to make us news junkies, but to encourage us to endure in the face of persecution (Revelation 2:7, 10, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; 13:10; 14:12), knowing that Christ is going to return and deliver His people. Revelation is a book that even children can understand (a belief I take seriously, having just finished reading it to my children for bed-time devotions. Chapter 5 was their favourite).
Newspaper Theology also often stands on shaky footing when it insists that certain portions of Revelation must be interpreted “literally.” For example, in chapter 13, everyone understands that the description of the two beasts is symbolic. There won’t be an actual, literal beast rising out of the sea—rather, that is language which symbolizes a man or a kingdom. And yet, when they get to verse 16 (which describes the “mark of the beast”), there is no symbolism permitted. They insist this must be an actual mark on people’s actual hands or foreheads.
Doesn’t this seem inconsistent? Shouldn’t the highly symbolic nature of Revelation (and much of Biblical prophecy) make us cautious about planting our flag and insisting that certain elements must be interpreted non-symbolically? (I recommend reading or listening to this interview with Bible scholar Thomas Schreiner for more perspective on how to interpret the symbolic language in Revelation.)
A further misunderstanding exists. Even if Revelation 13:16 is describing an actual, literal, physical mark on people’s hands or foreheads—which is certainly possible—Newspaper Theology fails to recognize that such a prophecy is not waiting on technology or political development to materialize. The Roman government in the first century could easily have decided to tattoo it’s citizens on their hands or forehead, and only allow those who had the tattoo to buy and sell. Similarly, if Revelation 17 does describe a one-world government, we’ve been terribly close to such a reality in the past. Just think again of the Roman Empire, or even the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. The United Nations or the European Union doesn’t hold a candle to the kind of global power that was wielded in the past by emperors and popes.
What I’m suggesting is that even if these prophecies in Revelation are describing actual, literal, physical realities, they could have come to pass at many points in the last 2,000 years. All those failed predictions theoretically could have been true.
Now please hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying we shouldn’t learn the lesson from the fig tree, as Jesus instructed us to do, and pay attention to the signs of the times (Matthew 24:32-33). I’m just pointing out what Jesus Himself also told a group of Christians in the first century: that He was coming soon (Revelation 22:20). He’s coming, and He’s not waiting on technology to finally develop to the point where the mark of the beast is possible. That’s always been possible. He’s not waiting on political machinations to make the one-world government finally possible. It’s always been possible.
If He’s waiting on anything, it’s for His people to finish their mission of bringing the gospel to every tribe, language, people and nation (Revelation 5:9, Matthew 24:14). And this brings us back to the point of Biblical prophecy: God did not give us these prophecies so that we could spend a lot of time talking—or worse, arguing—about them amongst ourselves. He told us these things to make us holy people who would talk to other people about the gospel. (See Matthew 25, where Jesus follows up His teaching on the end times with repeated lessons about living obedient and fruitful lives in anticipation of His return.)
And so I’d remind us again that in this season of COVID-19, we only do harm to the church and the name of Jesus when we get swept up in spreading conspiracy theories. Whether they are true or not, we have bigger, better, real-er things to be focusing on.
“Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:11–13).