It’s hardly surprising that conspiracies began circulating as soon as Jeffrey Epstein was found dead of apparent suicide in a Manhattan prison one morning in August. Epstein, the wealthy and well-connected financier charged with multiple counts of sex trafficking, probably had dirt on the Clintons, the thinking went. They probably had something to do with his death.
The story swirled on Twitter with an assist from President Donald Trump, who himself retweeted it. That it was one of the easier false claims of today to debunk made no difference. “Conspiracy theories aren’t fueled by facts,” Washington Post reporter Abby Ohlheiser wrote at the time. “They are fueled by attention.”
Seeing the world through the lens of a conspiracy fosters a sense of empowerment that can be intoxicating. It is not difficult to understand the emotional power of believing that we’ve cracked a secret society, that we see the “deep state” for what it is, controlling our government and all. It’s why I can understand how, as polls suggest, most Russian citizens don’t believe America ever went to the moon. I can even make sense of that old-turned-new plot that has caused some Americans to question the roundness of the earth. The ideas have a veneer of “reasonableness.”
Conspiracy theories have probably been around as long as humans have been reasoning. But they are seemingly spreading faster as postmodernism has lapsed into what some philosophers now call “supermodernism.” Supermodernism is a result of information inundation. It’s signaled by folks who give up on questions about what is true and who has the right to tell the correct master narrative. Because of the proliferation of data and sources, supermoderns only worry about who they can trust to guide them through the daily morass of information.
Conspiracy thinking injects itself at this exact point. Who will guide me? The conspiracist’s answer: I will! I, the one who knows, will peel back the corner of this deep-state or deep-science tarp and reveal to you all its secret inner-workings. You are not one of the sheeple. You are an independent thinker who can see it for yourself. That’s the tawdry promise of conspiracy.
Even Jesus had to deal with conspiracy theories. He repeatedly warned his followers that folks will come and solicit the church with conspiracies of his return (Luke 17:22–23). Hucksters will think that they have figured it all out. “Look here! Look there!” they will say. Fabulists will claim to be able to peel back the tarp of history to proclaim Jesus’ return. Jesus flatly instructed his disciples: “Do not listen to them!”
The early church suffered under conspiracy theories concerning the nature of their secret worship meetings. In a hostile Roman empire, those theories often led to the persecution and murder of Christians. And conspiracies still fuel violence against Christians today in charged environments such as India, as well as violence against other religious groups, such as social media-fueled attacks on Muslims in Sri Lanka.
The Thought World of Scripture
The biblical authors argue that there are better and worse ways of knowing, and they warn against recalcitrant beliefs that can’t be changed by evidence. The Scriptures portray a God who reasons with his people and people who must be reasoned with. By understanding and living within the rigorous thought world of Scripture, we should be naturally inoculated against naïve consumption of conspiracy theories.
By the same token, as biblical illiteracy spreads, we should expect to see more confusion about the meaning of the Christian life. Though Americans report positive benefits from reading Scripture, the title of a 2017 LifeWay survey article says it all: “Americans Are Fond of the Bible, Don’t Actually Read It.” What’s more, fewer than a quarter of Americans are engaging Scripture vigorously enough to grasp its deep-structured thinking, according to a recent study by the American Bible Society. With the loss of biblical engagement comes the thinning of biblical literacy.
The confusions that follow such losses will include the usual suspects: Christians launching off on unconfirmed callings to ministry, the inability to distinguish cultural cues from biblical principles, and even propagating conspiracies in the name of the Christian duty to seek truth. It might also include unusual suspects. Brent Strawn’s masterful book The Old Testament Is Dying chronicles this illiteracy from 19th-century Europe to now with sobering lines like this one: “The Nazis were able to enjoy success among German Christian groups in part because of widespread biblical—and here one should be specific: Old Testament—illiteracy.”
When challenged about promoting conspiracies, many modern Christians might respond, “But where in the Bible does it say not to believe in conspiracies?”
To answer that question, we must seek to understand the “intellectual world” of the Bible. This world goes beyond the literal words of biblical authors to include the consistent and coherent ideas that undergird all of their thinking. It is what God, through his prophets, is trying to show us, not just tell us. This intellectual world, for example, connects the care for the vulnerable with the teaching about “eye-for-an-eye,” making that principle of justice resistant to being reduced to mere retributive justice.
The intellectual world of the Bible is found by literacy that pushes beyond the words and stories to the thought patterns of Scripture. It’s a literacy that, in time, can confidently assess: Here’s what I think biblical authors would say about transhumanism, the viability of democracy, legalizing drugs, and more. I often can predict what my wife will think about something, but not because I memorized a bunch of her sayings. My knowledge of her thought world comes through embodying life with her and navigating all the complex and conflicted situations we’ve made for ourselves. So too, the prophets invite us in to live and learn.
The Bible’s Conspiracies
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, many of his contemporaries wrongly thought they had pieced together why he came and what he was about to do. His disciples had their own skewed theories, even after his death and resurrection (Acts 1:6). They seemed to think that all the pieces added up to a not-so-well-hidden agenda to restore the kingdom to Israel.
Jesus’ reply is chilling: “It is not for you to know” (Acts 1:7). Jesus didn’t give them the correct conspiracy; rather, he chided them about what they can and cannot know. Those constraints should be instructive for how we think in general, but specifically for how we think about the proliferating conspiracies that we encounter. This is what it means to enter the intellectual world of the Bible.
Prior to his death, Jesus sternly warned his disciples against buying into the various conspiracy theories that would come. “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars,” he said. But his counsel is revealing: “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name ... and they will lead many astray” (Matt. 24:4–6, ESV).
In fact, Jesus tapped deep into the biblical instruction on how to think about such ideas. God makes clear that we do not get to domesticate our understanding of the world, wrangling it into the kinds of ideas we think work best. Rather, we are responsible for what God shows us. “The hidden things belong to Yahweh our God, but the revealed things to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this instruction” (Deut. 29:29, author’s translation).
The writer of Ecclesiastes goes even further. He is a man with the time, the means, the intellect, and the zeal to figure out the entire system running the universe—to get behind the curtain, so to speak. Yet he lands on a satisfied restraint about what is even possible to understand: “Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out” (8:17, ESV all). He bears a happy reticence to claim that he can see behind the conspiracy: “You do not know the work of God” he says in verse 11:5, and adds later: “Beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (12:12).
Scripture itself guides us in how to read it. By reducing the Bible to moralistic oracles or rules to be kept, we fail to be shaped intellectually or spiritually. Conspiracies are products of theological habits, for good or ill. They are attempts to see from God’s perspective or to “think the truths of God after him,” as theologian Louis Berkhof once put it. God occasionally invites us to see things from his perspective, but most often the prophets—including Jesus—implore us to see what God is trying to show us.
Seeing is Believing
Despite the opening line of Hebrews 11 and its commonly interpreted appeal to have “conviction of things not seen” (a better translation might be “the testing of the not-seen things”), biblical authors rather seem to understand that beliefs must withstand challenges by evidence. It’s the undramatic backbone of what they call “trust” (often translated as “faith,” which has a decidedly different meaning in modern English).
Recall that God regularly provides evidence when people ask him to be convinced. When Abram asked, “How am I to know,” God responded with a covenant and the words “knowingly you shall know” (Gen. 15:8,13, author’s translation). When Moses challenged God with Moses’ certainty that the Hebrews wouldn’t listen to his voice, God responded with signs and wonders that convinced Moses, then Aaron, then the elders, then Israel, and then many of the Egyptians (Ex. 4:1–9, 28–31; 9:20).
The same goes for Israel in Egypt (Ex. 14:30-31), the children of Israel who would conquer Canaan (Josh. 1–4), the judge Gideon (Judges 6:11–40), the people of Israel regarding the prophet Samuel (1 Sam. 3:19–21), second-temple Israel in a Roman Galilee (Matt. 4:23), Jews in the Diaspora (Acts 17:1–15), and Gentiles in the Roman empire (Acts 16).
Across Scripture, God rarely, if ever, pulls back the curtain to reveal the whole conspired circumstance of a present reality. Rather, God offers evidence to convince people that he and his prophets are both trustworthy and good. Only then does he ask those same folks to trust him in order to become the kind of people he will use to bless all the families of the earth. In short, God asks for a future-focused “faith” rooted in the empirical proof of what he has already done.
Today, the best conversations about how to know something accurately usually happen in the sciences or other areas of high-skill learning. But Scripture talks a lot about how we were designed to know our world—from the knowledge in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2–3) to understanding the mysteries of the kingdom of God (Mark 4:11).
The biblical authors soaked their accounts with method and portraits of errors, all concerned with how we can know, how trust is earned, and warnings about naively thinking we’ve figured out what’s going on behind the curtain. Failing to understand the Bible’s conceptual spheres, even for Jesus’ disciples, has always led to thin or naïve understanding of our own world today.
Christians have the opportunity to reinvest in the intellectual life of the church by asking, in community with other believers, Who has been leading us to understand the nature of reality? How am I sinfully tempted towards certain explanations? And most key, Have my beliefs become resistant to evidence or reasoning? If God is willing to use evidence in order to establish his own credibility and reason with his people, then we should at least be willing to consider it.
The Right Conspiracies
The Bible’s authors weren’t naïve—they knew that some conspiracies, of course, turn out to be true. But Scripture demonstrates a notable interest in guiding how we’re to arrive at the truth.
What did God do when he heard of a citywide conspiracy to exploit and assault foreigners? He went and investigated. When God heard a report of injustice, he is depicted as sending messengers (angels) to determine whether it was true (Gen. 18:21).
To be clear, we don’t need to make guesses about whether God needs to “see for himself” in order to know. Rather, the biblical authors were comfortable portraying God as investigating the matter in person as a good way to pursue justice.
God expected the same of Israel. His instructions to Israel required that they confirm reports of law-breaking. If idolatry is reported in an Israelite village, Deuteronomy demands, “You must inquire, probe and investigate it thoroughly. And if it is true and it has been proved . . .” (13:14, NIV).
In fact, there’s one area in particular where the Bible pushes us to investigate cover-ups and conspiracies: wherever there are injustices against vulnerable populations. Many ordinary conspiracies of this variety lurk in the tucked-away corners of our communities, in the form of exploited children, trafficked men and women, harassed minorities and immigrants, and overlooked elders. The abuse of power against our modern-day “widows, orphans, and strangers” does not distinguish by country or socioeconomic status.
As we investigate pernicious conspiracies such as these, God will use us to help others see his kingdom. Therein lies the good conspiracy that we are to spread: The kingdom has come and is still coming in the ordinary lives of overlooked people in our communities. But that also means there are other conspiracies—lesser ones—that will compete and distract us from where God is trying to focus our efforts.
If we’re busy carrying out the mission of the coming kingdom, we won’t have much time or energy for tawdry conspiracy theories—and pretending we can peel back the curtains of history and discern the exact signs of the king’s coming will seems frivolous at best. The mother and father of Proverbs 1–9 don’t coach their children to discern the conspiratorial signs of the times.
Rather, they plead, Listen my child, incline your ear.
Dru Johnson is the director of the Center for Hebraic Thought and teaches biblical studies and theology at The King’s College in New York City. His recent books include Human Rites: The Power of Rituals, Habits, and Sacraments (Eerdmans) and Scripture’s Knowing (Cascade).
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.