Plandemic? QAnon? Bill Gates creating COVID-19?

As the novel coronavirus has traveled around the world, so too have conspiracy theories about the origins of the disease and the winners and losers that have emerged as result. In the past month, a video making claims that Gates and Anthony Fauci, who leads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, used COVID-19 to gain money and political power, went viral. At the same time as Plandemic , The Atlantic launched a new series examining conspiracy theories, including an in-depth look at the QAnon, a movement that makes bold claims about the global elite.

The Bible has many things to say about conspiracy theories, specifically with regards for how Christians should determine what is real, says Dru Johnson, the director of the Center for Hebraic Thought and who wrote about conspiracy theories for CT in December.

“The biblical diagnosis, the biblical impulse here, is not that you have to be afraid of someone lying to you. It's that somebody will always be interpreting your world for you,” said Johnson. “And you have to lean into the wise practices that God has given us as people to discern what is worth listening to and what's not.”

“People say that God sent COVID-19 to bring the church in America together to teach us the lesson. How could we know such a thing?” said Johnson, who also teaches biblical studies and theology at The King’s College in New York City. “But I certainly do believe that God is using this as a test of us. A test of who we trust and how we think about what's worth trusting and understanding.”

Johnson joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to share about how the Bible discusses conspiracy theories, what Paul means when he writes about the mysteries of God, and what differentiates a conspiracy theory from a religion.

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Quick to Listen is produced by Morgan Lee and Matt Linder

The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola

Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #213

How would you define a conspiracy theory? Is it just the belief that two people agreed to do something in secret or is there more to it?

Dru Johnson: Anything you come up with for a definition of a conspiracy theory will also be true of something like Watergate that turned out to be true. But some elements help you spot out when a conspiracy theory turns wrong.

A conspiracy theory is generally just a grand explanation that is essentially trying to identify various pieces that don't look like they fit together, but they do. And this is all done to explain some phenomena that we're experiencing. When it goes wrong is when it typically focuses on malicious planning by secretive structures that nobody can see except us.

I think the trouble with conspiracy theories is that they often become indefeasible beliefs, beliefs that just can't be shown to be wrong at all. You run into people where you realize, “Oh wait, you believe something that you've painted yourself into a corner where you can't ever be wrong about this?” And I think that flags something about the appeal of the conspiracy theory.

I think also I would highlight that when they go wrong, there's generally a lack of humility. So the questions that aren't being asked are: How can I confidently assess this theory that I'm believing in? How could I be wrong about this? And how would I know that I was wrong if I were?

And then the big one: Does it matter if I know this? With many conspiracy theories, in the end, I’m like, okay, maybe it's true, maybe it's not. For most of these, it doesn't even matter if the conspiracy is true or not, it won't really change anything.

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I think another question that's not asked—that I think is maybe one of the most important from the Biblical perspective and just from the pastoral perspective—is: Could I be participating in misleading others?

What drives me personally crazy about conspiracy theories is that people tend to have theories that require the government to be one-minded, singularly-minded, and perfectly efficient. And anybody who's been in the military or worked with CIA, DEA, U.S. Customs, etc., we always used to consider it a minor miracle when a plane would land and not fall apart. So many things had to go right for any particular thing to happen. And so it just seems silly as someone who has personal experience in some of these things for people to believe there's this grandiose, singular force that's pulling all these levers of power to make things happen.

So, Christianity has this very ancient text it makes that makes lots of meta claims about reality. There are hundreds of examples of prophecy, which of course Christians believe have actually been fulfilled. How do you make sense of what is religion and what is the conspiracy theory?

Dru Johnson: I would punt a little bit on the religion question, but let me deal with the first part first. We say prophecies have been fulfilled, but I'll just point out that within scripture that is not obvious to any of the New Testament authors. It becomes obvious decades later as the apostles are figuring out what has happened.

But even within the gospels—and I’ll point to Luke 24 as the key text here for thinking about this—people who followed Jesus for years and were committed to his whole roadshow, walked away dispirited because only women had claimed that he was resurrected. They didn't realize that Jesus pops alongside these disciples. And Jesus explains from the prophets and the Torah that all of these things had to come to pass, but they still didn't understand him or know what was going on. And it wasn't until he broke bread and “their eyes were opened, and they knew him.”

So we kind of think of it as hundreds of prophecies were fulfilled, but it just wasn't portrayed that way in scripture. When Jesus talks about these things, he says that he's come to fulfill these things, but he also uses Deuteronomy 29’s language of “hidden and revealed,” which is this idea that what is hidden belongs to God and what is revealed belongs to us to keep and to do. And so there's this division of labor when it comes to understanding what's going on in the empire of God through Israel, and then now through Jesus and his followers.

So I think there's this God-given discernment that looks back at prophecies and says, “Oh, it was a divine conspiracy,” that there was this grand scheme to pull all of this stuff together, but even then, God had to help people to understand.

This, again, signals there is a humility in knowing, and there's not this power grab for knowledge. There's a kind of a soft Gnosticism that goes on with conspiracy theories, where we just want to know because we think knowledge is power in and of itself. But scripture would say doing what God has commanded is actually the power part.

Do you see an intersection or a relationship between that Gnostic desire for secret knowledge and our desire to read and understand the interconnectedness of scripture? Or do we need to just trust God, know that he still has hidden things and our job is just to read and obey?

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Dru Johnson: That's the million-dollar question, and I have a very simple answer to this question.

In Scripture, as in science and everywhere else, it values that “knowing” is embodied and fully actuated through embodied actions. So if you think about learning math or learning how to read x-rays or any kind of technical skill, it's always embodied. It always involves time, history, coaching, an authority who can help you understand what's going on, etc.

What does Gnosticism do? It says, “You're going to get access to this secret knowledge and that's going to open up salvation, rescue, or another world for you.” For me, the message from scripture from beginning to end is that the world around you is real and has the right to teach you and you submit to it. And we have people who understand better than other people, and they have the right to coach you. It's through these interactions that we come to understand things. That’s scripture’s answer to all of this.

A lot of people on social media have been jumping on me, asking, “Well don't scientists also just have theories about how things fit together? Why is that not a conspiracy theory?” Well, they constantly check what they think against reality. And reality can kick back and show them they’re wrong. And then the scientist will try something else. Again, they’re being humble.

And so I think that's the main distinction that Biblical authors are going to want to make. Real understanding comes about in time, in history, in your individual and social body. And that’s uncontestable amongst the sciences and math and physics and everything else too. And if that's the case, then anything that wants to sell you a program where you understand without actually going into the real world and testing it out, and talking to people who are better knowers of this than you, that's going to be problematic on every front.

Conspiracy theories are one such version of that problem.

In your piece for CT, you discussed how Jesus dealt with conspiracy theories­—although not called that—during his time. How are they referenced by Jesus and how did he address them?

Dru Johnson: It's important to point out that just because something is not called a conspiracy theory doesn't mean that it's not addressed by scripture. Understanding things well and avoiding error is emphasized throughout scripture.

So when you come to conspiracy theories, and you have someone touting that they understand something, that they know something, and there are no controls or cross-checks, or there are really weak systems there, that instantly tips me off that they are way outside of where scripture advocates.

And you better make sure that you're listening to the right voice. This is the other thing that I think comes across in scripture. Whose voice you listen to determines what kind of embodied actions you're going to take, which determines what kind of things you're going to understand. Listening to the wrong voice is the problem in the Garden. That's actually the only problem that's identified by God in that scenario. And then as you follow out the rest of the story of Israel into the New Testament, whose voice was listened to and obeyed determined how well or poorly things went.

So when I think about what scripture is doing, it's putting this heavy emphasis on listening to the authenticated, authoritative voice of the prophets who God promises to send and cross-checking the prophets against what God has said. Once you understand how scripture thinks about thinking, or thinks about discovery and examining, we can drag conspiracy theories into our corner and ask, what would it do with these kinds of things?

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I would also like to point out that the prophets, including Jesus and the apostles, do talk about a conspiracy you can rely on. And that's basically that whenever you have power structures and sin—which is the only thing I've known in my world—you will have people who will use their power to exploit the vulnerable and the weak. And so you need to stop doing that if it's you, and if not, you need to cease and desist within your communities.

And so there is like active work on a real conspiracy, that is commanded by all the prophets by the Torah and reignited by Jesus himself, that Christians are happy to just blow past and ignore. And instead, they pick up “the earth is flat” stuff and hold that like a shiny object in their hand.

Knowing that wickedness loves the darkness, and there are larger powers at play manipulating us into action and inaction, where does that leave us if we are to fight for justice? How do we differentiate between conspiracies that can have real impact versus the ones that don’t really matter and don’t impact actual lives?

Dru Johnson: Can I clarify something with the wickedness and “father of lies” kind of stuff? When we go to Genesis 3, I ask my students to read closely what the serpent says. I ask, “How many of the things he said is a lie?” And then we walked through, and I show them how the narrator of Genesis very carefully reveals that all three things the serpent said were actually true. They do not die that day, they do become like God and know good and evil, and their eyes were open. So the issue wasn't whether the serpent is a liar

When God comes into the Garden, He calls for the man, and when He finds the man hiding, the first question out of God's mouth is, “Who told you?” He doesn't say, “How did you figure it out?” He assumes there had to have been another authoritative voice in the mix who was being heeded. And then that's His only indictment. He says it’s “because you listened to the voice” that this went wrong. That’s the only indictment of God in the Garden of Eden. That's the only time he says what went wrong.

There's this kind of noble conspiracy mind that's like, “I don't want little children to be abused by people systemically by dark powers.” And that's a very Biblical impulse and just a human impulse. But I think the larger impulse that is at play is not that one. I may be completely wrong, but I sense the impulse is, “I don't want to get fooled. I don't want to get cheated. I don't want to get scammed.” And so there's this real sensitivity to being one of the “sheeple.”

I think there's something right about that, but it becomes a soft form of Gnosticism. It almost makes knowing into the whole battle. That if we just know these things, then we're good to go. If we're “woke” in certain ways, then we're impervious to the ups and downs and the clutter of data.

The biblical diagnosis, the biblical impulse here, is not that you have to be afraid of someone lying to you. It's that somebody will always be interpreting your world for you. And you have to lean into the wise practices that God has given us as people to discern what is worth listening to and what's not.

And he's constantly going to test us on these. So people say that God sent COVID-19 to bring the Church in America together to teach us the lesson. How could we know such a thing? But I certainly do believe that God is using this as a test of us. A test of who we trust and how we think about what's worth trusting and understanding. And social media is a distorted lens, but through that distorted lens, it looks like we're failing spectacularly on this front as Christians.

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For listeners who might not believe or adhere to conspiracy theories, what type of feedback or lesson might they learn from seeing so many people swept up in them? Is there larger societal feedback that you might encourage us to incorporate into our thinking?

Dru Johnson: If you believe scripture is true and guiding and prescriptive in any way, I think all the biblical authors are telling a story in which this is not a way that we should be thinking about our world.

There is no such thing as a neutral conspiracy theory. Everything we do always plays out and affects the most vulnerable the hardest. And so while you may be able to toy around with the conspiracy, you might not know that the person next to you is getting ready to go into a bout of bipolar and is going to pick up everything you just said and use it to have a psychic breakdown or something. So there just has to be this concern for those around us.

If there's a lie from Satan, it's that conspiracy theories are neutral and they're fine, or that you're better off leaning into them and believing them then you are walking away from them