On Internet Conspiracies and Doomsday Prophets

THE END IS NEAR - pennlive.com

Last summer, a couple of friends sent me a video made by a pastor in another state. In this viral video, recorded on a smartphone, he talked about a dream he had recently had, in which the nation was in turmoil. He wasn’t specific about details, but made it sound like he was expecting a total breakdown in our society: Unchecked violence, limited resources. He said that he had previously had a dream about the pandemic in 2019, months before any of us had heard about COVID 19. This made him believe that perhaps God was using him to warn us of the coming devastation in our country. According to his dream, all of this was going to happen in November of 2020. He urged us all to make sure we had provisions, weapons, and an escape plan.

Yesterday, another friend sent me another video, made by a completely different pastor, two days ago. This pastor, unlike the previous one, didn’t claim that God had spoken to him through any supernatural means. Instead, he said that he had contacts in the military who had insider knowledge of government workings. These contacts were telling him beyond a doubt that martial law in this country is “imminent.” There would be a complete government takeover of our nation’s transportation, businesses, and communications network that would last for about a month. He didn’t say when this would begin, only that we needed to be ready. By “ready,” he meant we needed to have enough food for at least two weeks, enough medications to last a month, and to make sure our cars were full of fuel.

What are we to make of these things? Although the first preacher’s predictions were clearly wrong, what if this second guy is right? Should we be stocking up for a government siege? Keep in mind, there have always been people eager to shout their predictions of upcoming woes. Some have been preachers; Baptist clergyman William Miller published tracts that predicted the exact date the world would end…in October 1843. When that didn’t happen, he revised his doomsday date to October, 1844. Followers gathered on hilltops and in church buildings, waiting to hear the Lord’s trumpet. When it didn’t happen, many abandoned Christianity entirely. Others continued to follow the teachings of Miller and his successors, despite The Great Disappointment of 1844. In addition to would-be prophets, there have always been conspiracy theories. Remember the theory that spread throughout Israel after Jesus rose from the dead? They said the body had been stolen by His disciples, and the soldiers had been paid to keep quiet. Conspiracy theories are attractive to us because the sense of “insider knowledge” makes us feel better about ourselves. We feel smarter than those other people, those naïve “sheep” who buy into the party line. But there is another, deeper reason: It helps us make sense of an uncertain world. For people who didn’t want to believe the man who they crucified was actually Lord of all, it was comforting to think that there was another explanation, one involving dark, sinister forces and secret corruption. It’s the same reason some still believe that the 9-11 attacks were orchestrated by the Bush administration; it’s more comforting than accepting the reality that there are evil forces in the world capable of creating mayhem in our nation. It has the added benefit of pointing a finger of accusation at “the other side.”

Today, would-be-prophets and conspiracy theories flourish like never before, thanks to the internet. If the preacher I mentioned in the first paragraph would have had his dream thirty years ago, he would have shared it with his church, and that would have been the extent of it. But thanks to smartphones and social media, thousands of people heard his prediction. Online conspiracy chatter is far from harmless; in December of 2016, a devout Christian and father of two entered a Washington DC pizzeria armed with an AR-15. Edgar Welch believed the restaurant was a haven for child sex slaves being held by operatives from the Democratic party. He fired his weapon three times. Thankfully, no one was injured, but Welch received a four-year jail sentence. The lore behind “Pizzagate,” as it came to be known, eventually became part of the larger Q-anon conspiracy theory. This theory, spread online by an anonymous source who claims to have inside government knowledge, is followed by millions of Americans. Lately, “Q” has co-opted language from prophetic passages in the Bible, hoping to draw more evangelical followers.

Some of you may be thinking, “Okay, but what’s the big deal? What’s wrong with sharing these kinds of articles and videos on social media? After all, what if one turns out to be true?” I’ve had friends say to me, “I’m not trying to tell anyone what to think. I’m just passing along information, and letting people make up their own minds.” What you don’t seem to realize is that when we share things on the internet, our endorsement of them is implied. People who see that we posted an article speculating that Senator X is actually a Russian asset assume that is what we actually believe. We all know this, by the way. Otherwise, we would post conspiracy theories and wild accusations against even the politicians and causes we agree with, and “let people make up their own minds.” But we don’t. We don’t want to take the chance that anyone who reads it would think we agree.

This is important because we represent Christ. People look to us to judge what Jesus is all about. Sadly, thanks to our behavior on social media, some in our culture assume that Jesus is about paranoia and hysteria. We’re known as the fools who rush to HEB and buy up all the toilet paper and bottled water because we believe The End is Near. Or worse, we’re the ones who inspire mentally unstable people like Edgar Welch to acts of violence. Yet there’s an even greater danger…yes, greater even than random, senseless acts of violence. Our calling as Jesus-followers is to spread a message known as the Gospel, a word that literally means Good News. Throughout history, this message has been one that is so countercultural, people have a difficult time embracing it at first. “How could it be that a God I don’t even believe in loves me enough to die for me? How could embracing and following a crucified carpenter who lived 2000 years ago be the actual answer to the deepest longings of my soul?” Anyone who is paying attention would agree that it’s never been harder to convince Americans of the truth of that message than it is today. We have to work hard to establish credibility in the eyes of unbelievers, or they will never give the Gospel a chance. However, if our social media feeds feature wild conspiracy theories and hysterical rants along with Scripture passages, why should any unbeliever listen to us?

(By the way, the friends who sent me the videos I mentioned in the first two paragraphs did not post them to their social media feeds. They sent them, asking what I thought. That’s a completely different matter. That’s the Body of Christ coming together to seek discernment, which is a very biblical thing.)

Back to my original question: What do we do with scary viral videos like the ones I mentioned in the first two paragraphs? I would advise you to do three things:

First, Consider the source. I didn’t know either of the preachers in the videos. I had never heard of them. In other words, I had no way of knowing the character of either man. I am not in the habit of criticizing fellow preachers, by the way. I like to give them the benefit of the doubt. And in both cases, they seemed sincere. What they were saying wasn’t hateful in any way. If I had to guess, they really believed that what they were saying was true. But I don’t know that. Perhaps they were simply hoping to gain a bigger following. If so, it certainly worked…at least for a time. My point is, if you don’t know the heart of a preacher who is sending out a dire warning, why believe him? Especially when you consider the hundreds of William Millers, preachers who became famous by predicting doom, only to end up wrong.

By the way, it’s very popular today to bash the Mainstream Media. I do it myself, for their tendency to focus on the worst in the world, their rush to judgment in order to be the first to issue “Breaking News,” and for essentially flooding our lives with negativity. But at least professional journalists have a reason to be as accurate as possible. They get stories wrong, of course, and they sometimes let their biases creep into their reporting. But professional journalists know that being caught in an outright lie would end their career. See Brian Williams. See Dan Rather. But your anonymous internet conspiracy monger, your so-called “expert,” or your preacher who has a “revelation,” they have nothing to lose. When they are wrong, they face no consequences at all. And they never apologize. In fact, they find ways to show that, actually, they were right…just not in the way we first interpreted their “predictions.” People go on believing them, in spite of everything, because to admit they were wrong would be to admit we’re wrong. Our pride won’t allow it. Christians, pray for discernment. Be careful who you choose to believe. Just because someone is a pastor, or uses biblical language, or says something that agrees with your own thinking, it doesn’t mean their message is true. And if you don’t KNOW that it’s true, don’t share it with others.

Second, Know the Word. In both of the videos my friends sent me, the advice was the same: Take care of yourself. Get ready for hard times by buying lots of supplies and stocking up on weapons. That’s a huge contrast to what we see in the prophets of Scripture. When they predicted hard times for God’s people, their message was always the same: Repent. They weren’t blaming the pagans for their problems. They were saying, “We as God’s people have wandered away from Him. As a result, we’re going to experience the consequences of life outside of God’s protection and guidance. He’s giving us a chance to get right with Him. Don’t waste it.” Sometimes the people listened, often they did not. IF you hear one of these videos and believe that it’s God’s warning of difficult times, don’t rush to the grocery store. Get down on your knees and allow God’s Spirit to show you how we have failed to represent Him well. Pray for a revival of the love of Christ in our churches.

When we move on to the New Testament, we see another biblical way to confront hard times: By thinking of others first. The Gospel spread throughout the Roman Empire against all odds, because those early Christians lived like no one else. They were mostly poor, yet they shared their goods with one another, so that no one went without. They even took care of the pagan poor. When epidemics raged, they stayed in the plague-ridden cities, taking care of the sick. Why should they be afraid of death, after all? What they looked forward to was better than anything this world offered. Why hoard wealth down here, when there was treasure waiting for them in the next life? Again, that’s a long way from what I hear in these internet prophets. I can’t imagine Jesus or any of the apostles saying, “Trouble is coming. Better head to the grocery store!” Instead, they would say, “Now is the time to love your neighbors like never before. They will be seeking for hope, and we have it!” Let me put it to you this way: If the preacher in that second video is right (which I highly doubt), and martial law in our country really is imminent, we’d better respond by loving our neighbor even more fervently than we did before, not by locking ourselves in our homes, safe with our supplies and stockpiles of ammo.

Third, Trust the Lord. As I said earlier, these sorts of articles and videos are so appealing because they help us make sense of a chaotic world. We feel like we know why things went so wrong, what’s going to happen next, and what needs to occur to fix things. Yet as Christians, we already have that information. We don’t need some viral video or written rant to make things plain. The message of Scripture tells us what went wrong: Humanity has rebelled against God. Not “them,” but “us.” All we like sheep have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way. (Isaiah 53:6) We know what needs to occur to fix things: Reconciliation with God. Jesus took care of that Himself, as that Isaiah passage predicted: But the Lord has laid upon Him the iniquity of us all. Or as Colossians 1:20 puts it, through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. We don’t know what will happen next, and that’s where faith comes in. We trust that a God who loved us enough to die for us will do what is best. Like kids in the back seat of a car on a long trip, we know that since our Father is at the wheel, the final destination is secure. Even if the trip takes longer than we thought, and there are some unforeseen troubles along the way (and there will be), we know He had a reason for taking us in that direction, and we can trust Him to get us home.

So let’s enjoy the journey, instead of demanding to know the exact road map. Let’s represent Him well, not latch on to the latest social media message that gets our blood up. Let’s love our neighbors, not blame them for our problems. Let’s trust that the Gospel has the answers the world is looking for, not internet scare-mongers. Pray for discernment, my friends…and put it to good use!

2 thoughts on “On Internet Conspiracies and Doomsday Prophets

  1. Thank you, Jeff, for helping me put things in proper perspective. As an aside — Why is it that if someone prefaces a statement with something like “this came from a preacher in East Texas”, that I’m immediately on guard to expect the worst? And, yes, I’m a native east Texan. Thanks again. I always enjoy reading your blogs.

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  2. Ha! I know what you mean. But you know what? Now that you mention it, there’s no reason for me to identify the region of Texas this man is from. I will go back and edit that out.

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