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Tuesday 1 March 2022

What Does The Bible Say About Conspiracy? Part One


As Christians we have a responsibility to shape our worldview around the teachings of the Scriptures. Every Christian knows this, but not everyone does this to the same degree. Some believers have never read the full Bible, or even much of the Bible. They spend much of their Christian life certain of favourite bible teachings, but never examine them themselves. Others read the Bible regularly, but through a particular doctrinal lens which comports how they read each passage. To some degree this is unavoidable, but for others it is pronounced, even advertised. Others read the Bible critically, seeking in it truth but not really believing it to be true, we call most of these people liberal scholars and high church pastors. All Christians read the Bible in light of their own current culture, and this clouds how they read about certain topics that the Bible broaches. Some grimace when they read about Old Testament punishments for Sodomites and witches. Others struggle with what the Bible says about forgiving debts and just war. Still others struggle with what the Bible says about alcohol and eating meat (it is pro-both by the way). Our culture can’t help but shape us and cause us to have blind-spots in our readings of the Bible.

One of those massive blind-spots is the area of conspiracy theories. This is a no-go zone for the respectable teacher in today’s age, unless of course your goal is to trash people who are suspicious of dishonest authorities. Because of this it is respectable to only take one approach to the issue of conspiracy: teach that it is an unwise realm to tread in. Once you label someone a conspiracy theorist, and the label sticks, they are finished as far as their public persona is concerned, at least among mainstream circles. It doesn’t matter how compelling the evidence is that someone presents, once people are stung with this tag, they aren’t considered serious thinkers. People may consider such teachers to be intelligent, but perhaps too open to different ideas for their own good. People might consider them well-informed, but overly creative in the way they have applied what they learnt. The respectable thing to do is just keep away from such topics.

Part of the problem with this is just how uninformed most people are about most things. This is partly because it is not possible to know a decent amount about everything, no one can do this. But it is also partly because people aren’t motivated to be informed. The most the average person enquires into many topics is a Hollywood bio-pic or a Netflix or Amazon documentary. After you watch a Netflix documentary then you are really informed, right? Knowledge is power, right? It is impossible to know more than a little about most things, because there is just not enough time to learn everything. Ecclesiastes 12:12 – “My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

There is also wisdom in not believing every conspiracy, and also in not seeing every avenue of research as fruitful. Just as there are many liars seeking to profit off of towing the mainstream line on most issues, there are many liars seeking to profit off of curiosity about how the world really works. If a news article can be misinformation, why not a book about conspiracies. Indeed, this had to be true, because for so many issues there are many alternate, competing and contradictory conspiracy explanations. Misinformation is not the unique property of mainstream news. It is the result of a common human flaw; the propensity of many people to just straight up lie.

With all of this in mind let’s consider these facts: in early 2020 there were people who said, the covid virus obviously escaped from a lab, two weeks to flatten the curve would turn into years, the numbers of deaths have been inflated to provoke horror, the vaccines were rushed without proper safety trials, freedom would become dependent on having a vaccine, vaccine passports would be the mechanism that took people’s freedom and masks don’t work they are just a psychological tool. There were people who saw all of this very early on in the current covid panic, and yet they were labelled as conspiracy theorists, marginalized and attacked by their friends, co-workers and colleagues as cranks. Even as all of their predictions came true very few of these people were given apologies. Part of the reason was at every stage the mainstream narrative just changed what fact made someone a conspiracy theorist. Now conspiracy theorists are those who believe this won’t end with three jabs.

This control over how people who questioned the narrative are viewed is incredibly powerful in our society. This is because people naturally tend to defend and sit themselves under authority, and attack anyone who criticized that authority. In fact, some people even do this with their kidnappers; we have a name for this behaviour: Stockholm Syndrome. This natural inclination to trust even clearly flawed and dishonest authority makes a lot of people who have genuine concerns and who are genuinely skeptical of aspects of the narrative loath to publicly question it. Standing out on a limb on this topic is harder than just going along, and just going along is therefore the most attractive option to most people.

But as Christians we are not supposed to care at all what people think of us for examining issues, as long as we are speaking the truth as we genuinely see it, then we are supposed to do this fearlessly and boldly. Our metric for truth is the Biblical teaching on any given topic, that is our guiderail. So, what does the Bible say about conspiracy, and how does this impact how we should see the world today? Also, in answering this we can answer another question: why were some people so quickly able to see the lies, and others still believe our authorities even though they have lied at almost every point? I want to answer these questions in a series of articles, this is part one. We are going to begin this series with an examination of Isaiah 8:12, then we will examine in later articles a theology of conspiracy in the Bible, and also passages that give examples of conspiracies in the Bible. You will see that the Bible says much more about this than you thought. First Isaiah 8. 

Not Everything Is A Conspiracy

The first verse that comes to mind when Christian leaders talk about conspiracy is Isaiah 8:12 - “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread.” I have seen many Christians and Christian leaders use this verse to say, “Avoid talk about conspiracies, because it is unfruitful and unrighteous, Isaiah warns the Israelites to avoid such talk, so should you.” This verse is used like a club to beat people over the head to make them avoid associating in any way with conspiracies. For example,

Are some conspiracy theories in the world be true?  Possibly.  But what does it matter?  Read the Scripture again: “Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it.” Isaiah 8:12 What is the benefit of believing theories?  Nothing. They are a waste of time. Even if they could be true.”[i]

Here this verse is being interpreted to say, don’t discuss conspiracies, or at least avoid them as much as possible. But let’s evaluate what the verse says. Note first, that it does not say, do not ever listen to or entertain conspiracies. This appears to be how some people hear it, or apply it, but this is not what it is saying. It simply says two things: 1) do not call something a conspiracy, just because some people say it is a conspiracy, and 2) do not fear what those same people are afraid of, nor live in dread. So how do we understand this verse?

The first way, the one I am contesting, is to see Isaiah 8:12 as referring to Israelites getting obsessed with conspiracy in time of war. In this sense Isaiah is saying, “Don’t say there is a conspiracy here, here, or here, like these people…” Don’t fall into fear about there being conspirators around you, but trust in God. This is essentially how Oswalt reads it in his commentary of Isaiah[ii], and how I often hear this verse being explained. In this reading Isaiah is telling faithful believers to ignore conspiracies and just trust in God. A positive message for sure, in some ways. It is good to be told to not fear what conspiring men can do, but to fear God alone. But there is a big problem with this reading, it gets the verse backwards, and as Oswalt notes, this sets the verse at odds with its context.[iii]

The second way to read this passage is that Isaiah is not warning the Israelites to avoid conspiracies here, he is saying don’t believe people when they say (likely flippantly), “Oh, that’s just a conspiracy.” Don’t call a conspiracy what this people calls a conspiracy, most naturally reads as: don’t let people label things a conspiracy theory when they are clearly true. Indeed, from this reading the verse is saying: don’t define conspiracy how the people defines conspiracy, and don’t be afraid of people saying such things (v.12), rather fear God and let him be your standard of separation from the culture; aka holiness (v.13). If you trust him, he will be your solid foundation and he will also be a stumbling block to all who just call these things conspiracies (v.14). Many will fall for this line and be broken because of that (v.15). Don’t fall for it, define things according to God’s standard.

In other words, Isaiah is saying here, don’t be afraid of how people will respond to you if you say something is happening, or about to happen, and they just brush you aside. Don’t be afraid if they just call it a conspiracy theory. Trust in God, let him be your foundation and stronghold and their opponent. In other words this verse makes much more sense if you read it in context and see what God is encouraging the Israelites with. In fact, the wider context enhances this reading and vindicates it remarkably.

Isaiah’s Message and God’s Encouragement to Him.

In chapter 7 of Isaiah the prophet is told that he should tell Ahaz that he should trust in Lord, and not fear that his enemies have allied and are conspiring against him. God tells him that he will be ok if he trusts in God. However Ahaz refuses to believe Isaiah and to seek the favour of God, he even responds with what is clearly phony righteousness.

“10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, 11 “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” 12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” 13 And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?” (Isaiah 7:10-13).

Because he refuses to trust in God, and ask God for sign, God finally becomes weary of Ahaz’s wickedness and Isaiah tells him that he is going to bring a terrifying nation to judge the people of Judah,  

“14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. 17 The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father's house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria” (Isaiah 7:14-17).

God is warning the Judeans that they are about to be severely punished, and a big part of why is because their king, and their elites would not trust in God. This is such a familiar pattern in history, isn’t it? This is how severe this judgement will be,

“23 In that day every place where there used to be a thousand vines, worth a thousand shekels of silver, will become briers and thorns. 24 With bow and arrows a man will come there, for all the land will be briers and thorns. 25 And as for all the hills that used to be hoed with a hoe, you will not come there for fear of briers and thorns, but they will become a place where cattle are let loose and where sheep tread” (Isaiah 7:23-25).

Judah is going to be severely ravaged by the King of Assyria. Which we know happened. When Assyria destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel, it also came close to taking out the Kingdom of Judah at precisely the same time. Now we know from other passages such as in Jeremiah and others, that the people of Judah had a big problem believing that God would allow hard times and military defeat to come on the Judeans, because he was their special people. The false prophets in Jeremiah’s day took advantage of this to gain privilege, “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14). After all God had promised to keep a Davidic King on the throne in perpetuity had he not (Jeremiah 33:17-26)? So, to back up Isaiah’s message God gives them the prophecy that a child will be born, to prove the prophet’s words are correct. A child to be born of a young virgin, or a young woman, “14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).This is a remarkable sign.

But still the people refuse to believe, the king refuses to believe. The Judeans look to man instead of God, so God reiterates that he is going to punish them,

“5 The Lord spoke to me again: 6 “Because this people has refused the waters of Shiloah that flow gently, and rejoice over Rezin and the son of Remaliah, 7 therefore, behold, the Lord is bringing up against them the waters of the River, mighty and many, the king of Assyria and all his glory. And it will rise over all its channels and go over all its banks, 8 and it will sweep on into Judah, it will overflow and pass on, reaching even to the neck, and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel.”

9 Be broken, you peoples, and be shattered; give ear, all you far countries; strap on your armour and be shattered; strap on your armour and be shattered. 10 Take counsel together, but it will come to nothing; speak a word, but it will not stand, for God is with us” (Isaiah 8:5-10).

It’s in this context that we then arrive at our reference to conspiracy,

“11 For the Lord spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: 12 “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. 13 But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honour as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (Isaiah 8:11-13).

What is the way of this people in this context so far? Wickedness and, importantly, not believing what God’s prophet says is genuinely true. In other words, they are saying that Isaiah’s words, the words of the prophet are a conspiracy, and God is saying to people through Isaiah, don’t fall for it. Don’t fear the criticism of the people who sow doubt on God’s word, and preach peace, when peace is not coming. Isaiah says, make God your standard of holiness. What does holiness mean? Separation. In other words, don’t be afraid to stand out from the naysayers, if you are clearly trusting God over man. If you are trusting the one true Holy God, then you will stand out, and he will be your foundation and he will shame those who doubt his word.

This verse is not rebuking those who entertain what some call conspiracies, it is rebuking those who say anything they don’t want to hear is a conspiracy. Throughout this whole passage, Ahaz, and the people of Judah collectively, are rejecting God’s word, therefore denigrating the prophet’s message. What the people likely fear is that Isaiah’s message is true, and they are likely afraid to contradict the king who calls Isaiah's message false. In other words Isaiah is being written off as a conspiracy theorist here, or a man conspiring against the people. It is remarkable, because some people then take this verse, invert it, and use it to rebuke those who entertain things that the mainstream calls conspiracies. Isaiah is doing the very opposite of that. 

It is very understandable why people can read this verse precisely in this exact wrong way. Because they are either looking for a proof text to rebuke those they consider to be conspiracy theorists. Or, because people are so negative to anything that is not considered a mainstream source, that they see a verse like this and immediately think, oh, cool, this verse must be telling us not to believe any conspiracy has credence. Yet, it is doing the opposite, the verse is literally saying, don’t fall in step with those who just brush aside as conspiracies, what the elites brush aside as conspiracies. Or, to put it another way, don’t define conspiracies according to the worldview of the culture, but according to a worldview that begins with fearing God.

This is important, because if you fear man you do not want to stand out from the crowd. You will happily avoid certain topics or truths to fit in, but if you fear God, then you will not be concerned with what the people say, you will not fear what they fear, and you will not live in dread. Plus this is the only way to be wise, “7 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7).

Fools will just brush aside knowledge that they don’t want to hear as conspiracy theories. This is foolish, because sometimes prophets of God like Isaiah, or just insightful but ordinary believers who steep themselves in the understanding the scriptures and culture, see things coming that others are blind to. This is foolish because we live in a world that has literally been usurped by a being called the father of lies, and therefore our world is filled with liars in allegiance with this fake king, and many have power and influence. This is foolish because the Bible actually teaches us a lot about conspiracies, which we will turn to in part two, A Biblical Theology of Conspiracy.

The beauty of this reading of Isaiah 8:12 is that it fits with everything else that the Bible says about the topic of conspiracy. However, even if you read this verse differently, the Bible still has much, much more to say on this topic, which we will explore in future articles.

List of references

[ii] John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, p233.

[iii] John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, p233.

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