In the beginning, God planted a garden in the east, in Eden, and there he put Adam and Eve. Soon after Satan entered the garden and spread the first conspiracy theory.
A conspiracy theory explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot, usually by powerful conspirators. Satan convinced Eve that the most powerful of “conspirators”—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—were secretly trying to keep the first humans from having their eyes opened in a way that would make them “like God, knowing good and evil.” Eve became the first in a long line, from Gnostics to flat-earthers, to believe powerful forces were withholding secret information.
Since then, Satan has found no shortage of marks among God’s children. But our current technological age has made it possible for conspiracy theories to spread faster than the novel coronavirus. The online realm, which can promote anti-intellectualism and radical individualism, has become a breeding ground for such bizarre conspiracies.
A prime example is the idea, first promoted on a French conspiracy website, that COVID-19 is caused by the millimeter wave spectrum used by 5G technology. You might assume such a belief to be dumb but harmless. You’d be wrong. All across Europe, the 5G conspiracy theorists are setting fires targeting cell towers and attacking telecom workers.
And that’s just one of the dozens of new conspiracy theories related to the coronavirus. There are others even more outlandish, such as that the virus is a human-made bioweapon created by Bill Gates. (Not surprisingly, that one is connected with QAnon, the most ludicrous uber-conspiracy theory of our age.)
Numerous spurious claims are also being made about Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House coronavirus task force. A Christian ministry, American Family Association, is promoting a conspiracy that Fauci “has known since 2005 that chloroquine is an effective inhibitor of coronaviruses.” Another Christian group claims Fauci is part of the “Deep State attempt to destroy the economy and change election rules.” As Robert Anton Wilson, co-author of the Illuminatus! trilogy said, “You simply cannot invent any conspiracy theory so ridiculous and obviously satirical that some people somewhere don’t already believe it.”
Accepted Sin of Slander
That some people somewhere believe something ridiculous is not surprising. What is shocking, though, is so many Christians not only believe in such conspiracies but also promote them in public. You can hardly open Facebook without seeing a Christian (too often a pastor or other church leader) has posted claims they cannot possibly know to be true. Much needs to be said about why so many followers of Christ are spreading misinformation. But we don’t need a sophisticated sociological analysis before we can denounce such slander as sinful.
Slander occurs, as Jon Bloom notes, whenever someone says something untrue about someone else that results, intentionally or unintentionally, in damaging that someone else’s reputation. The Bible makes it clear God hates slander (Prov. 6:16, 19). Paul lists it as a behavior of those who hate God (Rom. 1:30), and James calls it demonic behavior (James 3:15–16). We must not slander even our enemies (Matt. 5:43-48).
The fact that few in our churches are being confronted—much less receiving church discipline—for engaging in slander is scandalous.
Conspiracy theorists may contend it is not slander when the claim is true. For that to be the case, though, they must have knowledge the conspirators are involved in a specific secret plot—and knowledge is what they never have.
Many Christian philosophers define propositional knowledge—knowledge that an entire proposition is true—as a justified true belief. To have knowledge is to represent reality in thought or experience the way it really is on the basis of adequate grounds. Because the sole grounds for conspiracy theories is unreliable hearsay, they do not meet the standard for knowledge. They are therefore not in possession of the truth, and thus guilty of slander.
Christians Doing Satan’s Work for Him
But what if they believe it’s true? Can’t we say they are wrong but not engaging in sin?
In a 1950 book review in the philosophy journal Mind, Sir Peter Medawar said of the New Age Catholic Teilhard de Chardin, “[He] can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself.” While that is a generous sentiment, it is not one that we can adopt for our fellow Christians. Just as God doesn’t give Christian politicians an exemption to lie, he doesn’t give Aunt Karen or Pastor Bob a pass on slander simply because they believe the falsehoods they are spreading. They have a duty to determine the veracity of a claim that is potentially slanderous. After all, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak (Matt. 12:36).
Similarly, God isn’t going to excuse our turning a blind eye to their slander. Jesus expects us to confront our fellow believers when they are engaging in sin, and even to bring it to the church if they refuse to listen (Matt. 18:15-17). The fact that few in our churches are being confronted—much less receiving church discipline—for engaging in slander is scandalous. Our choosing to stay silent since they “won’t listen to us anyway” is neither loving nor godly. We are called to confront those spreading lies; the Holy Spirit is responsible for changing their heart.
We are also giving the watching world the impression such behavior is accepted among followers of Jesus. It is not, and Christians should not tolerate the embrace of the demonic. Many modern conspiracies being spread by Christians were concocted by alt-right occultists, New Age pagans, or some other group dedicated to anti-Christian esotericism. Ultimately, though, all slanderous conspiracy theories originate from Satan. If we are a people filled with the Spirit of truth (John 14:17), we won’t spread messages from the father of lies (John 8:44).