"Therefore Keep Watch" - Watching the Signs vs. Conspiracy Theorizing

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“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” – Jesus Christ, Matthew 24:42

Watching the signs of the times is not an optional matter but a direct command. Not only is watching a direct command but it is an enormous blessing as well. The blessing comes in how the signs divulge to us the immanency of Jesus’ return. Likewise, they
advise us to keep our priorities straight and rouse us when we are dispirited. Not watching, therefore, would not only be disobedience to Jesus’ mandate, but it would be foolish as well. Don Hosser, author of Jesus' Warning to "Watch" - Just What Did He Mean? put it well when he wrote:
Our God-ordained responsibility is to watch and pray. Ignorance comes from ignoring, and God does not want us to be ignorant and "in darkness" (see 1 Thessalonians 5:1-10). Our Master and role model Jesus Christ certainly understood the issues, politics and personalities of His day. We should do likewise.[i]
Jesus said, “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”[ii] In the same way that a New Jersey resident knows the summer is near because the cherry blossoms are sprouting up everywhere and a pregnant woman knows that the delivery is near because the contractions get closer and closer, Jesus says that we too can know when His return is near because of the signs that will be taking place. Therefore, we should watch and be vigilant.

But how exactly do we watch the signs of the times? Do we install a program in our computer that updates us whenever there is a natural disaster? Do we search endlessly for charts and data on modern epidemics and plagues? Do we scour through the newspaper each day looking for any possible hint of upcoming wars? Most importantly, do we enter the realm of speculation more commonly known as conspiracy theorizing?

In the past month I have written two articles dealing with the issue of Christians and Conspiracy Theories and Ellen White and Conspiracy Theories. My intention in writing these articles is not to contend negatively with anyone who finds great value in this type of activity, nor is it to judge, criticize or condemn. Instead, my intention is to call attention to what I believe is one of the most damaging diversions that affect Christians today. A Seventh-day Adventist pastor and theology professor who commented on the basis of anonymity stated,
There is a lot of speculative theorizing both inside and outside the church. It needs to stop. It does not help our witness at all, but turns people away from the truth as it is in Jesus.[iii]
I could not have said it better myself. While worldliness appeals to the love of the flesh, conspiracies appeal to the love of prophecy and the mandate of Jesus to “watch.” Many marvelous Christians caught up in this way of thinking do not even consider the material that they embrace as speculation or conspiracy thinking but view it as indisputable truth. I remember when I used to be fascinated with such things. In my opinion, those who rejected the “conspiracy theories” were foolish and had their eyes shut to what was truly going on. They were, in my estimation, delusional optimists who preferred their comfortable ignorance to the uncomfortable realities of our modern society, and as such would be easily deceived by the lies of governments and institutions. However, what I soon came to discover was that it was I who was deceived for in all of my zealous vindication of conspiracy theories (which I considered obvious facts and not theories) I had missed one crucial matter – the development of a Christlike character. I have since come to realize that not only was I un-Christlike but also everyone I knew who was engulfed in such profligate trumpery. Indeed, all of my “watching the signs of the times” had made me more like the wicked in character than like the righteous. While I won’t elaborate on the negative effects that brooding over conspiracy theories does to one’s character here, (I have already done that in the article Christians and Conspiracy Theories) I would like to point out that due to its harmful effects such activity cannot possibly be what Jesus meant when He commanded us to “watch.”
So how do you watch the signs of the times without being allured by the sensational speculations of brilliant men and women who claim to know “what’s truly going on”? In fact, it seems that in many cases, it is not even possible to watch without researching such material. In order to unravel this puzzle it is first necessary to explore the difference between Jesus’ mandate to “watch” the signs of the times and conspiracy theorizing.

Stephen Bauer, professor of theology and ethics, reminds us that “watching is commanded by Christ….” However, according to Bauer, “conspiracy theories speculate on how the end events may occur. This is not the same as looking for events themselves.”[iv] This distinction is seconded by professor of biblical studies Greg A. King when he states that, “watching the signs of the times, as it is biblically encouraged for us to do, would be viewing prophecies like Matthew 24 and the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation.” King encourages us to “be aware of the lines of prophetic interpretation” but simultaneously encourages not to “focus so much on the sensational or the spectacular events.” King reminds us that the true sign that Jesus is coming soon is not a political sign but the gospel being preached to all the world. This, according to King, should be our main focus.[v]

Thus, the primary difference between watching the signs of the times and conspiracy theorizing is that one focuses on clear biblical truths while the other speculates regarding those truths. A Gotquestions.org article on this topic got it right when it states that “conspiracy theories… place too much emphasis on worldly matters.”[vi] Not only this, but conspiracy theorizing places too much emphasis on the work of the devil. Sure, as Lance Winslow wrote, “conspiracy theories are fun to think about and they are interesting,”[vii] however, the reality is that they are not what Jesus had in mind when he told us to “watch.” Not once in the Biblical record do you find Jesus or his apostles speculating or preaching sensational things like conspiracy theories – and they would have had plenty to say! Each of them was persecuted by government and religious institutions yet you never find any chapters speculating about government secrets or plans to persecute the church. Instead, the Biblical writers always stick to the obvious, never going beyond what is clear, and even then they don’t give the work of evil too much focus. When Jesus commanded us to watch the signs of the times he intended that we would be aware of his soon return and not that we would be obsessed with the Illuminati, Freemasons, or the truth behind 911. Jesus said, “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near.” This is watching the signs of the times. Conspiracy theorizing, however, would be equivalent to using magnifying glass and a microscope to analyze every little detail in the tree. If you saw someone doing this, wouldn’t you think they were wasting their time?

So we know that watching the signs of the times is not the same as conspiracy theorizing, but at what point does a study on end time events become a study on speculation? One theologian put it well when he said,
…when one moves away from the facts to guessing about peoples’ motives or how things will turn out in the future rather than considering the events of the past or present, one moves into speculation.  It is critical when studying end-time events to stick to objective facts about the past or present, not speculating about the future or about motives of people or organizations.[viii] 
The rule of thumb is simple. Once you approach the tree (signs of the times) with a magnifying glass (conspiracy theories/ speculation) you have crossed the line between watching and speculating. Some may argue and say that it is not speculation or conspiracy theorizing if the evidence is insurmountable. However, this is the same as saying that so long as you are telling the truth about someone then it’s not gossip. It still is gossip because regardless of how true it is it is damaging and hurtful to those involved in it. Conspiracy theories may, in fact, be 100% accurate, but they are still damaging to those who pay them attention. Thus, the truth remains that “[e]ndless speculation about conspiracy theories is, at best, a waste of time.[ix] Always remember that speculation begins when you “go beyond the basic textual facts to try to figure out exactly… [what] will happen.”[x]

However, this brings up a fundamental question. It is necessary, when studying prophecy, to study extra biblical material such as history books. This extra-biblical material helps us understand the events, nations, and dangers that the prophecies are delineating. Extra-biblical material is, therefore, needful when studying prophecy. For example, the proper use of history helps Daniel 2 come alive. However, while there are tons of historical, political, and sociological books that can help us understand prophecy, “not all of it is valid, useful, or accurate. Evaluating sources of information that you are considering using in your writing is an important step in any research activity.”[xi] So how do we know when the extra biblical material we are using is reliable? The best rule of thumb is variety. “The more sources who see the same thing, the more credible.”[xii] For example, many Seventh-day Adventist evangelists have been known to tell a story with utterly no historical support besides protestant propaganda. This story is the one that purports that Constantine baptized his entire pagan army into Christianity by having them march through a river. Many Adventist evangelists could have avoided spreading an undocumented rumor if they had simply read more than one book from different sources. Many Christians end up with all kinds of odd theories because they read a book that supposedly reveals the real truth behind some issue. However, variety is not the only rule of thumb. While we should always remember to “[be] wary of one historian who is the only one who thinks X is the case,”[xiii] we should also remember that in our study “[t]here needs to be documentation from reliable sources.”[xiv] Peer reviewed scholarly sources are the most reliable because they go through a review process in which the claims and work of the author come under scrutiny by a variety of experts. This automatically gets rid of the vast majority of books claiming to unveil some secret conspiracy theory because “[c]onspiracy theories are not generally documented from reliable sources. They are speculative theories, generally put forward by people who do not have a balanced view and whose theories are not supported by mainstream media or reputable investigative reporting.”[xv] Finally, when choosing material for your research, always remember that “[i]f you believe everything you read you will begin to read everything you believe.”[xvi]

While all this may be helpful, none of it will make any difference to the individual who sees no harm in entertaining conspiracy theories. In Christians and Conspiracy theories I delineate a variety of harmful effects that such activity can promulgate. The reality is that “[m]any conspiracy theories feed fear and prey on ignorance and gullibility.”[xvii] A study published in The Journal of Social Psychology provides evidence of a connection between conspiracy theorizing and attitude change. In other words, entertaining and believing such things actually has an effect on our behavior.[xviii] In my experience, Christians who engage in conspiracy theorizing do exhibit behavioral change. A family member who commented on the basis of anonymity stated,
A very close relative of mine was the sweetest lady I had ever known, very Christlike, care free, positive, optimistic, fun, and happy. After being introduced by fellow Adventists (who would be considered extremists by the Adventist church) to conspiracy theories about 70% of her personality changed for the worst. She’s still sweet and would do anything for you if she could but she is more negative, afraid, and suspicious of everyone and everything, critical, anxious, pessimistic, and you rarely hear her commenting on the gospel anymore. Her focus is now on theories that are negative which has negatively affected her outlook on life. I’m not saying she’s a mean person but she’s definitely not who she used to be. When I myself started to get into conspiracy theories my attitude began to change the same way. Today I stay away from those sorts of things and in fact I actually hate them. Unlike before I now experience the abundant life that God promises to his children.[xix]  
What other dangerous effects of conspiracy theorizing are there? Stephen Bauer summarizes the dangers of conspiracy theorizing well:
1) We undermine Scripture by going beyond it, yet treating our speculations like they are Scripture.  Eve did this, adding the "don't touch" provision beyond what God said.  Thus, when the snake threw the fruit into her hands (as per Ellen White) and she touched the fruit without dying, it undermined in her mind what God actually said.  50-60 years ago, SDA evangelists included strong assertions that the Israelite nation would never be rebuilt. So the inception of Israel in 1948 destroyed their credibility to many minds.  Best not to over-claim [than to] be proven wrong. It will undermine confidence in Scripture and in the speaker! 2. It fuels a sensationalism - religion rooted in excitement and feeling instead of living quietly by faith. As such this undermines the principles of Righteousness by Faith.[xx]
In conclusion, Jesus expects us to watch the signs of the times, but delving into conspiracies is not what he had in mind when he asked us to watch and be vigilant. Therefore, when studying end time events we should keep a sharp eye as to when we are crossing the line between Biblical and historical evidence into speculation. A good way to avoid this is to be cautious during the research process, being intentional about seeking a variety of views, and utilizing only those materials which are reliable. Even if conspiracy theories are true, they shouldn’t commandeer our attention. Entertaining conspiracy theories is actually harmful – especially to those who profess faith in Christ. So when watching the signs of the times, or studying the apocalyptic literature of scripture, be careful to “[s]tick to descriptive, objective, well documented facts from the past and present. [And] [a]void predicting the future or judging motives.”[xxi] Even when studying Biblical prophecy do not let that overshadow the rest of scripture. Greg King put it well when he said that although we should study the prophecies we should also remember Psalms 23 – The Lord is my Shepherd.[xxii] Above all things, ask the Holy Spirit to lead you. God is our strong tower. So long as we let Him lead we can be sure that we will arrive safely to the heavenly shore.

Further Reading:









[i] Hosser, Don. Jesus' Warning to "Watch" - Just What Did He Mean? http://www.ucg.org/bible-study/jesus-warning-watch-just-what-did-he-mean
[ii] Luke 21:29, NIV
[iii] Anonymous, Professor Religion. e-mail to author, January 28, 2013.
[iv] Bauer, Stephen. e-mail to author, January 28, 2013.
[v] King, Greg. Interview. January 28, 2013.
[vi] http://www.gotquestions.org/conspiracy-theories.html
[vii] Winslow, Lance. Conspiracy Theory Case Study - US President Is an Alien http://ezinearticles.com/?Conspiracy-Theory-Case-Study---US-President-Is-an-Alien&id=6946117
[viii] Anonymous, Professor Religion. e-mail to author, January 28, 2013.
[ix] http://www.gotquestions.org/conspiracy-theories.html
[x] Bauer, Stephen. e-mail to author, January 28, 2013.
[xi] Driscoll, Dana Lynn & Allen Brizee. Evaluating Sources: Overview http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/553/1/
[xii] Bauer, Stephen. e-mail to author, January 28, 2013.
[xiii] ibid.
[xiv] Anonymous, Professor Religion. e-mail to author, January 28, 2013.
[xv] ibid.
[xvi] Grant, Victoria A. Conspiracy Theories and Secret Societies! Article Source: http://EzineArticles.com/6812791
[xvii] http://www.gotquestions.org/conspiracy-theories.html
[xviii] Douglas, Karen M., & Robbie M. Sutton. The Journal of Social Psychology http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.3200/SOCP.148.2.210-222
[xix] Anonymous. Personal interview. January 31, 2013
[xx] Bauer, Stephen. e-mail to author, January 28, 2013
[xxi] Anonymous, Professor Religion. e-mail to author, January 28, 2013.
[xxii] King, Greg A. Personal interview. January 28, 2013.

2 comments:

  1. Marcos...starting with verse 36 and noone knowing...to verse 45...who then is faithful...I believe the passage is telling the Christian not to watch TV or read the papers, but to make sure "his" house is in order at all times.

    We've had anti christs and floods and fammine for the past 2000 years and will continue to have such things. Every day we are one day closer to His return...and must be ready to meet Him and stand at the judgement...not fret and worry over the condition of this wicked world and the God-less men who attempt to run it.

    This is just my opinion.

    Oh...and I read a comment you made on another blog about being gentle when presenting the Scriptures. To which I say "AMEN"...sorry about the upper case letters.lol

    ReplyDelete
  2. Right on man! I think you got it :)

    I wrote these articles because I have a lot of friends who are into this stuff. I used to be also and now I see how silly it is.

    Your last statement made me laugh! I will reply with an AMEN as well, lol.

    God bless!

    ReplyDelete

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