Christian conspiracy theories. That’s today’s theme. We need to address them, as we hear from Lindsay, a listener with today’s question. “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for this podcast. I have a friend who is convinced that the new COVID-19 vaccines are ‘the mark of the beast.’ Anyone injected is given over to Satan and is thereby lost forever, per Revelation. I’m very much unconvinced of this. But how would you respond to Christians who are given to these types of spiritual conspiracy theories? And then, if possible, what exactly is the mark of the beast in Revelation 16:2 and 19:20?”
My concern with this question relates mainly to the first thing that Lindsay asks about; namely, What should we think and do in response to people who gravitate to what Lindsay calls “spiritual conspiracy theories”?
Old News, New Media
And that’s not a new question. In every generation, there have been predictions of the end of the world, and speculations about world leaders as the antichrist, and calamities that definitely signify the near end of the world, and political events that definitely fulfill last-day biblical prophecies, and bizarre sequences of events that cause the spinning out of conspiratorial webs. These have an uncanny way of being self-confirming, and then they peter out in the end and are forgotten for a few decades until they start all over again.
“What’s needed is an awakening of the heart to the superior worth of the most important things in Scripture.”
That’s not new. What’s new is not the alarmist mentalities or conspiracy theories or vocal doomsayers. What’s new is the presence of social media and the speed and ease and extent to which these theories spread.
So, how should we respond now, especially personally, if we know someone who is given to this kind of speculation and intrigue? What should we do if we know someone who always seems to be sniffing out something other than what is plainly there? And my answer to this is based on a certain diagnosis of what’s going on in their mind.
What I’ve seen over the years is that there’s a certain kind of personality — or, more seriously, we could call it a certain kind of spiritual condition — that seems unable to be profoundly engaged with, unable to be deeply moved by, unable to rejoice in the great, central, glorious realities of the Christian faith. They’re always on the margins. It’s as though their minds and hearts are like magnets that are constantly attracting little iron fragments from the edges instead of the big, massive thing at the center. And ultimately, the things of greatest importance get neglected. The glory, the wonder, the beauty of the Christian faith is passed over, and they’re always fascinated with marginal things that are not preeminent.
Here’s an example, because I’ve felt this so personally over the years as I was a pastor, because there were people like that in my church. I knew them. I knew how they responded to things. I recall preaching a sermon one time and pouring out my heart concerning Christ and his work and his beauty and his brightness and his worth, his humble perfections as a man, his agonizing death, his triumphant resurrection, his victory over Satan and hell and death, his reign in heaven — just giving everything I had to show the magnificent, glorious, weighty, central reality of Jesus Christ and the way of salvation.
And a man took my hand at the door afterward and with great excitement said, “Have you seen this article?” It was an article that put another puzzle piece in place for his little conspiratorial fascination. Now, that response wasn’t new for him. It was typical; it didn’t surprise me. But it was just sad. He could sit under the passionate biblical preaching of the greatest realities in the universe and be absolutely unfazed — unfazed by that — because of his controlling interest in marginal speculations. That’s amazing.
Now, I would say that is a spiritual disease, and our response to it, I think, should be personally, relationally, prayerfully to constantly do our best to direct that person’s attention toward grand central realities of the Christian faith that are right at the heart of what God is doing in Jesus Christ. They think they are being biblical and passionate for truth, but in fact, the main truths hold no interest for them. It does little good to try to address their speculations directly. There’s just so much conjecture that you can’t get anywhere. What’s needed is an awakening of the heart to the superior worth and greatness and beauty of the most important things in Scripture.
God in the Center
So, here’s a picture that may capture it. The right ordering of our thoughts about reality comes from a right view, a right valuing of God and Christ and salvation at the center of all of our other thoughts. The picture is like a solar system. The sun is at the center of the solar system, and when the sun is central, the planets are all orbiting safely, beautifully in their proper place. That’s a picture of God in the center, and all of our thoughts assuming their rightful place.
But what happens if the sun is displaced, and Mars — the planet Mars — becomes the center? What happens is that when you try to draw the orbits of the planets, when you try to understand the other realities in your life when God has been replaced by Mars as the center, things look terrifyingly chaotic; they’re out of order, and surely Mercury is going to crash into our planet. It is. Just look at this orbit.
In other words, the root problem with disordered thinking is that the center has been removed. The sun doesn’t function as a massive gravitational force in our minds anymore, and that can’t be addressed by telling them that the orbit of Mercury is not going to crash into the earth. Because from their standpoint, with Mars in the place of the sun, it is. “Just look: there it is. I’ve drawn it on paper. It’s going to happen.”
Our whole effort, it seems to me, needs to be, by prayer and teaching, to try to reawaken a God-centered universe of thought in their mind and a God-centered solar system of well-ordered affections for God and his central biblical realities.
What Will You Devote Yourself To?
Now, I can’t deal with the mark of the beast. That’s what she wanted me to do secondly: “Tell me what the mark of the beast is.” But here’s how I think about it, and I think this is just as important. The mark of the beast is a sign in the book of Revelation that you have forsaken the Lord Jesus and worshiped a false deity. It keeps you from having to be persecuted. It gets you privileges. This sign that you have forsaken Jesus and embraced an alien deity gets you privileges in a culture where anti-Christian forces hold sway.
The way to victory in that culture is described in Revelation 12:11. The saints have conquered Satan, who is the power behind the beast: “They have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.”
“Christ’s infinite, all-satisfying value is the sun that keeps the planets of our thoughts and affections in order.”
So, what will we devote ourselves to? Fascination with the number and the name of the mark of the beast (which is not of the essence)? Or will we devote ourselves to an understanding of and a love for the blood of the Lamb, and the readiness to bear public witness to his greatness, and a willingness to sacrifice our lives because of his supreme value? Once that question is settled in our hearts — Will we operate from Christ’s glorious, central realities, or will we dabble at the margins? — then we can calmly go about studying what is the mark of the beast.
But when the center is missing, dabbling at the edges of numbers and names is not going to satisfy or help. The main thing is not identifying that mark. The main thing is loving Christ so deeply we are ready to die for him as we depend on his redeeming blood. His infinite, all-satisfying value is the sun that keeps the planets of our thoughts and affections in order.