QAnon, Vaccines, and Evangelicals: Modern Christianity and End-Times Conspiracy Theories

What more is there for their Expected One to do when he comes? To call the heathen? But they are called already. To put an end to prophet and king and vision? But this too has already happened. To expose the God-denyingness of idols? It is already exposed and condemned. Or to destroy death? It is already destroyed. What then has not come to pass that the Christ must do?

Athanasius, On the Incarnation

 

As a typical secular teenager, Christianity introduced me to a God who’d interacted with humanity to offer a life greater than myself. This made a lot of sense to seventeen-year-old me. It still does. Christianity in America comes with a lot of baggage, though. Along with the powerful message of the gospel were a lot of strange ideas about the creation and destruction of the world. Depictions of a violent and terrifying end are often portrayed both in Hollywood fiction and from the pulpits of American churches. Christianity seems to, at some point, have conflated faith with magic. Interpretations of end times prophecy became increasingly more embellished over time, incorporating themes from current events into a sort of theological composite that could explain present-day unrest. This ultimately divorced the pattern of a historical Jesus who advocated non-violence with one now seemingly the perpetrator of pointless violence, judgment, and terrifying death.

The concept of a violent and militant Jesus probably had its origins in the medieval period, a thousand years after Christ and hundreds of years after most early church writings to the contrary. Such a notion was first codified at the Council of Nablus in 1120, where Canon 20 permitted a clergyman to take up arms in self-defense without bearing any guilt; this was during turbulent times when Christian pilgrims were often massacred by the hundreds along their journey, leaving their rotting corpses along the roads from Jaffa into the Holy Land. This one concession, intended to be a temporary measure, seeded and ultimately fueled militant movements in Christianity starting with the Papal legitimization of the Templars movement (“God’s Holy Knights”), extremist groups such as Alfonso I’s Brotherhood of Belchite, and eventually spanned a thousand years into modern militant Christian ideals today.

The end times scenarios that play out in many modern churches today attract fringe groups with similar mindsets, and conspiracy groups like QAnon for similar reasons. By providing a foundation for oracle-sourced conspiracy theories that lead to violent, anti-establishment outcomes, today’s end-times theology follows the concept of a violent and militant second coming, abandoning the teachings of Christ and hundreds of years of church fathers about martyrdom, pacifism, and government non-involvement. The obvious contradiction of a Christianity asserting a struggle that is “not against flesh and blood” somehow ending up with a literal war against flesh and blood is the result of a historical evolution that biased how the church interprets scripture and forms doctrine even today. Yet to not have faith in a brutal and imminent end times means, in many churches, that you don’t have a Christian faith at all. This left many Christians of my generation to either go along with the weirdness and ignore the obvious oddities of Christian doctrine, or – worse, to fully embrace them and make one’s Christian identity based on the willingness to blindly accept such dramatic interpretations as fact. The latter was often socially rewarded as “faith”. This was a package deal, though, for many young Christians – who are now adults with a literal end times engrained in them.

Many Christians are still stuck here, as a violent and imminent end of the world is still the only thing many American churches teach today, and in increasingly bizarre and political ways. End-times theories evolve periodically within evangelical churches to reinterpret components of new and significant current events. They are woven together as signs of the times, into the bigger narrative to “decipher” the book of Revelation which, to the average evangelical is a key to understanding God’s future plans. In recent times, theories about masks, vaccines, the World Health Organization, and a new president are constant topics of end-times discussion within churches. Yet a vast majority of church going Christians lack any academic training in interpretation of scripture, nor want it. The idea that anyone can speculate on end-times prophecies has attracted groups like QAnon, which now consumes up to 25% of white American evangelicals. Denominationalism, while having some benefits, has also become a significant enabler of confirmation bias in the church, allowing for tribal systems of beliefs to flourish and go unquestioned, whether it’s a movement within the church or a radical idea taught by a church leader. Beliefs have become more extreme as a result of the social dysfunction created by COVID and the social unrest caused by deep divisions in politics. Ideas about masks, vaccines, W.H.O., and other current topics are now loosely joined to end-times themes of one world government, the mark of the beast, eternal punishment, or any number of other themes in Revelation. Conspiracy theories within the church’s walls have had very real consequences. Extremist groups spent several months planning – on public message boards – to assassinate the incoming president to usher in a new heaven and earth, based on many of these same beliefs about Revelation. While the most extreme of these ideals may belong in small fringe churches, common end-times theories about masks, vaccines, and the Antichrist run deep throughout mainstream evangelical Christianity. As one evangelical pastor put it, “Right now QAnon is still on the fringes of evangelicalism… but we have a pretty big fringe.”

This end-times posture can be walked back to theological origins of the mid-1800s. The interpretive biases that make this theology work have altered Christianity in many significant ways. Yet visions of four horsemen riding across the world, a sudden secret rapture, and seven years of hell on Earth rest upon theological pillars of highly questionable origin, which this post will explore. Such end-times concepts have no support in historic Christianity, and could be dissociated from Christianity altogether; many evangelical Christians, however, don’t realize there are earlier and more supported forms of interpretation. By failing to challenge the incorrect assumptions this belief system relies on, many Christians will deny vaccines and literally die on the basis of the theological system under which they were taught, firmly believing that they are honoring God in doing so. It is a flawed and unfalsifiable system of theology – not Christianity itself – that is to blame. This post will attempt to tease those two concepts apart.

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Evangelical Christianity has Become Alien to me

All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.

Psalm 14:2-3

 

I’ve devoted much of the past 30 years as an evangelical Christian “layperson” to Christian studies to try and become an educated one. Greek, theology, patristic authors, and Christian history should be in the wheelhouse of every Christian, yet many never study their own religion. Sadly, it’s of little surprise that what Christianity has become in America is entirely alien to historical Christianity and lately, basic human decency. I don’t recognize the church in the midst of the racism, hostility, and lies that Christians proliferate today. I’m frankly ashamed and embarrassed to have to share the label. Last year brought some of the worst out in us. I’m referring to the mainstream evangelical church – relatives, friends, and people I’ve grown up with – who were once a much-needed example of Christianity to me – have severely disappointed in how they’ve conducted themselves, causing me to question if they ever truly understood their own faith.

Every Christian’s example par excellence – Jesus – was abundantly clear in having nothing to do with the wicked. He literally turned tables on those whose agenda didn’t align with his. Scripture is chock full of warnings about the dangers of aligning with wicked people, or compromising one’s values to an end. Christianity teaches of a savior who demonstrated sheer disinterest in politics, from “Render unto Caesar” to his markedly uninterested appearance before an irrelevant Pontius Pilate. Early Christians wielded no political clout for over three hundred years, and were still victims of massacre and martyrdom for centuries beyond that. Yet today, we’re obsessed with having power – even to the degree of aligning with white nationalists who condone hate and murder, or expressing blind, cult-like loyalty to demagogues. The mere fact that any Christian would fervently support an administration that backed policies amounting to thinly veiled modern-day genocide, sowed racism and division throughout the country, and willfully left the congress of the United States to be murdered by insurrectionists – is the epitome of hypocrisy, a stain on Christianity, and yet sadly, a perfectly concise example of the new face of radicalized evangelicalism in America. Many Christians have, in the short span of a few years, become enablers of hate, violence, racism, immorality, and division through their alliances, their crowd funding, and trafficking in misinformation to rationalize it into a manufactured “Christian” reality. The church sacrificed her reputation and laid in bed with the devils of our generation, all for the kind of influence and power that Jesus would yawn at.

This cannot be reconciled with Christianity, which celebrates a meek savior who saw intrinsic value in people regardless of their race, their past, or their status. He called for the lifting up of those who were downcast and mistreated by society. He called for sacrificial love of the disenfranchised. To reflect compassion. Generosity. Selflessness. He thought mankind was valuable enough to sacrifice for. Christianity should be, by definition, a mirror image of Christ’s sacrificial love for humanity, and an example of integrity and truth, even to one’s own detriment. I don’t see the character of Jesus Christ in today’s American Christians. Christians couldn’t even bother wearing a mask to save the life of someone sitting next to them.

In retrospect, this has been a long time coming. It is of little surprise that Christians support racist leaders, as the church has become the most segregated institution in the country. White Christians have spent generations basking in the privilege of not having to think or preach about racism and inequality, while black and brown Christians in churches down the road are haunted by it daily. The ability to remain blissfully ignorant of racism has been the darling sin of every white suburban Christian church since history was first tormented to create a white Jesus. And is it any surprise that Christians have become extreme anti-science in the wake of infectious disease? The church’s historical inability to grasp our own God as chief architect with any tools other than magic has caused otherwise intelligent people to become modern-day imbeciles – even in the broad daylight of mass graves and outdoor crematoriums resembling hell on Earth. 

Christians, we are called to be innocent of evil, not to align ourselves with it. How can we support the immorality of those we elect to govern us, or crowd fund for murderers and white supremacists when it so clearly has borne the fruit of evil? As Christians and human beings, this should grieve us, not excite us. This manufactured reality doesn’t represent the God that I worship, study, and aspire to be more like. If it resembles your god, I suggest you examine what you are worshipping.

Our actions are not without accountability in the next life, I fear, much to the pains of those who don’t care who they align themselves with, who they infect, or what atrocities they help fund. God knows every hair we’ve harmed through our indifference. Church leaders will be held to an even higher accounting when they face God. The famous words Jesus uttered, “I stand at the door and knock” in Revelation was not directed at the lost, but at the church, who often left their own savior out in the cold. The behavior many Christians and Christian leaders today have exhibited more closely resembles mob rule under oppressive dictatorships than it does the meek and sacrificial historical Jesus. I do not believe most of the church could even recognize their own savior anymore. This grieves me immeasurably.

Christianity and the Cult Phenomenon

Joshua Harris, the author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”, recently renounced his faith and apologized for his awful book. I remember when it came out in the late 90’s, and still see the lasting damage it inflicted on two generations of young men and women. Harris ended up creating a toxic culture inside the mainstream church that would take two generations of Christian men back into the dark ages of devaluing women based on their level of sexual indiscretion, and helped fan the flames of homophobia and exclusion. His “sexual prosperity gospel”, as it’s been called, led to a life of guilt and shame for many, and created lasting scars that caused some to abandon their faith or their marriages later on in life.

Christianity teaches that a person’s worth has nothing to do with their sexual history (or orientation), but from Jesus, who was willing to die to reconcile humanity to God. We’re not defined by our sins, and we’re not defined by our past; we are defined by Christ. This is a far cry from the cultish fundamentalist legalism that Harris’s church taught for decades; the purity movement amounted to nothing more than a way for Christians to measure themselves and others up. It’s no surprise that Harris renounced his faith; if the faith he was practicing was grounded in such a flawed understanding of grace and intrinsic human worth, then by any measurement it was not Christianity. The truly sad part is that he convinced millions of Christians to adopt this same world view for more than 20 years, allowing it to hurt a lot of people before it became popular for leaders to finally speak out against it. Sorry, Josh, but an apology doesn’t let you off the hook.

But this failure wasn’t just of Harris’s own making: It was the complete failure of church leaders everywhere in elevating Harris’s status to a Christian leader. Harris was a mere 21 years old, and hadn’t even been to seminary yet when he wrote the book. Rather than rightfully dismissing his book as yet more of the trash writing of that era, the inexperienced youth leaders of that time (many of whom also lacked formal training) saw a way to get kids to act responsibly, without considering the consequences of his legalism. From piecing together accounts online, Harris’s own church reeked of a world of deep-seated problems, including sexual abuse coverup, abuses of power, control and manipulation of their congregation, and legalism running rampant. The church had become so damaging, much of his congregation ended up leaving, and there’s an entire blog dedicated to victims trying to recover from Harris and the rest of his church’s leaders. Indeed, it’s very telling to see the kind of culture his book came out of, and the horrifying fruits of it. When you read that Josh Harris has departed Christianity, this appears by all accounts to be a very good thing for Christianity.

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On Christianity

I’ve often been asked why an intellectual type guy such as myself would believe in God – a figure most Americans equate to a good bedtime story, or a religious symbol for people who need that sort of thing. Quite the contrary, what I’ve discovered in my years of being a Christian is that it is highly intellectually stimulating to strive to understand God, and that my faith has been a thought-provoking and captivating journey.  I wasn’t raised in a Christian home, nor did I have any real preconceived notions about concepts such as church or the Bible. Like most, I didn’t really understand Christianity with anything other than an outside perception for the first part of my life – all I had surmised was that he was a religious symbol for religious people.

Today’s perception of Christianity is that of a hate-filled, bigoted group of racists, a title that many so-called Christians have rightfully earned for themselves. This doesn’t represent Christianity any more than the other stereotypes do, and even atheists know enough about the Bible to know that such a position is hypocritical. Since 1993, I’ve been walking in the conviction that God is more than just a story, that he’s nothing like the stereotypes, and that it takes looking outside of typical American culture to really get an idea of what God is about. In this country, I’ve seen all of the different notions of what a church should be; I think most people already know in their heart who God is, and that’s why they’re so averse to the church.

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The Fallacy of the Prosperity Sermon

Countless sermons have been preached instructing people to give, and God will let you have the car you want, the house you want, and the life you want. Amusingly, my web logs indicate that this essay is found frequently by pastors Googling for prosperity sermons to preach on Sunday. It seems strange, though, that a people who profess to follow Christ are so anxious to convince the church that God wants them to be rich, when the Bible teaches no such thing – God has promised us no such prosperity, but only trials, tribulation, and possibly martyrdom. James teaches us that there’s something profoundly wrong with a miser, treating the notion of being rich as a sign of poor character in their lack of generosity. So are pastors just in error, wanting to see their congregation blessed in this consumer driven American culture, or are they preaching up promises of breakthroughs and finances because they know they’ll reap some of the benefits? In either case, Christians shouldn’t be so naive, given the role model we have in Jesus’ life.

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Hijacking God

Since the beginning of the early church, men have fought hard against the simplistic and servant-oriented church blueprint installed by the apostles. From the earliest days of the church, she has been plagued by power plays and factions, all attempting to use the church as a means of political, social, or economic power. Over a short period of about a century, Biblical church government had been abused, challenged, and eventually deposed.

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Restoring the Beauty of the Didache

I’ve spent many late evenings over the past month translating and researching an intriguing early Christian manuscript called the Didache. Greek for teaching, this first century Greek manuscript reveals the life and heart of the early Church. It has been the center of much academic interest and controversy since its rediscovery in 1883. Prior to this, it was once thought lost to history, although many early church fathers including Athanasius, Rufinus, and John of Damascas cited the book as inspired scripture. It was also accepted into the Apostolic Constitutions Canon 85 and the 81-book Ethiopic Canon. Many early church fathers including Barnabas, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen either quote or reference the Didache.

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