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 throughout history 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 have become increasingly more embellished and bizarre over the years, divorcing the pattern of a historical Jesus who advocated non-violence with one now seemingly the perpetrator of pointless violence, judgment, and terrifying death. The end times scenarios that play out in many churches have attracted fringe groups such as QAnon by providing a foundation for oracle-sourced conspiracy theories that lead to violent, anti-establishment outcomes. 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 paradoxical. 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 outrageous theories 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 it is still the only thing many American churches teach today, and in an increasingly embellished and political way. The vast majority of church going Christians have zero academic training in interpretation of scripture, nor want it, but this hasn’t stopped them from embracing whatever they read on the Internet, or the popular movements within their church – up to and including QAnon, which has now consumed up to 25% of white American evangelicals. Denominationalism, while having some benefits, has also become one of the greatest vehicles of confirmation bias in the church, allowing for tribal systems of beliefs to flourish and go unquestioned by parishioners. This has become more extreme as a result of the social dysfunction created by COVID and the social unrest caused by deep divisions in politics. It is not uncommon to hear, within otherwise normal Christian circles, that masks take us one step closer to Sharia law or that COVID vaccines and W.H.O. closer to a one world government, to the mark of the beast, or any number of other themes in Revelation. It is also not uncommon to encounter opinions that Joe Biden is the Antichrist (or demonic in some form), or that believing the pandemic exists at all is Satan’s plan to deceive Christians en masse. Meanwhile, 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 the same beliefs. While the more extreme of these beliefs may be relegated to fringe cults, misguided end-times theories about masks, vaccines, and the Antichrist run deep in mainstream Christian churches. 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 is the result of a century of theological error, and has led the evangelical church into all kinds of misguided conspiracy theories. 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 questionably origin. Academics in Christian studies have long been far too reluctant to call out the problems in theology that led us here, and that has damaged Christianity greatly. Yet such end-times concepts have no support in historic Christianity, and could be dissociated from Christianity altogether. By failing to challenge the incorrect assumptions this belief system relies on, many Christians will deny COVID vaccines and literally die on the basis of the theological system under which they were taught. 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.Continue reading “Modern Christianity and End-Times Conspiracy Theories”