As Peter closes out his first epistle, he warns his readers, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8; ESV).” Elsewhere, the apostle John would write, “We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one (1 John 5:19; ESV).” Likewise, the apostle Paul would encourage his readers, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:10-12; ESV)”
Conspiracy theories have been popular for hundreds, even thousands of years. When things go wrong, it is easy and tempting to look for some vast or powerful cabal which is orchestrating events in such a way as to harm one’s own personal interest. The shadowy forces responsible for wars, famines, and cultural upheaval can wear many forms in modern tellings, from powerful banking families to alien lizard-folks, but these sinister coteries are not all that different from the ancient pantheons of pagan religions, whose deities were constantly scheming and in that scheming causing discomfort to men.
In some ways, the use of divine entities as the basis for a conspiracy theory is less far fetched than many modern equivalents, as believing in conspiracy theories frequently requires faith in a group of individuals who can perfectly plan out and orchestrate world-wide events to perfection without actually leaving any evidence of their existence. It also requires believing, contrary to all the evidence that Benjamin Franklin was wrong when he said, “three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.”
Conspiracy theories also suffer from the problem that they have a tendency to remove human agency from the equation. Events don’t happen because individual men choose this course or that; they happen because someone else is pulling strings and manipulating events. Men don’t suffer because of their own foolishness; they suffer because someone else has it in for them. Gone are the consequences of free will, ignorance and incompetence. Everything becomes someone else’s fault.
Some might think that the Biblical doctrine of the devil, or Satan, is nothing more than another conspiracy theory, blaming all the ills of the world on one spiritual entity. And perhaps some do think that way, making Satan just one nefarious agent more working against their perceived day-to-day self-interest. After all, the Bible does teach Satan wants to do us harm, he has world-wide influence, and that our battle is against such cosmic powers and spiritual entities. Yet, there are some important differences.
Firstly, Satan is seeking to harm and devour men spiritually. He doesn’t necessarily care whether men are rich or poor, which nation is currently ascendant, which political parties are in power or what the weather is like from day to day. He desires men to turn from God and thus be lost; the nature of the sin necessary to accomplish this goal is largely immaterial. He tempts the poor man to covet, and the rich man to pride. He tempts men to anger, hate, greed, worry and lust. The world lies under his influence not because he is all-powerful, but because men follow in the footsteps of their forefather Adam, allowing themselves to succumb to his lies and temptations.
The devil is just a pleased by a self-indulgent, materialistic America as he is by a cruel, communistic system which suppresses faith. Both show evidence of his malign influence.
A second difference is that the Bible very much places the responsibility for whether we succumb to the wiles of the devil on the individual. Unlike a conspiracy in which the victims are helpless against the machinations of the one seeking to control them, Christians are commanded to resist the devil (cf. James 4:7b), not by searching the world for evidence of his manipulative hand, but by learning to say no to temptation and practicing self-control. The weapons of our warfare are love, righteousness and humility, and for those who are in Christ, there is a guaranteed victory when we use the same, for whether or not the whole world conspires against us to bring us down, Christ will save our souls and on the last day raise us up to eternal life.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.