Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many
antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour.
--1 John 2:18 NRSV
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the QAnon conspiracies that apparently motivated many of the rioters who attacked the Capitol building a week ago. These conspiracy theories include ideas that Democrats are running a pedophile ring and imprisoning children out of a local pizza restaurant in Washington D.C., the COVID-19 vaccine is a way for the government to implant tracking microchips into the American population and other outlandish ideas running the gambit from JFK still being alive to 5G cell phone service being mind control. The rioters included many who identify as evangelical Christians and reporters quoted many who believed Donald Trump was predicted in the Bible. The talk of spiritual warfare, including ideas of fighting against a secret cabal of Satanists, bring back a lot of memories for me. I grew up hearing similar kinds of conspiracy theories long before QAnon showed up. I heard them all the time in Bible studies about the apocalyptic writings in the Bible, such as Revelation, Daniel and other passages.
My Southern Baptist minister father and my preacher’s wife mother didn’t believe in stuff like the Rapture, the Antichrist, and the Mark of the Beast, but my father served in churches full of people who did. Whether it was at youth camp, revival services or Bible studies, I heard a steady stream of conspiracies about the government, communists, the United Nations, barcodes on groceries and more. The Antichrist could be anyone from the latest Soviet leader to Ronald Reagan (each of his names has 6 letters which equals 666!). George Bush Sr.’s statement about a “New World Order” after the fall of the Berlin Wall inspired countless books about the United Nations imposing a one-world government like the Babylon mentioned in Revelation. I remember when ATM machines first became popular hearing people seriously ask if their PIN numbers were the Mark of the Beast.
In the 1980’s, the so called “Satanic panic” occurred when all across the nation people who saw Christian counselors “recovered” what they thought were repressed memories of being sexually abused by rings of Satanists. In Christian bookstores and on TV shows like Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club, people spoke of “recovered” memories of rings of Satanists sacrificing babies. I recall reading a book called Satan’s Underground written by a woman who claimed to have been a victim of what became known as “Satanic Ritual Abuse.” I can also remember reading The Satan Seller by a leading Christian speaker named Mike Warnke who claimed to be a reformed Satanist. (The authors of both books were exposed as frauds in the early 1990’s.) An immensely popular fiction book in evangelical circles was called This Present Darkness. It told the tale of a literal battle between angels and demons in a small town where ordinary Christians were how God’s forces defeated their fellow townspeople who were possessed by evil spirits. I recall feeling like demons were behind every bush after reading it. Once the “Satanic panic” was proved to be untrue, experts label it an event of “mass hysteria” or “moral panic.’
By the time I went to a Baptist college where most of the student body believed similar stuff like this, I began to see that my parents’ cautions about buying into such beliefs were valid. Through more grounded Christian mentors and caring religion professors, I let go of all such preoccupations with Christian apocalyptic conspiracy theories. So, I missed a whole new round of apocalyptic fads which reached mainstream popularity.
In the 1990’s, the first Gulf War prompted a new round of speculation, best-selling books and videos claiming Saddam Hussein was the Antichrist. They looked an awful lot like claims about the Ayatollah Khomeini a decade earlier. Later on, the same claims would be made about Osama bin Laden. Sexual puritan turned apocalyptic expert Tim LaHaye and the fiction writer Jerry Jenkins published the Left Behind series of New York Times best-selling books which recycled the same conspiracies about a one world government, an Antichrist who made use of the United Nations, the Rapture, etc. but capitalized on anxieties regarding the year 2000.
Speaking of the year 2000, fears about the so called “millennium bug” folded neatly into evangelical fears about societal collapse and what now are called “preppers” held trade shows full of survival goods at evangelical churches as the 20th century counted down to zero. 9-11 and the events afterward led to yet another round of the same evangelical conspiracy theories. I have friends who bought gold to prepare for the coming economic collapse and End Times. For all I know, they made a good bet given the 2008 financial crisis.
The rise of the internet and social media just seems to have kicked these evangelical apocalyptic conspiracies into overdrive. Sociologists are calling QAnon a ‘digital cult” because of its hold on people. Yet, much of the language used—spiritual warfare, combating rings of Satanists who abduct and sexually assault children, fighting against globalists, etc. all sounds familiar to me. The roots of this stuff, of course, go back deep in American history back through McCarthyism, Henry Ford spreading the fraudulent The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and the apocalyptic imagery used by the Ku Klux Klan and more. There is a deep fascination within White Protestant American Christianity for apocalyptic conspiracies.
Psychiatrists and sociologists point out motives for believing in conspiracy theories. Motives include everything from Dissociative Identity Disorder, cultural anxiety, and simple low self-esteem. Experts note that conspiracy theories are prevalent on the fringes of both the political left and the political right, but the political right seems to be enjoying a flurry of such thinking in recent years.
To me, it seems the seeds planted by the Religious Right in the late 1970’s have finally sprouted. The toxic mix of evangelical Christianity and conservative politics that has been a part of political life since then has always included a steady stream of apocalyptic beliefs which reduce the complexities of the modern world to dualistic good and evil. The problem with this thinking, of course, is that when your political adversary becomes an agent of Satan there is no room for compromise. The basic humanity of someone is lost if they are in league with the embodiment of evil. One cannot do anything other than destroy someone who seeks to destroy the world as you know it.
We saw some of the inevitable consequences of such thinking last week at the Capitol building. Even a willing purveyor of such apocalyptic evangelical Christianity like Mike Pence can find himself instantly put on the list of Satanic enemies to be destroyed. When one plays with the fire of this kind of religious fervor, they will inevitably get burned.
What I came to see on my own religious journey is that if one holds to a belief system that includes evangelical apocalyptic conspiracies, it becomes difficult to do much of anything Jesus taught. One cannot pray for and love one’s enemies if one is fighting a spiritual war to destroy the enemies of God. One cannot turn the other cheek or walk the extra mile when the Antichrist is the one hitting you or asking you to carry their rucksack. One cannot forgive someone if they are a part of Satan’s army. This is why conspiracy theories wrapped in the mantle of Christianity, whether it’s anti-communism or QAnon, always end up being something antithetical to Christianity. A belief system devoid of love can never be called Christian.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
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We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.