Conspiracy and Prophecy
by Mark M. Mattison
A Personal Testimony
Anatomy of a Conspiracy
The End Times & The Antichrist
Despite Jesus' clear teaching that "no one knows" the time of his return (Matt. 24:36, NIV), many respected prophecy experts tell us that "the signs of the times" clearly point to the year 2000 or 2007 as the deadline by which the Second Coming will happen. Combined with secular concerns, including the infamous "millennium bug" or Y2K (the problem of rewriting computer code throughout the world so that computers can recognize the year 2000), the growing global economic crisis, and sensational conspiracy theories, these extraordinary claims seem plausible on the surface. Combined with arguments from Bible prophecy, they seem most compelling.
Preachers as well-known as Pat Robertson and Jack Van Impe warn of a global, one-world government prophesied in the book of Revelation and backed by mysterious forces known as the Illuminati, working in league with the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission. Even the well-known Hal Lindsey of The Late Great Planet Earth fame has been known to tap into conspiracy theories to buttress his points about the end times. Often prophecy teachers cite occult literature, such as the prophecies of Nostradamus or various New Age or Masonic books, as corroborating evidence of an ancient spiritual conspiracy to transform the world according to occultic ideals.
Knowing full well that these teachings and others like them will only multiply in the year and-a-half leading up to the new millennium, we as Christians need to be, as Christ put it, "as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves" (Matt. 10:16, NIV), to "test the spirits to see whether they are from God" (1 John 4:1, NIV). Otherwise, we may be woefully deceived by impressive-sounding theories.
The key question is whether these teachings are occultic in nature. Paul frequently writes of God's revelation in Christ Jesus and revelation of His church as the unveiling of the ultimate mystery. In Christ, Paul writes, "are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:3, NIV). "I tell you this," he goes on to write, "so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments" (v. 4).
In the case of the Colossians, the "fine-sounding arguments" were based on an allegedly superior spiritual knowledge. In our case, they may very well be claims of a special knowledge about hidden conspiracies for a one-world government. This is not to say that most Bible prophecy interpreters are insincere, or bad people; only that the doctrines themselves are misleading and ought to be seriously questioned. How do these mystic teachings really stand up against Scripture?
A Personal Testimony
I'm certainly no stranger to this strand of conspiracy-theory Christianity. Growing up in an Adventist church, I learned about the prevailing dispensational premillennial view of end-time events as a child. At church camps I was taught about "the mark of the beast" as a computer chip, or something like it, to be inserted into our flesh and used as credit cards. I fantasized about growing up to be one of the mysterious "two witnesses" in Revelation who perform miracles before being martyred by a superhuman villain known as "the Antichrist."
As an intellectual teenager, I became fascinated with occult things generally. By the time I entered Bible college, I had come to believe that a secret occult group known as "the Illuminati," represented by the cryptic symbol of the all-seeing pyramid, was truly working "behind the scenes" to vie for world domination.
When I was eighteen, I wrote an article entitled "The Satanic Empire" which was published in my denomination's prophetic magazine, The Restitution Herald, in March of 1986. In keeping with my prevailing interest, I outlined a conspiracy theory focused on the occult. I wrote that Rosicrucianism, the Illuminati, and Freemasonry were different arms of the same global conspiracy, an ancient threat that dated back to the fallen angels described in Genesis 6:1-4 who married human wives. My primary sources included not only the Bible but the Pseudepigrapha, occult sources, and Nesta Webster's 1921 book World Revolution (Boston: Small, Maynard & Co.). I took each of these sources at face value.
During this time there was a huge surge of evangelical interest in the New Age movement. Constance Cumbey, in her 1983 book The Hidden Dangers of the Rainbow (Shreveport, LA: Huntington House), cited New Age claims about a soon-to-be revealed spiritual leader and combined them with the popular Christian interpretation of the Antichrist. (It is now commonplace to combine conspiracy theories with occult interpretations of Bible prophecy.)
In studying the New Age movement, I was providentially led to The New Age Rage by the Spiritual Counterfeits Project (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company), published a year after I had written "The Satanic Empire." Unlike many alarmist books, this one was a more rational Christian critique of the New Age movement. One key chapter, entitled "The Final Threat: Cosmic Conspiracy and End Times Speculation" was particularly challenging. Written partly in response to Cumbey, the chapter detailed the history of conspiracy theories and evaluated them rationally.
I learned that it wasn't always wise to believe the legends that occultists invent about themselves. And I was surprised to learn that Nesta Webster, upon whom I had relied so heavily for my information about the Illuminati, was a British fascist and anti-Semite. In later years I learned that my experience was by no means unique; many conspiracy theorists unwittingly draw on anti-Semitic sources. The offensive Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forgery from the French occult underground in the nineteenth century, outlines a fictitious plan by Zionists to blow up the major capitals of Europe. This book, and many like it, continue to be used by conspiracy theorists - including some Bible prophecy teachers - to this day. (Conspiracy books are never really discarded; they continue to circulate and become the basis of other conspiracy theories.)
The "Final Threat" essay was a critical turning point in my thinking; it precipitated my first steps away from fascination with the occult. Nevertheless, I was still intensely interested in Bible prophecy and what I could divine about the future from its cryptic codes.
I continued to believe in a future Antichrist, though early on I shunned the idea of a global Antichristian empire, literal mark of the beast, impending invasions from Russia (interpreted as the "Gog and Magog" of Ezekiel 38 and 39), and so on. However, after becoming a pacifist in Bible college, I began to think more about ethics, love, and principles that are diametrically opposed to the fear and paranoia engendered by the popular theories about the Antichrist. The more time went on, the more I struggled with those inherent contradictions.
Finally, in April of 1997, I came across a web page recommended by a friend of mine. The web page, written by a prophet named Monte Judah, taught that the last seven-year period of human history (the "seventieth week of Daniel") began with the signing of the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians, and that at the midpoint, March 21, 1997, the Antichrist and the false prophet (Prince Charles and the pope) would be in Jerusalem for the setting up of the abomination of desolation in a rebuilt Jewish temple. At that time the Great Tribulation would ensue and God's people would flee to the mountains. Of course, I was reading this two weeks after it was supposed to have happened.
I had seen dozens of false predictions come and go over the years, but this time I was shaken to the core. What disturbed me so much was that the prophet's interpretation of key Bible prophecy texts - Daniel 9:24-27, the Olivet Discourse, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, and Revelation - was identical to my own. True, Monte Judah had made particular identifications whereas I had not, but I found our mutual interpretation of Scripture unnerving.
Having lived in this tradition of interpretation all my life, I began to ask myself whether I had ever seen any good fruit emerge from this type of teaching. In fact, I had not. All I had ever seen were false predictions, failed hopes, and in some cases, tragedy. The teaching was also fundamentally contrary to the truths of nonviolence, peace, and God's complete revelation in Jesus Christ so clearly spelled out in the New Testament.
At that point, my belief in a future Antichrist finally snapped, and I have been reevaluating Bible prophecy ever since.
Anatomy of a Conspiracy
Of course, secret conspiracies have been around since the birth of politics. The genre of the conspiracy theory, however, is based on the premise that one really, really big conspiracy has been passed down for generations, perhaps for centuries or even since the beginning of time, through secretive circles of extremely powerful men. Nearly every conspiracy theory is either built on, or patterned after, the immensely popular Illuminati myth.
Though it's difficult to separate fact from fiction, historians do agree that the Illuminati, and its founder Adam Weishaupt, did exist. A disgruntled Jesuit, Weishaupt founded his secret society in 1776 in Bavaria, organizing it like a Masonic lodge. Weishaupt believed that through the Enlightenment the current established authorities could be dismantled. Though the group was disbanded by the government a few years later, Weishaupt and some of his ideas continued to be popular among some Freemasons, and some of Weishaupt's ideas cropped up again during the French revolution.
A Mason named John Robison authored a book in 1797 which claimed that Illuminism was the driving force behind the revolution - an idea which modern historians find difficult to digest. Nevertheless, the charge stirred up fears across the Atlantic in the newly formed United States, where both Federalists and anti-Federalists accused one another of collaborating with the Illuminati. Similarly, during the Civil War people on both sides accused each other of being tied to the elusive Illuminati threat.
Today, conspiracy theorists sometimes identify the Illuminati with the Council on Foreign Relations, or perhaps an inner circle within the CFR. Or perhaps they are international bankers, like the Rockefellers who have helped to fund the CFR. Jews, Masons, Catholics, and others are often implicated in the evil conspiracy.
However, the possibility that the Illuminati, or even its ideals, could have survived much beyond the French revolution is highly doubtful. By their very nature, secret political conspiracies are short-lived. Nor can revolutionary zeal for a cause be maintained for a sustained period of time; yet we are asked to believe that such revolutionary zeal has been kept alive for at least two centuries by masterminds who have charted the course of human history from the time of the French revolution right up to the present neo-liberal globalization. Such ideas stretch credulity to the breaking point.
In his 1997 book Selling Fear: Conspiracy Theories and End-Time Paranoia (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House), Gregory Camp does a superb job of chronicling and rationally critiquing every major development in the history of conspiracy theories, from the late eighteenth century right up to contemporary Bible prophecy interpreters. It is a heavily documented work and very worthwhile.
This sets Camp's book apart from the conspiracy theory books he reviews, most of which are inadequately documented, and even then usually with citations of previous conspiracy books. Often a combination of fact, fiction, and speculation to fill in the gaps, these worldly conspiracy theories have in common a deep suspicion of certain types of people (like Jews or Catholics), right-wing political views, and the capacity to create great fear. This foreboding world view is very different from the world view of the Bible, which acknowledges the existence of evil but calls us to faith in a supreme God who rules the universe.
The End Times & The Antichrist
The distinctively Christian flavor of conspiracy theories derives from the "apocalyptic" passages of the Bible. "Apocalyptic" is a type of ancient Jewish and Christian literature which uses allegory to help explain persecution during times of distress, emphasizing the sovereignty of God and the fact that evil will not win the day. Typical features of apocalyptic literature include visions of monsters (representing Gentile oppressors) and angelic interpreters. The Bible contains two apocalyptic books, Daniel and Revelation, and contains a few additional apocalyptic passages.
The closest modern equivalent of this literature is probably the political cartoon. Certain symbols, easily recognizable by the larger public, are used to convey a point. If someone from another time and culture were to pick up one of our newspapers and see a drawing of an elephant and a donkey facing off with boxing gloves, they could have a difficult time understanding the message. Most of us, however, would immediately recognize the political rivalry between Republicans and Democrats, probably in an election year.
Much of Bible prophecy is a lot like that. Writers and readers shared common understandings about symbols, some of which we can uncover from study, some of which are lost to us. As an example, Paul can briefly allude to something or someone restraining the power of wickedness without saying what that restraining force is, because his readers already knew it (2 Thess. 2:5,6). Unfortunately, we don't.
Ironically, none of the apocalyptic passages of the Bible ever uses the term "Antichrist." That term is found only in 1 and 2 John, where it describes people who have broken ranks with the apostles to spread false teachings which are contrary to Christ (1 John 2:18,19; 4:1-3; 2 John 7). However, by conflating "Antichrist" with the "man of sin" who seats himself in the temple of God (2 Thess. 2:1-12) and the military tyrant represented in Daniel, the prophetic interpreter may paint a picture of one superhuman archenemy who will rise in the "last days." Of course, this interpretation is held together by a thin thread and a host of presuppositions. I was well aware of this long before I rejected it.
The tyrant described in Daniel, represented by an animated horn and the vague title "king of the North," was Antiochus IV Epiphanes who desecrated the temple (8:11; 9:27; 11:31) and persecuted the Jews (7:25; 8:24,25). The "man of sin" in 2 Thessalonians is much more difficult to interpret, and we may never know exactly what Paul and his readers understood by this. However, it is noteworthy that within ten years of Paul's writing, an "apostasy" or rebellion did indeed break out against Rome, and a ruthless Zealot named John of Gischala did indeed occupy the temple and perform blasphemous acts, as recorded by Josephus.
The history of the Antichrist doctrine is a fascinating study in itself. John's warning about multiple antichrists was soon combined with the recent memory of such cruel dictators as Antiochus Epiphanes and Nero, both of whom persecuted God's covenant people (Jews in the former case, Christians in the latter). Throughout the Middle Ages, popes and kings often accused one another of being "the Antichrist." During the time of the Reformation, Protestants redefined the idea of "the Antichrist" from individual popes to the entire papacy. In 1585, a Jesuit priest named Ribera conceived of one particular future Antichrist, and this view eventually replaced the Protestant papal interpretation to become the dominant view in contemporary evangelicalism.
The larger-than-life, end-times Antichrist is generally associated with a three and-a-half year time period called "the Great Tribulation." That term comes from Daniel 12:1 and Jesus' Olivet Discourse, in which he predicted that a time of "great tribulation" would precede the conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans within one generation (Matt. 24:21; Mark 13:19; Luke 21:23). Projecting this prophecy into the distant future, interpreters have conflated that time of tribulation with the symbolic period of three and-a-half years described in Daniel and Revelation.
These events are popularly associated with "the end times" or "last days," i.e., the period immediately preceding the Second Coming. However, it should be noted that the New Testament never projects "the last days" into the distant future. For the writers of the New Testament, "these last days" began with the first coming of Christ (Heb. 1:2, NIV).
Nevertheless, Paul's well-known description of immorality "in the last days" is often cited as proof that the final immoral generation is finally upon us (2 Tim. 3:1-5). However, Paul wrote of those immoral people in the present tense (vv. 6-9), and warned Timothy to "have nothing to do with them" (v. 5, NIV).
We have been in "the last days," i.e., the final age of human history, ever since the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To apply the term only to the final generation of human history is without Scriptural foundation. The last days have already come. Antichrists and false prophets have been with us from the beginning; we don't need to wait for one really big Antichrist.
Though I remain a premillennialist who eagerly anticipates the soon return of Christ, I no longer believe that there are additional signs or predicted events which need to happen before Christ returns. We are closer to the consummation of all things than we once were simply by virtue of the passage of time. I do hope for the Lord's return in my lifetime as did all previous generations of Christians, but I cannot assume that my generation is the last. Christ may return in the near future, but he may not.
This does not seem to be the majority view among premillennialists. Specific signposts identified today include natural catastrophes, widespread immorality, and rapidly changing technology. Some of these signposts are open to interpretation; others aren't necessarily relevant, but are assumed to be. Other signposts involve conspiracy theories, often relating to globalization and the existence of the United Nations.
For the record, I don't believe that there will ever be a united one-world government on the earth. Even if there will be, it will look far different than the dictatorial government described by conspiracy theorists. Our global crises today, if anything, don't stem from unification but from fragmentation, from racial tensions, from economic inequities. International cooperation, not isolation, is what we need today.
But if the Bible predicts a one-world evil government, then my evaluation is grossly wrong. In fact many Christians oppose such institutions as the United Nations solely because they believe it to be the prophesied "beast" of Revelation. Enter the critical need for discernment: Should our evaluation of social conditions be rooted in observation, experience, and testing against the ethical mandates of the New Testament (such as good works, helping the oppressed, making peace)? Or rather in an interpretation of Bible prophecy?
One problem with the latter view is that the task of interpretation is not as straightforward as many prophecy teachers claim. In fact, there are many different ways of interpreting Revelation.
One is the "historicist" view. This view, which was the dominant one a hundred years ago, holds that Revelation predicts key events throughout all of church history, including the rise of Islam, the Protestant Reformation, Napoleon's battles, and various other events. The "beast" is then interpreted as the Roman Catholic Church.
The problem with this view is not only that it scandalizes other Christians (like Catholics); it also makes it very difficult to imagine how the early Christians could possibly have understood such a book. In addition, the wide variety of historicist interpretations demonstrates how unsound and ambiguous such interpretations are.
Another is the "futurist" view. The dominant view among evangelicals today, it holds that Revelation may or may not have had some meaning to the Christians of John's day, but its real focus is the current day. Of course, Christians have applied Revelation's prophecies to their own times throughout history. Nevertheless, our generation is said to be the last, and Revelation's prophecies are said to be predictions about specific governments, people, and events in our day.
This view is problematic in that it implies Revelation had little to say to previous generations. Furthermore, it too has produced a wide variety of ambiguous interpretations over the last century. Mussolini, Gorbachev, Saddam Hussein, and myriad other persons have been identified as the "Antichrist" in this view. Others are still holding out for a leader of the United Nations.
A third view is the "preterist" view. According to this interpretation, the persons and events prophesied in Revelation were all fulfilled prior to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The beast is identified as Nero, and the tribulation period confined to the first century. This view is common among postmillennialists and Reconstructionists, who like to put the church's time of tribulation in the distant past so that the future remains open to the church's triumph or conquest on the earth prior to Jesus' return.
This view is problematic, not only in that it requires a pre-A.D. 70 date for Revelation (which most scholars would reject), but also in that it implies the book has little continuing relevance to other Christians.
A fourth view is the "idealistic" view. The strength of this view is that it presupposes that Revelation's prophecies can apply equally to each generation without exhausting the meaning of its symbols or canceling out its meaning for other generations. Revelation had great meaning for the people of the first century, who understood its prophecies and applied it to themselves; but it also has great meaning for all Christians in all times and in all places.
In this view, the symbols of Revelation describe political realities in the first century, but they're described in a timeless, allegorical way that lend themselves to application in a variety of settings. This view is well articulated by Vernard Eller in his 1974 book, The Most Revealing Book of the Bible: Making Sense out of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Pub. Co.). A couple of the following examples are from Eller's book.
A key passage in Revelation, chapter 12, provides a broad sketch of Revelation's outline. The scene opens with a celestial woman with twelve stars on her head, undoubtedly representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Israel is about to give birth to "a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter" (v. 5, NIV); the reference is undoubtedly to Christ (cp. 2:26,27). However, there is an adversary; the devil, represented by the symbol of a dragon (v. 9), plans to devour the male child. But the devil's plan is foiled; Christ is caught up into heaven (v. 5). The woman then flees into the wilderness to be protected "for 1,260 days" (v. 6, NIV), or three and-a-half years (cp. v. 14).
This provides us with a starting-point for the symbolic three and-a-half year period. As half of seven, the perfect number, three and-a-half describes the present age, which began with the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. At that time "there was war in heaven" (v. 7, NIV) and the devil was cast out (cp. John 12:31). The death blow had been dealt; the war was won at the cross. Nevertheless, minor skirmishes remain to play out. Knowing that the war is lost and his time is short, the devil sets out to do as much damage as he can, particularly to God's covenant people, now redefined as the church (vv. 13-17). Yet God has not abandoned his people during this period (vv. 6, 14-16).
Chapter 11 corroborates this church-age interpretation. The key figures there are two witnesses who prophesy for that same symbolic three and-a-half year period (vv. 2,3). Verse 4 symbolically describes them as "the two olive trees and two lampstands that stand before the Lord" (NIV), a reference to Zechariah 2-4 (Revelation uses more Old Testament imagery than any other New Testament book). As Eller points out, trees provide fruit and lamps produce light; both fitting symbols for the church. Why there are two witnesses is not as clear; it may just be that John is staying close to his source in Zechariah. It may also be that he intends to portray the church as Gentile and Jew together.
But there is more. Their activities - preventing rain, turning water to blood, striking the earth with plagues (v. 6) - are obvious references to both Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets as the precursor of the church. The deadly fire from their mouths (v. 5) is not a literal weapon, but an image meaning that their (our) testimony will not be silenced. Though we may be martyred for our testimony as was Jesus, we will rise again as did Jesus (vv. 7-12).
Symbolic imagery representing the church crops up all through the book. Another key example is the description of the New Jerusalem in chapter 21. John's angelic "tour guide" says "Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the lamb" (v. 9, NIV). But what he actually shows John is something called "the Holy City, Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God" (v. 11, NIV). The identification is clear, somewhat like the allegorical Jerusalem from "above" in Galatians 4:26 and the spiritual Mount Zion described in Hebrews 12:22-24.
Now it is commonplace for Bible interpreters to take all this quite literally, to measure out how many miles across this heavenly city is going to be ("12,000 stadia" is about 1,400 miles - a little wide for the country of Israel). But that is to miss John's point. Twelve thousand is a symbolic number (12 times 1,000), as is the 144 cubits of the walls' thickness (12 times 12). Each of the twelve gates is identified as one of the twelve tribes of Israel (v. 12). The twelve foundations are identified as the twelve apostles (v. 14). The building is the church, the type of spiritual building described in Ephesians 2:19-22 and 1 Peter 2:5. The precious stones making up the heavenly city reflect the twelve stones of the priestly ephod (vv. 19-21), and the city has no temple (v. 22). The picture is of the perfected church in the age to come; the guiding principle is the priesthood of all believers.
Now that we have demonstrated how this way of interpreting Revelation works, we can say a few words about how "the beast" and "the mark of the beast" may be interpreted. First, that "all inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast" (v. 8, NIV) does not necessarily imply a one-world government. It is not as if this prophecy could never have been fulfilled before the globalization of the twentieth century. John's readers would likely not have taken it that literally. Using hyperbole, Luke described Rome as being a worldwide empire (Luke 2:1); not literally covering the whole earth, but as being a mighty empire. Similarly, Daniel's prophecies describe Babylon and Greece as covering the whole earth (Dan. 2:38,39), though they did not do so literally. That John's readers would have regarded the language as universal is clear, but its meaning could apply to the earth as they knew it at the time. John's readers would not have required further geopolitical development to apply the language to their own situation, and we should not assume that it applies to our day more than it applied to theirs.
That their "beast" was Rome is difficult to deny. It was Rome that oppressed the church; it was "Mystery Babylon" which sat upon the seven hills of Rome (17:9), "drunk with the blood of the saints" (v. 6, NIV), the economic oppressor enslaving the lower classes (18:11-13).
It would be missing the point, however, to apply the bestial images strictly to Rome, perhaps first in John's day and then maybe a "revived Rome" or united Europe in our day. Though these images represented Roman oppression to the early Christians, the images are timeless in nature. The prostitute is blamed for the deaths "of all who have been killed on the earth" (18:24); she is the archetypal oppressor, whatever worldly power or force that has created oppression.
Similarly, the mark of the beast described in 13:16-18 is not a literal mark, like a UPC code, a debit card, a computer chip, or a rubber ink stamp. It is in fact something far more sinister than that.
That the mark isn't literal should be apparent from the way it mirrors God's mark. In the very next verse, 14:1, John describes God's people "who had his [the Lamb's] name and his Father's name written on their foreheads" (NIV). This mark can also be found in 9:4 ("the seal of God on their foreheads," NIV). It is not a literal mark, but a symbol representing God's ownership of us, the presence of His Spirit (cp. Eph. 1:13). In the same way, the world would like to dictate the way we think (hence the mark on the forehead) and what we do (hence the mark on the hand). It is difficult to get very far in this world without "selling out."
This makes more sense to me than microchips. After all, my spiritual commitments are not reflected in whether I use a debit card instead of checks or cash to make my purchases. Granted, what I do with my resources reflects my spirituality; but the technology relative to how economic transactions are made has no spiritual bearing. Hence we are going to miss the point entirely if we wait around for microchip-in-the-hand technology, and may actually accept the mark of the beast unwittingly by allowing worldliness, greed, and sin to dictate our lives. This interpretation makes the prophecy much more relevant to our own lives.
This approach to Bible prophecy prevents us from getting too specific in identifying "the beast." In fact it is noteworthy that more literal interpretations are often combined with survivalist ideals; one has only to take a look about on the world wide web to see Christians talking about stocking up on food and guns to wait out a coming tribulation period. By contrast, however, Revelation depicts the saints nonviolently overcoming the world "by the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony" (12:11, NIV).
These two ways of approaching Revelation could not be more at odds. How we interpret Bible prophecy has a great deal to say about how we live our Christian lives. Do we live in fear of global conspiracies, or in anticipation of glory?
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