Henry Ford (1863–1947), founder of the Ford Motor Company, famously said, “History is bunk.” That may be sometimes true. Historians do make mistakes. This is why all histories must be read with a critical eye. Not all theories of history are equally valid. Some of them do not do what any good theory must do, namely, explain the evidence. Still, some theories are attractive because they offer a comprehensive explanation of the past (or the present) and they are relatively simple to grasp and they do not require a lot of work. E.g., one popular historical theory says that most things are the result of the dialectical struggle between classes. According to this theory most historical phenomena can be explained by the ongoing attempt by the upper classes to oppress, for their own benefit, the working classes. Frankly, given such a theory one need not pay a great deal of attention to the facts in any particular instance because, well, we already know how the story turns out. Under such a theory the only job left to the historian is to sort out who are the good guys (the oppressed) and the bad guys (the oppressors).
When Ford declared history to be bunk (and “more or less bunk”) he spoke for a lot of practical, hard-working, business-minded Americans who had little time or interest in thinking about the distant past. In some ways America represents a break from and/or flight from the past. Because we are a busy, prosperous people, because our public education system has adopted silly theories about what constitutes education, Americans and (it seems) particularly evangelicals are especially prone to theories to explain events past and present that can be learned in a two-hour film. The Da Vinci Code is a great example of this phenomenon. Most American Christians could not tell you when the fourth century was (the 300s AD) but many of them watched the film and some of them read the book and suspect that it is more or less correct. The past is more complicated than that but the book/film relies on a conspiracy theory and we Americans like them. There are conspiracy theories about the Trilateral Commission, the Masons, the CIA, the FBI, the Moon Landing, and most recently and perhaps most bizarrely of all, that the earth is actually flat and there has been a conspiracy to create the impression that the earth is round.
They are fun as entertainment but they fail as explanations for what actually happened. The DaVinci Code does not begin to explain how the early church developed, when Gnosticism actually developed or how, or when how the canon of Scripture developed but conspiracy theories are just so attractive—they are the crack cocaine of theories. One hit and some are hooked for life. They produce a euphoria that the brain wants again and again. They give the illusion of explanation the same way that the ball player on cocaine thinks he is playing brilliantly when, in fact, his teammates wish he were not playing at all.1
This is not to say that conspiracies or cover ups never happen. Christians know that there was a conspiracy to cover up the truth about the resurrection of Jesus:
While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day (Matt 28:11–15; ESV).
That there was a conspiracy must be known after the fact in light of the evidence. One cannot approach an episode knowing a priori whatever happened must be explained by a conspiracy. Matthew did not engage in conspiracy theorizing. After learning what the authorities did, he reported that fact. Indeed, he took something of a risk in reporting for the very reason that he risked damaging his credibility as a writer by reporting the cover up.
Here are three reasons why sane, reasonable people should shun conspiracy theories:
- They are resistant to facts. The first and most important way to critique an explanation or a theory about an event is with facts, things that actually happened. Contrary to the way people have begun to speak about facts in recent years, there are not different kinds of facts, e.g., “biased facts” as distinct from unbiased facts. There are competing interpretations of the facts but there are not biased facts. By definition a fact is a thing that is. Our word fact is an abbreviation of the Latin perfect passive participle from the verb facere, to do. A fact is a thing that has been done or has occurred. Either the Americans landed a spacecraft on the moon in 1969 or they did not. The facts as rational people know them are that a rocket left the earth’s atmosphere, the command module separated from the rocket, and the lunar module landed on the Moon. The two rejoined after the landing and returned to the earth. We saw it in black and white, on our televisions and with our eyes. Is it possible that the whole thing was a giant hoax, a show set on a sound stage or in the desert somewhere? Such hoax might be possible but the evidence against the hoax-conspiracy theory is overwhelming. There are still astronauts living who can give first-hand testimony. There are literally millions of people who watched the landing live and who saw the rocket leave the earth. There are hundreds of people in NASA who participated in the project. To conspiracy theorists, however, anyone who says that they participated in the project or even landed on the moon, is just part of conspiracy. There is no fact or evidence that can overturn a conspiracy theory. An evidence-resistant theory is a bad theory.
- History is more both more simple and more complicated than conspiracy theories allow. Conspiracy theories are typically wildly complicated. This is why they make for popular novels and films. There are lots of moving parts. There is intrigue, tension, and mystery. In history the story is usually much simpler and more complex than conspiracy theories allow. Sometimes unlikely things happen. Looking back, that young men wanted to take flight training but had no interest in landing the aircraft should have been a warning signal. Perhaps it was and no one listened to the warnings? The best explanation of the evidence is that well-organized terrorists found a series of weaknesses in our security system and capitalized on them to pull off a devastating attack. The best explanation for President Kennedy’s assassination is that a crazed lone shooter made a difficult and even unlikely shot. The other explanations have too many moving parts, too many unwarranted assumptions about what “must be.”At the same time, conspiracy theories typically over-simplify the evidence. They flatten out ambiguities and difficulties. They do this because they are a form of rationalism. They know what can be and what must be and whatever does not fit their net (theory) must not be. This critique holds for explanations of history that reduce everything to expressions of the class struggle. Such explanations ignore evidence to the contrary and the complexity of human motivations. Sometimes people do things for reasons that do not fit a conspiracy theory.
- They are lazy. Conspiracy theories relieve the theorist from doing any real investigation. Such theories confirm biases (“the world is stacked against me”) and replace the drudgery required to find out what really happened or to discover that we really do not know why an event happened with fevered speculation, which is fun and great fodder for talk shows and social media but poor scholarship. The authorities probably do not know why the Las Vegas shooter murdered all those people from his hotel room. It is more titillating to speculate about an alleged cover up by the Sheriff’s department or by some other bogeyman. Real investigation entails hours and years of painstaking work. It is expensive of time and money. It involves dead ends and, in the end, it may prove inconclusive but the conspiracy theorist has skipped all that and cut straight to the end of the process: a dead sure answer on the basis of 107 minute film or a cheap, ill-conceived novel.
As Christians we know that the world was made to be known and we were made to know it. That is Paul’s teaching in Romans chapters 1 and 2. The natural world testifies to God’s existence and to other basic facts. We are able to perceive that revelation. Further, our consciences testify within us to their truth. Sin certainly obscures our sense experience and clouds our faculties but despite the damage caused by the fall, facts are still facts. As Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987) argued, there is no such thing as “brute facts,” i.e., facts without any ultimate (final) interpretation. God is the author of reality and he gets to interpret the significance of all facts. We creatures are obligated, as Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) said, to be “thinking God’s thoughts after him.” As his image bearers we are his analogues. We seek to bring our minds into conformity with his as he has revealed it in holy Scripture.
There are mysteries in the world and there are cover ups but there is also plain truth that can and must be known and the truths of more complex matters can usually be known, over time, when we search diligently. As we do, we must be prepared to follow the evidence honestly and to tell the truth (what was or what is) as best we can according to the evidence available to us. Conspiracy theories do not help us do that and thus should be discarded by honest truth seekers.
1. In his autobiography Bill Russell testified that he took “uppers” once during his career and that very thing happened. He thought that he was playing a terrific ballgame but his sober teammates thought that he had played, unusually for Russell, one of the great defensive players in the history of basketball, very poorly.