On Conspiracy Theories and Christianity: Part 2, Turning the Return of Christ into a Grand Conspiracy Theory

In their 2014 study of conspiracy theories--"Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style(s) of Mass Opinion" in the American Journal of Political Science--Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood identified belief in "end times" theology as the most robust and significant predictor of belief in conspiracy theories. 

Oliver and Wood assessed end times belief with the item "We are currently living in the End Times as foretold by Biblical prophecy." Among all the variables they looked at--from ethnicity to education to political beliefs to beliefs in the paranormal to religiosity--Oliver and Wood concluded: "The strongest predictor of conspiracism is agreement with the End Times statement."

Perhaps the biggest driver of belief in conspiracy theories among evangelicals is dispensational theology. In the words of Andrew Gardner, dispensationalism "turned the return of Christ into a grand conspiracy."

Dispensationalism, which emerged among American evangelicals in the early 1800s, did this by weaving a predictive tapestry from apocalyptic material found in the book of Daniel, the Synoptic Gospels, and the book of Revelation--from the rapture to the thousand year (millennial) reign of Christ to the Antichrist to the Battle of Armageddon to the Second Coming. Study Bibles, with extensive cross-referencing, like the popular Scofield Bible, helped readers follow the predictive thread running through Scripture. With this prophetic system worked out, dispensationalists could read current events looking for signs of the Rapture, the rise of the Antichrist, and the Second Coming of Christ. In more recent memory, dispensationalist thinking broke into the mainstream with the best-selling Left Behind series. 

The are many different varieties of dispensationalist thought, but taken as a whole one can appreciate Gardner's point that dispensationalism turned the return of Christ into a grand conspiracy theory. To start, as pointed out in the last post, dispensationalism posits a Manichean battle between Good and Evil, the forces of Christ warring against the forces of the Antichrist. But dispensationalism goes further and asks its adherents to read into "the signs of the times" meaningful, and ominous, connections. This is the very stuff of conspiratorial thinking, making causal connections between disparate and unrelated events as evidence of unseen and malevolent forces at work on the world. In short, as training you in a habit of thinking and seeing the world, dispensationalism is what spiritual formation looks like if you want people to endorse conspiracy theories. 

This explains why Oliver and Wood found that end times belief was the #1 predictor of conspiracy  theories. Dispensationalism is a school of conspiratorial belief.

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