From the very beginning, the church has contended with a conspiracy theory about its central claim – that Jesus rose from the dead. Philosopher MRX Dentith says a conspiracy theory can be any interpretation of an event which cites a conspiracy as a chief cause. Of course, it’s more complex than this. Conspiracy theories today have moral and political consequences. They also carry social stigma. But, at least in this limited way, you can see how Christianity and conspiracy theory have always related to one another.
The church’s earliest witness to the resurrection emerged alongside a counter-narrative that claimed his disciples stole the body. In other words, a conspiracy theory. Gospel writer Matthew explains how the chief priests paid off the Roman guards, who were keeping an eye on the tomb of Jesus, with a story. The story seemed legitimate because people trusted the authority of the priesthood. This proved to be a potent connection. Some 40-70 years later, Matthew tells his readers, “so they took the money and did as they were directed; and this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.” This dynamic repays careful consideration as conspiracy theories take root in Christian communities today.
Ceding the secular criticism
It’s not hard to sympathize with those who are critical about a perceived link between a Christian imagination and a commitment to conspiracism which, in turn, breeds political extremism. Sociologically, research continues to confirm this link. But I’ve also heard it expressed like this. “If you actually believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the resurrected Son of God” some say, “then why wouldn’t you also believe there’s a pedophilia ring operating out of a Washington D.C. pizza parlor?”
In this criticism, the resurrection of Jesus is implicated as being just as irrational as the QAnon conspiracy theory. In this sense, Q, the originator of the eponymous conspiracy theory, and Christ seem to hang together in their delusions. Is there anything which can separate them? Edgar Welch heard enough. He had just spent three days deep in the QAnon rabbit hole watching video after video. Now, he decided, was the time to act. Grabbing his AR-15, he drove to the DC pizza joint Q claimed (and he believed) was a front for a Democrat pedophilia ring. But he never found the pedophilia ring. The only thing he found was a four-year prison sentence.
Taking the claims of Jesus seriously invites us to consider an empty tomb in place of a pizza parlor. But, unlike Welch, this isn’t a place to which we can drive. I think David Bentley Hart is right when he observes there is something “positively absurd” in balancing the “whole edifice of eternal truth” on a “fleeting temporal episode” that occurred over the course of one weekend in Jerusalem. And without the fantasy of a time machine, without the possiblity of pure historical reconstruction, we stand looking across this void, wondering what exactly to make of the scandalous possibility of an empty tomb.
The church exists in this void.
The church, if it is anything, is a sustained witness over time to an event and its meaning. Both of these matter. The church continues to interpret an incredible event: Jewish women showed up that Easter morning expecting to find Jesus’ body, and didn’t. But this event, to which the church attests, that of an empty tomb, is nothing without its meaning. The historical record alone can’t provoke the crisis which invites us to consider Jesus as anything more than a Jewish itinerrant rabbi excecuted by Rome as an insurrectionist. But the church's witness exists to provoke this crisis. It’s the same crisis obscured in Matthew’s time, as he reminded his readers that many people still believed the narrative of the authorities.
Like the earliest witness to the resurrection, it is faith in the risen Lord that constitutes and determines the church, not merely the fact of an empty tomb. Many want to disrupt conspiracy theory in the church on rational grounds, without realizing that the central claim of the church itself can’t completely rest on this plot of land. This is why I so appreciated Alistair McGrath article on this site about the place of the Creeds in fuelling the Christian imagination.
The Christian faith can’t be judged solely in rational terms without ceasing to be faith. And so, Christians cannot cede the resurrection of Jesus to the standards of rationality or bare history. But they can admit the criticism of outsiders who note that the Christian imagination can get bound up in an extremism in which conspiracy theories play a significant part. This is a moral and theological problem. But it has a solution.