The Thessalonian church had a problem. False teachers, claiming Paul had taught that the second coming of Jesus had already occurred, had infiltrated the community. The Thessalonians had plenty of evidence these claims were false, but some believed them, and Paul had to coax the church back to reality. As he closed his attempt to set the record straight, Paul described what would happen before Jesus returns.
“The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved”(2 Thess. 2:9, 10; NIV, italics supplied).
Paul didn’t assert that the miracles, signs, and wonders would be such perfect counterfeits that no one would be able to recognize the deception. He wrote that many would be deceived and perish because they refused to love the truth. By extrapolation, this means that anyone who loves the truth won’t be deceived and won’t perish. It’s becoming apparent that Paul’s prediction is being fulfilled in our time.
Through the years the premise of absolute truth has become increasingly fragile. Less than a hundred years ago, if an attendee at an Adventist evangelistic meeting could be convinced that their belief was erroneous and that the evangelist’s beliefs were Scripture-based and true, the listener took it for granted that they must accept the new truth.
It’s not so today. Popular perception is that truth is flexible. The truth doesn’t exist, and therefore truth can legitimately differ from person to person. Taken to its logical end, this means that lying doesn’t exist either because nothing is absolutely true. Facts are no longer necessarily accepted, and the wildest conspiracy theories are considered viable alternatives.
More balanced media outlets are, understandably, reacting strongly against conspiracy theories. And their arguments against conspiracy theories are reasonable, but doesn’t seem to call forth a resonating response from those who choose to believe such theories. By their own admission, those who do believe state that no amount of evidence will convince them that their favorite conspiracy theory is false.
Although I applaud the media’s backlash against false conspiracy theories, I anticipate a future problem. Those who reject outlandish conspiracy theories are also scornfully laughing at those who believe them because it’s astonishing that anyone would be deceived by such foolishness. This is where Seventh-day Adventists will soon face a challenge because we do believe in a conspiracy, and have been preaching about it for more than 170 years.
Our conspiracy goes like this: An evil being from a place called heaven has been quietly working in the background for thousands of years to arrange a massive deception that will climax before a man who died two thousand years ago floats down on a cloud from outer space. The agents of this evil angel have infiltrated the Christian church, and are actively eroding key biblical truths. Eventually the United States government, followed by all other earthly governments, backed by the apostate Christian church, will begin to force everyone to accept their version of truth. And part of this deception will include fantastic supernatural signs and miracles that no human is able to perform. All this will convince the world that the counterfeit is actually genuine.
This conspiracy sounds as similar (and as ridiculous) as the others swirling around today to anyone who doesn’t accept the Bible as the inspired word of God, or to those who have different interpretations of key Bible prophecies. Can we blame reasonable people for responding to this conspiracy theory by rolling their eyes and thinking, Here we go again?
I’m convinced that Satan is succeeding phenomenally in conditioning our world to reject the idea of his last great deception as just one more foolish conspiracy theory by ignorant Christians. As usual, Satan has two extremes, and he is happy if we will invest in either. One extreme is to believe any number of fake conspiracy theories so that when the real one comes, it gets lost and confused with the others. The other extreme is to scorn all conspiracy theories, so that when the real one appears it is immediately rejected with the rest.
Handling the Coming Problem
So how should Adventists handle this coming problem?
It may come as a surprise, but I recommend advising people to be prepared to believe the things they hear. Not to believe everything, of course, but be prepared to believe anything that passes certain tests. Why? Because if we love the truth, we must test everything in order to determine what is true. Lovers of truth don’t want to discard the truth if it arrives looking like everything else that they have rejected as false. After all, that is what counterfeits are: things that seem so close to genuine that it’s difficult to recognize the fake. If we love the truth, we must accept the reality that when surrounded by counterfeits, we must do some work to identify what is genuine. The plethora of false conspiracies currently making the rounds can be useful if we use them as practice for learning how to distinguish between the true and the false.
As a teenager, I bought a counterfeit Rolex watch in Singapore. I took it into a Rolex store in the United States just to see how good a counterfeit it was. The manager looked up as I walked through the door, and from across the room he locked eyes onto the watch in my hand. Without a moment’s hesitation he called out dryly, “It’s fake.” He knew the real thing so well that he could spot a counterfeit from across the store. We must learn to do the same with situations, news, social media, advertising, etc. Unfortunately, with good counterfeits we cannot simply trust our instincts because we are biased, and we tend to believe what we want to believe. We must learn discernment by practice.
How to Spot Counterfeits
Here are a few ways to investigate and distinguish between truth and falsehood, even when we must push against our own biases. And we should apply these tests not only to Satan’s final great deception but to whether we should believe Elvis is still alive, or that Bill Gates developed COVID-19, or if a statistic or story that appears on social media is accurate or a fake.
But first a warning: To do this investigation properly, we must commit to following the truth no matter where it leads, even if it means giving up our own favorite conspiracy theory, public figure, or anything else. With so many people believing lies, following the truth is increasingly unpopular. The lover of truth must resolve in the heart to seek truth no matter where it leads. The situations we face today are dress rehearsals for how to handle Satan’s final great deception, which is already in progress.
Here are five biblical steps to help differentiate between true and false.
Step 1: Admit Your Limitations
Admit you don’t know enough. Proverbs 3:5 counsels us not to lean on our own understanding, and verse 7 counsels us not to be wise in our own eyes. The one who believes he possesses sufficient knowledge within himself to distinguish all truth from all falsehood will certainly be deceived.
Step 2: Ask for Wisdom
Ask God for wisdom. James 1:5 tells us that if we lack wisdom, we should ask God, who will give it generously. Knowing that Satan is a master counterfeiter, the person who loves the truth will ask daily for the God-given ability to discern between truth and falsehood.
Step 3: Listen
Listen to the Holy Spirit. According to 1 Corinthians 4:2, the truth should commend itself to your conscience. One who loves the truth and has asked God for wisdom will listen carefully for the inner voice of the Spirit of God. If something seems slightly wrong, even if you cannot identify exactly what it is—or even if you want to believe it is true—the person who loves the truth will take time to identify and pay attention to God’s voice.
Step 4: Continuing Education
Never stop gaining an education. One of Satan’s strategies is to keep people in ignorance and, incredibly, even to value ignorance as a virtue. But reading through Proverbs, God states outright that He values education and careful thinking, counseling us to obtain learning and knowledge at all costs (Prov. 4:7). This doesn’t necessarily mean acquiring advanced degrees. It applies to ordinary situations. For instance, if one has never fixed the brakes on a car, they ought to find the manual and educate themselves before doing it. Similarly, test and confirm any and every rumor. Check it out, seek out what is true, and be prepared to accept or reject it based on trustworthy sources and evidence.
This step, however, comes with a caution. Not every source is trustworthy. That’s why we research the people we hire to work on our cars, our houses, and our health. We are surrounded by counterfeits, so we know we must choose carefully whom to trust. Each time we investigate someone to see if we can trust them, we prove the Bible is right. Education is not the enemy. Ignorance is.
Step 5: Read the Fruit
We must trust someone: how do we determine who is trustworthy? It is easiest to listen to those who say what we want to hear, but lovers of truth won’t be content with stacking the deck. Jesus provided clear instruction for determining whom to trust. Each person wears a collection of signs that are either warning or recommendation signs.
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matt. 7:15-20; NIV, italics supplied).
The fruits we bear are the signs we wear that reveal our characters. The Bible provides several lists of dependable signs that reveal character (e.g., Gal. 5:19-23; 1 Tim. 1:9, 10; and Phil. 4:8). Everything necessary to determine who is safe to listen to, support, trust, and follow can be recognized by their fruits. Simply check their behavior (and the behavior of those they call friends) through these lists. If the fruit is rotten, then no matter their other redeeming qualities—education, position, politics, or beliefs—none can be trusted because Jesus warned us that a bad tree cannot produce good fruit. “Read” the fruit. We can’t safely give someone a pass when their fruit warns us to turn away.
Summing It Up
We are surrounded by counterfeits. According to Scripture, the only way to differentiate the genuine from the false is to love the truth and to accept it, even when we don’t like it. If we love the truth, we won’t be deceived, even when the greatest conspiracy of all time convinces most of the world.
Jeff Scoggins is planning director for Adventist Mission at the General Conference.