Exercising discernment in an age of misinformation
Published: 10 August 2021 (GMT+10)
Originally published in a CMI newsletter, February 2021
I remember my first experience with bad Internet information. My college roommate had burned herself badly and, not knowing what to do, we looked up remedies on the Internet, and found that something we had in the room could be used on burns! We quickly found out that was a bad idea, and that one should take medical advice on the Internet with a grain of salt. My roommate was treated by an actual doctor and our brief foray into Internet medical advice left no lasting damage.
In the years since that misadventure, harmful and untrue information has only proliferated, sometimes even favored by social media algorithms that encourage its spread. Anyone, regardless of their knowledge or credentials, can start a blog or YouTube channel and spread their agendas and ignorance to possibly millions of people. In a celebrity-driven culture they can even seem more authoritative than a real expert.
Some misinformation is relatively harmless. But we regularly receive emails from people who have bought into information such as flat earth beliefs, and even some that could be deadly, such as untruthful anti-mainstream medicine propaganda. Others spread information that is spiritually deadly, which is worse, like putting their own doctrinal emphases to determine if people are saved or not. Others have end-times scenarios far outside the realms of orthodoxy for any branch of Christianity.
As Christians, we have the responsibility to exercise discernment, which is an important and rational characteristic of the spiritually mature person (Hebrews 5:14). How can Christians tell good information from bad and be responsible in what information they spread via social media? We would suggest several possible principles.
Don’t automatically distrust ‘authorities’
A common thread in all conspiracy theories is that the authorities have been corrupted by the government, liberals (theological or political), or other shadowy antagonists. If one subscribes to this, then the facts do not matter and are rejected no matter what. That is not discernment but conspiratorial foolishness. The purveyor of alternate information has somehow discovered ‘the truth’ and now seeks to spread this to as many people as possible.
Many people don’t seem to appreciate that many scientific and theological disciplines take years of study to understand well. People who are not within this stream of scholarship who try to teach themselves may stumble on discredited ideas or old debates that have been long-resolved by those with expertise in the field. Rather than understanding these things in their historical context, they believe that these ideas have been suppressed for evil reasons, and experts within ‘the establishment’ are at best misled (dupes), and at worst actively continuing to suppress the truth. CMI has even been accused of this for refuting some unbiblical and unscientific ideas.
Some might think CMI would be sympathetic to this line of thinking. After all, what idea has been more suppressed by mainstream science than biblical creation? Sadly, we often hear “I don’t trust science or scientists.” But scientists are developing mainstream medicines, for example. Good medicines help to heal the sick, which is a good biblical premise following Jesus’ examples, because He realized that those He healed were afflicted by the Genesis 3 Curse. Scientists who develop and produce medicines are normal human beings like you and I. Would they develop ‘poisons’ under the guise of medicines and give them to their own families? So all scientists have a lot more in common than one might think.
Our disagreements are nearly all to do with ‘historical science’—how they interpret the evidence to reconstruct the past, meaning we have historical, not truly scientific, differences with mainstream science. In short, one should not confuse historical science with any or all forms of science as a reason to dismiss the latter. Therefore, we encourage parents to teach their children biblical creation while still at home. In higher education they will see fossils and rocks, for example, presented as evidence for evolution, when they could equally be presented as evidence for Noah’s Flood. Teaching them to discern is the key.
It’s also worth noting that ‘mainstream’ authorities are not the only ones who can be wrong or controlled by motives other than truth. There are many professing Christians on the Internet peddling spectacular misinformation, we suspect for fame and for Google advert revenue. As Christians, we have a duty to tell the truth, and this includes refusing to disseminate lies. For example, initially someone might not agree with everything CMI says because of a viewpoint they heard elsewhere. But everything (yes everything) we publish anywhere, has been vetted and peer reviewed. Who has checked the one-man type ‘experts’ with large Internet or social media followings? This is not to self-aggrandize at all but to encourage the Scriptural admonition about discernment “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14).
Check that your assumptions are biblical
Often, unbiblical assumptions lie at the heart of conspiracy theories. For instance, people have preconceived ideas about the nature of reality or end times that they bring to Scripture, rather than deriving their beliefs from Scripture itself. We often object when people add millions of years to Scripture, for example, but almost everyone does this at some time or another by using the text to support their ‘ideas’. This is not the correct way to interpret Scripture, which is to use Scripture to interpret itself.
Even unbiblical assumptions can quote alleged biblical ‘proof-texts’ to give them a veneer of authority. You can tell that this is happening when other biblical passages that might challenge these assumptions are downplayed or left out.
Does this divide or unify Christians?
In Jesus’ high priestly prayer, He prayed that His followers would be as unified as He is with the Father: “that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11). While there are many denominations of Christianity, believers are unified by central or core beliefs that we have in common. Interdenominational cooperation is possible because Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists agree on the Gospel and the core doctrines of Christianity, though they may disagree on secondary doctrines.
Sometimes division is sadly necessary when people advocate false doctrine. We’ve often pointed out that it is those who do not accept and teach a plain or common interpretation of Scripture who are actually being divisive. If someone’s non-Gospel beliefs are causing division, that should be a real red flag as to whether this is something that a Christian should be pursuing, because it’s clearly bearing fruit that isn’t in line with Jesus’ will that His followers would be united.
At CMI, we have the privilege of ministering to all sorts of evangelical churches, from Assembly of God, Calvary Chapels to Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, from Southern Baptist to Presbyterian. We have seen how biblical creation can be a major unifying factor for believers from all denominations and how it encourages and energizes believers to share their faith. But note, despite requests, we do not go to non-Trinitarian churches, for example. This is because the doctrine of the Trinity goes to the core of who the Creator is.
Does this help or hinder the Gospel?
Our primary concern should be spreading the Gospel and encouraging those who already believe. Thus, CMI exists to affirm the authority of Scripture and thus encourage people to stand firm in their faith and evangelize others.
One harmful effect of misinformation is that people focusing on the unscientific, heretical, and downright weird Internet ideas are, at worst, being led away and leading others away from the truth, and like a wildfire it can spread. If a professing Christian is more excited about promoting a flat earth conspiracy theory than the Gospel, it is safe to say that person has lost the plot!
Even if the world was flat and there were nefarious new world order Jesuit lizard people secretly controlling world governments to hide the truth, what would God want us to do about it? We already know God’s plan, and He has already given us our ‘marching orders’—we are supposed to obey the Great Commission.
Does biblical creation fit these criteria?
Some skeptics note that our refutations of the flat earth and our position on vaccination are very scientifically and scripturally based and are puzzled that people who are so scientific and logical in these areas would insist that the earth is only 6,000 years old! Is biblical creation an unscientific, divisive fringe belief?
As we’ve already suggested, biblical creation bears the fruit of encouraging and unifying Christians. It is also a belief we derive from Scripture, as opposed to compromising long-age beliefs which must be read into Scripture. Biblical creation allows us to see the Bible’s ‘big story’ of Creation/Fall/Redemption/Restoration in a beautiful narrative arc that makes sense in a way that death before the Fall (a necessary corollary of all long-age beliefs) doesn’t.
The future is a Paradise, not a dystopia
Christians currently await the return of Christ to reign over the earth. At that time, He will manifest His victory over sin and death. This future reign is certain; nothing can stop God’s victory over sin. So as Christians, we should be characterized by great joy and hope, not despair and hatred. As unexpected as world events might be to us, nothing surprises God.
While believers have Paradise to look forward to, the grim reality is that many people still live their whole lives and die without the chance to hear the Gospel and thus be saved. As Christians, we should be more concerned with carrying out the Great Commission than with divisive conspiracy theories and quackery. And if someone’s reaction to that statement is to think this article is referring to a belief they hold and thus become outraged, that might indicate a need to re-evaluate one’s priorities.
CMI—providing you with resources to help defend the Bible’s ‘big story’!
Creation Ministries International defends biblical creation because it’s a Gospel issue. It was also the default position of theologians throughout church history before secular geology introduced long ages. More importantly, it was the unanimous, unambiguous belief of Jesus and the New Testament authors.