In a context of confusion and flashy journalism, rigour becomes a precious value.
The false prophets of old, like their modern counterparts, were set in motion by the smell of money. The evangelical market presents enormous business opportunities.
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 1 John 4:1
Kenneth Bailey, in his book on 1 Corinthians Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, talks about something that is very important in order to understand the Bible: it's sound. “If a modern English language text refers to do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do, the reader is able 'to hear the tune' as he/she reads the words. (…) In like manner, an ancient, literate (and illiterate) Hebrew listening to or reading a text such as the Isaiah passage presented above would be able to 'hear' (…) and would naturally compare the two cameos (…)”. Bailey is referring to two passages (cameos), one in 1 Corinthians and the other in Isaiah, with parallelisms. This is a recurring system, and we have to take it into account when reading the Bible today. They are not mere internal references: it's a holistic mechanism of interconnections.
We are used to reading the Bible. That is, our first way of relating to it is visual. But during a great part of its existence, the biblical text sounded in the ears of those to whom it was read, and there were few who were reading it. Even if there were some people in the churches who were able to read, it wasn't until the 15th century, with the invention of the printing press, that the Bible started to become a common-use object, hence the importance of faith comes from what is heard (Romans 10:17). This is the reason why the writers of the New Testament pay so much attention to internal references, which pervade their writings. These references resound in peoples' memories and ears. This is an experience that we, for the most part, have lost, but that doesn't mean we can't track it.
Sometimes we find verses in the New Testament that “sound” like verses from the Old Testament, like the Psalms and the prophets, like the words of the law. References are not always direct, although that often does happen. In many instances, in Christian tradition, these internal references are lost because we are not used to these kinds of connections, less academic and more sensorial. In the text above from 1 John, the author uses terminology about the “false prophets”, which, to the early Christian Jews' ears, brought to mind an important passage of the law, even if the exact expression is not there: Deuteronomy 18.
21 Now if you say to yourselves, ‘How can we tell that a message is not from the Lord?’— 22 whenever a prophet speaks in my name and the prediction is not fulfilled, then I have not spoken it; the prophet has presumed to speak it, so you need not fear him.
In 1 John 4 we find an explicit reference to how we must test prophets, which is purely and simply the classical method of the people of Israel.
There were never any prophets except in Israel, which is an odd fact. There are no traces of anything similar in the surrounding peoples. There were priests, “enlighted ones” also, but not a profession, so to speak, of people chosen by the gods to talk to their people. The people of Israel were unique in that respect, perhaps in the same way that God is unique. Due to the huge respect that prophets commanded -they actually did, even if at times they also got beaten up or were treated with indifference- there appeared many imitators in the public square. The main reason for that was the business opportunity that this presented, since prophets lived, for the most part, on people's offerings. Today we see the same situation. You only need somebody to start something original and good, and half a dozen imitators will pop up. We have already been warned since the times of Deuteronomy. How then could you distinguish false prophets from true prophets if, in the end, both talked about future events, spiritual states, things that were not tangible? The prophets of Israel were not a mystical matter as we understand it today. They were the practical way in which God communicated with His people, at a time when not even a tenth of what we know today as the Bible was written down, and only about one percent of the population could read these texts. The litmus test might seem too obvious to us, but it actually is a bulletproof method: listen to what the prophet is saying. If it is fulfilled, he is coming from God and, if it doesn't, he isn't. There is no way of cheating on this test.
Many times the worst kind of false prophets are at their ease in many other places apart from pulpits. I must have them all in my Facebook. They fill up my wall with ridiculous messages, with shabby prophecies and with commandments, saying that if I really loved God I would say “amen” to their comments or share those horrible images full of typos. The fact is that the false prophets of old, like their modern counterparts, were set in motion by the smell of money. The smell of the immense, huge, enormous evangelical market, which presents enormous business opportunities. I'm not saying there shouldn't be products for people who have put their faith in God. I'm not saying that Bibles should be free of charge, or that evangelical libraries should close down, or that we shouldn't give coffee cups with Bible verses as a present. I'm talking about businesses based on false, lousy teachings, from which a few make a profit at the expense of the naïve. At the expense of those who, perhaps unwittingly, are acting as the Antichrist's mouthpieces.
In 1 John 4 a new parameter is introduced regarding the issue of the false prophets, which is exclusive to the world after Christ's coming: “but every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God, and this is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming, and now is already in the world”. I have this weird feeling that this issue of the spirit of the antichrist, which is not a complex issue from a doctrinal perspective, is riddled with mysticism and superstition precisely because that's convenient for the ambassadors of said spirit. In the same fashion, the mouthpieces of the spirit of the antichrist muddle the question of prayer, which is -or should be- something simple and accessible to everyone, turning it into a sort of parapsychological phenomenon with mystical premises only accessible to the initiated. The spirit of the antichrist, which already is in this world, is not something exclusively eschatological, like so many want to understand. It refers to an everyday reality: Jesus is an annoyance to the prince of this world, and is an annoyance to those who don't want to repent of their sin. His name, his figure, his teachings attract many -in Kafka's abyss of light- and at the same time annoy and disgust many others, those under the influence of this spirit, this current, present in this world since Jesus' coming.
As an example of this there's this story I once heard from I don’t remember who: in the heart of the Bible Belt, where Christian faith is supposedly an everyday thing, a pastor was asked to bless a sport event with a prayer. The organizers told him: “you can say whatever you feel like, but don't pray in Jesus' name”. We can talk about God, faith, kindness, love… all those Facebook images are full of these sentences, which sometimes are embarrassing because of how simplistic they are. But not much, if anything, is said about Jesus himself, his sacrifice, power and authority. It's not just not daring to talk about the evil of sin, or about the narrow gate, but directly leaving Jesus out.
I'm afraid, therefore, that the spirit of the antichrist roams free, many times closer than we think. Many times, it keeps those who think of themselves as Christian in a precarious yet subtle state of need, in the same way an abuser will, on occasion, display acts of love towards his abused partner to avoid revealing his true intentions. Some call it spiritual anorexia, a state consisting of feeding the spirit just a little, the bare minimum, with scarcely one Bible verse a day, like feeding on a leaf of lettuce and a morsel of bread to make it to the next intake, filling the rest with hot air and their own opinions, fuss, sweet music and flashing lights. This is like feeding on candy: they fill your stomach, but don't feed you. You hear their preaching but remain hungry. Their eloquence, if you are not paying attention, might shock you, but not feed you, in the same way that a haute cuisine minuscule piece of cake won't be as satisfying as French toast, regardless of how glamorous it looks. You read their devotionals to no effect, except for the fact that you've wasted fifteen or twenty minutes of your time and might think you've done something good for your soul. My husband calls this sort of devotionals “Christian horoscopes”. Sadly, it's all too true.
These false prophets, like those of old in Israel, make a living from the money their audience gives them. In the same way as those of old, they must offer things which seem of prophetic nature in order to receive this money; flattering things, filling the ears of those who are, actually, sustaining them, without saying anything necessarily like the truth of the Gospel, although they won't contradict it, either. They walk a fine line, half in darkness. They wouldn't stand up to strict scrutiny, although none of their followers will carry out such a thing. They won't heed the biblical advice found in 1 John 4 to be critical and put spirits to the test, because these false prophets, like abusers, fill their minds with threats. 'Do not touch the anointed of the Lord!', they cry while making a great fuss whenever they feel threatened -typically, they shout louder when there are cameras present- as if they knew what an anointed one is, or who the Lord is.
The mouthpieces of these false prophets are those who clog the Facebook wall of Evangelical Focus and similar Christian publications. Like the children of abusers, they repeat the pattern of abuse they've suffered. If you contradict them, they threaten you with eternal damnation. If you tell them you think they are wrong, they tell you God will condemn you because of your lack of faith. If you show them how flawed their reasoning is, they get mad and insult you. Typically, their reasoning stands on three pillars: the Bible can only be interpreted literally, only the interpretations they've been taught by their leaders and pastors are valid, and whoever steps out of these is going to hell. They are tiresome, exhausting and they continually repeat themselves. They can't reason further than that.
What's funny about this is that, in fact, they deal with huge sums of money. That's the reason why this business still goes on.
You can find wonderful books in Christian bookstores. There are inspiring, encouraging books, books that draw us closer to God. Many writers honour God with their words, classic and modern. I'm not talking about those. The problem is that, many times, they are all mixed up. These sort of books, unfortunately, corner the market. People are still spiritually hungry, and looking for food. In fact, only the Bible is really necessary, but they've been told that if they don't read the Bible 'as it should be read' -that is, the way some people want it to be read- they are going to be damned. Thus, they waste their money supporting leaders and prophets that fill their ears with perishable certainties unrelated to the Gospel.
If those reading these lines can heed my words in just one thing, this is it: this sort of poor Christian literature is a cheap copy of the self-help literature found in the secular world. You only need to change a sentence from Paulo Coelho using an out-of-context Bible verse, and that's it, you're done.
As 1 John says, the test to scrutinize these prophets is in our hands. They spend all day long saying that if you follow the methods and precepts taught by them, everything will go well with you: you'll have all the money 'you deserve', you will lose weight, your spouse will love you, you'll be a leader in your community… but, as happens with self-help books, for each step forward you take, you take thirty or more backwards in other areas, and you don't even realize you do. You think you are going forward, but it's only an optical illusion. Have all those who have been 'decreed' to receive prosperity, health and other blessings by the false prophets received them? Actually, I think that if these people are still there, like addicts, in need of this kind of teachings, instead of being mature and self-sufficient, it's because all these prophecies and spiritual decrees have not really had an effect on them.
Don't call me skeptic. I've known cases in which God's people have healed others. I've seen people get healing. I've seen people come out of dire economic situations and have enough to share with others to help them get out of their situation. I've seen Christians prosper and be blessed. I've seen ministries thrive. The curious thing, though, is that those believers barely ever write books or go on photo shoots with perfectly-ironed ties and dazzling smile. Neither do they need to ask for money with big musical events, nor to have marketing and PR teams to keep the business profitable. Normally, true prophets go 'unnoticed' while prospering and blessing everything they touch -like Deuteronomy 28 says- without the need to have a band in the background increasing the intensity of the worship. The best Christians make disciples at their kitchen tables, not from stages. True prophets don't ask for bigger buildings or private jets. They prosper, no doubt about that. They have happy families, they are not embroiled in scandals all the time and don't have the need to issue press releases retracting from statements they made in the heat of the moment. They're better known for how they love those around them than for how they minister.
Don't pay attention to colourful front covers, shocking statements, multi-million-dollar ministries, stages with coloured lights. They are not all bad, that's true, but let's put them to the test. There aren't any new methods to become an effective Christian. The only method is told in the Bible: to live by the Spirit (Galatians 5). Like 1 John 4 says, if we really pay attention, we can spot false prophets quickly. The method in Deuteronomy 18, being so obvious, remains infallible thousands of years later.
Noa Alarcón. Writer and literary critic.
(Scripture quoted by permission. All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.)