“Christian” Hoaxes and Urban Legends (I)

The work of a Christian apologist centres on combating cultic doctrines, theological, philosophical and moral errors which enslave and prevent many from believing and living out the truth of the gospel.

Every Christian dedicated to truth has a moral responsibility and obligation to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:5). Many people trapped in dangerous religious groups have been cruelly deceived and they need the truth. This is one of the reasons we must uphold the banner of truth in what we present to them.

There’s a biblical standard of honesty, faithfulness and credibility to which we are expected to adhere. We are to “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse [us] of doing wrong, they may see [our] good deeds and glorify God” (1 Pet. 2:12). We are to “put off falsehood and speak truthfully” to people who listen to us (Eph. 4:25).

Unfortunately, when one examines some books, write-ups, videos, stories and personal testimonies being widely circulated among contemporary Christians – ostensibly to present the gospel to unbelievers and convey an apocalyptic message – they are found to be no more than cheap hoaxes, urban legends and fantasies all dressed up to look “Christian.”

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

Hoax: to trick (someone) into believing or accepting as genuine something false and often preposterous.

Urban legend: an often lurid story or anecdote that is based on hearsay and widely circulated as true.

“Christian” hoaxes and legends may well function as barometer of collective anxiety. They may ignite people’s emotions and even serve as props for their faith (or lack of it), but these do not make them any less false. In fact, such tales are often tools of exploitation, manipulation, slander and spreading doctrinal errors.

The rapidity with which such unfounded stories and claims circulate (especially via social media) and the fervency with which they are believed are quite alarming. This is why critical thinking is a vital tool in evaluating materials. Here are some examples of such hoaxes and urban legends:

Christian woman buried for 15 days

This was a story of a Muslim man in Egypt who killed his wife (according to a version, because she was reading a Bible) and buried her along with their infant baby and 8 year old daughter. He reported to the police that an uncle killed the kids. But 15 days later, another family member died and when he was about to be buried, they found the little girls under the sand – alive!

The older girl when allegedly interviewed on Egyptian national TV, by a veiled Muslim woman news anchor, said: “A man wearing shiny white clothes, with bleeding wounds in his hands, came every day to feed us. He woke up my mom so she could nurse my sister.” Then the Muslim woman exclaimed, “This was none other than Jesus, because no one else does things like this!”

The anonymous writer ends it by reminding us how Jesus is still turning the world upside down and appeals to the reader to share the story. I first read this story in December 2004, in a magazine called Christian Alive. Actually, the story started making its rounds on the Internet in April of that year.

But there is no news report from Egypt about this tale. It contains no dates, no name of persons, city or institutions to corroborate it. Its origin has been traced to an anonymous e-mail received by a woman and her pastor husband in the U.S. It’s a hoax!

Nigerian baby born with a message

The story says an infant was born at a General Hospital in Kubwa, Abuja with her hands clasped together as though in prayer. The doctors eventually conducted an operation to separate the fold of skin joining her hands. When her hands were separated, the message written therein was “Jesus is Coming Back!” Then she died.

This is a recurring hoax, because I’ve been hearing this story since 1998 with variations in location, details and gender, yet not a shred of authenticity has been provided to support it. It’s understandable why the baby in the tale had to die. It makes for easy burial of hard evidence.

The Corpus Christi movie

This came from an alarmist message that has trended online.

I can’t believe it,” says its opening line, “There is a movie that is coming out saying Jesus and his disciples were gay! … Maybe we can do something! Please send this to ALL your friends to sign to stop the movie from coming out. Already certain areas in Europe have started to ban it from coming to their country and we can stop it too! We just need a lot of signatures and you can help! … Show your faith and respect for our Lord and Savior.”

I first came across this rant in a letter by a reader to a newspaper editor in 2004. In fact, the rumour about a “gay Jesus film” has been on since 1984 in the United States – stirring many Christians to spill much ink writing protest letters. The fact is there is no Corpus Christi movie!

In 1998, Terrence McNally did a promotional stage play by the name Corpus Christi. Though it played in some theatres, it was never released as a movie.

The vanishing hitchhiker

The story goes that a couple on their way home from a crusade gave a stranger a free ride. As they drove on, he declares: “Rapture would have taken place some minutes ago. I am an angel and I just came here to warn you” (another version: “Only 12 people in that crusade would have made heaven”) and when the couple turned to look at him, he had disappeared.

There are different versions of this Vanishing Hitchhiker legend: the American versions and Nigerian versions. The words of this angelic hitchhiker also seem to change each time the story is narrated, but no one knows (and will ever know) the identity of the couple to whom he appears.

Originally, this was an old legend about a stranger foretelling war, death and pestilence to some folks. Now, it has become a “sanctified” legend wielded on some pulpits. The story dates back to 1948 and be rest assured, it’s not going away any time soon.

They dug into Hell

This was a story about a team of geologists in Siberia who were drilling a hole in the ground, but they went too deep and ended up punching a hole through to hell.

Their drill began to rotate wildly and the geologists measured a temperature of 2000⁰C in the deep hole. So they lowered super sensitive microphones to the bottom of the well and they heard the sounds of thousands, perhaps millions of suffering souls screaming.

I read this story for the first time in year 2000 in a Christian bulletin about hell. It made a lasting impression on me. I now believe the intent of the “well to hell” tale (which is curiously similar to the pit to Purgatory tale in the medieval era) was to paint a scenario of atheistic scientists screaming from a digging site in terror when they found the proof of hell and mass conversion to Christianity taking place as a result.

Actually, the tale was an embellished account of a 1984 experiment in Russia’s Kola Peninsula (published in Scientific American). The Kola well reached 12km into the ground, where scientists encountered rare rock formations, flows of gas and water, and temperatures up to 180⁰C. There was neither a digging into hell nor screams recorded.

But somehow the story of “scientists digging to hell” in Russia aired on TBN and it reached Norway and from there gained a life of its own. There are even some websites with audio clips purportedly of screams of the damned. A friend in Lagos informed me that his pastor played this clip for them during a church service.

You may be wondering why some folks would resort to myth-making to convey a Christian message. The reason: there is power in storytelling. Stories have the abilities to shape minds and act as vehicles for ideas – whether true or false. Those knowingly spreading such urban legends believe they are justified since they have benign intents, but they are wrong.

People make up legends because they want the world in their own form rather than what is reality. This is the root of deception. Many Christians believe such hoaxes and legends without double checking to see whether there’s any validity to them mainly because they fit with their worldview.

Actually, there is nothing wrong in believing credible stories and testimonies, but just because a thing is possible doesn’t always mean it is true. Fiction should be termed fiction. Legends shouldn’t be called true stories and hoaxes shouldn’t be presented as reality.

Continue in part 2

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