‘Modern media’ is potentially dangerous and unnecessary
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If you will, turn in your Bible to Revelation chapter 20. Revelation chapter 20.
Today and next week, we will discuss technology and media with a particular emphasis on social media. Revelation 20 may seem like a strange place to begin, but I think you’ll understand why I’ve chosen this passage in just a moment.
Revelation 20 begins:
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while. (Revelation 20:1-3)
This is probably the most debated passage in Revelation, but I’m not here to teach eschatology this morning. My application of the text will be far more narrow.
In this passage, the apostle John sees an angel come down from heaven, arrest Satan, and essentially throw him into prison for a long period. The text says a thousand years, but I believe that’s symbolic rather than literal. Regarding the timeline, the vital thing to see is that Satan is bound for a thousand years (a relatively long time) before he is rereleased for “a little while.” When we compare the two, we see that he’s bound for a long time and released for a short time.
What happens when Satan is given freedom? What did he do before he was bound, and what will he do when he’s rereleased? According to the text, the angel seized Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended” (Rev 20:2, 3).
First Peter 5:8 says, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Destruction, deception— This is what the devil wants. This is what the devil does whenever he has an opportunity.
I think of the devil as a dog on a leash. He’s rabid. He’s vicious. He would love nothing more than to eat us alive, but he’s on a leash. He can’t go any farther than what God allows. Unfortunately, some people think of God and Satan as locked in a cosmic battle with one another as we all wait to see who will win. No, that isn’t the case at all. Satan is merely a dog on God’s leash. He can’t go any farther than God allows him to go.
Even so, notice what happens here in Revelation 20. The devil is relatively free, God yanks back his chain, holds it tight for a long time, then lets it loose again for a little while. What happens when God enables the devil to run farther? He deceives the nations. His influence infiltrates most, if not all, of the nations on Earth. On what is presumably a mass scale, he leads people away from the truth and keeps them in darkness. He destroys them through lies and unrighteousness.
Regardless of how anyone interprets Revelation 20, I am convinced that God must have pulled back on Satan’s leash after the death and resurrection of Christ. Jesus asked, “How can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man?” (Mt 12:29). How was the gospel able to spread so freely and quickly in the early days of the church unless Satan was bound to some degree?
When Bible scholars and historians study the spread of the gospel in the first few centuries of the church—keep in mind it spread against all odds and a lot of opposition—they almost always point to innovations within the Roman Empire. They talk about how the Empire brought all the different nations together under one political rule, allowing people to travel from one region to the next without any hindrance. It was like crossing the border between Indiana and Michigan. No one will stop you. You won’t reach a checkpoint like you would if you tried crossing into Mexico.
The other thing scholars often mention is the innovation of Roman roadways. In more ways than one, the Roman Empire made travel relatively easy. In other words, God’s providence in history ensured that the church could carry the gospel to the end of the earth at precisely the right time (Ac 1:8). Of course, Satan wanted to stop it. He tried to stop it through the persecution of Christians, but he was mostly powerless. Despite his best efforts, the gospel continued to spread. The kingdom of God permeated the nations and continued to be a predominant influence in the world for two thousand years.
I believe that’s what Revelation 20 describes. Regardless, the gospel’s spread is, at the very least, an example of God restraining the devil. The nations would remain in darkness if Satan had full and free rein—end of the story. The nations would be altogether deceived if he could have what he wanted.
With that in mind, what would it look like for God to release Satan from his prison? How would the devil go about deceiving the nations? How could he effectively reassert his influence over the world at large? If the gospel spread because the Romans developed more accessible travel methods, how might Satan accomplish something similar today?
Granted, all we can do is speculate, but if your mission is to influence as many people as possible in a relatively short time, I cannot think of a better tool than the media. By media, I mean radio, television, movies, music, the Internet, and social networks. The speed at which a message can spread in the 21st century is incredible. Occasionally, I’ll read about some obscure event on the other side of the world. A hundred years ago, I would have never known about it. Today, I not only hear about it, but I can also go home and discover that my wife knows about it. I can come here and learn that many of you know about it.
Before I go any further, let me pause to clarify.
First, I don’t know whether God has released Satan from his prison, as Revelation 20 describes. I would not be surprised, but I don’t know.
Secondly, I realize these technologies are neither good nor evil by themselves. They are tools that can be used for good or evil. They’re like a toy hammer in the hand of my two-year-old son. He may quietly pretend he’s fixing something or hit his sister over the head with it. Depending on his mood, he could go either way. I won’t blame the hammer if he hits his sister.
Modern technology can be used for good, but it has inherent dangers. The devil is real and wants the ability to deceive and destroy. Mass media and the World Wide Web are ideal tools for quickly deceiving as many people as possible, which is the first major point I want to make.
Throughout this study, I have a series of bullet points. I’ll spend more time on some than others, but I will strive to emphasize each point. If you’re taking notes, here’s my first point.
1) Modern media is potentially very dangerous.
By the way, I’ll continue to use the term modern media to encompass everything from TV to the Internet to social networks. It even includes the devices we use, such as smartphones and computers. I’m talking about the technology we use to connect, communicate, and spread entertainment and information.
Modern media is potentially very dangerous. To be candid, I’m comfortable dropping the word potentially. I believe it’s appropriate to say modern media is very dangerous. Theoretically, these technologies could be used to spread the truth, but experience tells me they are more effective conduits for evil.
I often come across graphs that show the rise of various problems among particularly young people—anxiety, depression, drug use, sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, transgenderism, violent behavior, suicide, and so on. Most of these charts are similar to one another. In the 1960s and 1970s, we see a slight uptick in these problems followed by a slow and steady increase. Then, we see sharp spikes in the early 2000s—approximately 2003 to 2010. It’s as though someone flipped a switch, the floodgates opened, and out poured all these devastating trends without any restraint.
So what happened?
Most of the adults in the room are familiar with the counter-cultural movements of the Sixties. Think of the Woodstock music festival, for instance. Sex, drugs, radical feminism, free love, the mainstream adoption of Eastern religions, young people asserting autonomy while rejecting their parents’ traditional values— Many things began to change in pockets of society. Still, they didn’t remain in small pockets. Why? Mass media.
How do we export what a minority of teenagers and young adults are doing in places like New York or San Francisco to small, rural, conservative towns all across America? The answer is mass media. The godless ideas and behaviors of a minority spread quickly through the radio and television. For the first time in history, virtually any aspect of the outside world could stream right into private living rooms day after day, night after night.
What corresponds with the drastic spikes in depression, suicide, and other problems in the early 2000s? Personal computers, the Internet, social media, and smartphones were widely adopted. Suddenly, the outside world could stream into more than our living rooms. It found its way into our pockets. Apple released the first iPhone in 2007. By then, almost everyone already had computers at home. The first social networks were up and running. Then, all of it could follow us everywhere we went. We could access the good, bad, and ugly anywhere at any moment.
Look at a chart that graphs the rise of the problems I’ve mentioned, lay it over a chart showing the adoption of modern media, and you’ll see they are virtually identical. I don’t believe this is a coincidence.
You’re probably familiar with the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. People are sinful when left to themselves, but putting many people together can compound their sinfulness. They influence one another. They increasingly fuel one another to become worse and worse. The Lord said of the people at Babel, “Behold, they are one people. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Ge 11:6). God had to intervene by removing their ability to communicate with one another because they banded together in their sin, making the problems even worse.
I suspect you’ve heard a few lectures on the dangers of peer pressure. I once read about an experiment where people were asked a series of simple questions. For example, “Which line on this sheet of paper is shortest?” The test subjects always got the questions right. The answers were obvious. Then, they filled the room with actors. The actors were coached to answer every question incorrectly, but the test subject didn’t know they were actors. The experiment showed that most people would give wrong answers simply because they felt pressure to agree with everyone else in the room.
We unknowingly expose ourselves to tremendous peer pressure when we turn on the TV or scroll on our smartphones. I call it a tremendous amount because of its sheer volume. How many social media posts can you view in a day? How many Instagram photos can you see? How many TikTok or YouTube videos can you watch? How many websites can you browse? Not long ago, the people close enough to influence us were relatively few. A young person’s circle of weekly interactions might include his family, teachers, classmates, and church members. Today, through modern media, he connects with countless people from all over the world.
We should be honest with ourselves. How much of that influence is for the better? Assuming we make wise decisions about what we watch, whom we connect with, and what we view online, personal experience tells me that most content is neutral at best. For example, when I was recently shopping for a new car, I watched many YouTube videos about the cars I was considering. I wanted to hear the pros and cons of people who owned them before I purchased one myself. Did those hours I spent watching videos help me, for instance, grow in the Lord? Did they encourage me to do more good? No. The influence of those strangers on the Internet was primarily indifferent.
Unless we proactively and intentionally seek content and people that are biblically grounded and God-honoring, we’re prone to spend most of our time reading, watching, and hearing neutral things at best. Are they harmless? Maybe, but arguments can be made to the contrary. The Bible often warns the appointed time has grown very short (1Co 7:29). In Ephesians 5, Paul writes, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph 5:15, 16).
When Paul tells us to walk wisely and make the best use of the short time we have, I doubt he means watching TV or staring at our phones for hours each day, even if the content is seemingly harmless.
More to the point, though, much of the content isn’t harmless. It is spiritually dangerous. Unlock your smartphone or turn on your TV, and you may be one click or algorithmic suggestion away from some of the worst depravity man has ever committed.
Some of you think, If I saw something bad, I’d shut it down immediately. My response is, first of all, you can’t unsee what you’ve seen. Second, Jesus told his disciples, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt 26:41). You may not think you would be tempted by evil. Still, it’s far better to avoid that position altogether. Perhaps your flesh is weaker than you think.
Again, modern media is potentially very dangerous. More than a few otherwise respectable, stable people have been unintentionally sucked into terrible wickedness and its consequences because of modern media. The stories abound. One man finds a blog post about a conspiracy theory which eventually leads him to carry a loaded gun into a family pizzeria and start shooting. Another man innocently chats with an old girlfriend on Facebook and eventually cheats on his wife. I’ve read countless stories of young Christians befriended by unbelievers online. Before long, they adopt secular worldviews, renounce their faith, and criticize anyone silly enough to believe in God.
How do these things happen? I’ll move on to my second point.
2) The temptations and evils of modern media can be subtle.
Genesis 3:1 tells us, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made.” That’s the same serpent we read about in Revelation 20, who’s on a mission to deceive the world. He wants to take our minds captive, and his approach is typically very subtle.
I read the book of a young Christian woman who became an atheist. Growing up, she belonged to a church with some apparent problems but ultimately left the faith because of Twitter. She tried to use Twitter to evangelize others. Her approach erred on the side of too much fire and brimstone, but her intentions were good. However, She became confused because the people she condemned to hell in her tweets neither repented nor got angry with her. Instead, they respectfully disagreed while smothering her with love and kindness.
The contrast was stark in her mind. Christians tell people they’re going to hell. On the other hand, Atheists express love and kindness to strangers, even those who tell them they’re going to hell. She soon concluded she would rather be an atheist than a Christian.
James 4:7 says, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” But what if the devil is polite and has a nice smile? What if he doesn’t approach us with little red horns and a pitchfork? Resisting may not seem imperative when nothing about his temptations appears threatening. We can go back to the first temptation for an example.
Let me read the first six verses of Genesis chapter 3.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made.
He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. (Genesis 3:1-6)
In this first temptation, the serpent doesn’t appear especially threatening. He begins by asking a simple question. “Did God actually say—?” But this question leaves a seed of doubt in Eve’s mind. A moment later, she looks at the forbidden tree and thinks, Now that I’m looking at it again, the fruit actually looks good. Maybe I’ve been thinking about what God said all wrong. Perhaps the fruit of this tree wouldn’t be so bad to eat after all.
The serpent in the garden may not appear especially threatening, but this is the same serpent of Revelation 20. This is the same serpent who wants only to deceive and destroy. This is the same serpent at work in our world today. That is why Paul writes the following in Ephesians 6:
Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. (Ephesians 6:11-13)
The schemes of the devil—that is, his craftiness and trickery.
We do not wrestle against flesh and blood but against the spiritual forces of evil—that is, much of the evil we face is not as tangible as we may think. For example, let’s say you’re flipping through channels on the TV with your parents sitting on the couch next to you. I’m guessing that if you stumbled upon a channel showing extreme violence, foul language, or nudity, you’d immediately recognize the immorality of it, feeling slightly awkward with your parents sitting next to you, and quickly change the channel. Am I right?
Would you react similarly if you stumbled upon an animated Disney movie? Probably not. Disney movies are family-friendly. They are G-rated. Could there be any harm in watching a Disney cartoon?
Let’s use The Little Mermaid as an example since it has become popular again with the recent live-action remake. Is there anything immoral about The Little Mermaid? Have you ever watched it and sensed that maybe the serpent is whispering subtle lies into your ear as he did Eve, trying to deceive you? I doubt it, but let’s test that theory.
Several years ago, I spoke at a youth conference in Atlanta, Georgia, and read a list of sins found in 2 Timothy chapter 3. Then, I said you could find many of these sins glorified in family-friendly, G-rated Disney movies. I could tell by their faces that they didn’t believe me.
Let me read the list to you. This is 2 Timothy chapter 3. The apostle Paul says:
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. (2 Timothy 3:1-4)
Having read the list, does The Little Mermaid glorify or promote any of these sins? I’ll give you just a moment to think about it.
What is the premise of the movie? The hero of the film, for whom we cheer and celebrate, is a teenage girl who blatantly disobeys her father, who is only trying to protect her. And what is the moral of the story? According to Disney, you should pursue whatever you think will make you happy. No matter how dangerous, unrealistic, or impossible your dream is, if you think it will make you happy, you should break every rule, defy every authority, and even put your life in jeopardy to achieve it. Furthermore, it will always work out. When’s the last time you’ve seen a Disney movie without a happy ending?
I’m not trying to ruin one of your favorite childhood movies, and I’m not as prudish as I may sound, but I am trying to illustrate an important point.
Many of us may spend hours every day exposing ourselves to worldly ideas, secular entertainment, and less-than-godly behaviors through our TVs, computers, and smartphones. On the surface, those social media posts, YouTube videos, or private messages may seem harmless. Even if we recognize they aren’t ideal content for a Christian to waste time on, we may still be oblivious to the long-term effects. We may get away with eating junk food occasionally, but if we eat it daily, the consequences will be severe.
Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Remember that Paul wrote that verse long before social media and smartphones. Long before the world could freely stream into our lives and minds day after day, hour after hour, Paul warns us of the dangers of conforming to this world. He urges us to renew our minds because (1) we are prone to conform to this world, and (2) the unbelieving world continually pulls us in its direction. So Paul says we have to work to combat this. We must intentionally fight the world’s influence over us by actively seeking God’s influence.
How do we seek God’s influence? We can read the Bible, read Christian books, pray, fellowship with other believers, spend time with our families, or volunteer to serve others. Even going for a walk to enjoy God’s creation would be better than endlessly scrolling on a phone. Most of us likely spend far more time on a phone or in front of the TV than we do seeking God’s influence, which leads me to my third point.
3) We don’t need modern media.
I told you about speaking at the youth conference in Atlanta. My subject was specifically social media—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. I talked about both the negatives and positives of it. I warned about the problems of these platforms and advised the young people how to use them for good.
Later that day, we had a Q & A session, where people were allowed to ask me and the other speakers questions. An elderly woman in the audience approached the microphone and asked, “Why didn’t you say anything about avoiding social media altogether? Wouldn’t that be advisable in some cases?”
The answer is yes. We have every reason to reconsider our use of modern media. I’ve been a tech enthusiast since at least high school. I was hand-coding my first websites during my senior year. For the better part of two decades, I tried to be an early adopter of every new platform on the Web. Yet over the years, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the cons of modern media outweigh the pros.
I read a book called The 5,000 Year Leap several years ago. I don’t remember anything about the book other than something the author said in the introduction. He mentioned that for more than five thousand years of human history, mankind used essentially the same tools. We had our innovations, but the technology remained mostly the same. If you wanted to travel, you walked, rode an animal, or got pulled by an animal. If you wanted to farm the land, you used manpower or animal power. Those were your only options. Some tools made the job easier, but not like our tools today.
Technological innovation exploded in the 20th century. We’re not living on the same planet as our forefathers. We don’t have to go that far back in human history to find a world without electricity, refrigeration, climate control, automobiles, radio, television, computers, or smartphones. While I can remember a time without smartphones or even cell phones, I’ve never lived in a world without those other technologies. Some of you can’t remember a time before smartphones.
Let’s say the Earth is six thousand years old. If so, all of these modern technologies so ingrained in our lives have existed for no more than three percent of human history. Can we live and even thrive without these technologies? Of course, we can. We don’t need modern media.
I remind you of this, not because these technologies aren’t convenient or blessings to us in many ways, but because putting them in their proper place regarding our priorities is helpful. Jesus asked, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mk 8:36). All of the technology in the world will never be more important than the state of our souls and eternity to come.
Let me read another statement from Christ. In Mark 9, verses 47 and 48, he says:
If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. (Mark 9:47, 48)
Jesus teaches us two things in that passage. First, we cannot take sin seriously enough. While we like to classify some sins as less serious than others—Jerry Bridges calls them “respectable sins”—Jesus doesn’t make that distinction. Read the Sermon on the Mount. One says, “At least I’ve never committed murder,” but Jesus says, “Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Mt 5:22). Sin is sin, and we shouldn’t take any sin too lightly.
Second, Jesus teaches us to take extreme measures to avoid sin. When you’re walking through the garden, and the serpent stops to speak with you, don’t politely stand there and listen to his lies. Run away. Resist immediately.
Again, Jesus says, “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out” (Mk 9:47). Sacrifice your convenience, entertainment, or whatever else is necessary to prevent you from sinning against God. Paul says, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1Co 9:27). Neither Jesus nor Paul speaks literally. Yet, they both recommend a radical approach to dealing with sin.
If modern media is potentially dangerous to our souls, especially if its dangers are subtle, shouldn’t we at least consider the prospect of not using it? In light of what Jesus says—tear out your eye if necessary—would it be that extreme to unplug the TV or delete a social media app, if not ditch the phone altogether?
To be clear, I’m not suggesting, “God commands you to stay away from modern media.” No, but I am saying we don’t need it.
Near the end of 2020, I was feeling restless. That year’s politics and pandemic left me slightly anxious, so I quit watching, reading, and listening to the news. Then, I exchanged my iPhone for a phone that could do little more than talk and text. I also deleted the last few social media accounts I had. I locked down my computer so I wouldn’t have access to various sites that either showed me the news or wasted my time.
To be candid, my experiment was challenging at first. I can’t count the number of times I pulled the phone out of my pocket to entertain myself in a moment of boredom. I had to re-learn how to navigate without GPS. My second brain was gone. I couldn’t conveniently keep notes or add appointments to my calendar. But it got easier.
By the Summer of 2021, I didn’t miss my phone. I felt lighter. I noticed the world around me more. I felt calmer, more at peace. It was surprisingly liberating. Until then, I didn’t realize what modern media was doing to me. I was eating digital junk food every day, and it wasn’t until I stopped that I recognized the toll it had taken.
We don’t need modern media, so as we think about the best ways to use it, we should keep that in our minds. In at least some cases, the best approach to modern media may be no approach at all.