By Guy Brandon, 3 May 2016.
The Second Coming (of Satoshi): what the tale of bitcoin's 'creator' says to Christians
Bitcoin’s elusive creator claims to have come out of the shadows, but the means by which this revelation was undertaken is suspicious – and there’s an interesting set of lessons for Christians.
‘At that time if anyone says to you, “Look, here is the Messiah!” or, “There he is!” do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you ahead of time. So if anyone tells you, “There he is, out in the wilderness,” do not go out; or, “Here he is, in the inner rooms,” do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.’ (Matthew 24:23-38)
Back in December 2015 when Australian computer scientist Craig Wright was ‘outed’ as the creator of bitcoin, a form of digital money that requires no third party or authority to validate transactions, it took less than a day for critics to demonstrate that the story was full of holes – likely an elaborate hoax, possibly one concocted to help Wright deal with the substantial problem he had with the Australian Tax Office (ATO), who raided his house the same day.
Yesterday, he once again presented new evidence to a series of media organisations, including the BBC, aiming to prove that he is Satoshi Nakamoto.
The issue of Nakamoto’s real-world identity – the handle is a pseudonym, used on internet forums and in emails until he stepped back from his project and ostensibly disappeared a few years ago – is one of keen speculation, both within the bitcoin community and industry and among mainstream journalists. (Witness the eagerness with which the BBC published their article and interview with the bare minimum of due diligence.) Nakamoto ‘mined’ around a million bitcoins in the early days of the project, and they have never been moved. Assuming he still holds the cryptographic keys to those coins, he has access to somewhere in the region of half a billion US dollars.
As a decentralised currency outside of the control of the existing financial system, bitcoin and other digital currencies based on the same principles have attracted both intense interest and suspicion from different quarters. They are pseudonymous (rather than strictly anonymous), meaning that used correctly it is hard to trace them, making them the currency of choice for online drug purchases and a useful tool for money laundering. However, since they are uncontrolled by any government or corporation, transactions cannot be interfered with, and transfers of money are fast, low-cost and borderless. Supply is determined by algorithm, not by unilateral decision by Monetary Policy Committee; there is no quantitative easing, no unexpected inflation, no debt-based money creation. From these perspectives, it is a form of money more closely based on biblical principles than our current fiat system.
It’s a system based on mathematics and transparency, rather than exercise of authority. Instead of trusting a bank to look after your money, it is instead secured by the laws of physics. That represents a challenging paradigm shift because it comes with a vastly increased requirement for personal responsibility; make a mistake and you have no one else to blame or correct it.
‘There he is!’
This is also why Craig Wright’s claims are so bizarre. Having apparently misled the world with falsified evidence last time around, the bar for proving his identity as Satoshi Nakamoto is now higher than before. He has provided limited and complicated proofs to individuals behind closed doors. This is strange, to say the least, when the very system he is supposed to have created allows anyone to prove ownership of funds or an address beyond any reasonable doubt, quickly and publicly. He has gone to great lengths over several months to set up media interviews and provide ‘evidence’ that is complex and obscure, when a simple, transparent and public process could have achieved the desired ends once and for all. This lends itself to comparison with Jesus’ words in Matthew’s gospel about his return: ‘For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.’ Occam’s Razor points to something or several somethings that are fishy about Wright’s claims, and not in a way that would have appealed to the early disciples.
Bitcoin is based on ideals of decentralisation and a lack of authority figures – which, in human terms, represent concentrations of power that are open to abuse. (Operating outside of such structures of authority opens the way to other abuses; which sets of abuses you consider worse is largely a matter of political inclination.) Thus an appeal to authority – by association with the BBC, with the Economist, and to well-known figures in the industry – is jarring and eyebrow-raising, as well as entirely unnecessary.
Christians and authority
As Christians, we may have biblically-founded scepticism about undue concentrations of power, but also a (thankfully infallible) authority figure in God. Church leadership also involves structures of power and authority which, as we have learned from countless scandals, are open to abuse as well as being biblically mandated.
Outside of these, we are prone to appealing to authority in other ways. Whilst few Christians today claim to be the Messiah or to have found him in human form – occasional cult followings notwithstanding – prophecy makes the implicit claim that the speaker is God’s mouthpiece. Accepting this at face value is never a good idea. As the editor of one Christian website notes in the context of a well-known prophecy about God’s judgment on the EU and the forthcoming referendum, ‘Test all things’. Prophecy must be weighed (1 Corinthians 14:29).
Any unnecessary appeal to authority – for an audience to trust the speaker by association with a higher power – carries consequences, not least to reputation. Craig Wright is about to discover that, unless he comes up with the goods in short order. Countless false prophets have made the same mistake. The message is clear: unless there is a legitimate case for appealing to authority, keep it simple. ‘All you need to say is simply “Yes” or “No”; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.’ (Matthew 5:37)