The murder of a woman last May by cult members of the Almighty God Church (AGC) at a McDonald’s restaurant in Zhaoyuan City, Shandong Province, shocked China and the world. Two of the five criminals were sentenced to death in October, and the rest received prison terms.[i] Back in December of 2012, the cult staged over 40 antigovernment riots throughout China ,[ii] announcing judgment on the “Red Dragon,” by a returning Christ, as a Mayan prophecy of doomsday on December 21, drew near. The red dragon, mentioned in Revelation 12:3, was interpreted by the cult as referring to the communist government. Since then, the Chinese government has cracked down on aggressive members of the group. As recently as December 10, 2014, twenty-one members of the group were sentenced to jail in Liaoning and Jilin provinces.[iii]
The house churches in China have suffered much under cultic infiltration, especially from AGC, (formerly known as Eastern Lightning or EL), now the largest and most powerful heretic cult in China. While the government has the power and means to restrain AGC’s criminal activities quickly, we want to explore how the vulnerable house churches are able to protect themselves against their crafty infiltration and evil attacks. The purpose of this essay is to examine the impact on, and response of, house churches to AGC’s activities.
Exposing Erroneous Biblical Interpretation
The first time I heard of the heretic sect Eastern Lightning was in 1992 at Pastor Samuel Lamb’s house church at Damazhan, Guangzhou Province. I had visited his house church regularly after he restarted it in 1979 soon after his release from 25 years of labor camp confinement. When he discovered EL members penetrating his congregation, he preached against the cult from the pulpit. [iv] To serve house churches nationwide, he recorded his weekly messages on audio cassettes (later on CDs and DVDs) and printed his sermons in booklets. They were distributed to, and by, his members and visitors. I had the privilege of obtaining, firsthand from Pastor Lamb, his teaching on EL doctrines and initial practices. As one of two pillars of China’s house churches in the “open-door” era of Deng Xiaoping ,[v] Pastor Lamb was an excellent Bible interpreter.
Pastor Lamb exposed false biblical interpretations used to support heretical doctrines purported by EL. This cult taught that the creation of humankind in God’s image, as male and female, (Genesis 1:27), and the surrounding of a man by a woman (Jeremiah 31:22), were taken to mean that Christ’s first coming as man would be followed by his second coming as a woman. Her name was lightning from the “east” as implied in Isaiah 41:2 and Matthew 24:27. Pastor Lamb corrected their errors by interpreting these verses in their redemptive, historical contexts. As far as I know, he was the first leader of China’s house churches to have responded with correct biblical interpretation to the false doctrines of EL, even before its heyday.
Revival within the house church movement after the Cultural Revolution saw a rapid increase of believers and churches in the 1970s and 80s. Although house churches had started Bible training courses of one to three months before 1984, the quantity and quality of trained evangelists fell far behind the actual need. As EL targeted house churches and their leaders, they were successful in “snapping up” church members and coworkers creating widespread fear. By 1998, EL had spread its net from Henan in central China to coastal and southwest China, mainly among rural house church networks. As I traveled to Shanghai, Chengdu and Nanning, increasing numbers of house-church coworkers shared with me their actual encounters with the sect and stories of members who had disappeared.
Developing a Biblical Christology against Counterfeit “Christs”
While teaching theology at the Chinese Mission Seminary in Hong Kong, I also did leadership training with house churches in China. I found that both Lamb’s biblical interpretive approach and the Western Christological approach seemed insufficient to equip Christians in China against false Christology. Because of this, I began to develop a biblical Christology to meet this need.
I found a rich biblical Christology contained in Jesus’ genealogies in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38. Luke’s gospel traces the ancestry of Jesus back to Adam, and Matthew’s to Abraham. Key ancestors such as Adam, Abraham, Jacob and David prefigured Christ in various ways. Christ, incarnated as a Jew, was to become the last Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45) through death and resurrection on the cross; he is also called the “second man” (1Corinthians 15:47). He came to redeem the human race with common ancestry in Adam. He will lead the redeemed race as its head and representative (Romans 5:12-21) to manage the new heavens and new earth (Hebrews 2:5-15). His role is to replace the first Adam who failed in managing the present earth according to God’s will.
As the second man, there is no other person between the first Adam and the second Adam—the Jewish Jesus. Whether a philosopher like Confucius (551-479 BC), or a religious leader like Siddhatta Gotama (around 400 BC), there is no other person appointed by God to be head of the redeemed race. Since Jesus is the last Adam, there is no one between his first coming and second coming to take up the role as final judge in God’s Kingdom.
Jesus’ genealogy was a qualification for him to become Christ, the Redeemer King. In modern terms, anyone who claims to be the returned Messiah (Christ) needs to show an Israeli passport (a descendant of Jacob, who was renamed “Israel” in Genesis 32:28) and blood lineage that connects to King David. There were numerous prophecies and typologies in Old Testament history that foretold or prefigured Christ. Chinese Christians should challenge a counterfeit Christ like EL to show how her ancestry excels Jesus’ and whether Chinese history or religions have foretold her coming if she pretends to be the Messiah of the Chinese people.
With updated material on EL, I integrated my theological approach with Lamb’s interpretive approach to produce a one-hour powerpoint VCD in Mandarin. House churches receiving the VCD found it helpful. One house church in Chengdu discovered that their pastor was an EL convert when he preached with EL-specific terms. He was asked to leave before he brought the church captive under EL. One of our seminary graduates living in Shanghai told me that the VCD acted as a preventive inoculation for ignorant Christians against the deadly virus of a heretic cult. This study also equipped me to face the cult’s penetration in Hong Kong beginning in 2001.
2002 Kidnapping: Defeat Results in Exposure
On April 26, 2002, thirty-four top leaders of China Gospel Fellowship (CGF) were kidnapped by EL for over fifty days. It was EL’s first evil act that shocked Christian churches in China and worldwide.[vi] CGF was one of five, large, house church networks in Henan province with several million members. In spite of their knowledge and experience, they fell prey to EL. They were the first to encounter and fight against EL.
In retrospect, a detainee considered this tragic event God’s blessing in disguise.[vii] This was indeed true. First, a website was set up during the kidnapping event. The entire story, describing EL’s deviant doctrines and evil practices in graphic detail, became available after that. In addition to the internet, it was later published in a book: Exposing Eastern Lightning.[viii] Second, family members of detainees sought help from the government to find the captives. As a result, CGF was able to build a courteous relationship with government officials for the first time. While the government helped house churches to combat EL, CGF helped the government to discern between heresy and orthodox Christian beliefs.
The success of the kidnapping in 2002 increased EL’s confidence to capture church leaders worldwide. Within CGF, the event stirred up united and fervent prayers that led to more revival. Their experience helped other house church groups respond to EL’s attacks quickly including reporting to government authorities. Documentation of this event enabled churches in Hong Kong, and later Taiwan, to respond to EL’s increasing activities.
The Last Ticket after 2012: Strategic Changes and New Challenges
In the new millennium, EL switched its name to Almighty God Church (AGC). They began outreach efforts in Hong Kong, Taiwan and overseas by first whitewashing their horrific background in China. In 2012, the cult revived its doomsday tactics by presenting to the general populace talks of the Mayan Apocalypse. The “end of the world” was prophesized by Mayan mythology to take place on December 21, 2012 and would include a tsunami that would reach the height of Mount Everest.
Although the prophecy went unfulfilled, AGC stepped up its propaganda by publishing full-page advertisements in more than fourteen weekly magazines and daily newspapers in both Hong Kong and Taiwan. Street stalls were set up in over eighteen crowded locations such as subway stations and shopping malls to distribute their booklet, The Last Ticket after 2012. This endeavor persisted for several months and was shocking to churches considering the huge financial expenditure and manpower involved. Coupled with the global success of the Hollywood disaster film, 2012 (produced in 2009), the doomsday message, for a while, engendered fear in Chinese society in general and churches in particular.[ix]
A house church pastor in Shenzhen used a RMB one dollar bill to show me how an AGC cult member told him the message of God’s hidden work in Chinese currency. On one side was Chairman Mao’s photo belonging to the previous era of China with 12 stripes on the right border pointing to the Old Testament era of twelve Israeli tribes. On the other side of the dollar bill, there are three stone pagodas standing for the three era’s of God’s dispensations: the era of law when God was called Jehovah; the era of grace when God appeared as the Jewish man, Jesus, replacing Jehovah; and now the era of the kingdom when God appears as a Chinese lady, replacing Jesus.
The dollar bill story provides the key to their interpretation of the 2012 movie: God’s hidden work is also to be found in the movie. To escape the tsunami, a limited number of people could board arks on the China border. They each paid one billion euros in advance for the construction of nine arks, each accommodating 100,000 passengers. This was done on Chinese soil with help from China’s Liberation Army. The failure of the mythological prophecy did not hinder the AGC in exploiting the prediction as massive propaganda afterwards. By implication, God was doing a hidden work in the Hollywood movie as Christ had returned on Chinese soil. Trusting in the Chinese Christ is like getting the last ticket for the ark.
While the Last Ticket propaganda was planned by top leaders of AGC, the McDonald’s murder took place at the grass-root level. Seemingly unrelated, there are common threads in AGC’s peculiar activities—The Last Ticket publication, the MacDonald’s murder and dollar bill message. They all exhibit a strategic switch of their target from churches and their members to the marketplace and people on the streets, as well as using media items like a dollar bill and movies rather than Bible verses to entice ordinary people into their net.
Since the 2002 kidnapping event, house churches have emerged stronger than previously in combating AGC. Over the past decade, full-time theological training became readily available to house-church pastors. New phone technologies such as texting and WeChat have helped to connect church members with their pastors, and pastors with their theological professors. They can respond quickly to suspicious activities of cult members penetrating their churches. However, the challenge now is cultic penetration of the marketplace. Chinese churches need to help the ignorant populace resist enticing cultic propaganda. Since the McDonald’s murder, AGC has gone into hibernation, keeping under the radar. They have multiplied their names and mutated into other forms. Thus, Jesus’ warning must be heeded: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves…. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.” (Matthew 7:15, 24:5)
[i] News reported by Tim Hume, “Chinese Court Sentences Cult Members to Death over McDonald’s Killing,” CNN, October 13, 2014, at http://edition.cnn.com/2014/10/13/world/asia/china-eastern-lightning-death-sentence/.
[ii] EL’s recent activities are summarized by Sun Zhao and Huang Jin in “Inside China’s ‘Eastern Lightning’ Cult,” at http://en.people.cn/n/2014/0603/c90882-8735801.html.
[iii] News reported by Clarence Fernandez, “China Jails 21 Members of Banned Religious Cult,” at http://townhall.com/news/politics-elections/2014/12/10/china-jails-21-members-of-banned-religious-cult-n1929879.
[v] There was a well-known saying among house churches: “In North China there was Wang Mingdao (1900-1991), and in South China there was Samuel Lamb (1924-2013).”
[vi] Matt Shea, “The Cult Who Kidnaps Christians is at War with the Chinese Government,” VICE.com at http://www.vice.com/read/the-chinese-cult-who-kidnap-christians-and-paint-snakes.
[vii] As reported by David Aikman, “China’s Most Evil Cult,” at http://www.charismamag.com/blogs/215-j15/columns/global-picture/697-chinas-most-evil-cult.
[ix] Andrew Jacobs, “Chatter of Doomsday Makes Beijing Nervous,” New York Times, December 19, 2012, at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/20/world/asia/doomsday-chatter-makes-chinese-government-nervous.html?_r=0.
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