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Eschatology and China’s Churches

At the end of 2012, some international news media sources (such as BBC) as well as some mainland Chinese official media sources reported that over 1000 followers of the Almighty God sect (also called Eastern Lightening) were arrested due to promulgating both the imminent end of the world and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the “Great Red Dragon.” This concept of Christian eschatology has rarely been raised by China’s official media since 1989 and, of course, it is a negative and scornful view. Following the Chinese government’s suppression of Falun Gong, the Almighty God sect became the largest religious organization in the public sector open to challenge by the political power of the CCP. Because it has also been labeled a cult (xiejiao) by the Chinese government, followers who openly identify themselves with the Almighty God sect are considered to be illegal.

The teachings of this sect divide the entire history of mankind into three periods: “the age of law” in which God rules; “the age of grace” in which Jesus rules; and the final and current age, “the return of the female Christ” who rules in the final kingdom age. In the third age, to overcome the “Great Red Dragon” (identified as the CCP) is to realize the kingdom of Almighty God.

After it began in 1990, the Almighty God sect presented many challenges to the doctrine of the Christian faith. In terms of eschatology, there are some common features between it and many local Chinese Christian convictions, namely, a specific type of dispensationalist eschatology. This article attempts to plainly sort out some of the intellectual history and theological qualities of the eschatology of the Chinese church in order that we might better understand the Chinese cultural background behind Christian eschatology.

Characteristics of the Chinese Church’s Dispensational Premillennialism

In the traditional Chinese Christian faith, eschatology points out the differences between it and Chinese Christian sects and cults. The early house churches (jiating jiaohui) that emerged in the late 1970s, had their own view of eschatology—a kind of unique dispensational premillennialism. According to a 1998 document known as the “Statement of Faith of Chinese House Churches,” drafted by China Gospel Fellowship, the Fangcheng network, and other unregistered church representatives, “The saints and Christ will reign together for a thousand years. In this thousand year period, Satan will be thrown into the bottomless pit. At the end of the thousand years, Satan will be released temporarily to deceive the nations until Satan is thrown into the lake of fire. Then, Christ will sit on the throne to judge all nations and all peoples. Everyone will be raised from the dead to stand trial before the judgment seat.”

The eschatological theology held by these house-church networks and the Almighty God sect share a common source of influence from Watchman Nee and the theology of the Little Flock (xiao cun) sect that he established. Watchman Nee’s theology was influenced by the mysticism of Jeanne Guyon and by Plymouth Brethren figures such as John Nelson Darby. In his work, The Orthodoxy of the Church, Watchman Nee considers the seven churches in the book of Revelation to represent the history of mankind at seven different periods of time. The current church is in the final era of the Laodicean age. In varying times, different churches have acted as spiritual representatives of the era. Witness Lee regarded Watchman Nee as the representative of this modern era. In his book, Watchman Nee: A Seer of the Divine Revelation in the Present Age, Witness Lee stated that: “Brother Nee, as a unique gift of the age given by the Lord to his Body for his move of the recovery on the earth, should be considered as a seer of the divine visions in the present age according to what he had seen of the divine revelation.” Watchman Nee saw twelve such most mysterious revelations while at the same time “Brother Nee was not only a seer of these divine visions, but also a pioneer in the experience and enjoyment of the contents of all these divine visions.”

At present, in the official Three-Self Church theology, eschatology lacks a working category and finds itself situated under communist ideology. Any form of eschatology appears to be a threat to the ideology of the government authorities. In addition to witnessing this in the suppression of Eastern Lightening, it can also be seen from the government’s suppression of Falun Gong. In its third edition of the August 4, 1999 issue, People’s Daily published an article on the perspective of Falun Gong and eschatology by Bishop Ding Guangxun, at that time the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Vice Chairman, also the Honorary Chairman of the Chinese Christian Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee, and the Honorary President of the China Christian Council. Ding stated: “He (Falun Gong leader Li Hongzhi) agitates for eschatology and exaggerates the impending end of the world, which is incompatible with and in opposition to patriotism and constructing socialism. Eschatology is a poisoned arrow, weakening the uplifting spirit of the Chinese people and weakening the unity of the people.” In January 2002, a speech by Three-Self Patriotic Movement committee chairman, Luo Guanzong, was published on pages four through nine of the first edition of the official China Christian Council Newsletter (huixun). In his speech, Luo writes that the Three-Self Church “does not give enough attention to theological issues. Moreover, the influence of those from beyond our borders who utilize Christianity to infiltrate [China] leads to false theology that rises to the surface. This manifests in a denial of this current life, leading to exploration of eschatology, using ‘belief and unbelief’ to divide people, believing love of faith and love of country are in contradiction, using the ‘extra-political’ to weaken or even deny the feeling of adoration for our socialist motherland, to deny rational thought, and even cause what is politically right and wrong to become indistinguishable. Therefore we all feel the need to begin constructing theological thought.” Under the current intensification of media censorship in China, this is not an incidental phenomenon. Not only is this the case within the Three-Self Church, but the same is found in national propaganda as well.

Gnostic Roots in Dispensational Eschatology

Post-communist ideology is not unaffected by eschatology. To the exact contrary, Marxism and the CCP’s official ideology both contain a kind of optimistic millenarianism. China, under the rule of the Communist Party, has already completed its historical task. Its eschatological hope of a coming new world has transformed into the renovation of this world. This type of millenarian view, namely one that an era corresponds to the prophet of that era, produces a new type of person. Marxism contains this type of theological origin which is Gnosticism. Political philosopher Eric Voegelin wrote a very sharp analysis of dispensational eschatology as the source behind Gnosticism. For Voegelin, modern Gnosticism inherits the thoughts of Joachim. The eschatology of Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135-1202), the most significant Gnostic thinker, served as a link between past Gnostics, such as Marcion, and future Gnostics. He creates the symbolism of self-interpretation for modern political society. There are four symbols in modern Gnosticism: the first is the three-realm division of history; the second is the “Leader”; the third, the new prophet as a representative of the age; and the fourth, the brotherhood of autonomous persons. Voegelin points to some significant thinkers and events as representatives for modernity, including Comte, Hegel, Shelling, Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger, as well as many modern intellectuals and social movements. Many of these thinkers follow the thoughts of Joachim so closely that their use of the divisions of history appear very similar, such as noted in Voegelin’s observation “Hegel’s dialectic of the three stages of freedom and self-reflective spiritual fulfillment; the Marxian dialectic of the three stages of primitive communism, class society and final communism; and finally, the National Socialist symbol of the Third Realm.” 

Although the CCP and the Almighty God sect present different views of eschatology, in fact, they share a common source of theological understanding; that is, they alone have the truth and are the representatives and prophets of the current age. For the Almighty God sect this figure is undoubtedly the “female Christ,” while for the Communist Party it is their own power. This urge to create a new world gives us a new perspective to understand why, before 1949, there were so many members of the YMCA who defected to the Communist Party in Yan’an to become senior cadres. For example, former Communist Party of China Central Committee member, Yun Daiying, attended a 1917 YMCA camp and was deeply moved. During that time, the apostolic model of “resource sharing” [common ownership] advocated by China’s homegrown Christian sect, the Jesus Family, and the Communist Party slogan raised at the same time, were almost identical.

Eschatology and Chinese Society

Because of the limited space of this article, a detailed explanation of Chinese eschatology is not possible here. However, we can see that in China different sect’s eschatological views dictate people’s religious lives. In secularized society, eschatology emerges as a form of panic, such as in the case of the 2011 nuclear leak in Japan that caused masses of Chinese to spontaneously rush to stock up on large quantities of salt and other supplies. Within the government, preservation of political rule prohibits discussion of the end times; however, in its ideology, the government reflects a variation of Gnostic thought that views the Communist Party as the representative of the new world following the eschaton. Suppressed religions and Communist ideology share this common theory: in the new age, the rich redemptive task of the sect (whether it is Falun Gong or the Almighty God sect) turns into that of initiator in the new age.

With regard to the church in China today, one of the most important questions we face is: What is a biblically orthodox eschatology and, more importantly, how do we preach this kind of eschatology in our churches? This question not only concerns our future but also determines how we live today.

Translation by ChinaSource.

Image courtesy of Urban Life, Beijing, China by Nick Piggott, on Flickr.

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LI Jin

LI Jin

LI Jin is a PhD student at Calvin Theological Seminary. Prior to seminary he was a PhD candidate in economic history at a Shanghai university. He writes on Christian thought for both public and Christian media outlets in mainland China and Hong Kong. LI Jin and  wife Mary Li Ma have coauthored articles, book …View Full Bio