In response, of course, the government has launched a counter-offensive, with the latest reports indicating that more than 1000 members of the group have been arrested.
I first encountered the group in China in 2000. As some friends from the US and I were wandering around Tiananmen Square on a cold day in January, a young man came up to me and offered me a Bible.
For something like that to occur at any time on the square was surprising, but given the political/religious climate at the time, it was downright scary! The square was already a sensitive place because members of another banned religious group, Falungong, were engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with the security on the square, throwing leaflets into the air, and occasionally setting themselves on fire. I had previously witnessed the leaflet-throwing; fortunately I had not seen a self-immolation.
I thanked the young man and told him that I was a believer and that I already had a Bible. I also knew that every inch of the square was (and is) under video surveillance, and I didn't want to be filmed. Because this was such an unusual encounter, though, I did want to find out a bit more about the young man and why in the world he thought it was a good idea to be giving away Bibles on Tiananmen Square.
I asked him a few questions and he told me that he was a member of a small house church in Beijing. That in itself was surprising, because at that time the house church movement in the cities had not yet adopted the "open" posture that is common today. I was amazed and feeling blessed to have met this young man.
After a few minutes of chatting, he said to me, "Have you heard the news? Jesus has returned?"
"Excuse me," I replied. "I don't think so."
He then proceeded to quote Matthew 24:27: "For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man." (ESV)
"This has already happened," he told me. "Jesus has returned and is in Henan Province, in the form of a woman named Mrs. Deng."
At this point it was very apparent that we were NOT on the same page theologically, and that this young man was sorely deceived. I told him that I did not believe what he was saying and that I thought his interpretation of the Bible was, shall we say, a bit 'off.' He smiled and kept on trying to persuade me.
Feeling a bit nervous, I told him we needed to be on our way. As a parting shot, he handed me a piece of paper with a phone number on it, and said I should call it to learn more.
As we walked away, my friends asked me, "what was that all about?" "You wouldn't believe me if I told you," I replied.
In the next couple of years, there were more encounters with members of this group, in public places, on university campuses, and even in church. On more than one occasion, as I was sitting in a service at a registered church in China, a person sitting next to me handed me a small piece of paper, with the words , (Jesus has returned) followed by a cell phone number.
As I learned more about the group, the essence of their teaching seemed to boil down to this: God's plan to redeem the world through the law (Old Testament) failed. God's plan to redeem the world through grace (Jesus) failed as well. Now he is carrying out his plan to bring redemption to the world through the Chinese nation, by once again incarnating himself, this time as a Chinese woman.
Their aggressive posture has wreaked havoc, particularly in rural Chinese churches, where the level of education is low and the susceptibility to cultic teachings is high. Leaders in both the registered and unregistered churches constantly have to guard their flocks from the cult.
Their re-emergence in recent weeks (not that they had gone anywhere) has not escaped the notice of the government. Fearing social stability that could emerge as result of the teachings of the cult, they have launched a harsh crackdown against the group. A concern, especially in the rural areas, where local officials don't know one religious group from another, is that legitimate house churches may be unfairly associated and targeted. Please pray that this will not be the case.
To learn more about Eastern Lightning, here are some helpful resources:
Lightning from the East (OMF, September 2001)
Cult Eastern Lightning (Asia Harvest)
Experiencing the Eastern Lightning Cult (China for Jesus
Jesus Is Back, and She's Chinese (Time, November 5, 2001)
China's "Almighty God" Rises with Threat of Apocalypse (Duihua Journal, December 17, 2012)
What's with the Chinese Mayan-Doomsday Cult? (New Yorker, December 19, 2012)
For Once, Chinese Arrests Have Nothing to Do with Religious Freedom (National Review, December 18, 2012)
Image credit: Aztec Calendar Sun Stone, by Kim Alaniz, via Flickr
Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio