CHURCH OF ALMIGHTY GOD / EASTERN LIGHTENING TIMELINE
Early 1991: A precursor organization, “Church of the Lord of New Abilities” (新能力主教会 xin nengli zhu jiaohui), proselytized in Henan province in the People’s Republic of China. The Almighty God began to speak through the woman who later came to be worshipped as the Female Christ.
1995: “Eastern Lightning” was formally identified as a cult” ( 邪教 xiejiao ) by China’s Ministry of Public Security, thus making its activities illegal.
1997: The Church of Almighty God’s scripture, The Word Appears in the Flesh (话在肉身显现 Hua zai roushen xianxian) was completed.
1999: Eastern Lightning was reported to be proclaiming the end of the world in 2000, and was targeted alongside Falun Gong.
?2000: Founder Zhao Weishan was granted political asylum in USA.
2002: Members of Eastern Lightning kidnapped thirty four leaders of the China Gospel Fellowship network of Protestant house churches in an attempt to convert them to the movement.
2012 (December): Chinese authorities arrested one thousand adherents who were publicly proclaiming the imminent destruction of the world.
2014 (May): Five alleged members of Eastern Lightning beat a stranger to death in a fast food restaurant in Shandong province. Two were executed in February, 2015; three others were jailed for offences related to this incident and their involvement in the “cult.”
The Church of Almighty God teaches that Jesus Christ has returned to earth as a Chinese woman. The Church states that this Female Christ converted to Protestantism in the late 1980s, when the religion was experiencing rapid growth in northern China. She is said to be of ordinary appearance and background. The basis on which she came to be worshipped as the returned Christ is not clear; rather, the movement describes her advent as “hidden.” (Church of Almighty God, “A Brief Introduction” n.d.) She does not make public appearances, and only a small number of people are destined to recognize her deity.
Other Chinese sources present a far more complex account of Eastern Lightning’s origins. They charge a middle-aged man named Zhao Weishan 赵维山, once a physics teacher or railroad worker, with founding the movement. These sources report that Zhao was a member of the “Shouters” religious movement in the late 1980s. He left the group with other believers in 1989 to form an offshoot, in which he presented himself as a “Lord of Ability” (能力主 nengli zhu). In May, 1992, a Chinese Christian magazine reported that a group called “the New Church of the Lord of Ability” (新能力主教会 xin nengli zhu jiaohui) had been distributing tracts and cassette recordings in southwest Henan since March, 1991. One of these tracts was titled Lightning from the East (Xu 1992).
In late 2012, Chinese media began to identify the Female Christ as Shanxi woman Yang Xiangbin 杨向彬. Reports from this time have stated that in 1991, Zhao Weishan was in the doldrums following the suppression of his fledgling new religious movement in Heilongjiang province. He fled to Henan, where he came across Yang (b.1973), who had experienced a mental breakdown after failing her university entrance examination, and had been writing a religious text that she claimed was “God’s Word.” Zhao recognized the potential that she and her writing held to attract followers, they became lovers, and Zhao declared her to be the Female Christ in 1993 (Wang n.d.).
Zhao is reported to have entered the U.S. and sought political asylum on the basis of religious persecution in around the year 2000, possibly with Yang. By 2014, The Church had been reported to be proselytizing in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and the group’s website, Facebook page and YouTube uploads also indicated attempts to recruit from Chinese-speaking communities in San Francisco, Seattle, England, Canada, Italy, Sweden, and South Korea. Within China, it has transformed from an exclusively rural movement, to one that can increasingly be found in major cities. The number of adherents within China cannot be ascertained due to the group’s illegal status, but an estimate of one million members is credible.
The popular moniker of “Eastern Lightning” has been coined by people outside the Church of Almighty God in response to its use of a verse in the biblical gospel of Matthew (24:27): “For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Here, Jesus speaks of his own eventual return to earth and “the end of the age”; he will be the “lightning.” To adherents, the Female Christ revealed in the early 1990s is the lightning that Jesus foretold, and as such signals the arrival of the end times. Thus, she fulfils New Testament prophecy as Jesus’ coming fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. The “east” mentioned in the Matthew verse is identified as China, and so Jesus prophesied that Christ would return there, before Eastern Lightning spreads to western nations (Church of Almighty God, “A Brief Introduction” n.d.; “Question 17” n.d.).
Eastern Lightning maintains that Almighty God’s interaction with humankind has been marked by three dispensations. The first ofthese, the Age of Law (律法时代 lüfa shidai), corresponds with the events of the Old Testament. Eastern Lightning adopts a chronology that is based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, and believes that the events spanning the Age of Law (i.e. from the creation of the world to the birth of Christ) occurred over a period of four thousand years. During this time, God revealed himself as Yahweh, and his principal “work” was to create the world, lead the Israelites out of Egypt and give them his commandments.
The birth of Jesus marked the end of the Age of Law and the beginning of the Age of Grace (恩典时代 endian shidai), which covered events up until the advent of the Female Christ. Jesus was compassionate and loving, and during this time the divine mission was to die on the cross for the redemption of humans (Church of Almighty God, “A Vision of the Work” n.d.). However, Eastern Lightning teaches that Jesus was “only a normal man” until he began his ministry at the age of twenty-nine, three years prior to his crucifixion. Moreover, Eastern Lightning teaches that Jesus only partially completed the work of salvation. Although he offered himself as a sacrifice for sin, “men” continue to be “corrupted” (败坏 baihuai) by Satan; while Jesus’ death enabled their sin to be forgiven, their sinful nature remains fundamentally unaltered. It is for the transformation of this sinful nature that the Almighty God, through the Female Christ, is working in the present Age of The Kingdom (国度时代 guodu shidai). Frequently, she dispenses judgment upon this sin in the form of misfortune.
As well as explicit and extensive Christian references, these teachings have been influenced by older Chinese religious traditions (Dunn, forthcoming).
The Church of Almighty God adopts ritual, practices, and indeed some doctrines, that resemble those of popular Chinese Protestantism (cf. Kao 2009, Lian 2010, Madsen 2013). In light of the group’s proscribed status in the PRC, worship meetings tend to involve a small number of people and to be held in homes or other inconspicuous locations. There is no formal liturgy, and Eastern Lightning’s publications omit mention of the common Christian rites of baptism and communion. During services, members listen to preaching based around the group’s scripture, share testimonies, and sing the group’s hymns.
As the rapid growth of the movement over the past few decades suggests, the movement emphasizes proselytizing, and so many of the group’s activities revolve around this. Common proselytizing methods include the distribution of literature (apologetic, anecdotes of divine retribution, tales of dreams and visions), the movement of lay evangelists throughout the nation, and the cultivation of social networks. Non-members also allege that Eastern Lightning routinely uses kidnapping, violence and deception (China Gospel Fellowship n.d.).
Like other new religious movements, Eastern Lightning is a tiered organization. A Supervisory Unit (监察组 jiancha zu) is an administrative structure responsible for communicating instructions from “the top,” and inspecting and reporting on churches every six months. Leaders（带领 dailing) and their Assistants (配搭 peida) lead churches at regional (区 qü), sub-regional (小区 xiaoqü) and church (教会 jiaohui) levels. Each region and sub-region has a Preacher (讲道员 jiangdao yuan), and Deacons for Evangelism (传福音执事 chuan fuyin zhishi).
Although the Church of Almighty God clearly has the resources to maintain and grow transprovincial religious networks, it is likely that the Church of Almighty God’s operation at a grassroots level is largely decentralized and informal, particularly in areas where it is being cracked down upon.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) permits the five official, “major” religions of Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Daoism and Islam to operate openly subject to regulation, but it is often difficult for other religious groups to operate within the PRC. Being classified as a “cult” renders the Church of Almighty God’s activities susceptible to prosecution, because Article 300 of the Criminal Law of 1997 prescribes a jail term of three to seven years’ imprisonment for “Whoever forms or uses sects ( 会道门 huidaomen ) or evil cults (邪教 xiejiao) or uses superstition to undermine the implementation of the laws and administrative rules and regulations of the State.” [see “ Zhonghua renmin gongheguo xingfa,” the full Text of New Chinese Resolution Banning Cults] (Palmer 2008).
The antagonism between Chinese authorities and the Church of Almighty God is mutual. Eastern Lightning’s
representation of China as dark and primitive subverts the nationalism that has been a significant source of support for the CCP in recent decades. More confrontingly, the group identifies the CCP as the ‘big red dragon’ of Revelation (9:12), and thereby depicts the CCP as an incarnation of the devil which will soon be slain (Dunn 2008; Church of Almighty God, “A Brief Introduction” n.d.).
In addition to these symbolic challenges, Chinese authorities have been concerned about the Church of Almighty God’s ability to gather members together, in part due to the historical involvement of some religious associations in armed rebellions (Naquin 1976; Overmyer 1976). This was notably the case around the year 2000, as the political campaign targeting Falun Gong was underway and Eastern Lightning anticipated the end of the world (Chinese Law and Government 2003). Again, in late 2012, groups of Eastern Lightning members gathered in public spaces throughout China to proclaim that the end of the world was nigh and demand the release of members who had been arrested. Chinese authorities responded with a swift crackdown, arresting approximately one thousand members in Qinghai and Guizhou provinces.
The Church of Almighty God has never had defenders outside the organization, but public opposition to the group has grown inrecent years. Chinese Protestants decry the heretical nature of the movement’s doctrine and rue their successful attempts to proselytize Christians (Cao 2012; China Gospel Fellowship n.d.). Community-led groups that oppose the Church of Almighty God have also arisen to offer support to those affected by the group (see www.fqnslm.com; http://www.xjshzzj.com/h-index.html; http://www.xq166.com/, accessed 28 September 2014). The group’s notoriety increased both domestically and internationally following the May, 2014 murder of a woman in a fast food restaurant in Zhaoyuan City of Shandong Province. It was alleged that five members of the group had been soliciting strangers’ cell phone numbers in the diner for the purpose of proselytizing. When a sales assistant in a nearby women’s clothing store refused to divulge hers, the quintet declared her an “evil spirit” and beat her to death with a mop handle (CCTV News 2014; Gracie 2014). Zhang Lidong and daughter Zhang Fan were executed in February 2015; three others were sentenced to jail terms.
The Church of Almighty God continues to interpret all opposition to as being part of the “trials and tribulations” that the Bible teaches precede the apocalypse and the coming of the new heaven and new earth.
Cao Shengjie (曹圣洁). 2012. “Jingti yiduan xiejiao liyong Jidujiao ‘moshilun’ zaocheng weihai 警惕异端邪教利用基督教 ‘ 末世论 ‘ 造成危害 ” [“Beware of harm caused by heresies and cults using Christian eschatology”]. 中国宗教 12:44–45.
CCTV News. 2014 “Cult Member: Murdered Woman an ‘Evil Spirit,’” May 31. Accesed from https:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=xSb67nOPEhg on 22 September 2014.
China Gospel Fellowship. n.d. “Report from China Gospel Fellowship of the April 16 Kidnapping by the Eastern Lightning Cult.” Accessed from http://www.chinaforjesus.com/cgf/070702/index.htm on 23 March 2004.
Beijing Municipal Security Bureau. 2003. “Announcement of the First Shijiazhuang Public Security Bureau.” Chinese Law and Government 36:65-73.
Church of Almighty God website. As of mid-2014 Eastern Lightning’s website was at www.hidden-advent.org (simplified Chinese characters), www.godfootsteps.org (traditional Chinese characters), www.holyspiritspeaks.org (English) and http://kr.kingdomsalvation.org/ (Korean). The Church’s scripture (Word Appears in the Flesh), hymns and other publications are available from the “Books” pages of the respective websites. See also https://www.facebook.com/godfootsteps and http://www.youtube.com/godfootsteps .
Church of Almighty God. n.d. “A Brief Introduction About the Background of the Lord’s Coming to China in a Hidden Way to Work.” Accessed from http://www.holyspiritspeaks.org/about/aboutus/?about=2 on 12 February 2015.
Church of Almighty God. “A Vision of the Work (2).” Accessed from http://www.holyspiritspeaks.org/books/shenhua/shenhua-113/ on 12 February 2015.
Church of Almighty God. n.d. “Question 17.” Accessed from http://www.holyspiritspeaks.org/qa/fuyin-017/ on 12 February 2015.
Dunn, Emily. Lightning from the East: Heterodoxy and Christianity in Contemporary China (forthcoming).
Dunn, Emily. 2008. “The Big Red Dragon and Indigenizations of Christianity in China.” East Asian History 36: 73-85.
“Full Text of New Chinese Legislative Resolution Banning Cults.” Accessed from http://www.cesnur.org/testi/falun_005.htm on 31 March 2004.
Gracie, Carrie. 2014. “The Chinese Cult that Kills ‘Demons.’” BBC, August 13. Accessed from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-28641008 on 6 September 2014.
Kao, Chen-Yang. 2009. “The Cultural Revolution and the Emergence of Pentecostal-Style Protestantism in China.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 24:171–88.
Lian Xi. 2010. Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Madsen, Richard. 2013. “Signs and Wonders: Christianity and Hybrid Modernity in China.” pP. 17-30 In Christianity in Contemporary China: Socio-Cultural Perpectives, edited by Francis Khek Gee Lim. London: Routledge.
Naquin, Susan. 1976. Millenarian Rebellion in China: The Eight Trigrams Uprising of 1813. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Overmyer, Daniel. 1976. Folk Buddhist Religion: Dissenting Sects in Late Traditional China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Palmer, David. 2008. “Heretical Doctrines, Reactionary Secret Societies, Evil Cults: Labeling Heterodoxy in Twentieth-Century China.” Pp. 113–34 in Chinese Religiosities: Afflictions of Modernity and State Formation, edited by Mayfair Mei-Hui Yang. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Wang Zaihua (王在华). 2012. “Meiti cheng quannengshen jiaozhu taozhi Meiguo yaokong zhihui xintu 媒体称全能神教主逃至美国遥控指挥信徒 ” [“Media claim Almighty God leader fled to America: Commands followers from afar”] 163.com , December 21. Accessed from http://news.163.com/12/1221/18/8J92TR1S0001124J_all.html on 26 August 2014.
Wang Zaihua ( 王在华 ). “Jiemi ‘Quannengshen’ xiejiao jiaozhu Zhao Weishan 揭秘 ‘ 全能神 ‘ 邪教教主赵维山 ” [Revealing Zhao Weishan, leader of ‘Almighty God’ cult]. Cntv , December 21. Accessed from http://news.cntv.cn/2012/12/21/ARTI1356082787384518_2.shtml on 21 September 2014.
Xu Shengyi (许圣义). 1992. “Jingti pi zongjiao waiyide fandong zuzhi 警惕披宗教外衣的反动组织 [“Beware of reactionary organizations in religious garb”]. Tian Feng 5:24.
“Zhonghua renmin gongheguo xingfa.” 2008. 中华人民共和国刑法 ” [“Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China”]. Accessed from http://www.npc.gov.cn/huiyi/lfzt/xfxza8/2008-08/21/content_1588538.htm on 28 August.
18 February 2015