CHURCH OF ALMIGHTY GOD / EASTERN LIGHTNING 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: The Church of Almighty God (hereafter CAG) was formally identified as a cult” (邪教 xiejiao) by China’s Ministry of Public Security, thus making its activities illegal.
1997: CAG’s scripture, The Word Appears in the Flesh (话在肉身显现 Hua zai roushen xianxian) was completed.
1999: The CAG 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 U.S.
2002: Members CAG allegedly 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 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 has historically taught that Jesus Christ has returned to earth as a Chinese woman. The Church previously stated that this Female Christ converted to Protestantism in the late 1980s, when the religion was experiencing rapid growth in northern China. She was said to be of ordinary appearance and background. [Image at right] The basis on which she came to be worshipped as the returned Christ has remained clear; rather, the movement described her advent as “hidden” (Church of Almighty God, “A Brief Introduction” 2015). 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 “Meiti cheng …”).
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. The Church has now internationalized, with a strong presence in the USA and South Korea, and smaller groups of adherents (some of whom have gained political asylum on grounds of religious persecution) elsewhere. Within China, it has transformed from an exclusively rural movement, to one that can increasingly be found in major cities, attracting middle-class converts. The number of adherents within China cannot be ascertained due to the group’s illegal status, but an estimate of 1,000,000 members is credible.
A flashpoint in the Church’s history occurred in May 2014, when five alleged members of CAG 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.” There was, however, significant evidence that those concerned were not members of CAG at the time of the murder (for a forensic examination, see Lü Yingchun – Zhang Fan Group). Nevertheless, this date was significant for CAG as it marked the beginning of a sizeable crackdown on the group.
The popular moniker of ‘Eastern Lightning’ has been coined by people outside CAG 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.” It has historically been the case that 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 fulfills 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” 2015; “Question 17”).
Since this web entry was first written in 2014, however, CAG texts have expunged references to the Female Christ. In the most recent (December 2015) iteration of its “About Us” statement, “he” replaces “she” in the following quotation: “Christ was born into an ordinary family in northern China. From childhood, He had believed in God with all His heart. He gradually grew up as an ordinary person does. In 1989, just as the Holy Spirit was working on a large scale in the house church, Christ gave up His studies and formally entered the house church. At the time, Christ was fervent in His heart and He yearned to serve God and perform His duty” (Church of Almighty God, “A Brief Introduction” 2020). Likewise, a search of the CAG’s websites for “female Christ” now yields only pages criticising popular misinformation about the group. This revision of the Church’s doctrine may reflect the difficulty for Christians to convert to believing in a Female Christ, and / or an attempt to deify Zhao Weishan.
CAG maintains that Almighty God’s interaction with humankind has been marked by three dispensations. The first of these, the Age of Law (律法时代 lüfa shidai), corresponds with the events of the Old Testament. CAG 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 4,000 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 returned 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, “The Vision of God’s Work (2).” However, CAG 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, CAG 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 new Christ, is working in the present Age of The Kingdom (国度时代 guodu shidai).
A big part of the way that transformation occurs is through judgment, frequently dispensed by the Christ or Almighty God in the form of misfortune. As of July 2020 there was scant mention of COVID-19 in the Church’s materials, but a generalized doctrine that the end was nigh continued to feature prominently. Teachings around misfortune well illustrate that in addition to explicit and extensive Christian references, the CAG’s teachings have been influenced by indigenous Chinese religious traditions. I call to mind, for example, the popular Mother of Lightning (电母 dian mu), also believed to punish evil with bolts of lightning (Dunn 2015: 84).
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 be held in homes or other inconspicuous locations. There is no formal liturgy, and CAG publications do not mention 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. Much of the group’s activities revolve around the circulation of lay evangelists, and the cultivation of social networks which are conducive to conversion. In the movement’s early days, literature (apologetic, anecdotes of divine retribution, tales of dreams and visions) was circulated in hard copy; now, this is complemented by the sharing of social media and electronic files. CAG’s websites today boast a swathe of feature-length faith-themed movies and concerts. Non-members also allege that CAG routinely uses kidnapping, violence and deception in recruitment (China Gospel Fellowship).
Like other new religious movements, CAG 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 CAG clearly has the resources to maintain and grow transprovincial and even transnational religious networks, it is likely that its 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.” (Zhonghua renmin gongheguo xingfa; Full Text of New Chinese Resolution Banning Cults; Palmer 2008.)
The antagonism between Chinese authorities and the Church of Almighty God is mutual. The Church of Almighty God continues to interpret all opposition to as being part of the “trials and tribulations” which the Bible teaches precede the apocalypse and the coming of the new heaven and new earth. CAG’s representation of China as dark and primitive subverts the nationalism which has been a significant source of support for the CCP in recent decades. More confrontationally, 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” 2015, 2020).
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 CAG anticipated the end of the world (Chinese Law and Government). Again, in late 2012, groups of CAG 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 1,000 members in Qinghai and Guizhou provinces.
In China, the CAG has never had any champions, but public opposition to the group has grown in recent 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). Community-led groups which oppose the Church of Almighty God have also arisen to offer support to those affected by the group.
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; Gracie 2014). Zhang Lidong and daughter Zhang Fan were executed in February 2015; three others were sentenced to jail terms.
While accused ringleaders Lü Yingchun and Zhang Fan had clearly strayed far from CAG by the time of the murder, there is evidence that the pair had come into contact with, and were influenced by, the movement in an earlier phase of their lives. In January 2007, Zhang Fan picked up a book by “Almighty God” and began to believe in Him. Lü Yingchun told the court that she knew that she was “God himself” from the time she was young, but realized that she was the (or one of the) “firstborn” (长子zhang zi) upon reading “the Almighty God book” in 1998. “Firstborn” is a term used in CAG scripture, following the Bible, to refer to those who would receive God’s inheritance (that is, all believers), and also to Christ himself. In their statements to the court both Lü and Zhang described themselves as “firstborn.” Mention of an “Almighty God book” suggests that Lü too came into contact with CAG teachings. Indeed, Lü recalled that she enjoyed spending time with others who believed in God, suggesting that she was not openly splitting from CAG at that stage of her life (Yang 2014) (for a more detailed examination, see Lü Yingchun – Zhang Fan Group).
Study of CAG remains challenging, though Massimo Introvigne (2020) claims to have gotten “inside” the CAG. In recent years more Sinophone studies of CAG have emerged. While earlier works published in the early 2000s (around the time of the campaign against Falun Gong) were quite general and vague in their descriptions, recent Chinese academic articles have sometimes been based on fieldwork with CAG communities at the county level (e.g. Wang & Xu 2017). The analysis offered by these works is still bound by CCP sensibilities towards “cults” and their suppression, but nevertheless constitutes significant progress in studying CAG.
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 ]. Zhongguo zongjiao 12:44–45.
CCTV News. “Cult Member: Murdered Woman an ‘Evil Spirit.’” Accessed from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xSb67nOPEhg on 22 September 2014.
China Gospel Fellowship. “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.
Chinese Law and Government. 2003. 36, no. 2.
Church of Almighty God. n.d. “Question 17.” Accessed from http://www.holyspiritspeaks.org/qa/fuyin-017/ on 12 February 2015.
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. n.d. “A Brief Introduction About the Background of the Appearance and Work of Christ of the Last Days in China.” Accessed from https://en.godfootsteps.org/about-us-02.html on 14 July 2020.
Church of Almighty God. n.d. “The Vision of God’s Work (2).” Accessed from https://en.godfootsteps.org/the-vision-of-gods-work-2-2.html on 14 July 2020.
Church of Almighty God website. As of mid-2020 The Church of Almighty God’s website was at www.hidden-advent.org (simplified Chinese characters), www.godfootsteps.org (traditional Chinese characters), www.holyspiritspeaks.org (English) and numerous other locations for other languages.
Dunn, Emily. 2015. Lightning from the East: Heterodoxy and Christianity in Contemporary China. Leiden: Brill.
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.” n.d. Accessed from http://www.cesnur.org/testi/falun_005.htm on 14 July 2020.
Gracie, Carrie. n.d. “The Chinese Cult that Kills ‘Demons.’” Accessed from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-28641008 on 6 September 2014.
Introvigne, Massimo. 2020. Inside the Church of Almighty God: The Most Persecuted Religious Movement in China. New York: Oxford University Press.
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 N. 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: Afflications of Modernity and State Formation, edited by Mayfair Mei-Hui Yang. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Wang Kaiyuan (王凯元) & Xu Wenbing （徐文兵）. 2017. ”’Yuan chuanbo’: Pohuai xing mobai tuanti “quannengshen” de jiceng chuanbo fangshi tanxi ‘缘传播’: 破坏性膜拜团体‘全能神’的基层传播方式探析” [‘Linked transmission’: An investigation of destructive worship group ‘Almighty God’s’ grassroots transmission]. Fanzui yanjiu 2:75-82.
Wang Zaihua (王在华). n.d. “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]. Accessed from http://news.cntv.cn/2012/12/21/ARTI1356082787384518_2.shtml on 21 September 2014.
Wang Zaihua (王在华). n.d. “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]. Accessed from http://news.163.com/12/1221/18/8J92TR1S0001124J_all.html on 26 August 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.
Yang Feng (杨锋). n.d. “Shandong Zhaoyuan xue’an bei gao zibai: Wo jiu shi shen山东招远血案被告自白:我就是神” [Confession of the accused in the Zhaoyuan, Shandong murder case: I am God]. Accessed from http://news.sina.com.cn/c/2014-08-22/123730728266.shtml on 15 July 2020.
“Zhonghua renmin gongheguo xingfa 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 2013.
18 February 2015
25 July 2020