The end times are near. And the believers of Shinchonji are ready.
They see themselves as the embodiment of the one true Christianity, poised for salvation when the moment of final judgment arrives. Everyone else will be denied forgiveness and destroyed, according to the group’s doctrine.
The name Shinchonji comes from the Book of Revelation. It translates from Korean as “new heaven and earth.” The group’s official name is Shinchonji, Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony.
Shinchonji was founded in 1984 and now claims to have attracted about 200,000 adherents in its home country of South Korea, along with thousands of followers in at least two dozen other countries.
If you ask most Korean Christians about Shinchonji, however, they will tell you it’s a cult.
The members of Shinchonji are not dissuaded by this fact. They tend to respond to such criticism by pointing out that Jesus himself, along with his disciples and their early followers, were also persecuted for their beliefs.
One of the first criticisms of Shinchonji you'll hear is that it breaks up families. This is a secretive and manipulative religious group, critics say, and it is ultimately responsible for tearing apart hundreds, perhaps thousands, of families in South Korea.
Kang Bo-reum knows all about that.
She is a 25-year-old graduate student in Seoul. She grew up Catholic. Her father died when she was young. Kang says she used to go to church every Sunday with her mom and younger sister.
Then late last year, Kang says she learned that her mother had a secret life.
“My sister told me that our mother believed in Shinchonji for quite a long time,” Kang says. And the lie went on for three or four years, she says.
Kang says she didn’t know much about Shinchonji at first, so she did some research about the group and decided that the church, “was not a real religion.” If her mother had decided to switch to some other church, say Methodist or Presbyterian, Kang says that would not have been a big deal.
But Kang says her mother was becoming more and more consumed with her involvement with Shinchonji, and spending less and less time with either of her daughters. Eventually, Kang confronted her mom, and proposed the idea of family counseling.
“But she refused everything,” Kang says.
Early this year, Kang and her sister moved out of their mom’s house. Kang says she doesn’t really talk with her mother very often these days. “Shinchonji has become her whole life,” she says.
Kang’s mother initially agreed to do an interview with me, saying that the separation from her daughters had been painful and difficult. But the following day, she cancelled a planned meeting and said she would not be able to do the interview.
The path to becoming a member of the church of Shinchonji usually begins in a classroom.
With a wide smile, Lee Mi-son welcomes me to a Bible study center in a small office building in downtown Seoul. Lee is the director of education here.
In one of the classrooms, 40 or so students sit behind desks and answer rapid-fire questions about the scriptures from their teacher, who writes notes on the chalkboard up front.
Throughout the exercise, a woman with bright red lipstick in the back of the classroom sits in front of a microphone and prompts the class every 15 seconds or so to respond in unison with a robust, “Amen!”
On the wall outside, there is a sign with the name of the study center. But it does not include the name Shinchonji. And that is typical.
Believers say they must keep the locations of their group’s activities secret, because they face so much persecution, especially from other Christians. Some churches in South Korea, in fact, post signs that say something to the effect, "No Shinchonji."
Lee, the director of the Bible study center I visited, says she has been a member of Shinchonji since 1999.
“We offer a very deep course of study into the Bible,” she says. “This is different than other churches.”
“The students would like to come to class seven days a week, but we limit it to five,” Lee says.
“Shinchonji members are very successful in life,” Lee adds. And then, without being asked about it specifically, she says that some members of Shinchonji have had problems maintaining relationships with their families and keeping up with their careers. But she says such cases are the exception.
Throughout my visit to the study center, a young Korean man in a jacket and glasses points a digital camera at me as I do interviews and observe the scene. When I say his filming is making me uncomfortable, he puts the camera down for a few minutes. Then, he goes back to filming me.
On a sunny weekday morning in April, on the outskirts of Seoul, about 5,000 Shinchonji parishioners are gathered at the group’s main house of worship in a vast converted commercial space. Most of those in attendance are women.
Everyone is dressed the same. They wear white shirts, dark pants and an identity badge around their necks. They are seated in neat rows on the floor listening to a sermon about the dangers of false prophets.
“Just because you have a Bible doesn’t mean you’re a real preacher,” pastor Lee Ki-won says, standing up front at a chalkboard. The atmosphere is a bit similar to the one in the Bible study classroom, with the pastor asking questions and the congregation answering in unison, interjecting frequently with an “Amen!”
The altar is decked out in pristine white, with the large Greek letters alpha and omega in gold, and two big white birds, facing one another. But there are none of the usual Christian symbols on display. No crosses, no pictures of Jesus.
Members of Shinchonji say it is uncommon for a foreign journalist to be invited to a worship service. Several tell me that the group is making an effort to be more transparent about its activities. Still, the location of this worship center is not publicized, and I’m asked not to take photos showing the faces of parishioners.
These services are exclusive, even for church members. Believers are required to complete at least six months of Bible study and demonstrate a proficiency in the scriptures before they can attend big services like this, held twice per week on Wednesdays and Sundays.
After the morning service wraps up, I sit down in a conference room to chat with Lee, who gave the sermon. Lee’s official title is tribal leader, and he is the head of one of the 12 tribes of Shinchonji, each one named after one of the apostles of Jesus.
“Shinchonji is the only path to God,” Lee tells me. “There is only one shepherd who is with Jesus and God and sends the words of Jesus and heaven.”
“You have to meet the shepherd,” Lee says.
The shepherd that he is talking about is Lee Man-hee, the founder of Shinchonji.
The members of Shinchonji call him “Chairman Lee,” or just “the chairman.” In church literature, he is also variously identified as “the promised pastor,” “the one who overcomes” or “the advocate.”
Lee Man-hee is in his mid-80s now, and he is said to have long experience with controversial Christian revivalist movements in Korea. One of them was the Olive Tree movement, which attracted an enormous following during the 1960s. Another was the Tent Temple movement, which fell apart in the 1970s after its spiritual leader was accused of fraud.
The Shinchonji Church of Jesus was founded by Lee Man-hee in 1984, one of several apocalyptic groups that emerged from the dissolution of the Tent Temple movement.
“Persecution is nothing new for me,” Lee explains during a tour of his group's mansion outside of Seoul, which his followers refer to as the “peace palace.”
Lee has big glasses, thinning dyed-black hair and he carries a long wooden walking stick. As he welcomes me into his home, three young men with cameras are snapping pictures and shooting video of my every move.
When I ask why, I am told that they are documenting the encounter for the church’s internal use.
As we sit down to do the interview, I start by asking Lee to tell me about his vision that led to founding the Shinchonji religious movement. But Lee says he doesn’t want to talk about that.
“There are many people who misunderstand me and also try to make false understanding about Shinchonji,” Lee says.
“For this interview,” he adds, “I would rather talk about the peace movement.”
On his business card, the list of Lee’s titles includes the name of an organization called, “Heavenly Culture, World Peace, Restoration of Light,” and another one called “MANNAM Volunteer Association.” Critics say that these are front groups for the church of Shinchonji. But Lee and his followers see something else.
Lee explains to me that God works for peace, his son Jesus worked for peace, and now, Lee himself is working as an international peace activist. By doing so, Lee says he is carrying out the will of God that was alluded to in the Bible.
Lee is keen to mention that he has composed a formal declaration for the end of all global war. The text of the declaration is carved into a large stone tablet in the back yard of the mansion. He tells me that the declaration has received broad acceptance around the world.
“There is no single country or anyone in the world who hasn't heard about my work,” Lee says.
At this point in the interview, Lee appears to get annoyed with me for not being fully aware of his international reputation as a peace broker. Then, I ask how his peace work is connected to Shinchonji.
“The end of global war! World peace! This is what I’m talking about,” Lee says, raising his voice. “How can anyone criticize me for this?”
The founder of Shinchonji goes on to say that prominent Christian leaders in South Korea and elsewhere only criticize Lee out of jealousy. He says his church is growing, while their churches are shrinking.
Lee sees the persecution that he faces as evidence that he is on the right track. After all, he tells me, wasn’t Jesus persecuted by prominent religious leaders of his time? His critics, Lee says, “are not connected to God. They don't know Bible.”
This leads me to ask about the “narrow path” to heaven offered by the teachings of Shinchonji. In 2,000 years of Christian history, I ask, is Shinchonji the only real way to God?
“Yes, that’s right,” Lee says.
Before leaving, I ask Lee another sensitive question. Who will take over for him after he dies?
At this point, Lee’s interpreter seems to get a little nervous, and he hesitates to translate the question. When it is finally put to Lee, he answers with a few words in English.
“I don’t know,” he says. “This is a nonsense question,” Lee adds in Korean.
But some mainstream Christian critics of Shinchonji say this question gets to the heart of why Lee Man-hee is preaching what they see as heresy.
“Shinchonji people believe that he will live forever,” says J-il Tark of Busan Presbyterian University, referring to Lee Man-hee.
Tark is an expert on heretical Christian groups, and he says Shinchonji is one of the most prominent of them in South Korea today. Korean Christians are “strongly against Shinchonji,” Tark says.
That's because the believers of Shinchonji, “are attacking the core belief of Christianity,” Tark says, by equating their founder with the second coming of Jesus. That, he adds, puts Shinchonji far outside of the Christian mainstream.
Another controversial aspect of Shinchonji is the way the group recruits new members. In general, competition among Christian churches to grow their congregations can be fierce in South Korea, where about a third of the country’s population belongs to one Christian denomination or another.
But Shinchonji stands apart, says Byun Sang-wook. Byun is a broadcaster with CBS, a Christian television station in South Korea. He produced a television documentary series that is highly critical of Shinchonji.
“Shinchonji members infiltrate other churches and try to lure people to their Bible study classes. And when new students sign up, they are not told right away that the class is part of Shinchonji,” Byun says.
It’s not just Korean religious leaders who have spoken out about the group’s use of deception.
In December last year, leaders from the Church of England sent out warnings to parishes in London, telling them to beware of a non-profit group called Parachristo. The group is understood to be a front for Shinchonji.
“This group has no connection whatsoever with the Diocese of London and has no authority to promote itself amongst our churches,” reads a statement sent by church officials. “A call for vigilance has been issued to all churches in the Diocese.”
A statement from Rev. John Peters, that rector at St. Mary’s in London, used even stronger language to describe the group offering Bible study classes under the name Parachristo.
“A number of members of London churches have been pulled into this cult and gradually they are encouraged to cut all ties with friends and family,” reads the message from Peters, according to a report in the Daily Telegraph.
In April, similar warnings were issued about Shinchonji’s alleged activities in New Zealand.
Members of Shinchonji defend their recruitment tactics, along with some of the more controversial aspects of their church’s theology, by saying that the critics just have it all wrong.
“The teachings of Shinchonji are different than what mainstream Christians might be used to, but everything that is taught in Shinchonji is according to the Bible,” says Michelle Chang, a Bible study teacher from California.
Chang says the church of Shinchonji in the US has grown to include 15 branches and about 2,000 total members. Chang is 27 and says she has been involved with Shinchonji for about eight years. She teaches Bible study classes at a place called Zion Mission Center in Santa Ana.
Chang says the center doesn’t always promote itself under the name of Shinchonji, because the controversial name might be a distraction for new students.
“We want people to make a decision based upon what they’ve learned in the Bible without having any skewed misunderstandings of what they might have heard [about Shinchonji],” Chang says.
If people think Shinchonji is a cult, Chang says that they probably think Jesus was a cult leader too. She says all of the group’s teachings come straight out of scripture, and everything that the leader, Lee Man-hee, speaks about also comes directly from the Bible.
This sort of claim of total Biblical authority sets off alarm bells for Rick Ross, head of the Cult Education Institute in Trenton, New Jersey.
“Many times, I’ve heard people who are involved in authoritarian Bible-based groups that have been called cults [say] that the leader is simply going with the Bible,” Ross says.
Ross says there are all kinds of cults. Apple Inc. under the leadership of Steve Jobs had some cult-like aspects to it, he says. So does the exercise program at SoulCycle. But one thing Ross says he is always watching out for, and he has done hundreds of interventions with cult members over the years, is the way that members of a given religious group view the authority of their leader.
“The existence of a living, charismatic leader that becomes an object of worship,” Ross says, this is where things can start to get dangerous.
If the members of Shinchonji do believe that their founder will never die, Ross says, they would not be the first to do so. Scientologists have made the same contention about their group’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, he says.
When I ask Michelle Chang if she thinks Lee is immortal, she says, “I believe that God has the power to grant eternal life to those he chooses.”
“It sounds like the answer is, ‘yes,’” I say.
“Yes,” Chang says.
A subsequent email sent to me with a statement attributed to Lee Man-hee denied that Shinchonji tells its followers that its founder is immortal.
“I did not ever say I have eternal life,” the statement reads. “It’s a misunderstanding.”
But Ross says there are other reasons why people might suspect that Shinchonji is a destructive cult, including its use of deception.
“I would say that infiltrating existing churches with the ulterior motive or hidden agenda to recruit people by sitting in the back in the pews and then inviting them to a Bible study to siphon them into an alternative group is very deceptive,” Ross says.
He adds that these tactics are “commonly practiced by many groups that have been called cults.”
Ultimately, Ross says any would-be believers will have to do their homework and come to their own conclusions about Shinchonji.
For her part, Chang agrees. She says people should come check out one of Shinchonji’s Bible study classes and make up their own minds.
“Shinchonji is not a bad place the way that people might think it is,” Chang says. “It’s not a dishonest place. It’s not a deceptive place. It’s a place that has appeared and teaches according to the Bible.”