| Drink the Kool-Aid|
|But you WANT to stay|
Eastern Lightning (东方闪电) or the Church of Almighty God is a Chinese heterodox religious movement based on Christianity that holds that Jesus Christ has been reincarnated as a woman in China. While the group does not officially identify who this woman is, unofficial sources state she is Yang Xiangbing (1973–). Unofficial sources say it was founded in 1989 by Zhao Weishan (赵维山) (1951–), who currently resides in the United States where he continues to lead the church. The name Eastern Lightning is derived from Matthew 24:27, a verse in the context of a passage that decries hidden Christs in "secret chambers" as false.
The sect has been the victim of human rights abuses at the hands of the Chinese government. The 2014 Zhaoyuan McDonalds incident, in which cultists unrelated to the Church of Almighty God murdered a woman for not giving them her phone number, was used in government propaganda as a pretext to ratchet up persecution of both this cult and religious movements in general.
- 1 Beliefs
- 2 Activities
- 3 Persecution
- 4 Comparison to Evangelical Christianity
- 5 External links
- 6 References
As the Second Coming of Jesus, Yang Xiangbing will guide mankind through the end times. Eastern Lightning preaches salvation through her third testament, The Word Appears in the Flesh. Eastern Lightning refers to the Chinese Communist Party as the "Great Red Dragon" of the Book of Revelation, and some members predicted that the world would end on December 21, 2012. The leaders of the group, however, rejected that prediction.
The group's theology divides time into three ages: that of the law (the Old Testament), that of grace (the New Testament), and that of Kingdom (the current age). It teaches that the "Age of Grace" has been superseded by the "Age of Kingdom", during which humans will not only be forgiven of their sins, but also cleansed of their sinful nature. There is also a separate "Age of the Millennial Kingdom", which is supposed to occur after God's work in China has ended; during that age, the apocalyptic events in the Book of Revelation are to occur.
The sect essentially excludes mainstream Christians who reject the group from salvation, stating that those who hold on to conventional Christian beliefs are "guilty of opposing God" and do not truly believe in Him.
The group rejects the inerrancy of some parts of the Bible, stating that books like Paul's epistles are only his personal opinion, and explicitly denies the notion that the Bible provides a sufficient understanding of God, condemning such views as Bibliolatry that restricts God via the Bible. Videos on the group's channel render quotations of Jesus in yellow, similar to Red Letter Christians, but also render the group's own The Word Appears in the Flesh in yellow captions to emphasize their belief that the piece of literature is from God rather than a cult leader. The group's view of the Bible as limited and fallible is, however, likely not rooted in rational skepticism of religious dogma and should not be confounded with efforts by progressive Christians to re-interpret the Bible to suit modern science and values. Rather, this is likely intended to prop up the group's theology despite its contradictions with the Bible. For example, the name of the group is, ironically, quote mined right out of a passage about false prophets and teachers in Matthew 24:22 that appears to imply that groups like it are following false messiahs.
Despite believing that Christians who reject them in favour of mainstream beliefs are going to Hell forever, videos on the sect's channel frequently identify the group's members as simply "Christians" or "people who believe in God". The group also denies evolution.
Eastern Lightning distinguishes "being saved" from "full salvation". It teaches that faith alone does not permit a person to go to Heaven: Jesus's sacrifice has brought atonement for sins, but it does not cleanse believers of their "corrupt disposition". As a result, believers are still unclean and will go to Hell unless they accept the cleansing of the Word of Almighty God, which renders them perfect.
Divine punishment of non-believers
The sect believes that Christians who reject Almighty God are not only bound to go to hell, but will also be punished by God in this life with bad luck, disease, and death. The sect has a long list of examples of alleged incidents in which Protestants and Catholics who rejected Almighty God died or fell heavily sick called Classical Examples of Punishment of Christians and Catholics for Resisting Almighty God. Conveniently, the examples only provide last names (identical last names are common in China) and are not independently verifiable.
Some of the examples given by the sect make Christians who reject "Almighty God" look villainously and comically evil. For instance, Example 184 of the sect's list of punishment incidents that have occurred in the province of Henan features a Christian woman exclaiming "I will not accept it even if it is true."  This is contrary to verifiable examples of Christians opposing Eastern Lightning, who generally make arguments based on scripture to uphold their genuinely-held belief that Eastern Lightning is false.
The sect seems to hold these incidents of "divine punishment" up as evidence of its truth. For example, in example 13 from Henan, in which an anonymous man surnamed Wang is punished by a stroke after testing God by exclaiming "this teaching is not true; if it is true, then let me get punished within one year," the author writes rhetorically "now that his oath has been fulfilled, is this teaching true or not?"  This is, of course, contrary to Jesus's teachings, which state that miracles and signs alone do not constitute proof that someone is a true teacher:
For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.—Matthew 24:24
Oddly, this volume, as of May 2019, isn't visible on the sect's website's front page  and isn't emphasized in the sect's media.
Despite this hardline attitude that non-believing Christians will be divinely punished, the sect seems to be very ecumenical towards non-Eastern Lightning Christians who support them. For example, the sect prominently features sympathetic interviews from Massimo Introvigne, a Catholic researcher of "new religious movements". It also invited sympathetic Protestant pastor Christian Tanon and priest Adou Benoît to its New Year's celebration in France. 
All three people have heard of Eastern Lightning's gospel and have rejected it. Introvigne should theoretically be even more culpable than the other two, for he, as a researcher, has looked deeply into Eastern Lightning theology. Yet there is no evidence any of these men has been "divinely punished". It's odd that this "divine punishment" fails to materialize when the people are verifiable individuals.
A case can certainly be made that it is good for Christians to support Eastern Lightning asylum seekers, even if they disagree with their theology. Many would agree that in light of the human rights situation in China, what Introvigne, Tanon, and Fr. Benoît are doing to help Eastern Lightning members is venerable. However, the more deeply people like Introvigne study Eastern Lightning theology and hang around with Eastern Lightning without actually accepting its teachings, the less plausible those teachings seem. Eastern Lightning is essentially shooting itself in the foot by bringing in Introvigne, who, despite studying the movement deeply, has neither been moved by its theology nor been divinely punished by "Almighty God".
The church believes that homosexuals are demon-possessed. However, it also believes that the second coming Christ is female. Since New Jerusalem, which Christ marries, is the "bride" of Christ and the church is betrothed to Christ the husband (2 Corinthians 11:2-4), either Eastern Lightning's Christ is demon-possessed and therefore not God, or she will turn back to a man before she marries the church. One wonders if Eastern Lightning believes that homosexuality is okay as long as it is only a betrothal and not a sealed marriage.
Interpretation of Matthew 24
The group interprets Matthew 24:22 as meaning that the Christ will return in the East and his faith will spread to the West. This poses several problems when interpreted in context.
A summary of Matthew 24:4 to Matthew 24:35, the relevant passage, is provided below using quotes from the public domain World English Bible. Commentary is provided in parallel.
|Before Christ's visible coming||
1. Before Christ comes, there shall be disasters, wars, and false prophets. There will be persecution of Christians. (Matthew 24:4-8) These are just "birth pains" and the end has not come yet.
2. There shall be people falsely claiming to be Christ. Their followers will claim that Christ is in a secret room or in the desert.
If therefore they tell you, ‘Behold, he is in the wilderness,’ don’t go out; ‘Behold, he is in the inner rooms,’ don’t believe it.—Matthew 24:26
3. These people will be able to produce miracles and signs. Thus, miracles and signs alone do not prove that a claimant to the second coming is truly Christ. Furthermore, there is no burden on Christians to investigate these claims.
“Then if any man tells you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or, ‘There,’ don’t believe it. For there will arise false christs, and false prophets, and they will show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the chosen ones.—Matthew 24:23-24
4. The actual coming of Christ will be like how lightning that hits the east will naturally be visible in the west or how when there is a carcass the vultures will naturally gather. These verses clearly contrast against Matthew 24:26. The difference is that of obvious and visible versus hidden. Just as lightning will be seen even if not near, and vultures will gather without needing to be told, Christians do not need somebody to approach them and tell them that Christ has come. The most plausible interpretation, given the context, is that the lightning and vulture are metaphors for the same idea of openness and obviousness.
For as the lightning flashes from the east, and is seen even to the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For wherever the carcass is, there is where the vultures gather together.—Matthew 24:27-28
| Eastern Lightning does not disclose who the returned Christ is or where she is. This is very similar to a Christ in a secret room. In all likelihood, the group's leaders are in hiding in secret rooms or overseas due to the group being illegal.
Eastern Lightning claims that Christians and pastors who rejected them have suffered bad luck and strange deaths in a series of anonymous stories. (Oddly enough, actually named and identifiable Christian leaders do not seem to suffer this fate. House church pastor Samuel Lamb has preached against the sect since at least 1992 and did not pass away until 2013 at the ripe old age of 88. Pope Francis is similarly still alive and well.) Assuming that the stories are true and not products of exaggeration, coincidence, or foul play, the Bible teaches that God is not the only one able to produce such signs.
There is no valid contrast between Matthew 24:27-28 and Matthew 24:26 if Matthew 24:27 is interpreted as meaning that Christ will come from the Eastern direction. There can be deserts in the East and there can be inner rooms in the East. The only valid contrast is that of unmissable versus hidden.
|After Christ's visible coming|| After the period of "oppression", referring to the period when Christians are oppressed and false prophets run rampant, Jesus comes unmistakably and openly, with his sign appearing in the sky. The Son of Man, not the Daughter of Man, comes in glory on clouds.
But immediately after the oppression of those days, the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken; 30 and then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky. Then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory.—Matthew 24:29-30
"Those days" refers to the aforementioned time period when the end has not yet come. Given its placement right after the metaphors that the Son of Man's coming, future tense, will be like vultures flocking to a carcass or lightning spreading across the sky, it can be inferred that during "those days", the Son of Man has not yet come back.
| The Eastern Lightning Church argues that we must not limit God using the Bible. They argue that just because the final second coming of Christ is obvious does not mean Christ cannot come in hidden prior to the obvious second coming. In other words, just because the Bible doesn't say it doesn't mean God will not do it. They argue that Christians should examine the "evidence" for their so-called Almighty God being Christ.
The problem with this claim is twofold.
Firstly, it flies in the face of Matthew 24:23. If Jesus tells Christians they can safely ignore those who claim to have the Christ, and then comes back secretly anyway, and everybody who rejects this secret Christ is going to hell, then he has given his followers a command that he does not want them to follow. If this were true, then a God who wishes for all to be saved has now hinged his church's salvation on an obscure cult in China, thereby causing the fires of hell to prevail against it. (Which is difficult to reconcile with Matthew 16:17-19.)
Secondly, the problem with the secret coming is not just that it adds to the Bible. Many Christians accept that the Bible is not the be-all and end-all of truth, with Catholics, for instance, accepting the Church's teachings as sacred traditions. The problem is that it also contradicts the narrative of the secret coming being false and the open coming being true that is created by the lightning and vulture metaphors.
Alleged unethical methods of evangelism
The group has been accused of spreading their faith using unethical means to "steal sheep" (steal believers) from underground and house churches. Due to the underground nature of much of Chinese Christianity, and the involvement of the Chinese government and state-controlled media, many of these claims cannot be independently verified. Allegedly, the sect infiltrates and spies on churches secretly pretending to be ordinary believers. They may use enticements such as gifts to encourage others to join them, and engages in violence. The group is also accused of using sex to lure believers into their group.
Allegations of the use of direct violent coercion are hard to verify. It is undeniably true, however, that the Eastern Lightning church threatens that those who reject it will be punished by God with strange diseases and death. 
Alleged violent acts
However, unlike Falun Gong, Eastern Lightning has been accused of explicitly engaging in acts of violence. For instance, in 2002 Eastern Lightning allegedly kidnapped 34 members of a Chinese house church network, the China Gospel Fellowship, for two months by pretending to be a Christian training center. According to a victim of the kidnapping, the cultists initially claimed to be theologians from Singapore but later revealed they were actually members of Eastern Lightning; after the victim rebuked them for heresy (cult members had allegedly beaten four Christians in his hometown and left them disfigured), he was called a "Pharisee" and moved to a locked room in a residence where he was subjected to verbal abuse. The victim was left pale and emaciated.
In a more widely publicized event in 2014, cultists identifying as believers in "Almighty God" beat a woman to death at a local McDonald's for simply refusing to give them her phone number. The sect distanced itself from the murderers, noting that the suspects testified that they had never come into contact with the church; the sect further accused the Communist Party of being behind the attack. A close look at the testimony shows that the murderers may have read some of the literature produced by the sect but did not consider the sect to be the true representatives of "Almighty God" (Splitters!).
The Eastern Lightning church has a sophisticated and high-budget online presence that reaches relatively few subscribers. Their slickly-produced videos demonstrate a good understanding of Mainland Chinese media and artistic conventions. They have produced crosstalks (a type of Chinese comedy often involving two speakers known in Mandarin as 相声 xiàngshēng) and skits with a level of polish nearly comparable to those produced by Chinese state media for their New Years' Galas. They output hour-long full-HD movies condemning mainstream Christianity and the Chinese regime. Said movies were likely filmed outside of China; there appears to be extensive use of digital compositing and props.
Despite believing that mainstream Christianity is false, the group's videos are often generically labelled as "Christian movie", "Christian crosstalk", "Christian comedy skit", or variations thereof.
The films and comedy sketches produced mimic the format of Chinese popular culture and are clearly geared at a Mainland Chinese audience. Many videos on foreign language YouTube channels are translations of such works. The group also produces one-off songs in other languages.
Unlike sects like Mormonism, there is (as of July 2019) no significant online presence of independent websites or organizations posting independent apologetics works for the church. There is also no information online regarding physical locations for the church, and no way to buy physical copies of the group's literature online. (Presumably you would have to convert and join them to get a copy of their books.) This is understandable since the group may be under persecution from the Chinese regime even outside of the country, but this secrecy should also raise questions as to the group's actions.
Sneaky, superficially independent websites with unclear relation with the sect
There are several superficially independent websites, sometimes simply identifying as Christian websites, that promote Eastern Lightning theology. They syndicate Eastern Lightning videos and contain articles that cite Eastern Lightning scriptures, but do not clearly describe the nature of their relationship with the Church of Almighty God. While some of these websites may (inconsistently) speak of the second coming in the future tense, the information they give regarding the second coming (e.g. that it will be hidden) lay the groundwork for Eastern Lightning arguments, and their articles not-so-subtly quote the Church's books. These websites have very similar art styles and all of them have a live chat feature similar to the sect's official website. The official website does not list them in its list of official sites. Nonetheless, these websites appear to be, shall we say, not all that forthcoming about their purpose.
These websites include, as of July 2019:
- Grow in Christ, Domain registrar NameSilo LLC, registered 2014-12-01
- Find the Shepherd, Domain registrar NameSilo LLC, registered 2014-12-01
- Our Daily Devotionals, Domain registrar NameSilo LLC, registered 2018-04-05 (Note: Although CAG in "Cagnz" may stand for "Church of Almighty God", the webpage itself does not directly identify as an Eastern Lightning website.)
- Walk in the Light, Domain registrar NameSilo LLC, registered 2014-12-01
- Testify God, Domain registrar NameSilo LLC, registered 2018-05-16
- Bible en Ligne/Le Salut (Online Bible/Salvation), Domain registrar NameSilo LLC, registered 2018-05-16
- l'Évangile du Royaume/Luciole de Dieu (Gospel of the Kingdom/Firefly of God, Domain registrar NameSilo LLC, registered 2018-06-06
Due to the relatively smaller set of religious websites on the French web compared to on the English web, websites promoting Eastern Lightning theology can, for some search queries, outrank mainstream websites like Got Questions (Protestant) and La Croix (Catholic). (As of September 2019; tested using a TOR connection with the query "une fois sauvé toujours sauvé" (once saved always saved).)
Of note is that NameSilo LLC is also the registrar for Stella del Mattino ("the Morning Star"), an ostensibly "non-profit, non-party and non-governmental organization" seeking to "defend and advance human rights" that just so happens to have a logo similar to Eastern Lightning and focusses a lot on the persecution of Eastern Lightning believers in China.  However, the Church's main websites are registered with Google as the registrar.
- 追逐晨星/Pursue Star(Chase the Morning Star), Domain registrar NameSilo LLC, registered 2014-10-24
The English websites's privacy policies instead identify their proprietors as various, differently-named churches in the United States:
- rainbowtoken.com identifies itself as a website of The Church of the Dawn's Light
- findshepherd.com identifies itself as a website of The Church Before the Seat of Christ
- cagnz.org identifies itself as a website of The Church of New Hymn 
- hearthymn.com identifies itself as a website of the Church of Bright Light 
- testifygod.org identifies itself as a website of The Church of Dawn’s Light 
The sect's media is available in numerous languages. Its full-length movies frequently feature a pre-roll title stating that the movie has been translated into the target language from Chinese by professional translators.
Does this mean that there are many believers of Eastern Lightning all around the world who volunteer to translate for them? Clearly there must be some believers outside of China (or else they wouldn't be wasting money on producing media in many languages), but there is likely not enough for all the translation to be done in-house. Instead, the sect seems to depend on external translators.
The website hearthymn.com, apparently affiliated with the sect, links to a bible app produced by the "Christian Holy City Church" in Flushing, New York called "Bible Reading Made Easy", whose devotionals feature Eastern Lightning content.  The Christian Holy City Church, whose podium is backed by a beige brick wall and flanked by two LCD television sets, clearly is the same church as the one featured in the sect's Chinese skit "qián chē zhī jian". It seems that the sect conducts translation activities through the Christian Holy City Church.
The Christian Holy City Church seems to solicit freelance translators. A freelance translator called Molly Lim complained about poor pay and deceptive employment practices on Facebook, which the Church denies in its "solemn declaration". While it is impossible to verify whether these accusations of unethical behaviour are true (it is possible that they are not, since many translators clearly continue to work for the Church), this does show that the church, to some extent, relies on translators from outside its organization.
The Christian Holy City Church also receives professional translation services from the company Summa Linguae.
Like other religious groups, Eastern Lightning's members have been persecuted in China. The group is designated as illegal and suffers mass arrests by the Communist government. Bitter Winter reports that members have died after torture in police custody and been intimidated by the authorities into spying for them. 
While the group sometimes holds this up as evidence of its truth, persecution does not prove truth. Clearly, not all persecuted religions can be true at the same time. Other religious organizations like the Falun Gong have also been suppressed in China, but Falun Gong and Eastern Lightning cannot be true at the same time, since Falun Gong is rooted in Buddhism while Eastern Lightning is rooted in Western Christianity. Historically, religions have begun as heterodox movements and therefore were initially persecuted; this is true of Mormonism, Islam, and Bahá'í.
Chinese propaganda against the sect
Some accusations against the sect do not hold water. For instance, the Zhaoyuan McDonald murders of 2014 are frequently blamed on the sect, even though the murderers confessed that they were not connected to the sect.  In this case, Western media outlets bought into the Chinese government's propaganda uncritically, and falsely reported that the Church of Almighty God was involved.
Bitter Winter reports that individuals linked to the Chinese Communist Party have held false demonstrations against Eastern Lightning in Seoul. These false demonstrations consist of "family search parties" that, though ostensibly intended to locate runaway cultists, do not actually intend to meet with Eastern Lightning family members. Some Eastern Lightning members went to the airport to meet their relatives in the "search parties", but their relatives were not permitted to see them. 
Comparison to Evangelical Christianity
Some comparisons between Eastern Lightning and Evangelical Christianity can be drawn.
Firstly, the sect ferociously opposes evolution, homosexuality, and communism, and features this opposition prominently in its media. (Interestingly, possibly due to God's gender change in Eastern Lightning theology, being transgender is not mentioned anywhere on their website as of September 4, 2019.) This may help play to the sympathies of the American religious right. This is in line with other organizations linked to religious or spiritual movements incompatible with mainstream Christian orthodoxy like the Unification Church's Washington Times and Falun Gong-linked Epoch Times who, thanks to taking the religious right's side in the culture war, gain praise from the religious right.
Secondly, the sect's media presence parallels that of Evangelical Christianity. Many comparisons can be drawn between Jack Chick's comics and the sect's comedic skits and Chinese crosstalks. In both cases, inspiration is drawn from Communist Chinese propaganda, which uses media as a tool of control and thought-distortion. In the former case, Chick was inspired by Chinese comic books used to win people over to communism. In the latter case, the comedic skits and crosstalks are in the same style as those seen on Chinese state media's New Year's Gala. In both cases, the choice of using a fictional narrative rather than non-fiction tracts and articles allows the religious apologist to build up a caricatured strawman who "resists God" or "hinders others' path to God" so that they can destroy his arguments with ease and emotional power. The sect also produces music videos in the style of Christian Contemporary music similar to those produced by hipster Evangelical churches like Hillsong, so much so that many of the songs on the website of a local church seemingly affiliated with Eastern Lightning are not EL originals but Hillsong songs.
Thirdly, the sect's way of positioning itself in its rhetoric parallels that of Evangelical Christianity. Just as Evangelicals position themselves against Catholics by presenting their religion as "a personal relationship with Jesus and not a religion", Eastern Lightning uses the rhetoric of "[casting] off the bonds of religious ritual".
Fourthly, the sect's alleged infiltration of Christian churches (as well as its use of the umbrella of Christianity despite being basically a different religion altogether) parallels the tactics used by some seedy segments of Evangelical Christianity to convert Jews. Just as some underground Christian churches allegedly suddenly discover that their "new convert" is a secret Eastern Lightning believer, "Messianic Jews" have sometimes been deceptive when ministering to Jewish communities, such as by making their places of worship look like synagogues and even pretending to be Orthodox Jews.
- Inside China's 'Eastern Lightning' cult Global Times, June 03, 2014
- China cracking down on doomsday group Los Angeles Times, December 17, 2012]
- "Church of Almighty God". CenSAMM. https://censamm.org/resources/profiles/church-of-almighty-god.
- "Knowing the purpose of the three stages of work of God’s management of mankind". The Church of Almighty God. June 13, 2017. https://www.holyspiritspeaks.org/gospel/three-stages-of-work-1/.
- "Only He Who Experiences the Work of God Truly Believes in God". https://www.holyspiritspeaks.org/recital-kingdom-selection-000/#.
- ""My Father, the Pastor" A Truth Debate on the Bible (English Dubbed)"". July 3, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0zEGM3nt0n8.
- 河南省基督教天主教各宗各派抵挡全能神受惩罚的典型事例, example 184
- 河南省基督教天主教各宗各派抵挡全能神受惩罚的典型事例, example 13
- Eastern Lightning Chinese page, archived 16 May 2019
- Massimo Introvigne: The Church of Almighty God Is a Typical Victim of Black Propaganda and Fake News
- The Church of Almighty God Christians Ring in the New Year With French Friends
- Deceived by the Lightning Christian Research Institute, 2005
- What is the Church of Almighty God? Got Questions
- Testimony of "Younger Shen" from China Gospel Fellowship Of His Experience in Confinement (Chinese) China For Jesus
- The Chinese cult that kills 'demons' BBC News, 13 August 2014]
- ""The Truth Exposed Behind the May 28 Zhaoyuan Case"". January 29, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fHFGlPQXzCM.
- ""山东招远血案被告自白：我就是神"". August 22, 2014. http://news.sohu.com/20140822/n403692654.shtml.
- Compare the cover photo on the official website with the background of the skit
- Introvigne, Massimo. "The Church of Almighty God / Eastern Lightning: 10 False Myths". https://bitterwinter.org/the-church-of-almighty-god-eastern-lightning-10-false-myths/#myth-1.
- Introvigne, Massimo. "False Demonstrations in Seoul: Cui Bono?". https://bitterwinter.org/false-demonstrations-in-seoul-cui-bono/.
- The Biography of Jack Chick, retrieved 18 February 2008