Shincheonji, sometimes spelled Shinchonji or abbreviated as SCJ, is a pseudo-Christian religion primarily practiced in South Korea. The religion’s official name is Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony. It was created by Lee Man-hee in the 1980s and, by 2020, claimed just under 200,000 adherents (www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/25/coronavirus-south-korea-to-test-200000-sect-members-as-pandemic-fears-hit-markets, accessed 02/07/23). The word Shincheonji itself is a combination of the Korean terms for “new,” “heaven,” and “earth.”
The group has been criticized for shallow, academically weak teachings, a promotion of an extremely figurative view of biblical texts, a cult-like atmosphere, and its members’ involvement in various social, civil, and legal troubles.
Shincheonji believes itself to be the end-time expression of the true church through the direct fulfillment of the prophecies in Revelation. The leader and founder, Lee Man-hee (“the Promised Pastor”), claims by divine revelation to have been sent by the Holy Spirit to create “God’s kingdom of heaven here on earth, exactly as he witnessed it in heaven” (http://en4.shincheonji.kr/?ch=about02_01 accessed 02/07/23).
The sect’s twisting of Scripture has inspired several anti-Shincheonji task forces. Some are run by church groups, others by organizations like newspapers and television stations. The general Korean strategy for opposing Shincheonji uses social and internet media to discourage people from joining it. Similar materials also warn people about evangelism efforts that seem Christian but are actually coming from a Shincheonji group. Many genuine Christian churches in South Korea actively work to keep their members from being dragged into Shincheonji’s aberrant theology.
The word cult is controversial and can be difficult to define. By the most common use of the term, however, it would be fair to consider Shincheonji a very large, very successful cult. The group is headed by a single charismatic leader, Lee Man-hee, who claims to have a special ability to interpret the Bible. Man-hee can be evasive when challenged about his authority. He frequently implies that he is immortal and that salvation requires faith in him rather than in Jesus Christ. In fact, Man-hee’s Shincheonji church teaches that the Bible is primarily composed of metaphors, and he alone has the spiritual gift for correctly interpreting them.
Cults typically practice indoctrination rather than education. Shincheonji offers free Bible classes, which are slanted toward their theology. However, those involved in SJC are also taught that counterevidence or other challenges are tests of their faith. As a result, adherents ignore facts, reasons, and evidence that contradict Lee Man-hee’s teaching. In some cases, Shincheonji disciples are discouraged from reading the news or using the internet, as these media can contain messages potentially harmful to their faith.
False teachings are a hallmark of cults. Shincheonji teaches that the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation 7:4 are members of the 12 “tribes” of Shincheonji. The group denies the Trinity. It claims all angels are humans and that only Lee Man-hee has the ability to interpret the Word of God correctly. In fact, Shincheonji goes so far as to claim that Revelation 7:2 is a specific reference to Korea (“East”) and Man-hee (the first “angel”).
The Zion Christian Mission Center is the educational arm of the Shincheonji Church. According to the organization’s website (http://en4.shincheonji.kr/?ch=about03_02 accessed 02/07/23), about 85,000 students have graduated from this program, which is offered at roughly 300 centers worldwide. The group’s primary proselytizing efforts focus on inviting people to attend classes at their various centers. When recruits graduate, they are said to be “sealed” as members of the 144,000.
The Zion Christian Mission Center offers three levels of course study. In the entry-level course (The True Knowledge of the Secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven), students are taught “the true meaning of the parables that are written in the Bible.” If students do not understand the parables correctly, asserts Lee Man-hee, they “cannot be forgiven nor will they be saved.” The second-level course offers an overview of the Bible that, according to Lee Man-hee, will help students “grasp the general context of the Bible” to aid them in their learning and ultimate salvation. The third and final level covers the entire Book of Revelation. A correct comprehension of Revelation’s prophecies and their fulfillment is essential to the student’s salvation, according to Shincheonji.
The Shincheonji church is active in cultural and volunteer efforts. The church runs several social action organizations that disguise their relationship to Shincheonji teachings. One of their more famous events is an Olympics-style athletics festival.
Unfortunately, the most significant aspect of Shincheonji in South Korea is its success. By some estimates, there are as many as fifty heretical, home-grown, pseudo-Christian sects—or cults—in South Korea. Most are relatively small and have a low impact. However, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, is a major diversion from the true gospel.