Last month I began a closer evaluation of the theology of cults by using two criteria, namely, the reality of revelation and the relationality of revelation (God is revealed in relation to his creation). This month I want to introduce two further theological criteria.
Our third criterion is what I will call the ‘redemptive-ness’ of revelation; that is, the crown of God’s works is not creation or providence but redemption.
The Creator-God chose to redeem in Christ many people from the guilt, power, pollution and punishment of sin. This was accomplished at Calvary in the substitutionary sacrifice of God’s incarnate Son.
The concept of salvation is important for cults too; that is why they appeal to people. But they claim to provide an alternative salvation, one that is better and more accessible.
On offer are a variety of concepts of salvation, ranging from bodily or mental healing, to enlightenment and transformation, to transmigration of the soul and reincarnation. And the cults see themselves as the agencies of salvation.
By sampling a wide variety of cults, we can produce a three-fold classification of ideas relating to salvation.
The first idea is the ‘revisionist’ interpretation of salvation, which revises or modifies the biblical view. This is found in such groups ranging from Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, and the Family of Love, to the Moonies and Mormons.
For example, like many others, Christadelphians reject the penal sacrifice of Christ, regarding his offering as nothing more than an expression of the Father’s love. Salvation, for them, is through water baptism plus obedience to Christ’s commands.
For JWs, Christ’s death dealt only with the sins of Adam and is powerless to save us; it is the basis from which individuals must struggle to achieve their own salvation by various works.
For ‘Moonies’, Jesus failed in his mission, which was to take a bride in the place of Eve, marry and produce perfect children. In Moon’s view, Christ failed because he was crucified before he could marry. Moon is now alleged to be the destined Messiah who is achieving what Jesus failed to do.
Christ’s finished work
All these views are hopelessly wrong. Think, for example, of what the Lord Jesus said from the cross: ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30). This was a cry of victory, not defeat.
What had he finished? He had fulfilled over 300 Old Testament prophecies relating to his mission and sufferings. His mission was now accomplished, his physical sufferings ended and his atoning sacrifice for sin completed.
He had met all the requirements of God’s holy law on our behalf and could say: ‘It is finished’. Because of his obedience to the death of the cross, he entered into his reward (and his role as mediator) by his resurrection, ascension and session at the right hand of the Father.
Our second classification involves a radical reinterpretation of the concept of salvation.
This is illustrated by the New Agers’ use of their key term, ‘transformation’. Within a pantheistic world-view, there is no distinction between God and the cosmos, and therefore no need to reconcile sinful people to a holy God. They deceive people, denying the necessity of salvation and its accomplishment by Jesus Christ.
Instead, the movement views humanity as subject to crises which stem from our fragmented understanding of (or blindness to) the essential ‘oneness of all’. Our greatest need, they say, is to understand our innate divinity and elevate our thinking to see ourselves as gods. Only then will our crises and problems disappear.
But how, according to them, is humanity transformed? ‘By actualising our divine nature’, they reply.
This process of ‘transformation’ is achieved by using one or more of hundreds of techniques available to mind, body and spirit — for example, yoga, Transcendental Meditation, chanting, hypnosis, and creative visualisation, to name only a few.
By contrast, the Bible emphasises that our problems as humans stem from our personal sinfulness and rebellion, which separate us from the holy God. And our sin incurs God’s wrath. Only Jesus Christ can rescue us.
The third classification involves a rejection of any salvation concept. This is exemplified by Scientology, which offers ‘life-enhancement’.
For Scientology, our bodies are temporary vehicles occupied by a ‘thetan’. This entity is almost equivalent to the Christian view of the ‘soul’ but is regarded as ‘the real being’, with continuing identity. It is immaterial and immortal.
In the past, ‘thetans’ created the material world to play with but became victims of their own creation, as the physical restricted their abilities. The result is that we are subject to irrational and emotional responses, which in turn produce ‘engrams’ (hindrances to rational thinking).
Scientology claims to be able to remove these ‘engrams’ by means of therapy, which helps people to ‘survive’.
But, this is all imaginary and speculative, and must be rejected. Without Christ and his one sacrifice for our sin, there is no hope for people.
Restoring the soul
Our final test can be called the ‘restorative-ness’ of revelation. This criterion touches on two vital questions, the purpose of revelation and eschatology. Let me explain.
The purpose of revelation is given in 2 Timothy 3:14-16: Scripture is ‘able to make you wise for salvation’. This statement is comprehensive and compelling, and a clear indication of the Scripture’s contemporary relevance. That is why Paul exhorts Timothy in verse 14 to ‘continue’ in apostolic teaching; their gospel still saves!
But it does more than just save men. Because the Bible is, in its entirety, God’s Word, it also instructs Christians in doctrine and in behaviour. It is entirely sufficient to equip Christians to live new, changed lives.
In short, the Bible is salvific (its message saves), didactic (it teaches) and restorative (it renews the sinner and conforms him to Christ’s likeness).
Word and Spirit
Let me illustrate this criterion in four ways. Firstly, revelation is restorative in pointing to the need for regeneration.
The New Age answer of gnosis (knowledge or enlightenment); or the emphasis placed by Western cults on law-keeping plus water-baptism; or the Spiritist claim that you save yourself; are all pathetic answers to the sinner’s need for forgiveness and spiritual rebirth.
By contrast, the gospel of Christ, through the agencies of the Word and the Holy Spirit, changes rebel sinners, blind and spiritually dead as they are, into saints.
This is an inward, supernatural, and life-changing work that God alone can do. In the miracle of ‘new birth’, God brings sinners from spiritual death and darkness into divine life, light and love.
Restoration begins in this stupendous, supernatural miracle of new birth.
Obedience to Christ
Secondly, revelation is also restorative in sanctifying believers. Through the Word and the Spirit, believers are strengthened and enabled to live obedient, Christ-honouring lives. Revelation is restorative because God’s goal for Christians is nothing less than holiness.
This is the opposite of what many cults teach and practise. For example, as we have seen in past articles, cult leaders have frequently been guilty of immorality or inconsistency of life.
Thirdly, revelation is restorative in that it points not to endless ‘soul-travel’ or repeated reincarnations, but to heaven, attained at death.
It is at death that the Christian is ushered in to the immediate presence of Christ, ‘which is far better’. To be saved from all sin, to see Christ face to face, to be like Christ and to be with him for ever, is the hope of every Christian. In that sense, revelation is restorative.
Fourthly, revelation is also restorative in holding out the prospect of resurrection and a new cosmos. In neo-paganism, the universe is trapped in unending repetition, like a wheel turning round and round. What has been, will be again; what will be, has already been.
By contrast, the Bible affirms that history is under the direct control of a personal, transcendent God. He is working out his purposes constantly and universally, whether in personal, national and international affairs.
The triune God of Scripture has decreed that history should go forward to a climax.
Christ’s reign includes not only his resurrection, ascension to heaven and session at the right hand of the Father, but also his personal return in glory at a future date. Then, history will end and God’s purpose, both for the church and the cosmos, will be consummated.
New heaven, new earth
The one who died for sinners now lives and rules. He will raise the bodies of believers at his coming and judge all people. Every knee will bow in submission and acknowledge him as Lord.
He will create a new earth and new heaven in which only righteousness exists. And the redeemed of the Lord, in this restored cosmos, will experience the complete restoration and glorification of which biblical revelation speaks.
These four theological criteria are biblical and Christ-centred. It is crucial to understand them if we are to evaluate cults (and other ‘isms’) aright, and engage effectively with them today.