May 11, 2003 - A
Describing a Cult: The Worldwide Church of God Experience
Part 1: Why Did I Get Involved?
Herbert W. Armstrong's Message
During the early 1980's and for years before, Herbert W. Armstrong preached that mankind was living at the End of the Age (1). This was his most significant media message and the greatest attraction for his followers. One of his booklets was Are We in the Last Days? (2)
Before I watched the World Tomorrow, I was already anxious about the state of the world. For example, I worried about the Iran Hostage Crisis. (3) The danger of nuclear war was especially troubling, and I readily absorbed Armstrong's message of fear. As well as images of fighter jets and starving famine victims, Armstrong's television program The World Tomorrow repeatedly displayed images of atomic red-glowing mushroom clouds.
Nuclear Madness Warped the World
In my mind nuclear weapons conjure up the notion of humans as helpless slaves of a life-destroying soul-less technology, and that we are bound to live in fear of total obliteration because of some misunderstanding created by those who try to manage this "system".
Back then it was still the Cold War, and many feared that the Soviet Union and the United States would fire their nuclear missiles and destroy most of the world, leaving the survivors to die of radiation poisoning. In 1983 this terrifying possibility was portrayed in the TV mini-series The Day After (4).
Our allied governments went along with the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.), which means that any use of nuclear weapons by either side would result in automatic retaliation and thus the complete destruction of both sides. (5) This was meant to deter the use of nuclear weapons.
The twentieth century is remembered as the century of mass murder by absolutist totalitarian governments. But it was also a time were both the free West and the Communist East threatened nuclear mass murder. Somehow the fact that Western countries were "free" allowed us to excuse the Western governments. But who built the first nuclear weapons? Our side.
There have been horrible atrocities committed by totalitarian regimes in Europe and Asia, but Western democracies have adopted more and more a similar type of absolutist attitude about their role, and over the last 50 years have raised the stakes to involve every living human being in their struggle with foreign ideologies. And it didn't stop with Communism.
Citizens of Western democracies have let their governments take more and more control over their lives in order to organize everything in society and to "protect" them. What did these democratic governments - U.S., Britain, France - do with the taxes they took from free peoples to "protect" them? They competed with the Soviet Union in a nuclear arms race. They built nuclear weapons - or supplied uranium for nuclear weapons, as Canada did (6).
And Canada's allies and especially its main ally, the United States, pointed these things at hundreds of millions of people. Did the threat of nuclear war reinforce the power of Communist states and delay the freedom of their citizens? Did the threat of nuclear war erode our own freedoms? I believe the answer is yes to both questions.
Did nuclear weapons help to contain the Soviet Union? Maybe. Was it necessary? No, I doubt it. The Soviet Union was an aggressive power, and the ideology behind it wanted to spread itself globally, but it never had a chance in the long run. The Soviet Union would have collapsed, because not only the U.S. and Canada, but also every small country the Soviet Union tried to control would have resisted its influence without Western military interference, and eventually Communism would have run out of steam. I don't believe Western governments had enough confidence in their own professed beliefs in human liberty to trust other peoples to free themselves. Peaceful interactions such as trade and the exchange of ideas would have been enough to nudge these countries along towards freedom.
I do not believe it required 50 years of diverting private resources into a military machine to achieve the defeat of Communism. We would be much better off today if those resources had gone into peaceful pursuits. The battle should have been fought in the realm of ideas. It's amazing we have remembered anything at all about the ancient ideas and laws that form the basis of our freedom in Canada, the U.S. and Britain. We became more like the Communists to defeat the Communists. Our energy went into weapons of mass destruction rather than fighting with ideas and maintaining those ideals of liberty, law and justice that were constantly eroded over the course of the 20th century.
Back then we were conditioned to believe that nuclear weapons were a necessary evil for our own security, as if we were fighting the ideas of Communism with weapons instead of with ideas. But the actual use of these weapons always was insane and immoral, a threat to the life and property of a world full of individuals that had no say over the decisions of their governments.
Our societies became more and more like what we feared and tried to resist. The nuclear weapons were pointing at the Soviet Union, which was trying to undermine our society, but those who had confidence in their own ideals would not have needed weapons to resist the spread of Communism.
To many of us, it seemed that nuclear weapons were just an accepted part of the background, just an unavoidable development of history. It was not seen as a wrong decision by out-of-control governments with limitless powers of taxation. It was just something that God or Satan had planned.
And people got used to the idea that one man - the president of the U.S.A. - somehow has the right to retaliate based on his judgment that an attack had been made, and inflict death on millions of people. I think people wanted to believe that somehow that system is rational and their president somehow maintains god-like infallibility. They are reduced to "trusting" one man with the fate of the world. Their constitution says only Congress has the right to declare war, but times have changed right? And everything happens in an instant. Decisions to kill multitudes of people are to be made in mere seconds, because we have to keep up with technology you know. Institutions, laws, rights, morality - oh no - those things can't be allowed to get in the way of ...what? ... of Mr. Power's right to "use his power". And no one wants to question that. That's like questioning your own passivity and all the lies you have collected to comfort yourself about why we let a few people have so much power.
Along Comes the Bible Cult Leader
Our lives were clouded by this nuclear fear. The mindless and amoral policies of these governments - Communist or Democratic or Fascist - distorted and limited our hopes and outlook. These weapons warped our minds and warped our morality. The Atom Bomb and the Hydrogen Bomb twisted our civilization.
So it was appropriate that the existence of such a total dehumanizing threat served the interests of cult leaders to help generate the fear and speculative end-time scenarios they needed to gain and control followers.
Cold War insanity was the perfect soil for cult leaders to spread their seed. Reality-based fears worked hand in hand with those from Armstrong's imagination. Possibly, the life-cheapening effect of nuclear weapons cancelled out a sense of personal sovereignty in some of us. The unconscious message for you is that your life is not important if you are not with Armstrong and following God's Way.
He would say to not follow "Man's way", but rather to follow "God's Way". The implication is that what you think does not matter compared to the overwhelming destruction that faces unbelievers. The message is: your only hope is not to rule your own life but to let God rule your life through Armstrong. This is the message you live by, but it takes time to develop and you are never completely conscious of this thought pattern until you escape from it.
Analogy between the Political and Spiritual
We surrender responsibility for our lives to both the political power and the spiritual power. This is just an analogy because doing something about the political abuser requires collective decisions, but doing something about the spiritual abuser requires only individual decisions.
In the same way we collectively empower the government's military machine, we as individuals empower cult leaders to wreak their spiritual havoc.
Without the nuclear build-up, I believe Canada and the U.S. could have gone much further in productive pursuits if individuals had been allowed to keep their money rather than have it diverted towards Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. In the same way, those who surrender their spiritual lives to cult leaders limit their horizons.
Just as these governments seek to organize the whole of their societies, in a similar way the cult leader beckons. He has "the power", and the loud voice of "authority". He has the claim on you. He speaks for God.
People look to their governments to solve their problems - and they give them lots of money. And somehow the problems never get solved, but they keep losing their freedoms. In the same way, Armstrong promised that the "give" way of life he talked about would bring happiness and allow you to have life "more abundantly".(7)
Just as these governments seek to "protect" us (by threatening and provoking other countries with massive destruction), the cult leader wants you to just give it all up to God - meaning himself - and you will be "protected" from the Tribulation. His followers give up their souls for false security.
Just as N.A.T.O. governments run around the world showing off their bombs instead of limiting national defense to their own peoples, Armstrong strutted about the world meeting heads of state instead of focusing on the spiritual health of his own followers.
Armstrong called out a lie and we responded. We gave up our freedom for a lie, for a false promise of security. Just as governments take exorbitant taxes, Armstrong drew power from us - from our money, our time, our devotion and our energy. He left some of us without a will of our own, without thoughts of our own - to feed his ego and expand his Empire.
Just as our society passively soaks itself in seductive materialism and endless distractions as substitutes for personal control over our lives, Armstrong provided flash and excitement for his followers - having us focus on endless doctrinal distinctions and prophetic speculation about world events. This way we don't have enough time to think too much about what is going on.
The Great Tribulation
Because of nuclear weapons, and the M.A.D. system, it was at least conceivable that all life could end, and Herbert W. Armstrong could argue that Matthew 24:21-22 meant we were now living in the time of the Great Tribulation when it was possible for all human life to be destroyed unless Christ intervened.
He could now point to the existence of nuclear weapons and say that never before in history had it been possible for all life to be destroyed.
It was irresistible to hear someone explain how the present-day existence of nuclear weapons fit into Godís plan. Here was the meaning of it all and the solution. God had predicted all of these terrible events in the Bible. And Jesus Christ would return and stop manís misrule of this earth before we were all destroyed by our own hands. After the Great Tribulation, Christ's intervention would begin with another period of suffering called the Day of the Lord that would culminate in the return of Christ and a millennium of peace. This was the time when Bible prophecy would be fulfilled in the ultimate way, and Jesus Christ would return just in time to save us, and create the Kingdom of God on earth - a world of peace and godliness.
This verse about knowledge being increased and people travelling to and fro was one of the eeriest verses I ever read, because it sounds so much like the time we live in.
As long as I felt that the Bible was nearly flawless then this verse had a power over me. But now I know the Bible is badly flawed and I just see this verse as human creativity. The author of Daniel is picturing the idea of the end of the world and what he imagines it will be like.
He might just as well be wrong as right, because its significance is the same as fictional or historical accounts of the potential disasters we all fear, including events that happen again and again in history: global dictatorship, religious persecution, horrible weapons, natural disasters.
And such events certainly should have nothing to do with giving your life over to cult leaders like Armstrong. In practice these types of events are only opportunities for human beings to demonstrate their rational ability to cope with problems on a large scale.
Persecution and Invasion
In Armstrong's teachings, the Great Tribulation consisted of two major elements:
1. Persecution of true Christians described in Revelation 6:9-11. The fifth seal was identified with the Great Tribulation:
2. The other element was a nuclear attack by a European superpower on nations that Armstrong identified with the lost ten tribes of Israel. Many of the Old Testament prophecies that described the suffering of Israel would apply to Anglo-Celtic nations such as Canada, Britain and the United States, who were supposed to be mainly descended from the lost tribes of Israel.
Because these nations had apparently deserted God's laws such as the Sabbath day and were ignoring God's warnings given through Herbert W. Armstrong, they would be punished for their sins. The curses of Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 would be inflicted on these nations.
For an example of the terrible suffering, read Deuteronomy 28:45-52:
"The Place of Safety"
Armstrong repeated certain verses again and again:
One of them has a more spiritual and noble sentiment:
But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved. (9)
But this one - Luke 21:36 - promises escape, so that people like myself were enticed and drawn towards Armstrong in order to escape these terrible events that seemed so certain:
Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man. (9)
Armstrong interpreted the command to "watch" as a command for his followers to watch world events and to fit current events in the news to his prophetic scenarios. This was a time-consuming job for his followers and I believe it was an effective method of controlling our thoughts by directing the focus of our attention.
Protection is implied in Revelation 3:10
Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth. (9)
But the lukewarm Christians would end up being persecuted.
Revelation 12 also describes this protection:
And the woman [the Church] fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.
The interpretation is that some Christians were to be protected during the time of Satanís wrath - the Great Tribulation - and some were to be persecuted. Armstrong's listeners were offered a way of protection. When listeners eventually put two and two together some would be inclined to commit their allegiance to Godís Way and thus save themselves from these future horrors.
Consequences of these Beliefs
Fortunately we never came to a point in the Worldwide Church of God where the leaders actually called us to go out to the "Place of Safety" as they called it - into some desert region. But there was a lot of speculation about it. One of the places discussed was Petra in Jordan.
This doctrine is a potential danger for existing Armstrongite groups some of which could possibly reach that stage where the leader would call away his followers to a remote area to escape the anticipated Tribulation. It is possible you could find some Armstrongite leaders who actually believe in this scenario enough to go through with it. Such a situation would place vulnerable believers in a life-shattering situation when their lives are already shattered enough.
Prophecy Cults are Not New
It is not new for people to make the mistake of following a religious leader's distorted view of reality based on Biblical prophecy. The problem existed in the early centuries of Christianity.
The following passages in The History of the Devil by Paul Carus serve as a warning about the potential life-damaging effects created by adopting the beliefs of a cult based on the Bible and Bible prophecy:
...We read [in the Fourth Book of Daniel] of a certain man, holding the office of president in a Christian congregation of Syria: "He persuaded many of the brethren, with their wives and children, to go out into the wilderness to meet the Christ, and they went wandering In the mountains and wastes, there losing their way; and the end was that all but a few were apprehended as robbers ..."Also:
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