Almost every book in the NT has something to say about false beliefs and those who advocate them. We are warned, e.g., about false prophets (Matt. 7:15–16; 24:11), false christs (Matt. 24:5, 24; Mark 13:22), a different Jesus and a different spirit (2 Cor. 11:4), false apostles (2 Cor. 11:13–15), and “another gospel” (Gal. 1:8). With so many warnings, it is clear God knew that many false teachers would come, and that he did not want his people to be deceived (cf. Eph. 4:14; 2 John 7). In what follows, notable deceptions of prominent cults will be summarized, along with a brief biblical response.
From the viewpoint of those who hold to historic, evangelical Christianity, a “cult” is any religious movement that claims to be derived from the Bible and/or the Christian faith, and that advocates beliefs that differ so significantly with major Christian doctrines that two consequences follow: (1) The movement cannot legitimately be considered a valid “Christian” denomination because of its serious deviation from historic Christian orthodoxy. (2) Believing the doctrines of the movement is incompatible with trusting in the Jesus Christ of the Bible for the salvation that comes by God’s grace alone (Eph. 2:8–9). By this traditional understanding of the word “cult,” the following groups described are “cults,” though this does not imply that they share the extremely oppressive, authoritarian, life-controlling, and often immoral practices that are found in what the secular world calls “cults,” using the term in a more extreme sense.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism)
Apostasy and restoration. Mormons claim that “total” apostasy overcame the church following apostolic times, and that the Mormon Church (founded in 1830) is the “restored church.” If the Mormon Church were truly a “restored church,” however, one would expect to find first-century historical evidence for Mormon doctrines like the plurality of gods and God the Father having once been a man. Such evidence is completely lacking. Besides, the Bible disallows a total apostasy of the church (e.g., Matt. 16:18; 28:20; Eph. 3:21; 4:11–16), warning instead of partial apostasy (1 Tim. 4:1).
God. Mormons claim that God the Father was once a man and that he then progressed to godhood (that is, he is a now-exalted, immortal man with a flesh-and-bone body). However, based on the Bible, God is not and has never been a man (Num. 23:19; Hos. 11:9). He is a spirit (John 4:24), and a spirit does not have flesh and bones (Luke 24:39). Furthermore, God is eternal (Ps. 90:2; 102:27; Isa. 57:15; 1 Tim. 1:17) and immutable (or unchangeable in his being and perfections; see Ps. 102:25–27; Mal. 3:6). He did not “progress” toward godhood, but has always been God.
Polytheism. Mormons believe that the Trinity consists not of three persons in one God but rather of three distinct gods. According to Mormonism, there are potentially many thousands of gods besides these. However, trusting in or worshiping more than one god is explicitly condemned throughout the Bible (e.g., Ex. 20:3). There is only one true God (Deut. 4:35, 39; 6:4; Isa. 43:10; 44:6, 8; 45:18; 46:9; 1 Cor. 8:4; James 2:19), who exists eternally in three persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14). (See the discussion of the Trinity in the section on Jehovah’s Witnesses.)
Exaltation of humans. Mormons believe that humans, like God the Father, can go through a process of exaltation to godhood. But the Bible teaches that the yearning to be godlike led to the fall of mankind (Gen. 3:4ff.). God does not look kindly on humans who pretend to attain to deity (Acts 12:21–23; contrast Acts 14:11–15). God desires humans to humbly recognize that they are his creatures (Gen. 2:7; 5:2; Ps. 95:6–7; 100:3). The state of the redeemed in eternity will be one of glorious immortality, but they will forever remain God’s creatures, adopted as his children (Rom. 8:14–30; 1 Cor. 15:42–57; Rev. 21:3–7). Believers will never become gods.
Jesus Christ. Mormons believe that Jesus Christ was the firstborn spirit-child of the heavenly Father and a heavenly Mother. Jesus then progressed to deity in the spirit world. He was later physically conceived in Mary’s womb, as the literal “only begotten” Son of God the Father in the flesh (though many present-day Mormons remain somewhat vague as to how this occurred). Biblically, however, the description of Jesus as the “only begotten” refers to his being the Father’s unique, one-of-a-kind Son for all eternity, with the same divine nature as the Father (see note on John 1:14; cf. John 1:18; 3:16, 18; see also John 5:18; 10:30). Moreover, he is eternal deity (John 1:1; 8:58) and is immutable (Heb. 1:10–12; 13:8), meaning he did not progress to deity but has always been God. And Mary’s conception of Jesus in his humanity was through a miracle of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:20).
Three kingdoms. Mormons believe that most people will end up in one of three kingdoms of glory, depending on one’s level of faithfulness. Belief in Christ, or even in God, is not necessary to obtain immortality in one of these three kingdoms, and therefore only the most spiritually perverse will go to hell. But the Bible teaches that people have just two possibilities for their eternal futures: the saved will enjoy eternal life with God in the new heavens and new earth (Phil. 3:20; Rev. 21:1–4; 22:1–5), while the unsaved will spend eternity in hell (Matt. 25:41, 46; Rev. 20:13–15).
Sin and atonement. Mormons believe that Adam’s transgression was a noble act that made it possible for humans to become mortal, a necessary step on the path to exaltation to godhood. They think that Christ’s atonement secures immortality for virtually all people, whether they repent and believe or not. Biblically, however, there was nothing noble about Adam’s sin, which was not a stepping-stone to godhood but rather brought nothing but sin, misery, and death to mankind (Gen. 3:16–19; Rom. 5:12–14). Jesus atoned for the sins of all who would trust him for salvation (Isa. 53:6; John 1:29; 2 Cor. 5:21;1 Pet. 2:24; 3:18; 1 John 2:2; 4:10).
Salvation. Mormons believe that God gives to (virtually) everyone a general salvation to immortal life in one of the heavenly kingdoms, which is how they understand salvation by grace. Belief in Christ is necessary only to obtain passage to the highest, celestial kingdom—for which not only faith but participation in Mormon temple rituals and obedience to its “laws of the gospel” are also prerequisites. Biblically, however, salvation by grace must be received through faith in Christ (John 3:15–16; 11:25; 12:46; Acts 16:31; Rom. 3:22–24; Eph. 2:8–9), and all true believers are promised eternal life in God’s presence (Matt. 5:3–8; John 14:1–3; Rev. 21:3–7).
The divine name. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that God’s one true name—the name by which he must be identified—is Jehovah. Biblically, however, God is identified by many names, including: God (Hb.’elohim; Gen. 1:1), God Almighty (Hb. ’El Shadday; Gen. 17:1), Lord (Hb. ’Adonay; Ps. 8:1), and Lord of hosts (Hb. yhwh tseba’ot; 1 Sam. 1:3). In NT times, Jesus referred to God as “Father” (Gk. Patēr; Matt. 6:9), as did the apostles (1 Cor. 1:3).
The Trinity. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the Trinity is unbiblical because the word is not in the Bible and because the Bible emphasizes that there is one God. Biblically, while it is true that there is only one God (Isa. 44:6; 45:18; 46:9; John 5:44; 1 Cor. 8:4; James 2:19), it is also true that three persons are called God in Scripture: the Father (1 Pet. 1:2), Jesus (John 20:28; Heb. 1:8), and the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3–4). Each of these three possesses the attributes of deity—including omnipresence (Ps. 139:7; Jer. 23:23–24; Matt. 28:20), omniscience (Ps. 147:5; John 16:30; 1 Cor. 2:10–11), omnipotence (Jer. 32:17; John 2:1–11; Rom. 15:19), and eternality (Ps. 90:2; Heb. 9:14; Rev. 22:13). Still further, each of the three is involved in doing the works of deity—such as creating the universe: the Father (Gen. 1:1; Ps. 102:25), the Son (John 1:3; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2), and the Holy Spirit (Gen. 1:2; Job 33:4; Ps. 104:30). The Bible indicates that there is three-in-oneness in the godhead (Matt. 28:19; cf. 2 Cor. 13:14). Thus doctrinal support for the Trinity is compellingly strong.
Jesus Christ. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus was created by Jehovah as the archangel Michael before the physical world existed, and is a lesser, though mighty, god. Biblically, however, Jesus is eternally God (John 1:1; 8:58; cf. Ex. 3:14) and has the exact same divine nature as the Father (John 5:18; 10:30; Heb. 1:3). Indeed, a comparison of the OT and NT equates Jesus with Jehovah (compareIsa. 43:11 with Titus 2:13; Isa. 44:24 with Col. 1:16; Isa. 6:1–5 with John 12:41). Jesus himself created the angels (Col. 1:16; cf. John 1:3; Heb. 1:2, 10) and is worshiped by them (Heb. 1:6).
The incarnation. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that when Jesus was born on earth, he was a mere human and not God in human flesh. This violates the biblical teaching that in the incarnate Jesus, “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9; cf. Phil. 2:6–7). The word for “fullness” (Gk. plērōma) carries the idea of the sum total. “Deity” (Gk. theotēs) refers to the nature, being, and attributes of God. Therefore, the incarnate Jesus was the sum total of the nature, being, and attributes of God in bodily form. Indeed, Jesus was Immanuel, or “God with us” (Matt. 1:23; cf. Isa. 7:14; John 1:1, 14, 18; 10:30; 14:9–10).
Resurrection. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus was resurrected spiritually from the dead, but not physically. Biblically, however, the resurrected Jesus asserted that he was not merely a spirit but had a flesh-and-bone body (Luke 24:39; cf. John 2:19–21). He ate food on several occasions, thereby proving that he had a genuine physical body after the resurrection (Luke 24:30, 42–43; John 21:12–13). This was confirmed by his followers who physically touched him (Matt. 28:9; John 20:17).
The second coming. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the second coming was an invisible, spiritual event that occurred in the year 1914. Biblically, however, the yet-future second coming will be physical,visible (Acts 1:9–11; cf. Titus 2:13), and will be accompanied by visible cosmic disturbances (Matt. 24:29–30). Every eye will see him (Rev. 1:7).
The Holy Spirit. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force of God and not a distinct person. Biblically, however, the Holy Spirit has a mind (Rom. 8:27), emotions (Eph. 4:30), and will (1 Cor. 12:11)—the three primary attributes of personality. Moreover, personal pronouns are used of him (Acts 13:2). Also, he does things that only a person can do, including: teaching (John 14:26), testifying (John 15:26), commissioning (Acts 13:4), issuing commands (Acts 8:29), and interceding (Rom. 8:26). The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity (Matt. 28:19).
Salvation. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that salvation requires faith in Christ, association with God’s organization (i.e., their religion), and obedience to its rules. Biblically, however, viewing obedience to rules as a requirement for salvation nullifies the gospel (Gal. 2:16–21; Col. 2:20–23). Salvation is based wholly on God’s unmerited favor (grace), not on the believer’s performance. Good works are the fruit or result, not the basis, of salvation (Eph. 2:8–10; Titus 3:4–8).
Two redeemed peoples. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe there are two peoples of God: (1) the Anointed Class (144,000) will live in heaven and rule with Christ; and (2) the “other sheep” (all other believers) will live forever on a paradise earth. Biblically, however, a heavenly destiny awaits all who believe in Christ (John 14:1–3; 17:24; 2 Cor. 5:1; Phil. 3:20; Col. 1:5; 1 Thess. 4:17; Heb. 3:1), and these same people will also dwell on the new earth (2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1–4).
No immaterial soul. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe that humans have an immaterial nature. The “soul” is simply the life-force within a person. At death, that life-force leaves the body. Biblically, however, the word “soul” is multifaceted. One key meaning of the term is man’s immaterial self that consciously survives death (Gen. 35:18; Rev. 6:9–10). Unbelievers are in conscious woe (Matt. 13:42; 25:41, 46; Luke 16:22–24; Rev. 14:11) while believers are in conscious bliss in heaven (1 Cor. 2:9; 2 Cor. 5:6–8; Phil. 1:21–23; Rev. 7:17; 21:4).
Hell. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe hell is not a place of eternal suffering but is rather the common grave of humankind. The wicked are annihilated—snuffed out of conscious existence forever. Biblically, however, hell is a real place of conscious, eternal suffering (Matt. 5:22; 25:41, 46; Jude 7; Rev. 14:11; 20:10, 14).
Sin, sickness, and death. Christian Science teaches that sin, sickness, and death are illusions that can be conquered by correct thinking. The rationale for this unusual idea is that all things in the universe are ultimately God. Since everything is God, there can be no sin and no matter. Since matter does not exist, neither can sickness, pain, or death exist.
If everything is God, however, one must wonder where this widespread, universal delusion about the material nature of the world emerged. Is delusion a part of God? Further, the Christian Science worldview seems utterly unlivable. Why lock the front door at night if there is no sin? Why go to the dentist if there is no pain? Why buckle seatbelts in the car if there is no death? According to the Bible, God created the material universe (Genesis 1; Ps. 102:25; Isa. 44:24) and pronounced it “very good” (Gen. 1:31). The emergence of sin (Genesis 3), however, brought ruin to the creation (Rom. 8:20; cf.Gen. 3:17) and introduced the realities of sickness and death (Gen. 2:17; 5:5, 8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 27, 31; cf.Rom. 5:12).
God. Christian Science holds to a pantheistic view of God (i.e., God and the universe are the same reality). Biblically, however, God is distinct from his creatures and is a personal loving Father unto whom believers may cry, “Abba” (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6). This personal God is a conscious being who thinks, feels, plans (Jer. 9:23–24; cf. Isa. 46:10), and engages in personal relationships with others (e.g., Gen. 5:22, 24; 6:9). This personal God created all things out of absolute nothingness (Heb. 11:3; cf. Gen. 1:1; Neh. 9:6; Ps. 33:8–9; 148:5). While he is omnipresent (Ps. 139:7–9), he is not “one with” the universe; he remains eternally distinct from the creation that he made and from humankind (Num. 23:19; Eccles. 5:2; Heb. 11:3).
Jesus Christ. Christian Science teaches that Jesus was a mere human who, as an adult, embodied “the Christ” (i.e., a manifestation of divinity), as other humans also can. Biblically, however, Jesus did not become the Christ as an adult, but rather was the one and only Christ from the very beginning (Luke 2:11; cf. 1 John 2:22). The precise NT counterpart of the OT word “Messiah” is “Christ” (John 1:41). The OT presents numerous prophecies regarding the coming of a single Messiah (e.g., Isa. 7:14; 53:3–5;Mic. 5:2; Zech. 12:10). Jesus alone fulfilled these prophecies, and hence he alone is the Christ (Luke 9:20). He is also absolute deity (John 1:1; 8:58; 10:30; 20:28).
Humanity. In keeping with its pantheistic views, Christian Science teaches that human beings, too, are God. Biblically, however, human beings are creatures (Gen. 1:26–27; 2:7) who remain eternally distinct from God (Eccles. 5:2) and are intrinsically weak and dependent upon God (Ps. 95:6–7; 100:3; Mic. 6:8;John 15:5; 2 Cor. 3:5; James 4:6). Christian Science proponents would do well to consider: if the essence of human beings is God, and if God is an infinite, changeless being, then how is it possible for man (if he is a manifestation of divinity) to go through a changing process of enlightenment, by which he discovers his divinity? Biblically, God does not “blossom” or grow to maturity; he has always been in “full bloom” as the perfect and unchanging God (Ps. 90:2).
Salvation. Christian Science teaches that when one ceases believing in sin, sickness, and death, one becomes “saved.” Theologically, a weak view of sin blinds one to the need for a savior. Such is the case with Christian Science. A biblical view of sin (e.g., Rom. 5:12), however, points to a dire need for salvation—especially dire in view of the hard biblical realities of death (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23) and hell (Rev. 20:14–15) as the wages of sin. Biblical salvation is based wholly on the sacrificial death of Jesus (Rom. 5:8; cf. Isa. 53:6) and is received as a grace-gift (Rom. 5:1–11; Eph. 2:8–9) by faith in him (John 3:15–16; 5:24; 11:25; 12:46; 20:31).
Heaven and hell. Christian Science teaches that people make their own hell by thinking wrongly and their own heaven by thinking rightly. Biblically, however, heaven is the splendor-filled eternal abode of the saved (1 Cor. 2:9; 2 Cor. 12:4; Col. 1:12; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1–2), while hell is the horrific eternal abode of the unsaved (Matt. 13:42; 25:41, 46; 2 Thess. 1:8–9; Rev. 19:20; 20:14–15).
New Age Movement
Unlike the preceding movements, the New Age Movement has no one organizational headquarters or leadership, but consists of hundreds of informally associated small organizations and groups. Nevertheless, it continues to gain followers in the twenty-first century.
Revelation. New Agers believe divine revelation has been expressed not only in Christianity but also in other religions including: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism. These religions allegedly teach the same “core truths.” Such a claim contradicts the facts. Consider the doctrine of God. The Bible teaches the Trinity, the Qur’an (Islam’s scripture) denies the Trinity, the Hindu Vedas teach pantheism and polytheism, Zoroastrianism teaches religious dualism, and Buddhist writings teach that God is essentially irrelevant. Since God is the most fundamental doctrine of any religious system, the claim that these religions teach the same “core truths” is flatly false.
Christianity is exclusivistic at its core. Jesus said he is uniquely and exclusively humanity’s only means of coming into a relationship with God (John 14:6; cf. Acts 4:12; 1 Tim. 2:5). His exclusivity caused him to warn against false religious leaders who contradict his teachings (Matt. 24:4–5, 23–24).
God. New Agers hold to a pantheistic, impersonal view of God. Biblically, however, God is a personal being who hears (Ex. 2:24), sees (Gen. 1:4), knows (Jer. 29:11; 2 Tim. 2:19), has a will (1 John 2:17), communicates (Ex. 3:13–14), plans (Eph. 1:11), expresses emotion (Gen. 6:6), and demonstrates character (2 Pet. 3:9). He also engages in personal relationships with others (e.g., Gen. 5:22, 24; 6:9).
Jesus Christ. New Agers claim that Jesus was a “human vessel” who, as an adult, embodied “the Christ” (variously defined, but always divine). Jesus is viewed as a prototype for the rest of humanity, since all people can embody the Christ. As noted previously in response to Christian Science, however, Jesus did not become the Christ as an adult but rather was the one and only Christ from the very beginning. Jesus even made his identity as the Christ the primary issue of faith on at least two different occasions (Matt. 16:13–20; John 11:25–27). When Jesus was acknowledged as the Christ, he did not say to people, “You, too, have the Christ within.” Instead he warned that others would come falsely claiming to be the Christ (Matt. 24:4–5, 23–24).
Humankind. New Agers hold that human beings are God and therefore have unlimited potential. If this were true, however, one would expect humans to have the same attributes as God. Biblically, though, God is all-knowing (Ps. 147:5; Heb. 4:13), while man is limited in knowledge (Job 38:4). God is all-powerful (Rev. 19:6), while man is weak (Heb. 4:15). God is holy (1 John 1:5), while fallen man’s “righteous” deeds are as filthy garments before God (Isa. 64:6). Such scriptural facts illustrate the apostle Paul’s affirmation that all humans “fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Humans are mere finite creatures (Gen. 1:26–27; 2:7), now fallen in sin (Rom. 5:12).
Sin and salvation. New Agers say humans do not have a “sin problem” but an “ignorance problem.” All they need is enlightenment regarding their divinity. Then, through reincarnation, the human soul can eventually reach a state of perfection and merge back with its source (pantheistic God).
Biblically, Christian morality begins with a personal God (see above) who makes moral requirements of his creatures (Ex. 15:26; 20:1–17; Deut. 8:6; John 14:15). While moral terms like “right” and “wrong” may not have any relevance to an impersonal, pantheistic God, they do have relevance to the God of the Bible, who calls us to obey his moral commandments (Ex. 19:5; Deut. 12:28; John 14:21). Because humans have failed to do this, they stand guilty before God (Genesis 3; Isa. 53:6; Rom. 3:23).
Jesus did not teach that humans have a mere ignorance problem but a grave sin problem that is altogether beyond their means to solve (Mark 7:20–23; cf. Ps. 53:2–3; Isa. 53:6; 64:6; Jer. 17:9; Rom. 3:23; 6:23). He also taught that salvation is found not by enlightenment but by placing faith in him (John 3:16; Acts 16:31) who is the Light of the world (John 8:12). Trusting in reincarnation will not suffice, for Scripture affirms that each person lives once, dies once, and then faces judgment (Heb. 9:27; cf. Rev. 20:11–15). There are no second chances following death (cf. 2 Cor. 6:2).