“At first I thought she was just a normal Christian, but from the Internet I soon learned that Eastern Lightning is a dangerous cult,” Shi said. “In recent days, she has told me to withdraw all our money and prepare to beg for Almighty God’s mercy because the world will end on Friday.”
In desperation, he has secretly informed on her to the Chinese authorities. A nationwide crackdown has so far led to the arrests of some 1,000 followers of the quasi-Christian group, which also calls itself the Church of Almighty God.
Eastern Lightning, one of China’s most aggressive millenarian sects, believes that Christ has been reincarnated as a woman in central China and is on a mission to lead the faithful in a decisive battle to slay the “great red dragon” of the ruling Communist Party.
Current and former Eastern Lightning adherents told the Financial Times this week that the group has adopted a theory popularized in the Hollywood film “2012” that says an ancient Mayan calendar predicted doomsday would fall this Friday, Dec. 21, 2012.
Believers expect three days of complete darkness, followed by 72 days of natural disasters, starting Jan. 1, that will devastate Earth and wipe out all nonbelievers, whom adherents refer to among themselves as “snakes” and “demons.”
Adherents direct recruitment efforts at disenfranchised groups in China’s poorest rural areas, including underground Christian “house churches” deemed illegal by the government and official state-sanctioned Catholic and Protestant congregations.
“The pastor gave a sermon on Sunday to warn us all about this evil cult,” said Han Xiuting, 81, an administrator at the officially sanctioned North Protestant Church of Handan, the closest city to the area where Shi’s wife has been trying to harvest souls in preparation for Friday’s Armageddon. “After the service, we gathered together and burned some of [Eastern Lightning’s] pamphlets.”
In response to a reporter’s questions, Eastern Lightning denied it was a cult and said it was being persecuted by the Communist Party.
Eastern Lightning claims to have millions of followers throughout the country. The government and other Christian groups put their numbers at close to 1 million.
Shi estimates that about 10 percent of the 2,000 people living in his village, in a poor and desolate region of Hebei province, are members of Eastern Lighting or in the process of being converted to it. It is hard to know, he said, because followers know each other only by code names like “Strong as Steel” and “Seeker.”
“China’s modernization has been so fast, and the government has ignored people’s need for spiritual fulfillment,” Shi said. He added that his wife was happy and content when they moved to Beijing in 2006 in search of a better life and only rejoined the cult when she returned to their home village to look after her aging father, who is also an Eastern Lightning devotee.