What is a Cult?
An Introductory Comment
The Clarifying Christianity site exists to clarify Christian issues and tell the truth. Although we tried to phrase everything on this page as politely as we could, we realize that some people will be offended or shocked, because their religion forbids questioning their beliefs. We remind everyone that a belief that is true will still look (and be) true after unbiased investigation.
Three ViewpointsOur Who Gets To Go To Heaven? page lists many opinions people have regarding who is going to heaven. The opinions we list there are normally held by people who are not well informed about Christianity (or any religion). Further, these people believe that cults are groups of crazy people whom we read about in the newspapers. While it is true that some of these groups are cults, there are many more cults, because:
Other people think that those who do not follow their own particular beliefs are members of a cult. This is also wrong, since being different does not make some group a cultit just makes them different. Many of these differences are only differences between denominations. To find out more about denominations, check the links below.
There is a third group of people who seem well informed, but they ignore the Bible, change its message, or add their own beliefs to the Bibles message. Although these groups may accuse others of being cults or false religions, these groups are actually the cults themselves.
How to Tell What is a Cult and What is Not
You can not confirm whether a belief system is actually a cult using your common sense. If common sense was enough to recognize a cult or false religion, nobody would ever be involved in one! Further, you can not expect a cult to admit they are one. Otherwise, why would anyone remain a member, or be interested in joining? Remember, cults will always have some sort of support for their beliefs, and the people involved sincerely believe what they are doing is right.
With all those claims, how do you know who is right if you can not rely on your common sense? The answer is having an unbiased method to recognize a cult. That is, the best way to combat cults is knowing how they behave so you can recognize one when you see iteven if you have not heard or read about that particular group. We will not attempt to list all the different cults. We will use some specific cults or their materials as examples, but listing those on this page does not mean that the example cult or its materials are any better or worse than the other cults. They are just being used as examples.
Incidentally, on this page we are commenting on the belief systems of the cults. We are in no way criticizing the people involved with these cults. We would like all people to learn the truththen the truth will set them free. (If they will let it do so.)
There are two primary things cults do that make them wrong. Learning these is the key to exposing them. These two things are:
Ways Cults Alter the True Foundationthe Bible
The Bible has been proven to be completely true and accurate, and is the only sacred writing about which anyone can truthfully make that claim. There is a tremendous amount of proof available, and our How Do You Know The Bible Is True? page includes some of that proof. If you like reading books, a good one that includes this topic is Know Why You Believe by Paul Little.
Since the Bible has been proven to be true and accurate, we base our evaluation of cults on whether they agree or disagree with the Bibles text and message. There are a number of ways that cults distort the Bibles message. We explain these below.
Cults add their own rules, distorting the Bibles message.
Some cults require a specific dress code, special food, or special behavior not mentioned in the Bible. This is in conflict with the Bibles message which says that the only thing we need to do is get right with God through Jesus. There are many places in the New Testament that tell us we do not have to eat, wear, or do special things. Colossians 2:16 and Colossians 2:20-23 are good examples:
20 Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations
21 Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,
22 which all concern things which perish with the usingaccording to the commandments and doctrines of men?
23 These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.
Cults distort Gods rules, changing the Bibles message.
Historically, the first cult to do this is described in the Bible books of Acts and Galatians. It was lead by Jews who had become Christians, and in Acts chapter 15, verse 5 they told the other Christians that they needed to keep the Jewish laws and be circumcised. The early church composed a written response to their statements, which is recorded in Acts 15:23-29 (below).
23 They wrote this, letter by them:
The apostles, the elders, and the brethren,
To the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia:
24 Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, You must be circumcised and keep the lawto whom we gave no such commandment25 it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who will also report the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: 29 that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.
Incidentally, this type of cult is difficult to identify, since there are many rules listed in the Old Testament. It is important to remember that nobody could follow all of those rules. (John 7:19 and other passages confirm this. See our discussion of the Ten Commandments on our Who Gets To Go To Heaven page for more information.) Even if all these rules were still required (which they are not) the Bible tells us that if a person breaks any of Gods laws, that person becomes separated from God and is no longer allowed into heaven. This would be badone mistake and you would be lost forever. Fortunately, the Bible tells us we do not have to follow all those rules to perfection, we just have to get right with God through Jesus.
Cults change the Bible text, distorting the message.
A good example of changing the Bibles text is a translation of the Bible called the New World Translation Of The Holy Scriptures. In Exodus 3:14, God reveals His name to Moses as being I AM. We write this Hebrew word YHWH. These four letters are called the Tetragrammaton, which most bibles translate as LORD (all capitals). Jehovah is a reasonable alternate translation for YHWHwhich they use in the New World Translation. However, the New World Translation also uses Jehovah as the translation of the Greek word kurios 237 times in the New Testament. Kurios is a title literally translated as Lord (upper and lower case letters), although it could also be translated master, or sir. Gods name and this title are obviously two different words, yet the New World Translation uses Jehovah for both. This is done to alter Jesus position in the Bible. For example, the title Lord applies to Jesus about 2/3 of the time in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Johnbut you would never know it by reading this translation. There are many other examples, but we have made our pointthese folks are altering the Bibles text.
We realize that normal Christian pastors often paraphrase the Bibles text as a way of explaining it. That is OK. If you see something written that alters the Bibles text, and the writer states that the writing is a paraphrase, that is also OK. However, if you find a deliberate change in the Bibles text (and know that it is not a typographic error) you are seeing a sign of a cult.
Cults Present an Alternate FoundationSomething Separate from the Bible
There are a number of ways that cults present their own message, replacing the Bible. We explain these below.
Cults follow a false teacher
The Old Testament in the Bible pointed repeatedly toward a future Messiah (anointed one) who would save all people. That person was Jesus Christ, who proved Himself to be the Messiah by fulfilling all the prophecies. (See our Messianic Prophesy Page.) Since Jesus was the anointed one, there are no Messiahs left to arrive. Jesus himself said there would be many false Messiahs and prophets that follow him (Mat 7:15 and 24:11,24; Mark 13:6 and 13:22). Therefore we should expect false prophets and Messiahsbecause the Bible is always right.
The founders of many cults said they had special gifts. Others said that they received communications from God through visions, dreams, or angelic visitors. These founders then proclaim some message that they say comes from God. Such supernatural claims should make any normal person suspicious. However, making suspicious claims does not make that person a cult leader. What shows them to be a cult leader is when they suggest following a person, god, or higher being different from the God of the Bible. Deuteronomy chapter 13 contains one of the passages that tells us about this behavior:
2 and the sign or the wonder comes to pass, of which he spoke to you, saying, Let us go after other godswhich you have not knownand let us serve them,
3 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams, for the LORD your God is testing you to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
4 You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear Him, and keep His commandments and obey His voice; you shall serve Him and hold fast to Him.
5 But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has spoken in order to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of bondage, to entice you from the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall put away the evil from your midst.
Another test of a false prophet is if that prophet has ever proclaimed some message that did not happen. Deuteronomy 18:20-22 tells us about that test:
21 And if you say in your heart, How shall we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?
22 when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.
Therefore, if some religious leader suggests following someone or something different from the God of the Bible, or proclaims some message that does not happen, they just revealed to you that they are a false prophet. That would also make their religion a cult.
Cults follow false sacred writings
The Book of Mormon, first published in 1830, is an example of a sacred writing separate from the Bible. The people who support this book claim that it is the words sealed in a scroll mentioned in Isaiah 29:11,12. However, reading the rest of Isaiah chapter 29 shows us that the words sealed in a scroll is a metaphora figure of speech explaining how people can ignore a message given to them. (For example, how many people will read this paragraph and still think the Book of Mormon is OK? To them, this paragraph is words sealed in a scroll.) However, unlike the Bible, the Book of Mormon had (and still has) numerous mistakes and had to be revised several times. Here is an example of a mistake that still exists in Ether 15:29-31.
30 And it came to pass that when Coriantumr had leaned upon his sword, that he rested a little, he smote off the head of Shiz.
31 And it came to pass that after he had smitten off the head of Shiz, that Shiz raised up on his hands and fell; and after that he had struggled for breath, he died.
Here we have a person, Shiz, who fainted from loss of blood and had his head cut off. Then Shiz raised up on his hands and struggled for breath. You do not have to be a doctor, scientist, or religious expert to realize that this story is fantasy.
In addition to common errors, there are verses in the Book of Mormon that directly contradict the Bible. For example, look at following two verses that appear in 2 Nephi, chapter 25.
24 And, notwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled.
Here, we have two conflicts with the Bible. First, the phrase after all we can do in verse 23 is in direct conflict with Ephesians 2:8,9 in the Bible, which states that the things we do (good deeds or works) have nothing to do with being saved. Footnotes in the Book of Mormon for 2 Nephi 25:23 imply that this phrase is in agreement with James 2:24 in the Bible. However, reading James chapter 2 reveals that the meaning used in 2 Nephi is the not the intended meaning. The Bible does not tell us to do works to help ourselves get saved. It tells us to do them because we are saved.
Second, the very next sentence (verse 24) echoes the beliefs of the first cult (discussed earlier on this page). We can not believe that a book that contradicts the Bible and is filled with errors could be inspired by God. Hopefully, you will not either.
Cults give the same authority to another writing as they give to the Bible
Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy, is an example of a text, without which the Bible can not be properly understoodaccording to followers of the Christian Science movement. So, how well does this book unlock the Bible (their phrase)? Lets look at two examples:
Many additional examples exist, but we have made our point. As you can readily see, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures does not unlock the Bible at allit obscures the Bibles real message. It may use many of the same words as the Bible, but by applying new definitions to those words, the meaning changes completely.
Therefore, if a member of a religious group brings out another book and tells you that it is somehow inspired by God or has authority equal to the Bible, you are dealing with a member of a cult.
Is Everyone In a Cult Going to Hell?
Any person who willingly follows a cult (whether they know it is a cult or not) is on a path that ends up in hell. However, there is a way to escape. They must leave the cult as soon as they learn that they are involved in one. Then they must get right with God. This second step is as important as leaving the cult, since just leaving a cult will not get someone into heaven. (There are a lot of people who have never been involved with a cult and will still not go to heaven. If you do not understand this, see our Who Gets To Go To Heaven? page.)
Isnt it OK as long as the person sincerely believes they are doing the right thing?
Some people think that as long as a person believes in what they are doing, God will respect them and allow them into heaven for their devotion. This is called existentialism, which implies that anything that seems right to us is OK. But, believing something does not make it true. For example, if someone told you to use milk to lubricate your car engine instead of oil, how far would you get? Even if you sincerely believed that milk was better for your engine than oil, you would suffer the consequence later when your engine burned up. In the same way, sincerely believing the things you are taught by a cult will not help you get to heaven at allit will get you burned up in hell.
The Bible clearly tells us that we have to do what is right, not what we think is right. For example, the Pharisees were a very religious group, who kept a large number of laws and believed that they were doing the right thing. Here is what Jesus said to them in Mark 7:6-8.
This people honors Me with their lips,
But their heart is far from Me.
7 And in vain they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.*
8 For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of menthe washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.
* Jesus is referring to Isaiah 29:13
Does this passage suggest that Jesus approved of their behavior, because they believed in what they were doing? No, Jesus (and God through Isaiah) said they were worshiping in vain. These Pharisees, and everyone else that follows a false belief system, will end up in hell.
A Key to Staying Free from the Influence of Cults
You do not have to understand what is wrong with every cult to stay free of their influence. The key is reading the entire Bible and sticking to what it says. You can learn more about reading the bible by clicking on this sentence. Although many cults claim to follow the Bible (at least at first), they all avoid something they do not like or add something they do like to the true Bible message. (If they did not change the Bible or its message, they would not be a cult!) Everyone who can read this web page has access to a Bible, and the Bible tells you all you need to know. You can access an online version of the Bible by clicking on this sentence.
A Comment on False Religions
We are aware that there are books and web sites that differentiate between cults and false religions. While assembling this page, we realized that any religion that disagrees with Christianity (and that would be all of them) would fail the same criteria that a cult would fail. For example, the religion of Islam gives the same (or greater) authority to another writingits own holy scriptures (the Quran). Although nobody would classify Islam as a cult, it does meet this criterion of being a cult. For this reason, we are presenting the facts on this page and will let the reader decide how to classify all the worlds major belief systems. As for us, we will stand with Christianity, the Bible, and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Copyright © 1998, 1999 by Clarifying Christianity (SM).
All Bible passages were taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
All information contained in Clarifying Christianity is a resource for questions dealing with Christian issues. It is not to be taken as Christian counseling. Seek a qualified Christian counselor for help with all such issues. If you choose to work with a Christian counselor, it is your responsibility to ask pertinent questions before you begin, to assure yourself of their qualities and abilities.41