(My posts that were originally published on a separate website whatistrue.com have been integrated into the main site now.)
September 30, 2006
Cult Experience: The Worldwide Church of God
Part 1: Why Did I Get Involved?
I think the subject of the negative effects of religion is still a potentially very helpful subject for readers, so I’m going to keep going with it and continue on describing my experience with religion. First I’m going to continue with this series on the Worldwide Church of God. Then I plan to start a series on the Bible.
Ok, so in the previous sections, basically I introduced a few of the main reasons that the Church attracted me:
- Mass media blitz. The Church was everywhere.
- Fear of the End of the World, nuclear annihilation, etc. Being spared and rescued and taken to the “Place of Safety”.
- Doctrines that seemed to be more sensible such as non-Christians not being tortured forever in hell fire, but being annihilated instead.
One point I should emphasize about being involved with the Worldwide Church of God. There are two parts to it. One is being involved with the Church organization, attending services, interacting with ministers and other members, paying tithes and donations and being under the hierarchy of the Church. The second and most powerful aspect was the belief system. So one is the organization and the other is the belief system. I was involved with the belief system and the Church’s media arm long before I attended services. So the negative aspects of the community were less influential in my life than the negative effects of the Church’s powerful belief system. So when I talk about “the Church” I might mean either of those.
One of my friends never felt a great committment to obeying ministers or attending Church services compared to some of us. And he was never affected much by its member policies and the very negative rules some people experienced, because he had joined as the reforms were on their way. I had escaped the worst of it also, because I joined as a teen in the late 80’s when Tkach started reforming the healing doctrines. Neither of us joined because of the reforms. We joined because of the Church’s unique combination of doctrines, and we were impressed with how faithful to the Bible they appeared to be.
In any case, I listened to the Church reformers and paid close attention to everything they said. Eventually I dropped them too and was free of the whole thing. In my friend’s case, he was skeptical of the reforms, never paid attention to them and it looks like to the end of his life, he will believe it’s the end of the world and will look in vain to “prove” Armstrong’s teachings by examining world events. So the belief system continues on making people feel helpless – disempowering people – long after the organization has reformed and splintered.
Armstrong teaching: the dead are unconscious
Armstrong taught that all the dead are unconscious, that souls do not consciously go to heaven or to hell after death. He taught that human spirits go to God to be kept for the resurrection, but he considered the human spirit to be an unconscious essence. The important point here to me again was that non-Christians do not suffer on and on after death. But the unrepentant are resurrected to their own special “third resurrection” where they are punished and annihilated in the Lake of Fire.
The Bible seemed to back up what Armstrong said:
Ecclesiastes 9:5: For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.
In other words, the dead person is unconscious and is not aware of any experience, suffering or otherwise.
There are verses in the New Testament that imply that our souls sleep after death and Armstrong quoted these. For example:
I Corinthians 15:51 Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
1 Thessalonians 4:14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him
In these verses, death is referred to as a “sleep” – at least it’s implied for those who die in Christ. Armstrong taught that we did not consciously go anywhere when we die. In sleep, he taught that we have no awareness, except for dreams. So the analogy with sleep is not perfect in any case, because someone could always ask whether we dream during death. And in hindsight, maybe parts of the Bible, such as the descriptions of Sheol in the Old Testament, do actually imply that death is like a half-awake dream-state. But that was never an issue for me that I remember.
In the past, the point of attractiveness of Armstrong’s doctrine for me is that the dead do not suffer after death. And even the final fiery suffering for the wicked is temporary and in proportion to their short mortal life – before they are destroyed in the fire.
But now, from my point of view, it’s all manipulation. The threat of the Lake of Fire was held over the heads of Church members to keep us in line. In the same way, the traditional idea of hell is used by other churches to beat up their audience.
And the nature of death is unknown. Unless there is scientific evidence one way or the other, it appears that consciousness ceases after death. And that seems rational to me, although I have an open mind about it. So in that sense, this teaching of Armstrong may have been correct or “true”. And some of his teachings were more merciful and less barbaric than those held by traditional Christian sects.