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What is a Cult?

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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 Viewpoints

green ball Our “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:

  • A group can be a cult, even though it has not appeared in the news.
  • Being crazy does not make some group a cult—it just means they are crazy.

green ball 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 cult—it just makes them different. Many of these differences are only differences between denominations. To find out more about denominations, check the links below.

green ball There is a third group of people who seem well informed, but they ignore the Bible, change it’s message, or add their own beliefs to the Bible’s 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 it—even 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 truth—then 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:

green ball Cults alter the true foundation—the Bible.

green ball Cults present an alternate foundation—something separate from the Bible.

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Ways Cults Alter the True Foundation—the 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 Bible’s text and message. There are a number of ways that cults distort the Bible’s message. We explain these below.

green ball Cults add their own rules, distorting the Bible’s message.

Some cults require a specific dress code, special food, or special behavior not mentioned in the Bible. This is in conflict with the Bible’s 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:

    16 So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths,

    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 using—according 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.

green ball Cults distort God’s rules, changing the Bible’s 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 law”—to whom we gave no such commandment—25 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 God’s laws, that person becomes separated from God and is no longer allowed into heaven. This would be bad—one 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.

green ball Cults change the Bible text, distorting the message.

A good example of changing the Bible’s 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 YHWH—which 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.” God’s 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 John—but you would never know it by reading this translation. There are many other examples, but we have made our point—these folks are altering the Bible’s text.

We realize that “normal” Christian pastors often paraphrase the Bible’s text as a way of explaining it. That is OK. If you see something written that alters the Bible’s text, and the writer states that the writing is a paraphrase, that is also OK. However, if you find a deliberate change in the Bible’s text (and know that it is not a typographic error) you are seeing a sign of a cult.

Cults Present an Alternate Foundation—Something Separate from the Bible

There are a number of ways that cults present their own message, replacing the Bible. We explain these below.

green ball 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 Messiahs—because 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:

    1 “If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder,
    2 and the sign or the wonder comes to pass, of which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods’—which you have not known—‘and 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:

    20 ‘But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’
    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.

green ball 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 metaphor—a 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.

    29 Wherefore, he did pursue them, and on the morrow he did overtake them; and they fought again with the sword. And it came to pass that when they had all fallen by the sword, save it were Coriantumr and Shiz, behold Shiz had fainted with the loss of blood.
    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.

    23 For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.
    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.

green ball 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 understood—according to followers of the Christian Science movement. So, how well does this book “‘unlock’ the Bible” (their phrase)? Let’s look at two examples:

  • Page 44 of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures states “His disciples believed Jesus to be dead while he was hidden in the sepulchre, whereas he was alive, demonstrating within the narrow tomb the power of Spirit to overrule mortal, material sense.”

    This statement is the opposite of what is written in the Bible, which refers often to the death of Jesus on the cross. For example, see what is written in the book of Mark. (John 19:31-38 tells us the same story in more detail.)

      Mark 15
      42 Now when evening had come, because it was the Preparation Day, that is, the day before the Sabbath,
      43 Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent council member, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, coming and taking courage, went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.
      44 Pilate marveled that He was already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him if He had been dead for some time.
      45 So when he found out from the centurion, he granted the body to Joseph.

  • Page 331 of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures states “Life, Truth, and Love constitute the triune Person called God,—that is, the triply divine Principle, Love. They represent a trinity in unity, three in one,—the same in essence, though multi-form in office: God the Father-Mother; Christ the spiritual idea of sonship; divine Science or the Holy Comforter.”

    This short passage opposes the teaching of the Bible in (at least) four major areas:

    1. It falsely teaches that Life, Truth, and Love are the three members of the Trinity—replacing God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The Bible states that all three members of the Godhead actually exist. You are therefore forced to believe Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures or the Bible, but you can not believe both—because they do not agree. (To learn more about the Trinity, see our What is the Trinity? page.)
    2. The Bible never refers to God by the term Father-Mother or even implies that He has a “female side.”
    3. The term “Christ” is a Greek word meaning “anointed one.” It has the same meaning as the Hebrew word “Messiah.” Both are the same title (in two different languages) applied to the savior born on Earth. Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures would have you believe a “Christ” is some sort of “concept” or “idea”—completely misleading the reader. (We explain the Messiah on our Messianic Prophecies page.)
    4. Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures replaces the Holy Spirit with “divine Science.” As you can guess, there is absolutely nothing that appears in the Bible supporting this strange idea.

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 all—it obscures the Bible’s 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.

Christianity or Something Else?

Ultimately, any cult changes the Bible’s message or replaces it with something else to alter the value of Jesus Christ. The reason is obvious—Jesus declares “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6) If this statement is true, Jesus is the only way to get to the Father (God) and all the other religions and belief systems are useless. Therefore, any cult will try to change Jesus so that:

  • it appears that Jesus Christ really can not do the whole job (or is not needed), and
  • the cult has the solution to Jesus’ insufficiency that can bring people to heaven.

An example of this is the “communion wafer” of the Catholic Church. The priests take a wafer (or “host”) made of unleavened bread and with themselves as “instruments of God,” they proclaim it to be the body of Jesus. The wafer then becomes the “Holy Eucharist.”[1][2] During this required ritual, called the “Sacrament of the Eucharist,” these wafers are eaten. The people are told that eating the Holy Eucharist carries out their redemption.[3] Further, the Roman Catholic Church states that their church and their priests are the only ones who can carry out this special work.[4][5] Please note the similarity to cult behavior:

  • Performing this practice implies that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was not quite enough to insure our salvation, and that more needs to be done to redeem us.[3]
  • The Roman Catholic Church is the only one that can provide this “missing ingredient,” through the Sacrament of the Eucharist.[6]
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References for the statements above, taken from documents that declare the official position of the Roman Catholic Church. This is not meant to be a complete list, but includes enough items to document the official church position.

    [1] From the Catechism of the Catholic Church Part Two, Section Two, Chapter One, Article 3 - THE SACRAMENT OF THE EUCHARIST: 1333 At the heart of the Eucharistic celebration are the bread and wine that, by the words of Christ and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, become Christ’s Body and Blood. Faithful to the Lord’s command the Church continues to do, in his memory and until his glorious return, what he did on the eve of his Passion: “He took bread. . . .” “He took the cup filled with wine. . . .” The signs of bread and wine become, in a way surpassing understanding, the Body and Blood of Christ; they continue also to signify the goodness of creation. Thus in the Offertory we give thanks to the Creator for bread and wine, fruit of the “work of human hands,” but above all as “fruit of the earth” and “of the vine”—gifts of the Creator. The Church sees in the gesture of the king-priest Melchizedek, who “brought out bread and wine,” a prefiguring of her own offering.

    [2] From The Council of Trent, Canons and Decrees, The Thirteenth Session. “CANON I.-If any one denieth, that, in the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist, are contained truly, really, and substantially, the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ; but saith that He is only therein as in a sign, or in figure, or virtue; let him be anathema.” (Note: anathema is to be banned and cursed.)

    [3] From THE SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL: DOGMATIC CONSTITUTION ON THE CHURCH. As often as the sacrifice of the cross by which “Christ our Pasch is sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7) is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out. Likewise, in the sacrament of the eucharistic bread, the unity of believers, who from one body in Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 10:17), is both expressed and brought about.

    [4] From the Catechism of the Catholic Church Part Two, Section Two, Chapter One, Article 3 - THE SACRAMENT OF THE EUCHARIST: 1350 The presentation of the offerings (the Offertory). Then, sometimes in procession, the bread and wine are brought to the altar; they will be offered by the priest in the name of Christ in the Eucharistic sacrifice in which they will become his body and blood. It is the very action of Christ at the Last Supper—“taking the bread and a cup.” “The Church alone offers this pure oblation to the Creator, when she offers what comes forth from his creation with thanksgiving.”

    [5] From the Catechism of the Catholic Church Part Two, Section One, Chapter One, Article 1 - THE LITURGY—WORK OF THE HOLY TRINITY: 1088 “To accomplish so great a work”—the dispensation or communication of his work of salvation—“Christ is always present in his Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the Sacrifice of the Mass not only in the person of his minister, ‘the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross,’ but especially in the Eucharistic species. By his power he is present in the sacraments so that when anybody baptizes, it is really Christ himself who baptizes.”

    [6] From the Catechism of the Catholic Church Part Two, Section One, Chapter One, Article 1 - THE LITURGY—WORK OF THE HOLY TRINITY: 1084 “Seated at the right hand of the Father” and pouring out the Holy Spirit on his Body which is the Church, Christ now acts through the sacraments he instituted to communicate his grace.

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Why Do We Need Jesus?

The Jews, who follow all the rules of the Old Testament (at least they should) learned long ago that they could not keep these rules well enough to stay in God’s favor. (See our discussion regarding the Ten Commandments on our going to heaven page if you think anyone can keep all of God’s rules.) God knew that would be the case, and promised an alternate means of salvation in numerous places—see Jeremiah 31:31 for an example. That is, He promised to provide a new agreement (or covenant) that allows us to have a relationship with Him even though we cannot be perfect.

You will notice that God is quite fearsome in the Old Testament (a common penalty for many sins was death), yet God is a “daddy” in the New Testament (Romans 8:15). The difference, of course, was this alternate means of salvation. The Old Testament contains hundreds of predictions about an “anointed one” (“Messiah” in Hebrew), who will “deliver” or “save” all the Jewish people (bring them to paradise or heaven). These Old Testament passages, like Genesis 22:18, also state that the Messiah will save all the other people in the world “through the Jews.” These predictions are referred to as Messianic prophecies, since they are predictions of the future (prophecies) that deal with the Messiah. Those of us who are Christians realize that the Messiah has arrived, and recognize that Jesus Christ is that Messiah. See our Messianic Prophecies page for some of the proof.

You will notice the focus has to turn to Jesus. Without Him, you can not be saved (get right with God and go to heaven). This is why the cults will alter the value of Jesus, allowing themselves to step in and claim that they provide the final steps required for salvation (allowing us to go to heaven).

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.)

Isn’t 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 all—it 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.

    6 He answered and said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:

        ‘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 men—the 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 writing—its own “holy scriptures” (the Qur’an). 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 world’s major belief systems. As for us, we will stand with Christianity, the Bible, and our Lord Jesus Christ.

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Copyright © 1998, 1999 by Clarifying Christianity (SM).
Printed copies of this article may be circulated if it is reproduced in its entirety, along with this copyright notice. You may not charge for, request a donation for, or seek reimbursement from anyone for such copies. Links are OK. All rights reserved.

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.