As the dominant religion in Europe, North and South America, Christianity is viewed as force for traditional values and stability. In the beginning, however, Christianity was seen as a revolutionary and destabilizing force - a threat to the Empire of Rome.
In China, as in ancient Rome, Christianity is still seen as a potentially disruptive and dangerous force, unresponsive to the control of the state. The Chinese government, for security reasons, prefers to pick its own priests and pastors, rather than leaving this duty to the Vatican and other denominations. Over the centuries, Christianity was a wedge that facilitated Western powers in dismembering China.
But the home-grown versions of the faith have caused plenty of trouble, too.
The latest worry to the ruling Communist Party is the "Eastern Lightning," branded as a doomsday cult that is sweeping some of China's poorer regions. Similar to the Maya calendar cult, which held that the world would end on December 21, the Eastern Lightning believers think that the world will be consumed by fire and darkness, although their dates seem to be more flexible. By one estimate, the cult has about one million members.
Jesus Christ has come again, they say, reincarnated as a woman in He Nan province, who is even now organizing the climatic battle between good and evil. The evil is the "Red Dragon," and it most likely stands for the Communist Party.
That has the authorities worried. The cult takes its name from the bible, Mathew 24/27: "For as the lightning commeth out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall, also, the coming of the Son of Man be."
In Mathew 24/7, the Bible predicts that "nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes in diverse places." That may sound like a description of the 20th century, but according to Eastern Lightning, the worst is yet to come. The cult is said to be active in more than 20 provinces, and more than 1,000 believers have been arrested.
Eastern Lightning was founded in 1989 by a man named Zhao Weishan. It has been denounced not only by the Chinese government, but also from established Christian pulpits as well. Yet the cult is spreading, and may have millions of followers. Some say it was inspired by the Hollywood film "2012" in which the world was destroyed by floods, but a select few were saved by Chinese-built arks.
There are Chinese Christian websites that will tell you that Eastern Lightning believers "resort to many shameful and lewd methods and their cruelty is inhuman." They habitually lie, they deceive women with false promises of marriage, they practice sexual seduction, and even use sexual stimulants to drag people into immortality...
"The organization is secret and strict, and tightly hierarchical," says a website, sounding for all the world like the Communists when they were first persecuted in China before World War II. Only instead of Mao, the Eastern Lightning takes "the word of their female Christ as their highest authority, and with their restrictions and rigid rules, demands, and controls, the members of the cult are absolutely submissive to their ‘Powerful One,'" according to the "China for Jesus" website.
Others think Eastern Lightning is a reaction to the widespread corruption in China, and the oppression of the poor by local Communist officials. Now that Communism is just a word, and China has adopted state capitalism, there are vacuums to be filled by cults such as Eastern Lightning.
It is not the first time an unorthodox version of Christianity has roiled the Chinese state. From 1850 to 1864, as the United States was fighting its civil war, a Christian convert named Hong Xiuquan began to see visions and claimed he was the younger brother of Jesus.
The Taiping Rebellion, as it was called, swept through China and soon controlled large swaths of the south. It was a direct challenge to the Qing dynasty, and the ensuing civil war may have been responsible for as many as 20 million deaths, perhaps the worst bloodletting of the 19th century.
In the end, the British and French came to the aid of the Qing, and the rebellion was defeated. Hong Xiuquan believed that his religion should replace the outmoded Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism of China, and that private property should be shared. It is not surprising that Mao later glorified the rebels as gallant revolutionaries fighting a corrupt system.
China, as it was in ancient Rome, has reason to fear what may be done in Jesus' name.