I can recall the pain in his eyes when my boyfriend concluded he had been deceived by the cult New Heaven New Earth.
After weeks of probing, he had finally fully opened up to me about what had been going on. He had previously been reluctant to talk about something so sacred as his faith and was quick to dismiss my worries. He was told by the group’s members that his journey with God was “private” and he shouldn’t even tell his parents about what he was learning.
But finally, in March 2022, after many arguments and tears shed, he had decided to leave New Heaven New Earth.
It had all started in November 2021 with a seemingly harmless Linkedin message from a stranger asking my boyfriend whether he could help out with a project on men’s mental health.
Happy to help out he replied and had an initial phone call. The person who had reached out told my boyfriend he reminded him of his friend and put them in touch. It was through this friend that my boyfriend was told about the bible study course.
It was a course run by an alumni of a top London university; a woman who became almost like a mentor to my boyfriend. Someone he looked up to and respected.
Her career achievements were what many students aspired towards and he shared a lot in common with her – the same university, same motivations, same faith and same race.
I even grew to respect her to a certain extent and could see she was an inspiring influence for him.
He said he never felt as connected to God as he did during the time he was going to these “bible study sessions”. I put that in quotation marks because I don’t think it was a bible study.
As a Christian myself, who has grown up in the church and been exposed to a number of denominations, I didn’t consider the teachings were from God.
We spent a lot of time together as a couple and I had heard him do these bible studies for months. The teachings sounded strange and apocalyptic, nothing like I was used to. The teachers were young with unknown credibility, yet they were the only ones who were delivering the words of the bible.
They seemed to prey on fear and I felt they didn’t promote typical Christian values of love and generosity.
My boyfriend was hungry for the word of God, but I believed he was being misled. This cult is not like one you’d see on TV; it appeared to be much more sly and easily hidden.
The grasp this cult has on people is unlike a normal church, they require dedication in ways I have never seen.
We spent our Valentine’s Day evening listening to the bible study because he was too afraid to miss it. Any sessions missed had to be made up, yet there was no apparent structure to the course.
Soon I started to notice there were gaping inconsistencies in what they said. There was no transparency in the group – no website, no physical location.
Most importantly there was no specific end date to the course. First, it was 2-3 months, then it was 6-8 months.
I thought something was seriously wrong when I asked him if he would leave me if they told him to. He said he didn’t know.
I love him and seeing him slowly starting to lose control of his schedule and assurance in his own judgment was frightening.
To this day there is a little part of him that feels worried that they are right and everyone else is wrong.
I don’t know how to address that, and I don’t think he will be able to himself. It will likely go unspoken and perhaps that is the best way for him to deal with what has happened.
I’m worried that this cult will grow while they keep recruiting curious Christians. After all, that is the easiest target for them.
But for us, our journey with them is over, and I am glad for it.
Lawyers for New Heaven New Earth/Shincheonji said they object to being called a cult, seeing the term as a “derogatory, stereotyping label” which had been abandoned by scholars of “new religious movements”.
They said that not all members are full-time missionaries who decide to devote their life to the church, saying many members work in secular jobs or are studying full-time at university. They added that Shincheonji members are now being more open about what organisation they are part of when recruiting – saying that the initial lack of transparency was due to hostile media about the group, which had caused members to be “ridiculed and bullied”.