Occult,   New Age    What Are  They?

With the recent mass suicide of 39 members of the Heaven's Gate "cult" in San Diego, California, there is much in the news about "cults" and the potential dangers they pose. Could your Sabbath-keeping group be considered a cult?

In addition to the term, "cult", we also frequently hear the terms "Occult" and "New Age" used in the media—sometimes positively and sometimes negatively. Some people think all three of these things are equivalent. Are they?

What Is a "Cult"?

Because the meaning of "cult" has changed so much, a dictionary does not completely answer the question. The first definition in Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (1996) is: "formal religious veneration: worship."

There seems nothing wrong with the above—it would apply to many people. Other definitions however, are: " a great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work [and] a small group of people characterized by such devotion" and " a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious [and] its body of adherents."

The latter definition is probably the one most intended in the popular media today. Cults are considered "unorthodox" groups that could be dangerous. Exactly what makes a group unorthodox depends greatly on who is doing the "cult calling." Many "Christian Cult-watch" groups classify any group a cult if they do not believe in the Trinity, do not accept the "Apostles' Creed" or do not accept certain other common Christian doctrines. Others define cults primarily in terms of how secretive they are or how much control they exert over their members.

With thousands of religious groups in the USA alone, nearly every shade of doctrine and control exists in one group or another. As a general rule:

Many religious cults frequently:

1. Are started by one very persuasive teacher/leader.

2. Have a tightly organized and restricted membership.

3. Are convinced they have the only acceptable way of life.

Many religious cults do NOT:

1. Have any "occult" or "new age" connections or beliefs.

2. Have radical or violent tendencies.

3. Use "brain washing" to get or keep members.

Some religious cults may:

1. Rely on fear to keep members in line.

2. Rely on isolation to keep members away from other teachings.

3. Disguise their actual teachings when dealing with the public.

4. Use Christian terminology, but be far from Biblical teachings.

If you do not accept the Trinity doctrine, do not belong to a large "Christian denomination" and believe that you should "obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29), you will be classified as a "cult member" by some people. However, one can probably avoid being classified as a "dangerous cult" member by following these Biblical principles:

1. Allow others to attend your services. (While you may choose to teach potential new converts in Bible studies rather than services, people should not be refused from services if they come— see 1Cor 14:24).

2. Do not forbid members to read literature from elsewhere (Eph 4:14).

3. Do not teach that your groups is the only way to salvation (1Cor 3:4-8, Phil 1:15-18, 1Jn 2:27).

4. Do not socially ostracize people who leave your group (Matt 5:44, Luke 15:22-32, Jude 1:22-23, 2Cor 2:6-8, Gal 6:1).

Following these guidelines will not eliminate all persecution—our Savior said it would come (John 15:20). However, if we are persecuted, it should be for righteousness sake (Matt 5:10), not for our own mistakes.

What is the Occult?

Generally, it is a collection of beliefs and practices that are based on the idea that there is a supernatural world, and that Man can "tap into" it in order to control his environment or other people through secret, special knowledge and rituals.

The words "Occult" and "Cult" do not have the same origin, and are not specifically related. Therefore:

1. An individual can be involved in occult activities without belonging to a cult.

2. An individual can belong to a cult and not be involved in any occult activities at all.

Examples of common occult activities: Ouija boards, fortune-telling, astrology, witchcraft, tarot cards, "dungeons and dragons," voodoo, palm reading, spiritism (contacting the dead). Most occult groups have "levels" of knowledge—new "converts" are only told a little of their beliefs. They are allowed to learn more only as they show their loyalty and become completely entrenched in the group. Some occult groups actually teach (either openly or secretly) that they worship Satan.

What is "New Age"?

New Age is an adjective that describes the collection of beliefs and practices that are based on the idea that Mankind is about to enter into a "new age" of peace, prosperity and spiritual enlightenment brought about by Man's own efforts to change himself. Many "New Age" teachers believe Man will be able to do this as a result of contact with 'higher spiritual beings" who will teach him to be "at one" with the universe.

The term "New Age Movement" is a fairly recent term, though most of the ideas have been around for a long time with other names. New age ideas come from humanism, eastern religions, false Christianity, paganism, and the occult. There is no single group, governing board, or even a specific group of groups that define the "New Age Movement." People or organizations usually become labeled "New Age" because they simply choose to adopt the name.

Examples of "New Age" ideas and practices include reincarnation, transcendental meditation, other types of non-Biblical meditation, "channeling", astral projection, belief that special physical or spiritual power is available through certain rituals or objects, belief that humans are not special creations in the image of God and are of no more value than animals and plants, belief that there is not an "external" Creator God who made the universe—rather that "god" is within everyone already just waiting to be tapped into.

How Do Cult, Occult and New Age Ideas Affect Us?

Some occult and New Age practices and ideas may be counterfeits of actual Biblical ideas and practices. However, many serious Bible students are concerned that occult and new age ideas and practices are creeping into "Christian" television, books and tapes—especially into family counselling and self-help material. This is happening in some places.

On the other hand, some ministries have acquired the habit of labeling nearly every teaching, Bible translation or group that they disagree with as "New Age". This is particularly easy to do since there is no clear, precise definition of "New Age." Sometimes, Biblically sound ideas or ministries unjustly receive the "New Age" label.

What can we do?

As mentioned previously, we probably cannot avoid being called " cult members" by some, but we can be open about our practices and if possible, "live peaceably with all men" (Rom 12:18).

We should certainly avoid the occult—there is virtually nothing good there. A significant amount of clothing, jewelry and toys are designed around occult symbols and should be avoided.

We should seek to avoid things that are part of the false practices of the New Age movement, though we should not depart from truth just because someone might label it "New Age."

As always, the final word is not someone's label, but the Scriptures. Let us "search the scriptures daily, whether these things were so" (Acts 17:11). Finally, as John warned:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world (1Jn 4:1).

—Norman Edwards & Pam Dewey

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