A Review of Manhee Lee's Book, ¨Creation of Heaven and Earth.¨

This edited article comes from a professor in California, a Christian, who read through Manhee Lee's book, Creation of Heaven and Earth (1), and submitted this review.  
Some Thoughts on Manhee Lee, The Creation of Heaven and Earth
(Shinchonji Press, 2009)

I am impressed with Mr. Lee’s familiarity with the terrain of the scriptures. The crux of course comes with his interpretation of them, and with whether one can agree with his claims. He complicates this process of discernment on almost every page by asserting that anyone who does not completely agree with him is destined for the lake of fire. He sends all his critics there - both people who do not wish to join his group and people who wish to leave his group. Those who leave “will receive seven more evil spirits regardless of whether they realize it” (351). Those within the group are not allowed to associate with defectors, and defectors are not allowed to repent of their leaving and to return. One might regard this set-up as simply a statement of “what truth is,” or, one might regard it as evidence of a spiritual tone found in other apocalyptic movements.
But I digress. As I reflected upon Mr. Lee’s approach to the scriptures, and of his election of himself as the key figure in whom the scriptures supposedly culminate, I thought about an episode in an eighteenth-century moral tale called Rasselas, by Samuel Johnson. In the tale, a group of friends engaged on a search for truth happen upon an astronomer who has spent his entire life studying the movements of the sun, moon, planets, and stars. Over the years, immersed in this study night after night, the astronomer comes to believe that the heavenly bodies only move in the proper way because he keeps track of them; without his guidance, the heavenly bodies would fall out of orbit and the universe would come apart. This delusion is entertained gradually, but once it has taken hold, the astronomer is filled with a sense of responsibility and anxiety. His new friends want to help him, but they are not able to talk him out of his delusion. As he begins to enjoy their company, however, he finds that his delusion gradually melts away.

I have always found this a sweet and cautionary tale, and I think it may apply in the case of Mr. Lee. I imagine him deeply immersed in the scriptures, especially the weirdly fascinating prophetic portions—and this would be only natural to him, as he has apparently spent almost all of his life in groups that pay special attention to these portions of the Bible (2). I also imagine him deeply affected by the power of the scriptures, and wanting to appropriate that power for himself—to involve himself as deeply as possible in what he is reading. And then, one day, caught up in the urgency of the apocalyptic events of the book of Revelation, his thoughts come to rest on “the one who overcomes,” and something inside says, “That’s me.” And then he´s off. 

If he is “the one who overcomes,” he can also be the son of the woman, one of the two witnesses, the white horse, the Advocate, and the Apostle John himself. He can be “the promised pastor” who uniquely succeeds and carries out the will of Jesus. And pretty soon, he’s not just a secondary character—he is the hero of the entire story. Without him, none of the events at the end of the age can take place. He is in fact indispensable, just as the astronomer, in his own mind, becomes indispensable to the proper movements of the heavens.

The difference between the fictional astronomer and the literal Mr. Lee, however, is that the astronomer keeps his delusion to himself, while Mr. Lee uses his to build a public following. And once he insists that everyone else must share his vision, an inflexible narcissism kicks in, and any Christian who questions his bit of theological role-playing is blithely consigned to the lake of fire. But the Scriptures advocate close examination, giving particular caution to end-time leaders who come in Jesus' authority before his time. So, questioning is recommended.

First, I question whether “the one who overcomes” refers to a particular person. In fact, it does not. When we let the words and context give us the meaning, we see that it refers either to believers at that time - those who belonged to the seven churches of Asia Minor - or, by extension, to any subsequent believer who, through the power of Christ, is able to overcome adversity or temptation. Christ does not need a supposed “one who overcomes” to accomplish his return, and in donning this mantle Mr. Lee is not only taking a promise made to all and reserving it only for himself, but he is also changing that promise into something it is not, inventing a leading role for himself out of thin air. His frequent objections to all biblical commentaries and to some biblical translations may stem from the fact that this misunderstanding regarding “the one who overcomes” is so easily resolved. The NRSV, for example, in Rev. 2-3, has “to everyone who conquers” (3x), “whoever conquers” (1x), “if you conquer” (2x), and “to the one who conquers” (1x).

In claiming to be the unique embodiment of the Advocate promised in John 14-16, Mr. Lee is also taking a guarantee made to many and applying it only to himself. Jesus is promising the Holy Spirit to his disciples—and by extension to all believers—but Mr. Lee would have us believe that the holy spirit (always lower-case for him, as he seems to regard the Holy Spirit as more of a function than a person) is only embodied in himself—and that this spirit has been effectively withheld for the last 2,000 years. Again, there is a usurpation—a wrongful taking—of powers here.

Related to this is Mr. Lee’s claim that he literally functions as the Apostle John as a receiver of revelation. Just as John received a vision of the apocalypse, Mr. Lee claims to have received an even clearer vision of what he calls the “physical fulfillment” of these prophecies. He in fact regards John the Apostle as only a “figure” for himself, for Mr. Lee is the actual one who eats the unsealed scroll and finally makes the book of Revelation clear to all. Again, however, he is usurping a role. The revelation given to John was written down for all to read, but by claiming that he is the “real” Apostle John, Mr. Lee invalidates 2,000 years of engagement with a historic text. Access to divine truth is suddenly narrowed, and Mr. Lee becomes the only gatekeeper.

There is a pattern here, and it is not a healthy one. It is one thing to play a children’s game of pretend for oneself—and then to become so caught up in the game that one believes it for oneself. (In the midst of my reading it is fun to imagine that I am Tom Sawyer, or Bilbo Baggins, or Tumnus the Faun.) But it is quite another thing to inflict this game of pretend upon others. (I’m Aslan, and you have to do what I say.) That is when play becomes piracy. What Mr. Lee has accomplished, intentionally or not, is a hijacking of the scriptures.

Finally, and over-archingly, Mr. Lee constructs a pattern of scriptural history to validate his anointed role. Like many before him, Mr. Lee has noticed that God appears to reveal himself in different ways at different times. There have been many efforts to systematize these different ways and steps of revelation, none completely satisfactory, given the fact that the scriptures are full of such living, squirming variety. One of the most rigid ways was developed by a man named Darby in the nineteenth century, and it came to be called dispensationalism, because Darby regarded the Bible as recording a series of different dispensations of God’s presence in a succession of covenants with his people.

Mr. Lee takes Darby’s general idea and shapes it in a particular way. He perceives a rigid social pattern of betrayal, destruction, and then salvation through divine selection of “a new pastor,” and he follows this pattern through Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and Jesus. Most any other interpreter would stop here, with Jesus as the climax of God’s revelation of himself, though of course the return of Christ would be taken into account as well. Mr. Lee, however, uses the momentum he gains from unfolding this pattern to springboard the reader to a “new gospel” of “the promised pastor” in the end times. To do this, he needs to exercise some sleight of hand to stipulate an expiration date for the “old gospel” of Jesus.

This is where he has to equivocate a little: on some pages of his book he extols the saving grace of Jesus made available through his death on the cross; on other pages he insists that salvation is only made available through “the promised pastor.” He has sort of painted himself into a corner. It won’t do to completely dismiss the work of Jesus, partly because Mr. Lee constructs his own authority on the basis of many messianic analogies, but at the same time he wants to convince us that he himself, Mr. Lee, is the new “savior,” the one we must “believe in,” that God’s work is completely contingent upon Mr. Lee’s appearance and upon his heroic acts.

Also, Mr. Lee would have us believe in an inflexible “logic” of this dispensational pattern: God can work in no other way, and this way culminates in the arrival of Mr. Lee. He would not have us notice that the role of “the promised pastor” is one he has completely made up on his own, for no clear New Testament prophecy is made for a promised pastor.

Indeed, there is a certain impenetrable circularity to his logic. How does Mr. Lee have, as he claims, “complete mastery” of the scriptures?  He will tell you it is because he is the one who overcomes and is thus given the hidden manna of the revealed word. How does Mr. Lee know he is the one who overcomes? Why, because he has complete mastery of the scriptures.

Finally, I will note in passing that he exercises this supposed mastery with an exegesis that often seems quite arbitrary. In Mr. Lee's hands, for example, Genesis 1 becomes a figurative allegory for the end times. The 144,000 who belong to the Lamb on Mt. Zion in Revelation 14, however, comprise a number that Mr. Lee takes quite literally. His choice of a strangely literal interpretation or a heretofore unknown figurative interpretation of the scriptures does not seem to be guided by any consistent principle. If there is a consistent principle, it is the promotion of his own status and purposes.

So, this is my response in a nutshell to Mr. Lee’s theology in his book. Samuel Johnson’s astronomer could be cured of his delusion. If Lee is like other end-time visionaries, finding a cure may prove difficult.
(1) Professor Paul J. Willis, November, 2011. w
(2) See article on Lee's involvement in other movements before Shinchonji.