If you regularly walk around central Seoul, you’ve probably seen, or heard, them — elderly folks walking around carrying placards with heartwarming messages such as “Lord Jesus Heaven. No Jesus Hell” and “666.”
As they walk, they carry with them speakers that play hymns, or broadcast their evangelizing messages. The crew’s base of operations is Seoul’s Myeongdong neighborhood, a bustling commercial area filled with clothing stores and restaurants, where couples in matching outfits and tourists from abroad stroll around, window shopping and sampling street food. The evangelists are hoping that while looking for sneakers or ice cream, visitors to Myeongdong may also be open to having their souls saved.
There are plenty of evangelizers in South Korea, and by some measures, the country sends the most missionaries abroad after only the United States, but these folks have a somewhat unique message. In addition to a basic message of salvation through Christ, and the harsh, almost threatening tone they take at times, the evangelizers have taken to spreading the word on what they see as a particularly nefarious danger: the mark of the beast, a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip that can be embedded into human flesh.
To make a long conspiracy theory short, RFID is a small chip that can carry information, commonly used for shipping and authentication. It’s an RFID chip Seoul commuters use when clicking onto the bus or subway, and many buildings have RFID readers at their entrances, to allow staff or residents in and keep out anyone without authorization.
The folks in Myeongdong, and some Christians in other countries, have expressed concern that such chips could be embedded into human flesh, and connected to a single world-dominating computer (aka ‘the Beast’) to track and control people. (And they may be aghast to know that this is already becoming a reality, at least in limited forms.)
Their concern has its foundations in Revelation 13:16, which reads, “It puts under compulsion all people—the small and the great, the rich and the poor, the free and the slaves—that these should be marked on their right hand or on their forehead.”
In a short documentary made three years ago about the “House of Jesus Heaven,” as the Myeongdong crew calls itself, a spokeswoman says that the group has around 100 members, all of whom worship at different churches, and only come to Myeongdong to evangelize. The film says that the group has existed since 1997, and has a space in Myeongdong where they gather to eat, pray and socialize. In one scene, members use a blender to puree chives and yogurt to make a verdant smoothie they say cures cancer. (I tried to find this den of evangelical zeal myself, but to no avail.)
South Korea is home to a huge array of churches and has proved fertile ground for many unconventional religious faiths. Andrew Eungi Kim, a professor at Korea University in Seoul, says, “Missionaries to Korea found many converts because there wasn’t a strong indigenous religion in Korea to oppose the onset of new, unfamiliar faiths.”
Even though Buddhism, and Confucianism, remain strong forces, new religions, including variants of Christianity, have found followers. While walking around Seoul, it is not uncommon to be approached by people who will exclaim, “How pure your spirit is! Do you want to come with me?” (They belong to a community of believers who insist on elaborate ancestor worship as a conduit to salvation.) The export of the Unification Church founded by late Rev. Moon Sun-myung might be dubbed the original Korean wave for its global reach.
Like religious communities all over the world, for some members, part of the appeal of the gathering in Myeongdong may be more about the senses of structure and community, rather than literal belief in a certain scripture, that motivates members to participate. “I come here because it’s fun,” one unnamed middle-aged man says with a smile. “If it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t come.”
It’s not to say that they aren’t serious in their doom-and-gloom view of the world. One pamphlet exclaims “These are the end times!” before rattling off a myriad of what they perceive as the contemporary world’s ills — global economic collapse, environmental destruction, moral destruction caused by homosexuality — and implores the reader to “Wake up! Look at the world!”
The apocalyptic language continues with breathless claims of an imminent judgement day. “On that day, they will come for all people who dwell on Earth, and you will not be excluded. But through this judgement there is a path to God.”
The pamphlet then quotes a passage from the Book of Matthew, that uses allusive language, reading, “‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” The final section is a first-person prayer that addresses Jesus, asking forgiveness for sins and pledging prayer and submission to God the father.
The House of Jesus Heaven is by no means the first Christian group in South Korea to speak of imminent apocalypse. In 1992, a church called Dami Mission shook up the country with its prophecy that the world was ending on Oct. 28 that year. The church told its followers to prepare for the second coming of Jesus Christ, and some did so by quitting their jobs and selling off their belongings, the proceeds from which were donated to the church. (As you can guess, Jesus did not come that day, and video footage of angry congregants assaulting the church leadership became infamous.)
On one recent evening, an elderly woman (who wouldn’t give her name) sat alone in a Myeongdong booth belonging to the House of Jesus Heaven. She said that she had been preaching from this same position every night for the past twelve years, and that the religious group she belonged to had a fluid membership, some of whom attend irregularly, with another arm of the group set up outside of Seoul Station, the city’s main rail hub.
In a tone that suggested mild irritation, she declined to speak in much detail about her group, saying that she had to get on with the urgent work of preaching. As evening set in, she buckled down for what she said would be two-and-a-half hours of non-stop preaching, reading bible passages interspersed with general Christian admonitions to avoid temptation and follow the word of God.
Nowadays in Myeongdong, there are fewer souls to save than their once were. Apparently in retaliation for South Korea’s decision to deploy the THAAD missile defense system with the U.S, China banned group tours to South Korea, plugging the plug on what had been a burgeoning tourist trade. The ban impacted many stores in Myeongdong who did brisk trade selling cosmetics and other items to Chinese travelers.
But after a short period of nearly deserted streets, pedestrian traffic in Myeongdong has picked up, and a greater diversity of inbound tourists is on display, the soundtrack of the busy streets being a mix of Korean, English, Chinese, Malay, Hindi and Arabic.
Her voice amplified by a nearby speaker, the elderly women in the booth went ahead with her practiced preaching, making the same remarks in Korean, English, Japanese and Chinese. As she droned on in a flat drawl, no one seemed to notice.
Se-Woong Koo contributed to this report.
Cover Image: “The Beast from the Earth Killing People and People Receiving the Mark of the Beast,” a Christian illumination dated to the 13th century. (Source: Wikimedia)