What are the differences? What are the similarities?
There is at least one guy in Korea who claimed to be Jesus or others following them did. Here’s one case mentioned by a poster in another thread as a challenge to the reasonableness of believing the witness to Christianity:
He’s dead now. He did not come back. And he had a failed prediction of the apocalypse - 1988 brought us Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” but not quite the end of the world.
(This same poster who used this example, by the way, implied that Jesus too had a failed apocalyptic prophesy, though he didn’t give the verse… Presumably, he meant the words of Christ immediately preceding the Transfiguration which are often confused as being a statement about the parousia but are instead quite clearly about the encounter on Mount Tabor which immediately follows.)
The similarities are clear: supernatural teaching, usually centered around one figure claiming some importance, gather a group by convincing them of that leader’s authority through various means, and so on.
I offer that there are manifest differences between all these kinds of phenomena and the ancient world encountering the spread of Christianity, both during and immediately after Jesus’ life, up to about 100 AD, when the last living apostle would have finally died (John).
- Worldly benefits.
Jesus gained no worldly advantage, save for the one moment He is anointed at Bethany and the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The rest of His public life was rigid, hard, and without much material consolation at all. He claimed to have come to serve, not to be served, “and He loved them to the end,” as John tells us. Finally, He willingly accepts His death, after having predicted it in detail on at least 3 occasions.
Cult leaders gain much in this world. Money, power, prestige, and so on. Ron L. Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, noted this explicitly. That’s why he created Scientology.
- Expectations violated without making good on the difference.
Jesus completely defied the Jews’ expectations for the Messiah. Nobody would have predicted the Messiah to do much more than overthrow Roman rule in Israel and establish a worldly kingdom. Instead, Jesus said he had come to suffer, and that His kingdom was not of this world. When He did die, the disciples had given up, as the account of Emmaus so bluntly tells us. But then they claim that He came back to life, and then the following increased… His teaching, including about Himself, continued and actually accelerated. And all this in a society which was violently opposed both to a supernatural Messiah and a replacement for Caesar, both of which Jesus was.
Cult leaders might violate all kinds of expectations about what God or a prophet or the parousia are like, just as Jesus did. But they do not have everyone against them before they even start. And when they fail in this world by repeatedly bad prophesies or by dying, typically their followers just give up and go away, much like the followers of the failed messianic revolutionaries mentioned by Gamaliel in Acts 5:36-37…
- Success as a sign of Divine confirmation
Christianity spread like a fire over the whole planet within a few centuries. It went from intense persecution to being the state religion of the Roman Empire. Contrast this with Islam, which won converts by threatening to kill them. With Christianity, it was the other way around. (Please, spare us the “Inquisition” quips.)
Cults don’t enjoy such success, and usually they dry up soon after the founder’s death, or they morph into something else. God doesn’t seem to be rooting for them.
- Sublimity of the teaching
Jesus gave us the Sermon on the Mount. That alone should be enough. But there is the entirety of His doctrine. It is not for nothing that people were shocked by how and what He taught, saying nobody had ever spoken like it before… Let’s not pretend that there weren’t loonies in the ancient world - no, according to Luke (who claims to have spoken with many eye witnesses and trusted persons), Jesus was able to do intellectual fisticuffs with the most learned doctors of the Torah when He was 12.
Cults teach about the spiritual, but such teaching on its own responds less to our broken human nature and the greatness of God and more to the simple gratification of the leader’s ego.
- Way of life of the leader
Christ lived perfectly what He taught. He was perfectly moral, He loved the weakest and the poorest without fear of human opinion. Etc.
Cult leaders are not always the nicest of guys. It hardly seems necessary to belabor the point.
- Surprise of the advent
Every Jew was waiting for the Christ. The least that God can do is give people a heads up as to when and how He is coming to Earth. And so He did.
Cults come by surprise. By this I include Islam. Nobody is waiting for them… Second-coming cults don’t fit this category, but they have their own challenges (why does Jesus want to have so many wives all of a sudden, etc.).
Jesus is claimed by all close contemporaries who testify to the details of His life speak of His miracles in support of His authority. Then so too do some of His followers. And thousands and thousands and thousands of people supposedly saw at least a few of these miracles, not just 2 or 3 interested parties.
Cult leaders often do not have any miracles to their name at all. If they or others make do indeed make the claim, it is never something done out in the open like Jesus often did, it is always a secret, or something unclear as to its true cause (“I won the lotto, therefore” etc.)… Quite different from bringing the dead back to life in front of a grieving mother and a large crowd.
Note that I do not add sincerity or zeal of disciples, except with respect to what is mentioned in point #2.
Add your own!