By Hank Hanegraaff

What are the characteristics of C-U-L-T-S?

In common parlance the word cult connotes theological and/or sociological perversion. As such, cults run the gamut from theologically perverse Mormons to the sociologically deviant Heaven’s Gate cult, which ended with the largest mass suicide in US history (thirty-nine people) in 1997. Common cultic characteristics are easily remembered using the Hankronym C-U-L-T-S.

COUNTERFEIT. Google “counterfeit money” and one of the first hits that pops up is a US Secret Service posting titled “How to Detect Counterfeit Money.” The Secret Service posting goes on to say that you and I “can help guard against the threat from counterfeiters by becoming familiar with US currency.” How? “Compare the suspect note with a genuine note of the same denomination and series, paying attention to the quality of printing and paper characteristics. Look for differences, not similarities.” What is true with respect to counterfeit currency is likewise true with respect to counterfeit cults. You and I must be so familiar with essential Christian doctrine that when a counterfeit looms on the horizon, we recognize it instantaneously.

UNBIBLICAL REVELATIONS. Another common cultic characteristic is unbiblical revelations. Mormonism is a classic case in point. In 1820, two celestial personages allegedly appeared to Mormon founder Joseph Smith revealing that all existing churches were wrong, all their creeds were an abomination, and all their professors were corrupt. Then they said that Smith had been chosen to restore a church that had disappeared from the face of the earth. In like fashion, the Church of Almighty God cult founder Zhao Weishan revealed that the incarnation of Jesus Christ was insufficient, thus, God had to finish the work of redemption through the incarnation and revelations of a female Christ named Deng. Such new revelations are common to cults and undermine the main and plain teachings of Scripture.

LINGUISTIC SUBVERSION. Cults are notorious for subverting biblical language by pouring their own unique meanings into key Christian words and phrases. Thus, we must prepare ourselves to scale the language barrier. Take the word Jesus, for example. Mormons render Jesus the spirit brother of Lucifer; Jehovah’s Witnesses, the archangel Michael; and New Agers, an avatar or enlightened messenger. In biblical vernacular, Jesus is none other than the One who spoke and the limitless galaxies leapt into existence: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created; things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15–17).

THEOLOGICAL PERVERSION. From a theological perspective, cults are pseudo-Christian groups that compromise, confuse, or contradict the essentials of the historic Christian faith. Devotees become masters at taking texts out of context in order to develop pretexts for theological perversions. An apt example is Scientology. In place of resurrection they teach devotees the unbiblical notion of reincarnation. All too often such notions are buttressed by a distortion of the biblical text. For instance, John the Baptist is frequently hailed as a reincarnation of the biblical prophet Elijah despite the fact that John dismissed this absurdity with three short words. When asked by the Levites if he was indeed a reincarnation of Elijah, he replied, “I am not” (John 1:21).

SOCIOLOGICAL DEVIANCE. From a sociological perspective, a cult is a religious or semi-religious sect whose followers are controlled in virtually every dimension of their lives. As such, devotees characteristically display displaced loyalty for the guru and the group and are galvanized together through physical and/or psychological intimidation tactics. Such cults display a “we/they” siege mentality and often cut off their devotees from former associations, including their immediate families. 

In sum, when imitations of authentic Christianity loom on the horizon, you can recognize them instantaneously by remembering the acronym C-U-L-T-S: counterfeit, unbiblical revelations, linguistic subversion, theological perversion, and socio- logical deviance.

I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted—you may well put up with it!

2 Corinthians 11:3–4 NKJV






For further study, see Hank Hanegraaff, Counterfeit Revival, rev. ed. (Nashville: Word Publishing Group, 2001), part 5.


***Note the preceding text is adapted from The Complete Bible Answer Book: Collector’s Edition: Revised and Expanded (2024). To receive for your partnering gift please click here. ***