The Shakahola Cult: How Do Christians Avoid False Teachers?

The Shakahola Cult: How Do Christians Avoid False Teachers?

By Milo Jones |

Posted 26/07/2023

When Kenyan Pastor Paul Mackenzie started his Good News International Church in 2003, no one suspected it would end in a suicidal massacre 20 years later.

“In the beginning, the church was good,” said an assistant pastor who worked for Mackenzie until they had a falling out. “There were no issues. The sermons were normal.”

But from 2010, after Mackenzie’s televised sermons had drawn a significant following, his messages became more apocalyptic. “Mackenzie told his followers to pull their children out of school, discard their national IDs, avoid hospitals, and start preparing for the end of the world,” said the assistant pastor. “It happened step by step.”

The last step was taken in 2023. In April, following Mackenzie’s arrest, detectives began exhuming bodies from a forest where he and his followers had been living since 2019. Last Monday, 12 more bodies were exhumed from shallow graves, bringing the death count to 403, with hundreds more still missing.

Abusing the Bible

Pastor Mackenzie had moved his congregation from the coastal town of Malindi, Kenya, into the country’s Shakahola forest after his church had been closed over his controversial preaching. In that isolated wilderness, where about 300 families were “split into eight separate settlements with biblical names such as Galilee and Bethlehem,” the cult took its final form.

Mackenzie taught that the world would end in 2023, and to meet Jesus, they must fast until they die.

Were they following Jesus’ example?

He “fasted forty days and forty nights” (Matthew 4:2), an ordeal that would have killed Him had not angels afterward “ministered to Him” (v. 11). But Scripture records only one other person fasting that long, Moses on Mount Sinai, who was supernaturally sustained without a drop of water (Exodus 34:28). Although many people have survived 40 days without food, the length of Jesus’ fast was associated with His messianic mission (see Mark 1:12), not with His command to “follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).

Cult leaders are known for abusing Scripture to support their dangerous teachings. One way they do this is by taking something figurative and making it literal. Such perversion can lead not only to self-mutilation (think of Jesus’ commands to pluck out an eye and cut off a hand in Matthew 5:29, 30), but also to self-murder. When Jesus said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself” (16:24), He wasn’t talking about starving oneself to death.

Child Sacrifice

Furthermore, misapplying the figurative usually coincides with not applying the literal. How could Mackenzie and his devotees ignore the literal command in Exodus 20:13, “You shall not murder”? Were they following Jesus—the One who said, “Let the little children come to Me” (Matthew 19:14)—when they deprived their own of food and water?

According to a former member of Good News International, Mackenzie had a roster that determined the order of starvation: children first, women second, and men third. Mackenzie and his family, however, would be the last to deny themselves before ascending to heaven.

A court affidavit obtained by CNN ”explained “that fasting would start with the children until the last child died.” Kenya’s state pathologist said there were scores of children among the dead, their remains showing signs of extreme starvation. The children whose suffering was shortened by “blunt trauma [or] strangulation” were the lucky ones.

Earlier this year, Francis Wanje received a disturbing phone call that his daughter and three grandsons were in the Shakahola forest. He organized a private rescue operation in time to save his oldest grandson, who was severely malnourished. But the younger two were already dead, having been suffocated by their parents. “I wonder how my child, my daughter, could change to be such an animal to kill her own children just because she wanted to go see Jesus,” said Wanje.

The same could be said of the Israelites who made their children “pass through the fire to Molech” (Jeremiah 32:35). How could God’s own people become so brutal?

A False Prophet’s Spell

Jesus said in Matthew 24:24, “False prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.” Even Christians, when disregarding God’s Word, can become spellbound!

Christians like Agnes (full name undisclosed), now age 26, who joined Mackenzie’s church when she was still in high school. “Some of his preaching turned into reality. He said that diseases would come and then the Coronavirus came,” she said.

But even a false prophet might accurately guess the future. Notice Moses’ warning in Deuteronomy 13: “If a prophet … proclaims a sign or wonder to you, and that sign or wonder he has promised you comes about, but he says, ‘Let us follow other gods … and let us worship them,’ do not listen to that prophet’s words” (vv. 1–3). Signs and wonders aside, the only true prophet is the one who urges obedience to all of God’s commandments.

As for Agnes, whom Mackenzie persuaded to quit school, shave her head, and enter a church-arranged marriage, her spell was broken “when she was told she couldn’t get help from another woman to deliver her third child.” She and her children escaped the Shakahola cult last September.

Others have been rescued but remain bewitched by Mackenzie’s charisma. Recently, “65 people rescued from the forest were charged with attempted suicide for refusing to eat.” They are being detained in a rescue center where therapists hope “to break their emotional and psychological ties to Mackenzie”—a deprogramming process that could take months.

Such is the power of a false prophet, who “drew in” not only the destitute but “flight attendants and social workers; paramilitary police and professionals from all across Kenya.” And he maintained his control by isolating them from their unbelieving relatives—a shared trait among destructive cults.

How imperative, then, to know the characteristics of a false prophet! In his presentation “Proving the Prophets,” Pastor Doug explains the difference between the true and the false.

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