Is There Such A Thing As Smuggling Too Many Bibles Into North Korea and Other Closed Countries?

I regularly see ministries putting out ads claiming that the number one request of North Korean Christians is for Bibles, Bibles, and more Bibles. These ministries claim that for every few dollars you send, they’ll send one more Bible into North Korea; the only limit is your generosity. I’ve even seen them claim to distribute Bibles into North Korean concentration camps.

As someone who has worked with underground North Korean Christians for many years, I can tell you that while such ads have tremendous emotional and fundraising appeal, they are not rooted in reality. The amount of time, care, logistics, people, money, and prayer it takes to place even a single Bible inside North Korea is beyond most people’s imagining. It’s never cheap, and it doesn’t happen on a mass-production level. The shortage is never of Bibles available for distribution. Never.

I was reading a private letter from Rev. Wurmbrand to our sister VOM missions from 1982 today. Seems that there is nothing new under the sun. Rev. Wurmbrand wrote:

Huge quantities of Bibles are produced for European Communist countries by other missions… This has produced a catastrophe in a country like Romania. Everybody brought the Bibles basically to the same addresses. Neighbors were alarmed by the great number of vans and trailers coming to one person. These had no possibilities to be distribute such quantities. At the last arrests in Ploieshti tens of thousands of Bibles were confiscated. They were sto­red since long. I know from my own experience that to distribute 1,000 Bibles in conditions of illegality, with every second member of the underground church suspect as informer, without means of transport was already a big problem.

Rev. Wurmbrand’s point is that we should not think that the only thing stopping us from effectively distributing an unlimited amount of Bibles in closed countries is money. Distribution is mainly limited not by funding shortfalls (donors are always generous with Bible money, praise God) but by a number of factors stemming from the fact these countries are closed and specialize in making Christian work as difficult, dangerous, and deadly as possible. Rev. Wurmbrand noted that there are always fake Christians, spies, and profiteers in these countries, and we must be wise. Bible distribution in closed countries is by definition very difficult, and money for Bibles is usually the least of the difficulties.

So if not Bibles, Bibles, and more Bibles, what should we be smuggling to underground believers? Rev. Wurmbrand offered a specific recommendation in the 1982 letter:

My conviction is also that while a good number of Bibles is needed, they [people in closed countries] need a huge quantity of simple books explaining the Christian faith and books opposing Christianity to Marxism. For those who have not lived under Communism, it is difficult to realise what counter-productive effect a Bible can have, if not accompanied by right teaching, on a soul. I had not read the Bible 14 years. I read it as a new book when I came out of prison. I was appalled when I read books like Joshua, Judges, etc. where God orders the extermination of whole populations with wives and children. I said to myself ”This is worse than what Communists have done. The Communists could use this justification.’ Happily I had some spiritual preparation. For those without it, General Jaruzelski [of Poland] is better than Joshua. The Bible says, ‘How will I understand if there is nobody to explain?’ I am against simply giving 1 million Bibles. even if it would be possible, without giving another million books with explanations. This belongs to the realm of phantasy.

Rev. Wurmbrand was quick to note that this does not diminish the real need for the hard, slow, copy-by-copy distribution of the Bible inside closed countries that we and our VOM sister missions around the world specialize in. But he felt VOM’s unique contribution to the underground church around the world lay in the distribution of that peculiar form of literature which might be called “ideological evangelism”:

We have to print Bibles. We could not have couriers without this, but we should concentrate our printing on special books: Christianity versus Marxism. No other mission has such books. We have the unanimous witnesses of Christians from behind the Iron Curtain, especially from students and intellectuals, that these are the books they value most because these solve the doubts which Marxist indoctrination has sown in their mind. It must not be only my ‘Answer to Moscow’s Bible’ and ‘Marx Satanist’. Several other authors have written good books on this subject.

To say that we should concentrate on printing and distributing anything other than Bibles in China, North Korea, and other closed countries is likely to yield indignant outcries and stern rebukes (and the least amount of funds raised). But Rev. Wurmbrand never worried about the response of the general public, only the need of the underground church. And with more than 1 billion people still living under Communism today, it’s worth noting that while the Chinese government is getting ready to publish its own Chinese Communist Party edition of the Bible, it has yet to publish any of Rev. Wurmbrand’s books on Communism and Christianity. That remains VOM’s unique contribution to the work of the church globally.

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The New Wave of Christian Persecution in China is Producing a New Wave of North Korean Missionaries from the Most Unusual Backgrounds

2018 marked a new wave of Christian persecution in China–a coordinated, country-wide offensive against the church in both its registered and unregistered forms. One battle in that larger war has been the identification and expulsion of South Korean missionaries. As a result, North Koreans, who have typically learned about Christianity from two sources–Korean missionaries and Chinese churches–have also been caught in the undertow of this persecution tsunami.

Chinese churches were once the primary “stations” on the North Korean underground railroad. It used to be whispered in North Korea that anyone escaping into China should look for a building with a cross on top. There, they were told, someone would help them. And the whisper was true. Now, however, China is tearing the crosses down from these buildings and putting their leaders in prison.

Owing to these twin developments–the expulsion of South Korean missionaries and the desecration of Chinese churches–it would seem increasingly unlikely for North Koreans in China to hear about Jesus.

It would seem that way. But we should never question whether God has a Plan B. He always does. The only question is whether what looks to us like Plan B was in fact the Plan A he intended in the first place.

OUT WITH PLAN A AND IN WITH PLAN B. OR IS IT OUT WITH PLAN B AND IN WITH PLAN A?

In this case, Plan B–which looks and sounds a lot like the kind of Plan A’s one encounters in the Bible and throughout church history–involves ordinary, untrained, and in most cases unbaptized North Koreans who wouldn’t on the face of it appear to know a whole lot of what we would consider essential knowledge of Christianity and thus would appear to us to be unlikely missionaries. However, these unlikely missionaries are increasingly turning up in the most unusual places and encountering God in some of the most unusual ways. And God seems to be using them to do some very unusual missionary work.

Movie Disciples

Much has been reported about North Koreans watching South Korean dramas inside North Korea and how these dramas inspire them to defect to South Korea or desire a more prosperous material life. But more and more we are discovering that North Koreans watching these and other videos are desiring a more spiritual life also. It is a phenomenon we’ve labeled “Movie Discipleship.”

“Movie disciples” are North Koreans who begin to believe in and pray to God because of scenes they see in secular movies and dramas that mention God or Christian themes or which show church buildings or Bibles. Often, these movies are not explicitly Christian and the religion featured in them is an afterthought to most viewers. But for North Koreans, the references to religion are becoming more and more of interest.

Even Indian “Bollywood” movies are stirring North Koreans’ hunger for God.

Indian movies and South Korean dramas sometimes show church buildings, crosses, and pictures of Jesus. A character might even say something like, “I pray to God.” Since North Koreans have never seen these things before, they begin to ask their friends about them. In this way, word begins to spread, in the form of questions.

Voice of the Martyrs Korea has been smuggling Christian materials into North Korea for years, including popular Christian movies with high production values. Even older movies like “The Ten Commandments” or “Ben Hur” are extremely popular with North Koreans. A few years ago we worked together with our sister mission, Voice of the Martyrs US, to make an animated story of the life of Jesus called “He Lived Among Us”, which placed special emphasis on the persecution he faced. Now, ordinary North Koreans  are “re-discovering” these movies, as a spiritual hunger spreads. They’re looking for something more than economic success.

Although many ministries broadcast or smuggle in audio or videos of sermons, our organization finds movies far more effective. A pastor giving a sermon can sometimes seem to North Koreans like a North Korean self-criticism meeting or a Kim Jong Un speech. When the same material is presented as a drama, we’ve found North Koreans are more receptive.

This month Voice of the Martyrs Korea also begin to smuggle into North Korea the new movie Tortured for Christ, the story of Romanian pastor and VOM founder Richard Wurmbrand, who remains faithful to God despite 14 years of torture in a Communist prison. We think ordinary North Koreans will be especially receptive to the movie’s message, since they are wrongly taught in grade school that Christian pastors made Communists suffer. But this movie shows the truth. It shows Christians suffering under Communists but still praying for them and loving them. It’s the kind of thing that is sure to get North Koreans whispering.

BOLD-SPIRIT BOSSES

For years we and our Underground University (UU) North Korean missionary students have evangelized North Korean workers sent abroad to make hard currency for the regime. Typically the biggest impediment to reaching them has been their North Korean labor bosses, who are specially trained to spot people like us.

North Korean labor bosses are different than North Korean labor workers. Their spirits are bold, their actions confident. Their hands are soft, not calloused or scarred. Their eyes are sharp. Their clothes are warm.

So recently, when we were on a missionary trip to reach laborers, we were surprised to be sitting across from just such a bold-spirited, confident, soft-handed, sharp-eyed, warm-clothed man. Our UU student missionary leaned across the table and whispered that this was not a laborer, but a boss.

“He has the power to have someone killed!” the student hissed quietly to us.

Yet, there our student sat, holding the boss’ hand and telling him about God. The only thing more surprising than the UU student’s calm demeanor was the boss’ calm response. He stated, with boldness of spirit, that he already believed in God.

“When I started to doubt whether the North Korean government was doing the right thing, I needed to cling to something bigger and better,” he explained. “I didn’t know that this being was the God of Christianity, but I trusted and believed in him all the same.”

The UU student excitedly briefed the man that the unknown God he was worshiping was actually the Triune God. It was this God, the UU student explained, that had brought us together in order to reveal himself more fully. 

AN UNWISE (AND THUS GOD-BLESSED) MISSION

“Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called,” wrote the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:26-30. “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.”

Who is nullifying whom? To us, it may seem like the Chinese government is nullifying the hard work of many South Korean missionaries and Chinese churches. But Paul says that God himself is the one who nullifies. He nullifies the things that are so that he may nullify our boasting. After eighteen years of North Korea and China ministry, I have learned not to boast about our projects and not to regard anything we do as indispensable, un-nullifiable. If God can raise up children of Abraham from stones, he can certainly raise up North Korean missionaries from Bollywood movies and labor bosses.

Not only can he do this; he already is.

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Richard Wurmbrand’s Marx and Satan: The most relevant book you can read this year

(Here’s an English version of the Foreword I wrote for our new Korean language edition of Rev. Wurmbrand’s book Marx and Satan, to be released in a few weeks. You can find an English language edition of the book here–minus my Foreword, of course.)

What do Marx and Satan have in common?

Some might answer that the commonality is that no one believes in either one anymore, that they are both personages whom the world has outgrown and left behind.

Yet more than one billion people live in countries which continue to officially espouse Marxism, with the largest of those countries, China, emphatically committed to it. The two hundredth anniversary of Marx’s birth in 2018 was marked by supportive popular and scholarly appraisals of his work. A new film portraying Marx’s early years received enthusiastic response worldwide. Even a giant new 4.5-meter tall bronze statue of Marx was erected in the town of his birth—a two-hundredth birthday gift from China.

But Marx’s deepest and most lasting impact may not be on the countries that continue to adhere to his ideology but rather on the countries that opposed it. For in the countries that opposed Marxism—the countries of the so-called “free world”—the cost of overcoming Marxism was that they came to have such faith in their own contrasting system of economics and political rights that they ended up adopting Marx’s central tenet: That human beings no longer need God.

Herein lay the commonality between Marx and Satan and the nature of their shared work–not in the economic system of communism, not in the political system of totalitarianism, not on behalf of one side of the Cold War, but instead in the advocacy of the promise that ultimately captivated the nations on both sides of the Iron Curtain and that holds sway around the world today: You shall be as gods.

Today, statistics show the nations of both sides of the former Iron Curtain to be about equally forgetful of God. Atheism has firmly taken root in all political and economic systems. In fact, what either is or soon will be the largest Christian nation in the world is an officially Marxist nation: China. Lest this suggest that Marxism is somehow compatible with Christianity, it is worth noting that the Chinese church is presently engaged in one of the worst waves of persecution in history as the Communist Party of China seeks to remake Christianity in its own image. Marxism is still not compatible with Christianity, and it is no longer afraid of it. It has seen much of the church around the world brought to heel in our day by Marx’s materialism, and it is more than happy to repeat to the church in China Satan’s standing offer, “All this I will give you, if you will bow down and worship me.”

This is what makes Marx and Satan more relevant today than when it was first published in 1976: In the light of history it is more apparent than ever than Marx and Satan were double agents in the Cold War. Through their partnership which Rev. Wurmbrand details in the book, they ensured that their real work—the work of presenting a world without God as achievable, reasonable, and inevitable—would triumph regardless of which political and economic system actually won. In this way, God imprisoned all—communist and capitalist alike—in disobedience, so that he might have mercy on us all.

But that mercy can only come to us when, as we read this book, we confess, “The times that have now befallen us have come because we—in the West and in the East, in the Communist world as well as the capitalist one—have forgotten God.” As Rev. Wurmbrand would no doubt note were he writing a Foreword for the book today, it was not free market economics that saved us from Marx and Satan, nor was it liberal democracy, nor military strength. It was God.

And it is God who must save us once again from Marx and Satan. We need to read and re-read Pastor Wurmbrand’s book until it is clear to us how deep a partnership these two personages have had. This is not Cold War history. It is about a battle that remains to be fought. Perhaps many will say that no one believes in Marx or Satan anymore. But that likely troubles neither one, since they have always done their main work underground.


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