December 20th, 2011
12:17 PM ET

My Take: Kim Jong Il and the danger of deifying leaders

Editor's Note: R. Albert Mohler, Jr., is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the largest seminaries in the world.

By R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Special to CNN

There are no atheists in dictatorships. The death of North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il underlies a basic fact of earthly politics: when a political regime denies any transcendent supernatural reality, it deifies itself.

The communist regime that has been in control of North Korea for over half a century is officially atheistic, following the example of its first protector state, the Soviet Union.

Like the Russian communists, the North Koreans sought to expunge any trace of Christianity or other religious faiths. But make no mistake, this does not mean that the Pyongyang regime did not believe in worship.

To the contrary, the North Korean regime mandated worship, the worship of its own supreme leader.

As Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis explained, North Korea’s founding dictator Kim Il Sung “was allowed to build a Stalinist state, with its own cult of personality centered on himself, at just the time when Khrushchev was condemning such perversions of Marxism-Leninism elsewhere.”

The North Korean cult of personality goes far beyond anything Josef Stalin could have envisioned. Kim Il Sung became known as the Great Leader, the nation’s protector, gifted with supernatural powers.

The Great Leader was said to be able to control the weather with his moods. Kim was credited with saving the North Koreans from “flunkeyism,” or subservience to foreign powers.

All this was backed up with an ideology known as “Jucheism,” which demands total self-sufficiency and isolation for the Korean people. As journalist Jasper Becker observed, Jucheism “served a useful purpose by establishing a national church of Communism” in North Korea.

Indeed, Kim’s regime turned completely inward, eventually forbidding even the reading of works by Marx and Stalin. Kim Il Sung was recast at the center of cosmic history. In Becker’s words, “At this point the propaganda began to veer into the realms of madness by presenting Kim as the Christ-like savior of Korea.”

Kim Il Sung came to be considered a god. He was the “iron-willed brilliant commander,” the “Fatherly Leader” and “the leader who unfolded paradise.” The calendar was reset to start with his birth year. His birthday replaced Christmas. Children were taught to give thanks to the Fatherly Leader before eating meals.

North Koreans were subjected to coerced indoctrination, especially through the schools. They were told that Kim Il Sung was immortal and would never die. Thus, they were unprepared for his death in 1994.

As veteran reporter Barbara Demick recalled about the shock around the death that Kim Il Sung “wasn’t merely the father of their country, their George Washington, their Mao, he was their God.”

Next in line came Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung’s son and chosen successor. Once he had consolidated power, the cult of deification went into full swing. Kim Jong-Il was the deified “Dear Leader” whom North Koreans were commanded to adore and follow.

Like his father, Kim Jong Il constructed a cult of personality that defied imagination. His birth was claimed to have been accompanied by supernatural special effects, heralding his arrival as the infant of destiny.

What did North Koreans receive from the hands of their “Great” and “Dear” leader? Year after year of disastrous harvests followed by starvation. The North Korean regime is among the most paranoid on the planet, and human rights organizations consistently place North Korea’s regimes among the world’s most repressive.

The hermit kingdom of North Korea is largely dark at night, starved of electrical power, and yet the regime has been determined to develop nuclear weapons.

There are important lessons to observe here. A big one is that officially atheistic states are never so atheistic as they appear. Something or someone will be worshipped and acknowledged as ultimate.

If the worship of God is forbidden, the state may well turn its own dictator into a deity. This transforms the leader and the regime into objects of devotion and worship. The state is then beyond all rational critique and consideration.

In other words, citizenship is transformed into idolatry. History records the tragic legacy of idolatrous states, led by despots who range from ancient kings to warlike emperors and delusional Fuhrers.

The worship of the North Korean leaders is not all that different than what the philosopher George W. F. Hegel envisioned when he hoped for the emergence of an authoritarian state that would be “the march of God in the world.”

Friedrich Nietzsche would later reduce the vision for that state to a single individual, an iron-fisted strongman.

Now, Kim Jong Il has been revealed to be, like his father, mortal after all. Waiting in the wings is his own son and chosen successor, Kim Jong On. The North Korean regime has already started the process of deifying Kim Jong On as the third “Fatherly Leader” of the North Korean people.

I expect the consequences to be as disastrous as they were under his father and grandfather.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • North Korea • Opinion

soundoff (765 Responses)
  1. justme48

    Talk about your staged videos- what a joke!

    December 20, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • bill


      December 20, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  2. Dont be that guy

    My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such a violent reaction against it?... Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if i did that, then my argument against God collapsed too–for the argument depended on saying the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus, in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless – I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – namely my idea of justice – was full of sense. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never have known it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.
    C.S. Lewis

    December 20, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • LooneyTunes

      The guy has a twisted sense of logic.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  3. Whoopdeedoo

    Gee what a shock! An atheist deifying themselves... and then demanding others bow to their superiority. Believer or not though, most people are either sheep or pretentious narcissists (usually believer and atheists respectively).

    December 20, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      I hate to tell you this but being an atheist means not accepting the supernatural. Kim proclaimed to be of supernatural origins. No matter how much you stretch the truth, North Korea is an example of the dangerousness of religion.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • LooneyTunes

      Communism is not atheism. Many people don't understand the difference.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • Whoopdeedoo

      Religion is not the problem, it's the blind sheep who follow the every whim of some psychotic zealot or despot. Believer or atheist, if you're a sheep or a power-hungry narcissist, that's the problem.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      What their bigotry refuses to let them understand is that the atrocities committed in the name of religion are called for by the bible whereas atheists have no such laws which guide them. To say that Communism is an atheist system would be even more of a stretch than saying pedophilia is a Christian system.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • Whoopdeedoo

      Like the bigotry shown on these boards by atheists? I've seen plenty of crusade-eqsue ideas from atheists ranging from imprisonment to sterilization to mass murder. It's not just a deist problem, atheists have some horrible and inhuman ideas that are just as horrible as anything done in the name of religion and there are atheists guilty of the same atrocities. It's the unthinking sheep and the pretentious narcissists who are the issue.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      Atheists don't have a church or a set of beliefs. Atheists can do or say what they want and not represent atheism. If they had a set of beliefs or even some kind of reference to a set of beliefs and followed those beliefs to commit atrocities you still couldn't say that atheism is what caused them to do this or that because then they would cease to be atheists and instead be a religion.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Whoopdeedoo

      Except that one does not "cease to be an atheist" by being religious. Religion does not require belief in a deity. One can only "cease to be an atheist" by becoming a deist.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  4. terry

    I love the way they put in the fake feet for the little SOB. He would need to be six ft. in that picture. He was only 5ft. tall, and that was when he was wearing his 6 inch Cuban heel boots. He had little man syndrome for sure.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • bill


      December 20, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  5. Justin

    But deifying a man who supposedly lived two millenia ago, for whom we have no real corroborating evidence for the fact that he ever existed, is OOOOOOOOOOOoooo KAYYYYYYYYYYyyyyyyyyyy

    December 20, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • Reality

      From Professors Crossan and Watts' book, Who is Jesus.

      "That Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, as the Creed states, is as certain as anything historical can ever be.

      “ The Jewish historian, Josephus and the pagan historian Tacitus both agree that Jesus was executed by order of the Roman governor of Judea. And is very hard to imagine that Jesus' followers would have invented such a story unless it indeed happened.

      “While the brute fact that of Jesus' death by crucifixion is historically certain, however, those detailed narratives in our present gospels are much more problematic. "

      “My best historical reconstruction would be something like this. Jesus was arrested during the Passover festival, most likely in response to his action in the Temple. Those who were closest to him ran away for their own safety.

      I do not presume that there were any high-level confrontations between Caiaphas and Pilate and Herod Antipas either about Jesus or with Jesus. No doubt they would have agreed before the festival that fast action was to be taken against any disturbance and that a few examples by crucifixion might be especially useful at the outset. And I doubt very much if Jewish police or Roman soldiers needed to go too far up the chain of command in handling a Galilean peasant like Jesus. It is hard for us to imagine the casual brutality with which Jesus was probably taken and executed. All those "last week" details in our gospels, as distinct from the brute facts just mentioned, are prophecy turned into history, rather than history remembered."

      See also Professor Crossan's reviews of the existence of Jesus in his other books especially, The Historical Jesus and also Excavating Jesus (with Professor Jonathan Reed doing the archeology discussion) .

      Other NT exegetes to include members of the Jesus Seminar have published similar books with appropriate supporting references.

      Part of Crossan's The Historical Jesus has been published online at books.google.com/books.

      There is also a search engine for this book on the left hand side of the opening page. e.g. Search Josephus

      See also Wikipedia's review on the historical Jesus to include the Tacitus' reference to the crucifixion of Jesus.

      From ask.com,

      "One of the greatest historians of ancient Rome, Cornelius Tacitus is a primary source for much of what is known about life the first and second centuries after the life of Jesus. His most famous works, Histories and Annals, exist in fragmentary form, though many of his earlier writings were lost to time. Tacitus is known for being generally reliable (if somewhat biased toward what he saw as Roman immorality) and for having a uniquely direct (if not blunt) writing style.

      Then there are these scriptural references:

      Crucifixion of Jesus:(1) 1 Cor 15:3b; (2a) Gos. Pet. 4:10-5:16,18-20; 6:22; (2b) Mark 15:22-38 = Matt 27:33-51a = Luke 23:32-46; (2c) John 19:17b-25a,28-36; (3) Barn. 7:3-5; (4a) 1 Clem. 16:3-4 (=Isaiah 53:1-12); (4b) 1 Clem. 16.15-16 (=Psalm 22:6-8); (5a) Ign. Mag. 11; (5b) Ign. Trall. 9:1b; (5c) Ign. Smyrn. 1.2.- (read them all at wiki.faithfutures. Crucifixion org/index.php/005_Crucifixion_Of_Jesus )

      Added suggested readings:

      o 1. Historical Jesus Theories, earlychristianwritings.com/theories.htm – the names of many of the contemporary historical Jesus scholars and the ti-tles of their over 100 books on the subject.
      2. Early Christian Writings, earlychristianwritings.com/
      – a list of early Christian doc-uments to include the year of publication–
      30-60 CE Passion Narrative
      40-80 Lost Sayings Gospel Q
      50-60 1 Thessalonians
      50-60 Philippians
      50-60 Galatians
      50-60 1 Corinthians
      50-60 2 Corinthians
      50-60 Romans
      50-60 Philemon
      50-80 Colossians
      50-90 Signs Gospel
      50-95 Book of Hebrews
      50-120 Didache
      50-140 Gospel of Thomas
      50-140 Oxyrhynchus 1224 Gospel
      50-200 Sophia of Jesus Christ
      65-80 Gospel of Mark
      70-100 Epistle of James
      70-120 Egerton Gospel
      70-160 Gospel of Peter
      70-160 Secret Mark
      70-200 Fayyum Fragment
      70-200 Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs
      73-200 Mara Bar Serapion
      80-100 2 Thessalonians
      80-100 Ephesians
      80-100 Gospel of Matthew
      80-110 1 Peter
      80-120 Epistle of Barnabas
      80-130 Gospel of Luke
      80-130 Acts of the Apostles
      80-140 1 Clement
      80-150 Gospel of the Egyptians
      80-150 Gospel of the Hebrews
      80-250 Christian Sibyllines
      90-95 Apocalypse of John
      90-120 Gospel of John
      90-120 1 John
      90-120 2 John
      90-120 3 John
      90-120 Epistle of Jude
      93 Flavius Josephus
      100-150 1 Timothy
      100-150 2 Timothy
      100-150 T-itus
      100-150 Apocalypse of Peter
      100-150 Secret Book of James
      100-150 Preaching of Peter
      100-160 Gospel of the Ebionites
      100-160 Gospel of the Nazoreans
      100-160 Shepherd of Hermas
      100-160 2 Peter

      3. Historical Jesus Studies, faithfutures.org/HJstudies.html,
      – "an extensive and constantly expanding literature on historical research into the person and cultural context of Jesus of Nazareth"
      4. Jesus Database, faithfutures.org/JDB/intro.html–"The JESUS DATABASE is an online annotated inventory of the traditions concerning the life and teachings of Jesus that have survived from the first three centuries of the Common Era. It includes both canonical and extra-canonical materials, and is not limited to the traditions found within the Christian New Testament."
      5. Josephus on Jesus mtio.com/articles/bissar24.htm
      6. The Jesus Seminar, mystae.com/restricted/reflections/messiah/seminar.html#Criteria
      7. Writing the New Testament- mystae.com/restricted/reflections/messiah/testament.html
      8. Health and Healing in the Land of Israel By Joe Zias
      9. Economics in First Century Palestine, K.C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus, Fortress Press, 1998.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • .........

      from the book of common sense hit report abuse on all reality bull sh it

      December 20, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • Ignor

      I am just surprised that Reality was able to learn quickly how to navigate in this forum and understand how to cut and paste from the Internet. As ignorant that person seems it is very surprising.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
  6. DisgruntledElf

    Communism has given us invasions, purges, pogroms, torture, mass imprisonment and death, all in the name of a baseless ideology–yes, just like religion. has

    However, Communism has yet to give us anything nearly so nice as a magical flying fat man who gives away free toys.

    Maybe in a few milennia Joseph Stalin will have become a solstice myth as well (HE SEES YOU WHEN YOU'RE SLEEPING. HE KNOWS WHEN YOU'RE AWAKE.) But for now, ADVANTAGE: RELIGION

    December 20, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      Atheists don't pray to a dear leader. Your kind do.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  7. CaptainObvious

    I love how religion is (according to a few) the world's "greatest evil." But when faced with the objective evidence of a true godless society staring them in the face, all the nonbelievers point the finger at communism. I hate to state the obvious, but social mores, norms and values dirve the political reality, not the other way around. The tail has not (and does not) wag the dog so to speak.

    Religion the bane of human existence? Atheism is the crusade of the enlightened? I think not. Delude yourselves a little more, people...and then truely have the courage to see things the way they really are.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      Even the religious man who wrote this article conceded the FACT that Kim's dictatorship is akin to a religion where Kim is of supernatural origins. Your comment holds no water. You are the one who is in denial.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • Football Jesus


      December 20, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • CaptainObvious

      Atheism is a religion my friend.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      Atheism is not a religion and not one person has ever proved otherwise.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • LooneyTunes

      Communism is not atheism.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • Whoopdeedoo

      Religion: A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe and/or a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects. Atheism fits. And atheist zealots are as detrimental to society as are deist zealots.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      So show me the church of Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Neuroscience, Psychology...... You are reaching and obviously poorly educated.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      So because atheists are somewhat in agreement that they don't know what the purpose is then they all agree on the purpose of the universe, which they don't know, they are a religion? LOL Atheism is not a religion just like not collecting stamps is not a hobbie.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      Yikes! Hobby.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • Whoopdeedoo

      Can't access Google? Just search for atheist churches or groups. While I still would classify atheism as it's own religion (atheism is a disbelief in deities not religions by the way), I'll reform my statement so you can settle down a bit. There are religious atheists. They are just as fanatical, irrational and dangerous and their deist counterparts.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  8. Across12

    I hope this god to rest in pieces.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  9. Chris

    North Korea is a prime example of when atheists gain absolute power. History has shown through the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, and Cambodia what happens when atheists are in total control. Loss of basic freedoms, death, economic decline and purging of the human spirit.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • SFC Mike

      Let's not forget "Christian" despots., monarchs and dictatorial leaders like those who brought us the crusades, the inquisition, etc., or such modern luminaries as Franco, Stroessner, et al. The Romans were hardly atheistic, but also deified leaders, first after death, then when the quality of Caesars went downhill after Augustus, a number of Caesars deified them selves while alive. The issue here is not theism or atheism, it is cult of personality dictatorship.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • Tim

      Absolutely not. This is the effect of commumism and huge egos. What do you have to say about Sweeden? It's 85% atheist.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  10. ODA155

    "Opinion: N. Korean leaders as gods"... The God of bad hair praised his disciple Donald Trump.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
  11. nick2

    As Marx so correctly said – 'Religion is the Opium of the people'

    December 20, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • CaptainObvious

      Yeah, because Marx has been spot on about a great many things. 🙂 Marx was more of a self-deluded, brain-washed lunatic than all of the people in that video combined.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  12. Football Jesus

    The point that the author is trying to make is that in the absence of God people will worship something. Wheather that be a goofy political leader, money, celebrities, sports teams, significant others, or simply themselves.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • leelanau

      Something akin to that "Warhol knock-off" Obama iconography....who paid for that, anyway?

      December 20, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
  13. Across12

    North Korea is a nation of born imbeciles, so I suggest we should move on to more interesting things to be covered by the media and leave them in their own juice hopefully in the end they will slaughter each other.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • Melissa

      It's not entirely their fault. They've been brained washed for a very long time.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  14. Sum Yung Hun Guy

    You all are a bunch of idiots. And if I were the 'god-in-charge' in North Korea, you'd all be in trouble.......

    December 20, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • just sayin

      If you were the god-in-charge wouldn't you be ti ts up right about now?

      December 20, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
  15. HermanPain

    Opinion: U.S. leaders as Gods

    December 20, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  16. Comrade

    The man was the leader of a nation and should be mourned at his passing. Now everyone, please repeat after me... Oompa loompa doompa do dee, Ive got another story for thee. Oompa loompa doompa dee dell, take this worthless piece of garbage to ... well you get the idea..

    December 20, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  17. lightandshadow

    Mohler: There are important lessons to observe here. A big one is that officially atheistic states are never so atheistic as they appear. Something or someone will be worshipped and acknowledged as ultimate.

    A state or government that has no religious affiliation need not also be a dictatorship. It's unclear why these two things are always assumed to be the same.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • Lomez

      No religious affiliation and systematic, state-sponsored rejection of any and all religion are not one and the same, at all.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  18. Jeebus $aves

    Religion is mental illness.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • leelanau

      I'll pray for you, so that you can be released from the bondage of your prejudice and hatred.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • Make a Donation and you'll have Salvation

      It's mental weakness, not illness. Calling for help in times of weakness is human nature and religion prays on this. That is why missionaries flock to poor countries, its there easiest opportunity to gather more followers.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:35 pm |

    If Truman had listened to MacArthur we probably would not be discussing this. On the other hand, no one might not be discussing anything except through chapped lips.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  20. mitch glass


    December 20, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.