Sun Myung Moon, who died last week at the age of 92, assumed many roles in life—media mogul, real estate developer, tax cheat, freelance diplomat. But for members of the church he founded, it’s clear which was most important: messiah. After all, Moon was more than just the founder of the Unification Church; he was also, according to church members, its divinely-appointed savior. “God appointed him through Jesus,” Heather Thalheimer, the church’s director of education and ministry development, told me.
So in addition to the institutional questions raised by Moon’s death—his children will now conduct church and business matters; In-jin Moon, one of his daughters, will lead as the senior pastor of American church—it’s fair to wonder about the potential spiritual dilemmas. How, exactly, have members of the Unification Church made sense of their messiah’s death?
According to the doctrine of the Unification Church, Moon was the incarnation of Christian duty to take up Adam and Eve’s unfinished business of returning to Eden. Moon outlined this responsibility, which lies at the heart of the faith he founded, in his book The Divine Principle. (Jesus, Thalheimer says, appeared before Moon on Easter morning in 1936—when he was only 16 years old—to ask him to fulfill his mission.) The book explains that Jesus was on the fast track to marriage before he was killed, and that it was Moon’s responsibility to ensure that the Kingdom of Heaven is restored on Earth. One of the primary methods by which he pursued that mission was through a series of “blessing” ceremonies, which later became a synonym for mass weddings presided over by Moon himself.
Still, Moon was never meant to be understood as Jesus’ equivalent or God’s son. “We understand that [Moon] as the messiah is not synonymous with the person of Jesus Christ, but rather that it describes a God given ‘mission’ to restore humankind,” Thalheimer said. Followers believe that Jesus served as the messiah until Moon took up the role as the second coming, approximately 2,000 years later. “The second coming of the lord is not the physical return of Jesus Christ,” she added, “but the anointing of a person who inherits the mission of the messiah.”
Thalheimer said that although Moon is gone (his funeral, or Seonghwa, is scheduled for September 15 in Gyeonggi at a site members describe as the church’s “holy land”), the Church’s religious doctrine will likely remain unchanged. God is still the object of their prayers, not Moon. He won’t be reincarnated. And rather than any particular spiritual ceremonies commemorating Moon’s death, there have been more prosaically sentimental gestures: Loved ones, for instance, have remembered him by singing his favorite songs, including “Danny Boy.”
And followers try not to mourn very much, either. “We try not to be too sad,” Thalheimer said. “You don’t want to hold him back from his eternal life.”