Stephen Spielberg’s impressive alternate reality film “Ready Player One” dominated the international box office on Easter weekend. Spielberg only lost the top spot in one country — Brazil, where a religious film beat it. The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God released a film about its founder, Edir Macedo, “Nada a Perder,” and according to media reports, the church bought out theaters in order to dethrone the Spielberg film.
While the church has a traditional trinitarian Christian belief statement on its website, evangelical Christians have warned against conflating the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God with traditional Christianity. Church services are replete with exorcisms, requests for money, and promises that believers will become rich. The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God has even gotten wrapped up in various crimes, such as child abduction from Portugal, charlatanism, and extorting money for miracles.
Sam Masters, a missionary graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary, warned against conflating this church with evangelicalism. “Now the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a Brazilian cult, is gaining ground. This group combines elements of neo-Pentecostalism and fetishism,” Masters told The Gospel Coalition.
Masters warned that the “cult” has spread into the United States and the United Kingdom. “This cult has had numerous problems with the law and most people aren’t well enough informed to distinguish it from historic evangelicals,” the missionary said.
The church’s film, “Nada a Perder,” which translates to “Nothing to Lose,” sold 2.3 million tickets, bringing in 26.6 million reais ($8 million). “Ready Player One,” however, which raked in $186 million globally, only made 7.1 million reais in Brazil.
More than 650 theaters across Brazil showed “Nada a Perder,” but local media outlets reported that many auditoriums that were supposed to be sold out were in fact nearly empty, Bloomberg’s R.T. Watson reported. Newspapers reported that the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God purchased tickets in order to inflate interest, and then sent pastors to the streets, giving tickets away at no cost to tempt civilians to watch the film.
The church released a statement before the movie opened, attacking any claims about inflated sales as “fake news.” This very report seems to undercut the church’s message, however. Local media had reported similar moves when the church’s previous hit, “Os Dez Mandamentos” (“The Ten Commandments”), came out in 2016.
At one particular afternoon matinee in Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday, Bloomberg reported that while 90 tickets had been sold — almost all of which fit in the four front rows — only 10 attendees were seated as the film began.
“Nada a Perder” is based on a 2012 book by the same title and represents the first of three movies about Universal Church of the Kingdom of God founder Edir Macedo. The first movie seems to focus on the eleven days Macedo spent in prison on charges of charlatanism in 1992.
Macedo and his brother-in-law R.R. Soares founded the church in Rio de Janeiro in 1977. The founder converted to evangelical Christianity at a Pentecostal church and met Soares in 1968. Macedo wanted to become a minister at that church, but was not accepted by its leaders, and so switched denominations.
At another church, Soares and Macedo witnessed demon possession and exorcism, but again Macedo was denied the opportunity to become a pastor while Soares was ordained. In 1975, Soares and Macedo started the Cruzada do Caminho Eterno, an embryo of the Universal Church.
In 1977, Macedo rented the building of a former funeral home, which began the rift between him and Soares, who thought the rent on this space too high. After a clash over the hiring of pastors from outside the denomination, Macedo effectively ousted Soares.
Bloomberg called “Nada a Perder” an “evangelical biopic,” but given the history of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, and reports that it preaches prosperity theology and engages in exorcism and other questionable practices, it seems Sam Masters may have been right to call it a “cult.” After all, what kind of church releases a three-part film series about the founder of the church, while he is still alive?
Prosperity gospel theology twists the Bible to teach that Christianity is about claiming things for yourself and making money. Contrary to this teaching, the Bible makes no such promises. Jesus in fact promised persecution for His disciples, and urged them to store up treasure in heaven by giving their money to help the poor.
Whether or not the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God is a heretical “cult,” it did indeed steal the top box office spot in Brazil from Stephen Spielberg’s blockbuster, artificially or otherwise.
Watch a trailer for “Nada a Perder” below.