Can you spot a fake? History’s cavalcade of self-styled messiahs continues to the present day. Ed Dickerson shares the Bible’s tips on what to look out for.
Ed DickersonMar 20, 2023, 12:46 AM
Four ATF agents have been killed, and several others wounded in a raid on a compound called ‘Mount Carmel,’ near Waco, Texas.” The reporter went on, but I didn’t hear him. My mind went back to car rides on rainy afternoons when I was six or seven years old. Rainy afternoons, because my father was a carpenter and rain generally brought his work to a halt. When that happened, he often took us for a drive.
We lived in Waco at the time, and we would often drive past a low hill just outside of town that had been painstakingly terraced, “by hand,” my father always emphasised. And it was said that there were benches on top, because that was “Mount Carmel,” where a local religious group, the Shepherd’s Rod, believed Christ would come to Earth. When He did, they’d be waiting on those benches.
It caused a crisis in the group when their so-called prophet, Victor Houteff, died—he had claimed that he would live until the Second Coming. Some of his followers left the group, disillusioned, taking their financial support with them. Those who remained sold some land, and contracted my father to build houses on what had been their peach orchards. A few years later, we moved away, and I lost track of the group.
The raid on the Mount Carmel centre in 1993, and the 51-day siege that followed, brought them forcefully back to my attention.
Through many twists and turns, the group had eventually spawned a new leader, and this one, a man calling himself David Koresh, claimed to be “the Son of God, the Lamb,” both titles used in the Bible to refer to Jesus.
When Koresh and 75 followers—21 of them children—perished in a fire at the compound, I felt profound grief. The tragedy reminded me of the fate of other self-proclaimed messiahs.
In the 1970s, Jim Jones claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, Pharaoh Akhenaten, Buddha, Lenin and African-American spiritual leader Father Divine. His People’s Temple grew rapidly in attendance, resources and political influence, until it all came crashing down on November 18, 1978. When his cult, which had relocated to Guyana, was threatened with exposure, Jones led his followers into mass murder/suicide. They drank cyanide, flavoured to help it go down easier. To this day the American expression “they drank the Kool-Aid” is used disparagingly to refer to wide-eyed disciples who swallow propaganda whole—political ideologies, health fads, wealth-creation strategies or, indeed, religious teachings.
A scant four years after the Mount Carmel disaster, Marshall Applewhite, who also claimed to be the reincarnation of Christ, committed suicide in California along with 38 of his Heaven’s Gate followers. They believed they would be resurrected and transported to an alien spaceship that followed in the wake of the Hale-Bopp comet.
Three would-be messiahs. Three obscure cults. Three tragedies, resulting in more than 1000 deaths, and all in my lifetime.
But there have been many more. Wikipedia lists as many as 20 individuals in the 20th century alone who claimed to be Jesus Christ (see below). At least six more have made the claim since 2000.
Spot the difference
It’s not a new phenomenon. The Bible mentions at least two individuals, apart from Jesus, who claimed to be the messiah in New Testament times, and Jesus warned His followers that there would be more. “Watch out that no-one deceives you,” He said, “for many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and will deceive many” (Matthew 24:4, 5) And that’s not all: He also said that “many false prophets will appear and deceive many people” (verse 11).
It’s deeply troubling. Yes, the Bible says Jesus will return: “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back!” (Acts 1:11). That’s good news indeed! News we can’t afford to ignore! But how can we be sure we’ll recognise Him amid the cavalcade of messianic pretenders? After all, the vast majority who saw Him personally in the first century didn’t recognise Him as the Messiah. In fact, the very custodians of the ancient Hebrew prophecies about the Messiah—the priests, scholars and most of the Jewish leaders—not only did not recognise Jesus as Messiah, they explicitly rejected Him!
If popular culture has a “picture” of the antichrist—a false messiah—he or she would be a menacing figure, obviously evil. But that doesn’t match the Bible’s portrayal of this counterfeit Christ. Neither does it match our experience. Most of those who died following false messiahs were sincere—they truly believed the person they were following was indeed a holy man, because he appeared to exhibit some real attributes of goodness. David Koresh could preach spellbinding sermons. Jim Jones worked with the poor and needy, feeding the hungry in a soup kitchen, promoting racial equality in the early 1960s—before the Civil Rights movement became widespread—and receiving a Martin Luther King Jr humanitarian award in 1977, scarcely a year before the mass suicide.
In fact, that is what we should expect. The only way a false messiah can deceive people is to at least appear to be good. The apostle Paul affirmed this idea: “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 11:14, 15). In addition, the book of Revelation predicts that, as this planet approaches its end, someone will come who can perform “great signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to the earth in full view of the people,” and because of those miraculous deeds, he “deceived the inhabitants of the earth” (Revelation 13:13, 14).
The real deal
It’s very frightening, really. If a false messiah can perform miracles—bring fire down from heaven—and appear to be righteous, how can we tell whether he’s real or not? Actually, Jesus left us clear instructions on this matter.
First of all, the two angels who spoke to the disciples just after Jesus’ ascension to heaven provided an excellent clue. They said that Jesus would “come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). In other words, they saw Him go up into the clouds, and He will be seen coming back in a similar manner. The book of Revelation confirms this: “Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him” (Revelation 1:7). Jesus Himself was at pains to make this clear to His disciples. He told them that when He returned, “all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:30).
Not only will Jesus’ return be seen by everyone in the world, but He will be heard as well. The apostle Paul described it this way: “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). This echoed Jesus’ words to His disciples in Matthew 24:31: “And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.”
Even those who are deaf and blind won’t be able to ignore the earthquake that will occur when the real Messiah returns. But I’ve failed to mention one of the most important events that will occur when Jesus returns. Those who died trusting Christ will rise from their graves, and with His living followers will be gathered to Him. “The dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17). “We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” At the same time, the wicked will be destroyed by the brightness of His coming (2 Thessalonians 1:8, KJV).
That’s why Jesus warned us not to go into the desert or some secret place, following rumours of His appearance (Matthew 24:23, 26). His return will be impossible to miss. Heeding that simple warning could have saved people from following David Koresh, Jim Jones or Marshall Applewhite, all of whom began their movements in relative secrecy. They brought no-one to life and instead led many to death; the world noted their departure, but very few witnessed their arrival.
Has Jesus already returned? If you have to ask that question, the answer must be “No!” When Jesus returns, it will be a worldwide event. Every eye will see Him, every ear will hear the trumpet sound, all will feel the quaking earth. The righteous dead will rise, and with all the living they’ll witness the Lord’s triumphant return.
More messiahs . . .
They’re media personalities, hippies and police officers. They spruik everything from permaculture to prayer to warnings about the reptilian hybrids who secretly live among us.
Charles Manson — His entry into San Francisco’s 1960s drugs and “free love” scene spiralled into race hate against African-Americans and Manson’s claims to be Jesus. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in connection with nine high profile murders carried out by his followers in 1969. Denied parole multiple times he died last year at the age of 83.—news.com.au
José Luis de Jesús Miranda — de Jesús was a Baptist pastor in Puerto Rico until a 1973 vision where, he said, Jesus of Nazareth became one with him. He began preaching and broadcasting, claiming 30 million followers by 2008. Paradoxically, he said was the Anti-Christ as well as Christ, using 666 as a key symbol. His prediction of a 2012 “Transformation Day” failed. He died in 2013.—Wikipedia
Inri Cristo — Prompted by a voice he says he’s heard since childhood, Inri first proclaimed himself to be connected with Nostradamus at the age of 21. Ten years later, in 1979, the voice told him he was Jesus Christ, prompting an international tour to usher in a new age of peace. He lives an apparently celibate life in a Brasilia compound with mostly female disciples and often speaks on topics such as capitalism, abortion and the threat of World War III.—Wikipedia/National Geographic
Goel Ratzon — Living in Israel with 21 women he considered his wives, Ratzon convinced them that he was the saviour of the world and had supernatural powers. He fathered 38 children with the women and was arrested after a TV exposé alleged criminal behaviour. In 2014, a Tel Aviv court found 64-year-old Ratzon guilty of multiple sexual offences against the women and girls in his household and sentenced him to 30 years in prison.—Haaretz
David Icke — After involvement with a psychic, the former third division English footballer, sports broadcaster and Greens Party spokesperson received a revelation in 1991 that he was a “Son of the Godhead.” Icke is concerned that many prominent people in politics, entertainment and the media—particularly those of Jewish ancestry—are in fact shape-shifting humanoid reptiles from the Draco constellation who are conspiring against humanity.—Wikipedia/The Independent
David Shayler — He accepts David Icke’s claims of divine influence, but says Icke is more like John the Baptist while he, Shayler, is the genuine messiah. A former MI5 officer who sometimes dresses as a woman, Shayler has made highly publicised claims about illegal activities in the UK’s intelligence agencies and says the 9/11 attacks were a conspiracy. He says he can affect the weather, prevent terrorist attacks and influence football scores.—Daily Mail/The Guardian
Vissarion — At least 5000 people live in five remote Siberian eco-villages under the banner of the Church of the Last Testament. The church’s founder, former traffic cop Vissarion, says it was revealed to him around 1990 that he is Jesus Christ reborn. He teaches vegetarianism and reincarnation. The community he leads aims to build a society of peace and ecological balance away from the threats of the future.—National Geographic
Mitsuo Matayoshi — Standing regularly (and unsuccessfully) in various Japanese elections, Matayoshi is the founder of a political party as well as claiming to be Jesus Christ reborn. His ultimate ambition is to be UN Secretary-General; from that position he will institute God’s will on earth and bring about the end of days.—National Geographic
Alan John Miller — Admirer of early 20th century medium James Padgett, Miller believes he is Jesus Christ, still living on the earth after 2000 years. His wife, Mary Suzanne Luck, is Mary Magdalene. Together they lead the Divine Truth organisation in Kingaroy, Queensland, which emphasises prayer as a means to find an emotional connection with God. Miller warns of the threat of massive floods or tidal waves.—Divine Truth/Wikipedia
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