Jesus is in focus this week. After all, today is Good Friday, the day Jesus was crucified. Sunday is Easter. According to the biblical account, Jesus was nailed to a cross on a Friday and rose again three days later on a Sunday – OK, so that wasn’t three days later, but who’s counting?
According to Christian theology, Jesus will return in the undisclosed future to end the world and judge everyone. That creates a problem. How will we know who He is? After all, the Bible provides no description, nor does anyone else. No one left us a drawing. There are certainly no photos, although someone said recently he saw Jesus’ face on the back of a sting ray.
The best known image of Jesus with flowing hair actually is the image of a Roman god called the Good Shepherd. Scholars who years ago tried to conjure up a depiction based on known physiques of ancient Judea were roundly criticized when their Jesus turned out short and swarthy.
Without a clear description, anyone can claim to be Jesus. A lot of people have over the years, including a few still with us.
In Russia, Sergei Torop has renamed himself Vissarion – his name for the reborn Jesus – and has attracted a number of followers. In Malaysia, Ariffin Mohamed has founded his own commune where worshipers adore, among other things, an over-sized, cream-colored teapot. In Japan, Matayoshi Jesus is readying himself for the last judgment.
Brazil offers Inri Cristo, who has become very familiar with local police. He’s been arrested at least 40 times.
Michael Travessar (real name Wayne Bent) receives believers these days behind bars. Founder of The Lord Our Righteousness Church, he not only claimed the God identified him as the messiah, but directed him to sleep with seven virgins. That heavenly guidance landed Bent in jail when at least two of chosen virgins turned out to be14 and 15 years old.
A few others of recent vintage are now six feet under, including David Koresh, Jim Jones and Marshall Applewhite. None of them died alone. Koresh burned down his Waco, Texas compound when the FBI closed in, killing 75 adults and children. Jones induced about 900 of his followers to take Kool-Aid laced with poison in Guyana, while several dozen faithful committed suicide with Applewhite while waiting for a spaceship supposedly hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet.
Before them, Francis Pencovic founded WKFL Foundation in 1948 to teach “wisdom, knowledge, faith and love.” He created a colony in Ventura, California and “decided he was Christ, dressing accordingly in beard, flowing robes and large cross medallion. He declared he had arrived on earth in a space ship 240,000 years ago,” according to a published account. He was assassinated in 1958.
Some men claiming to be Jesus inflicted a much higher price.
In the eighth century, Abu Isa (father of Jesus) raised an army of 10,000 zealots in the Middle East. The ragtag host decided to take Palestine by force and confronted Caliph Abd al-Malik and his battle-hardened soldiers. The resulting massacre abruptly ended Abu Isa's brief career. His followers, however, said he did not die, but “slipped into a hole in a mountain.”
Centuries later, Hong Xiuquan, who was born in 1814, saw himself as the messiah and quickly found a following among dissatisfied countrymen. They armed themselves and, in 1851, broke into open rebellion. Hong (left) proclaimed the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace with himself as monarch.
Hong’s Taiping army seized Nanjing and drove as far north as Tianjin, but it’s hard for a religion-driven revolution to organize a stable government. Hong was a success as a prophet, but a total failure as a leader. His regime deteriorated under the weight of internal feuds, defections, and corruption. He also was unable to gain international support. Western ambassadors opted to stick with the weak central government rather than risk relationships with the unstable messianic movement.
Eventually, the Chinese army destroyed the revolt, a process that required 14 years. Reportedly, more than 30 million people died, including Hong, amidst the innumerable battles.
Don’t be surprised if future Hong Xiuquans show up. If only one of the Gospel writers had left a complete description. Without it, we are stuck with charlatans who make wild claims. That’s not going to change anytime soon.
After all, if the real Jesus made his long-awaited comeback, how would anyone know?
Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history. He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida. You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com. He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion. His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.