Meet Five Men Who All Think They’re the Messiah

These men say they’re the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Their disciples agree.

'Surely I am coming soon.’

The Bible’s penultimate verse, prophesying the return of Jesus Christ, has always fascinated me. When is “soon”? And who is “I”? For the past three years I’ve followed seven men who claim to be the Second Coming of Christ (five are shown here). By immersing myself in their revelations and spending time with their disciples, I’ve tried to produce images that illustrate the human longing for faith, meaning, and salvation.

Religion is somewhat mysterious to me, probably because I wasn’t raised with it in Norway. But I’ve always enjoyed reading Scripture, and over the past decade or so my interest in it has grown. I’ve found myself coming back, again and again, to that mysterious line—a promise that Christianity has been waiting nearly 2,000 years to be fulfilled.

MOSES HLONGWANE
also known as The King of Kings, The Lord of Lords, Jesus

In Eshowe, South Africa, Moses Hlongwane preaches to his flock during his own wedding ceremony—an event he says marks the beginning of the End of Days. Moses says that God identified him as the Messiah during a dream in 1992. At the time Moses was working as a jewelry salesman. Since then, he’s preached in Eshowe, Johannesburg, and other cities in the region. Moses has about 40 disciples.

MOSES HLONGWANE’S FOLLOWERS Dozens of disciples listen to their messiah, Moses Hlongwane, as he speaks at his wedding in Eshowe, South Africa. His new wife is one of his most prominent disciples—a woman formerly known as Angel who now goes by the name Mother of the Whole World.

 

If Christ were to come back to complete his work today, I’ve thought, what would he think of the world we’ve created? And what would we think of him? With these thoughts tumbling around in my head, I decided to start looking for messiahs.

I found them the way you find everything these days: through Google. You might think there’d be more people who claim to be Christ. But while many can be called prophets, gurus, or spiritual leaders, only a few meet what I consider the minimum criteria: consistent revelations, years of scriptural records, a following of disciples.


VISSARION
also known as The Christ of Siberia

In an off-the-grid Russian village called Obitel Rassveta (“abode of dawn”), Vissarion sits in the living room of a disciple. Born Sergei Torop, he had a revelation around the time the Soviet Union collapsed that he was Jesus Christ reborn. Founder of the Church of the Last Testament, he now has at least 5,000 followers; many of them live with him in several utopian eco-villages in the Siberian woods. They’ve built their own schools, churches, and society. Vissarion’s proclamations have been published in 16 tomes titled The Last Testament.

VISSARION’S FOLLOWERS These disciples, all vegetarians, share a communal Christmas lunch in Cheremshanka, one of the community’s five villages. Christmas here falls on January 14—Vissarion’s birthday. Celebrations start on the 12th, with a daylong pilgrimage through all of the villages. On Christmas Day thousands of followers gather and ascend to a mountain altar above Obitel Rassveta, after which Vissarion greets the crowd and delivers a short sermon.

VISSARION’S FOLLOWERS In Russia, disciples of Vissarion, aka the Christ of Siberia, walk past the village of Cheremshanka on their annual Christmas pilgrimage. Led by priests carrying a lit candle in a glass box, the followers sing psalms, exchange greetings, and indulge in merrymaking.

Each of these men is unique. The communities that surround them are too. For most people, belief in a higher power is an abstract thing. But for these disciples—most of whom seem highly intelligent; none appear to be brainwashed or crazy—it’s tangible. They can touch their belief.

Wherever I went, I tried to keep an open mind and submerge myself in their reality. One thing I was struck by is how extremely consistent several of these messiahs are. The New Testament is full of contradictions, but each of these men has a narrative that sort of reconciles those inconsistencies. In some ways they’re more coherent than the Scripture we have.


JESUS OF KITWE
also known as Parent Rock of the World, Mr. Faithful, Mr. Word of God

Bupete Chibwe Chishimba sits on a sofa in his home in Kitwe, Zambia. This messiah goes by several names, but his disciples refer to him simply as Jesus. He spends his days driving a cab, spreading the gospel, and preparing the world for the Kingdom of God.

JESUS OF KITWE Jesus of Kitwe walks around a marketplace in the town of Ndola, Zambia, proclaiming the arrival of the Messiah and the End of Days. When he’s not sermonizing, the 43-year-old man named Bupete Chibwe Chishimba wears street clothes, drives a taxi, and lives with his wife and five children in neighboring Kitwe, a copper-mining city with more than half a million inhabitants. This Jesus says he received a revelation from God when he was 24. Shortly after this image was taken, a crowd of churchgoing Christians accused him of blasphemy. When the crowd began to threaten violence, Jesus of Kitwe left in a hurry.

I know a lot of people will dismiss these men as fakers or lunatics. But I’ve always thought that a fundamental part of the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—involves the coming of a messiah. Those faiths may disagree about identity and timing, but I think they agree on the basic premise. So if one accepts that, why couldn’t it be one of these guys?

For me this project has been more about asking questions than finding answers. I hope it will get people to do the same—to think about belief and who has the power to define it.

INRI, BRAZILFour disciples listen to INRI (Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum) as he delivers a prayer sermon from the top of a guardhouse near the main gate of his compound outside Brasília, Brazil.

 

JESUS MATAYOSHI, JAPANalso known as The Only God. In Tokyo, Jesus Matayoshi sermonizes during his most recent campaign for a seat in the Japanese parliament. His scripture is titled How the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, the One True God, Jesus Matayoshi Will Change Japan and the World.

JESUS MATAYOSHI Atop a van in Tokyo, Jesus Matayoshi delivers a fiery sermon as part of his campaign for a seat in the House of Councillors, instructing opponents to commit suicide and threatening hellfire upon transgressors. During two weeks of campaigning in 2016—he’s run in many elections over the past two decades—he drove around Tokyo, spreading his message. Many people ignored him, but he did garner 6,114 votes. Mitsuo Matayoshi was born in Okinawa in 1944. In 1997 he founded the World Economic Community Party, which bases its policies on his identity as Jesus Christ reborn. Jesus Matayoshi says his goal is to bring about the End of Days via the democratic political process, eventually occupying the post of United Nations secretary-general and instituting the will of God on Earth.

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