And then if any man shall say to you, Lo, here is Christ; or, lo, he is there;
believe him not: For false Christs and false prophets shall rise, and shall shew signs and wonders, to seduce, if it were possible, even the elect. But take ye heed: behold, I have foretold you all things
Is this dramatic picture a depiction of great religious fervor and piety? An inspiring glimpse into a reenactment of the earthly ministry of Christ somewhere in some religious theme park in Florida? Is it a photo snapped at some church pageant playing in Peoria? Could it be part of some Christian passion play in which a long haired actor portrays Jesus Christ before a modern audience before he takes the robes and sandals off and goes home to eat pizza and help his kids do their homework?
Nope. The reality is considerably different, yet hardly unique.
It's a picture taken of a Russian man calling himself Vissarion, a former KGB agent and traffic cop who, since 1989, openly claims to be Jesus Christ Himself, denying that he is God incarnate and preaching to his spellbound flocks a gospel tinged with New Age universalism as well as a stringent call for retreat from a fallen world not of their sect, the "Church Of The Last Testament". His followers embrace a discipline of simple, communal life among other believers where the "Word of Vissarion," several volumes of his personal teaching, become their focus for spiritual life. And thousands have flocked to his Siberian stronghold mostly from Russia but from Europe and Asia as well to assume his discipline and worship him daily. According to many reports, between 4 to 5,000 followers live in 40 small villages within a few hours drive of his mountain home where he lives in simplicity, preaches, receives visitors and paints. He's started to travel around the world in preaching tours to spread his Word and his sect grows daily.
It is at once obvious that Vissarion's great draw lies in his public persona as a robed, long haired and bearded sage whose beatific smile, calm personal magnetism and inspirational oratory play to the Christ ideal firmly entrenched in popular Russian society for centuries thanks to the Russian Orthodox Church and more recently, Western and home grown Evangelical influences. For many of the millions who have been sensitized to these concepts of a Savior named Jesus who came to deliver the suffering from their sins and the madness of the world, this vision is compellingly embodied in Vissarion's self-representation and preaching that exhorts love for all, virtuous life of restraint and renunciation of the outer world. With their spiritual sensitivities aroused, they readily become the itinerant support systems for preachers and prophets of all philosophical and spiritual stripes.
But what seems to become the inevitable hook for Vissarion's followers that goes way beyond his Bible costume persona is his teaching that prophecies a soon coming transformation of mankind that resonates with the spiritual ideals many of them held that were nurtured by global mysticism and New Age evolutionary theory that has arisen in these postchristian times. He teaches that salvation for mankind can only begin with "the emergence of a single field of conscience in the whole human society on earth. This is an important condition for full-scale development. The task now is to immediately articulate a new doctrine for all people." (This quote is taken from the first link in this paragraph to an interview held with Vissarion)
This is precisely the kind of nebulous metaphysical singsong that has echoed throughout pop spirituality since the advent of an occult revival in the West. It plays in the Peorias of personal longing for a world free of war, hatred, pain, fear and want .. and it has become a smash hit for many a weary man and woman with spiritual sensitivities seeking a Savior, however they defined "him" .. which Vissarion readily does for them. After redefining His "first incarnation" without any reference to an atoning death for the world, Vissarion says he's now returned to begin the next phase of divine revelation, one that involves the creation of a "a micro-community .. that will be able to become the foundation of a bigger society, a new civilization of the future." In short, Vissarion preaches the development of a Utopian society similar to the Oneida, Shaker, Bruderhof and Moravian Herrnhut communities that will spiritually transform the darkened world around them by spiritual osmosis.
And those same thousands think this is just swell, flocking to his spiritual communities in Siberia to live off the land in shacks, giving all of their earthly wealth and possessions up to Vissarion's ever receptive hand, and praising him as the second incarnation of Christ, cheerfully oblivious to the fact that the Christ of the Bible is a unique incarnation of God as the Son, not another fleshly creation he set up shop within. Reports of extremism in the movement have surfaced that suggest that the usage of all too well known tools of social control in new religious movements could be employed and yet cannot be substantiated. Only investigation and monitoring of the movement, as well as interviews with members who do leave, could provide any clues and frankly, it would not be a surprise if it was going on. Human nature is the same everywhere.
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary, posits that the kind of unfeigned fervor expressed by Vissarion's flocks was to be expected. In the midst of a materialistic and hardscrabble post-Soviet society impoverished of spiritual and moral foundations, people seeking meaning and hope for otherwise empty lives will gravitate towards those who exhibit the irresistable "works of the spirit." For those sickened by the hypocrisy, cruelty and dehumanizing conditions of modern society, the convicting argument for their truth claims seen in their chaste, sober and simple lives become what she calls "a sturdy guideline" that they swallow wholeheartedly. The old saying that a man with an experience will confound the man with an argument everytime holds true here. And Biblical illiteracy doesn't help either. With no other objective source of truth, the dynamic power of personal charisma will seize the masses every time.
Oh, and it helps when all time in the Vissarion communities is measured from Vissarion's birthday to keep your sense of reality where he thinks it should be - meaning that it is actually the year 48, since he turned 47 in January.
Click here to watch and read an ABC report on Vissarion .. most fascinating .. and sobering.
Such overweaning megalomania doesn't bode well for the Church of the Last Testament. I fear that, hidden behind the rustic simplicity of naked, child like faith that propels the talents and destinies of thousands into community building, the potential for the creation of a spiritual hothouse answerable to no one is off the charts. The most scrupulous and observable morality and chastity has a tendency of becoming the most inpenetrable and inscrutable cloak to unspeakable evil before the eyes of those who don't want to see it (see "Germany, Nazi" in your history books). Prayer that the power of God's Word and Spirit will somehow find its way into the obsessive attentions of Vissarion's followers to turn them back to Him is certainly needed by all who care about these misguided people.
But remember, as Jesus Himself said .. false Christs will arise in the last days. He said they would arise and deceive many. And remember also that I said that Vissarion is hardly a unique character. There's no shortage of messiahs, prophets and cranks today who have created their own cults of personality or full blown religions that have targetted the Christian church and the idealist for their own ends. Sun Myung Moon, the octogenerian founder of the Unification Church cult is one such character who is known as the "Lord Of The Second Advent" but there's always been room for one too many of these frauds: click here to see a photo gallery of recent pretenders to the crown of the true King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
The unimaginably vast multiplication of these spiritual deceivers is a frightening fulfillment that what the real Jesus Christ prophecied in Mark 13 would happen IS happening. Those who gaze upon these developments and don't feel even one touch of icy conviction that we now live in some of the most perilous spiritual times in history are either spiritually naive, wilfully ignorant or someone who needs to repent and do their first works of submission to Christ all over again.
Remember, Jesus said it would be like this ..