Magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen spent three years photographing men who publicly claim to be the biblical Messiah. He shot seven guys in total – from England, Brazil, Russia, South Africa, Zambia, Japan and the Philippines – all of whom share the belief that they, individually, are the Chosen One.
Some spread their message using Facebook and YouTube, like Brazil's Inri Cristo, who has his disciples cover songs like Rihanna's "Umbrella" to recruit younger followers. Some have supporters all over the world helping them translate sermons and scriptures. Others have barely any help.
Of course, essentially saying "I am the reincarnation of Jesus Christ" has drawn eye-rolls and incredulous laughs the world over. And yet, billions of Christians do believe in the Second Coming – the Bible prophesied as much in its last lines. Which begs the question: how can these believers be 100 pertain certain that one of these guys isn't their man? Are these Christians making the same mistake others did 2,000 years ago, in not recognising the Messiah? And how would Christians recognise the Messiah today?
I called up Bendiksen to learn more about the "Messiahs" he photographed for his upcoming book, The Last Testament. We talked about the above questions, modern miracles and what kind of backlash the men have faced since proclaiming to be Christ reincarnated.
VICE: What was the idea behind photographing seven men claiming to be the Messiah?
Jonas Bendiksen: I've always been a slave to scientific method and logic and reason. I wanted to explore religion, and I realised, 'Wow, I can actually go and meet Jesus himself, and, in a way, I can touch him and feel him and I can ask him questions and get some answers.'
So did you set out to find the Second Coming?
Well, I've always been fascinated about how the Bible ends. The Christian scripture as we know it – almost the very last line of the New Testament – is this prophecy of His return. That's how the story ends. It's this mysterious open ending. And then you read the writings of Paul and Paul's letters. He and his contemporaries were utterly convinced that [Jesus] was going to come back in their lifetime. And now, 2,000 years later…
What did you initially think about these men claiming to be the Messiah?
I went in thinking, 'Why not?' Given all the different prophecies and all the different beliefs that people hold about how this will transpire, why wouldn't it be him? He fulfils a lot of the prophecies, why wouldn't it be Vissarion [the Siberian "Messiah"], why wouldn't it be Inri Cristo [the Brazilian "Messiah"]?
Do you think they all 100 percent believe they are the Second Coming?
So the six people I personally met, my gut feeling tells me that they all truly believe this. They live by it – for decades, in most cases – and they truly believe it. They're basically just going around the world acting upon that belief: God spoke to them somehow, whatever that means, and they're proceeding as they should. I didn't get the sense that any of the people I met were great manipulators.
Tell me about Inri Cristo, the Brazilian who claims to be Jesus Christ reincarnated. You have a great shot of him on a scooter.
Inri Cristo had his first revelation of being the incarnation of Christ in 1979. He's been doing this for a long time and he's left a huge scripture record behind him and has dedicated disciples who've given up everything else in order to live with him and support him and promote him.
Most of his disciples are women, right?
He lives with 12 disciples and most of them are women, and they're quite younger than the men. So a lot of people jump to conclusions about them because they live in this compound together. And if you ask him, 'Why are most of your disciples women?' He'll say – because he has a very vivid memory of when he was here as Jesus of Nazareth – he'll say, "Well, look what happened last time! I had these 12 disciples, these 12 guys, and they either betrayed me – Peter betrayed me, Judas betrayed me – or they all just ran away when the Romans came at me. They were kind of useless. The only ones who were left when I was hanging there, suffering on the cross, were the women."
What's Inri's daily life like? Does he wear his white robe when he goes shopping?
Well he doesn't go to the shops, but yeah, he wears it all the time. He doesn't leave the compound much these days.
How do these Messiahs use modern media to communicate?
A lot of them are on YouTube and Facebook. Inri and his disciples broadcast everything on Facebook live and YouTube. They have this thing called The Mystical Version – because they're well aware that the younger generation don't sit around reading scriptures, and they hardly read the newspaper. So what they do to catch their eye, they take music videos – Britney Spears, "Gangnam Style", The Eagles, whatever – they take the tune and they overlay their own lyrics on top of the original. Then they record a music video and they upload it to YouTube. That's one way they use social media to recruit young souls.
What kind of backlash have these men faced?
I've been with Messiahs who have been beaten up in the street, who have experienced violence… They all celebrate that [Jesus] was a fringe character, that he was on the outside of society, critiquing it, looking in. He didn't hang out with the people of wealth or power; he hung out with the lepers and the prostitutes and the downtrodden. So why would you be surprised that he's on the side of the disenfranchised [today]?
Is it normally Christians who attack them?
In the cases that I saw, yes, it was from the mainstream leaders of mainstream churches who would attack them, because of course, to them, it's blasphemy.
Did they ever talk of performing miracles?
Most of them say something like, "Miracles were a communications strategy that was used back in those days that was appropriate to those times when nobody could read or write. There's no need for that today because we have the internet – everyone reads and writes; you can pursue truth in other ways." I think Inri Cristo says it well. He went on a radio talk show where he answered questions from local listeners, and one of them asked him, "Why don't you perform miracles?" He said, "The greatest miracle of all is that I put up with you guys, with humanity, humanity's slowness in taking in the true message." That is the true miracle – that he puts up with it.
How do you hope this project will open up a debate around faith?
I guess, if anyone laughs at any of these Messiahs or the faith presented here, why exactly are they laughing at this and not at any other improvable faith? Are any of these characters or their theology any less plausible than mainstream religion? Show me the point on the line where this delusion and craziness separates from faith. People believe in resurrection and life after death and the Creator of the universe having a personal interest in the specifics of our lives, but one laughs at Inri's theology? Why?
If one expects Jesus to return at the end of time – and so much of Christianity is waiting for it – why wouldn't it be any of these characters? Why wouldn't you want to check them out? Why wouldn't that be plausible? Who gets to define what's laughable and what's acceptable in this sphere of things? Why laugh at Vissarion and not at 1.3 billion Christians?
'The Last Testament' by Jonas Bendiksen is published by Aperture / GOST £40 /€45 / $50