For Simon and his brother Andrew, alongside fellow fishermen brothers James and John, all it took was a particularly plentiful plethora of fish for them to fall at the feet of Jesus and follow Him. The perfidious publican Matthew didn’t even need Jesus to provide an equally miraculous haul of tax revenue; Jesus said, “Follow me,” and he did so without question. About two millenia later, astronomer Carl Sagan famously said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Given just how extraordinary Jesus’ claim was – essentially that, despite being born in time and looking like an ordinary individual, He was actually the eternally existing First Cause for everything else – a few fish hardly seem sufficient evidence.
The over credulity of the early disciples never struck me as strange back in Sunday School, where faith was exhorted as a virtue. And how could it not be for Christians? Jesus Himself said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Contra the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, who were vilified in every sermon ever preached at my parish, specifically for trying to test Him with some of the subtlest theological questions the could conceive. Yet in watching Netflix’s Messiah recently I’ve gained a newfound respect for the Pharisees.
Similar to Jesus, Payam Golshiri, a.k.a. “Al-Masih,” makes equally extraordinary claims with respect to his identity. He walks on the water of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, inviting direct comparison to Christ. When asked by a reporter if he is the Messiah, Al-Masih answers affirmatively. When his most faithful follower, Rev. Felix Iguero, asks if Golshiri is God, he doesn’t deny it.
All sorts of individuals wonder at who he is and whether his claims are true. The CIA, FBI, and Shin Bet all launch investigations into him. And yet reporters and preachers and law enforcement agents all allow Al-Masih to be evasive in his answers, when they even both to ask him anything at all. Too often the crowds keep a respectable distance that every celebrity ever hounded by paparazzi would envy.
Whether this man is a charlatan or Christ is of paramount importance. Both believers and non-believers and those on the fence all have it in their interests to force him to be as forthcoming as possible. If he is a liar or a lunatic, no matter how well rehearsed or informed or seemingly wise his answers, they will not long stand up to close scrutiny. If he is Lord, then the bigger the questions asked of him, the greater the knowledge gained about life’s biggest mysteries. One way or another, Payam Golshiri needs to be picked apart by pedantic pharisees. And since no one in Season One of the show steps up to do the job, I thought I’d take a crack. Here are ten questions which I would ask anyone claiming to be Christ come back.
I. What is the strongest logical proof for the existence of God? Or, failing the existence of an airtight proof, what is the strongest logical argument and the answers to any objections which could be raised against it?
There’s no sign that a purported prophet could perform that could not be explained away. And given the extraordinary claim of the Incarnation, the speculation of the sceptic, no matter how far fetched, is seemingly more plausible. Even Christ coming on the clouds, resurrecting the dead, and creating a perfect paradise could be better explained by Descartes’ demon or Matrix machines manipulating our brains in a vat than the alternative of a twelve year old girl having given birth to the Unmoved Mover.
Far harder to deny would be a perfectly logical proof, one whose conclusion clearly and invariably follows from premises whose veracity are also proved to the satisfaction of even Edmund Gettier. If such a proof did exist, one would imagine that, whoever the genuine article is – whether the Jewish Messiah or the Christian Christ or the Islamic Mahdi – he of all men would be able to articulate such an argument.
Even if there is no inarguable proof of the existence of God, he should be able to elucidate evidence from reason at least as logically as Aquinas did in his Five Ways. Should a charlatan take the bait and attempt to outdo the Doctor of the Church, it’s virtually a certainty that there’ll be some hole in his logic that he overlooked that’d open him to criticism by philosophers and theologians. If, on the other hand, he’s omniscient, or at least accessing special revelations, and is able to provide indisputable logic proof for the existence of God, such would be a formula far more important than Einstein’s equations for relativity or an alchemical means of making gold from lead. It would overnight end the debate between theists and atheists and move the conversation from whether God exists to what His nature is like.
II. Are the theological and christological claims of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon correct? If not, which clauses are incorrect and what corrections do they require?
During his asylum hearing, Al-Masih, in answer to what his religious convictions are, states simply that he walks with all men. It’s a sweet sounding sentiment to a society for whom religion has been reduced to mere moral grounding absent of any truth claims, but it ignores the fact that the three Abrahamic traditions who might claim Al-Masih as their own make mutually incompatible claims regarding the nature of God. The Jewish Elohim is not the Christian Trinity, which in turn is not the Islamic Allah. Followers of Al-Masih could not truly believe in him without knowing what to believe about him. If he is God made flesh, failing to worship him as such is failing to follow the greatest commandment to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind.” Conversely, if he is merely a king, as the Jews anticipate of their Mashiach, or a prophet, as the Muslims believe of Isu (Jesus, whom they anticipate will have a Second Coming at the eschaton), then the claim that Christ is God Incarnate is not mere blasphemy, it’s idolatry, giving worship to a creature that’s due only to the Creator.
It is impossible for anyone, Al-Masih included, to affirm that all the doctrines of any one Abrahamic faith are true without implicitly denouncing some of the core claims of the other faiths as false. It’s for this reason that the Nicene Creed and Definition of Chalcedon make for a perfect litmus test. Both were written at ecumenical councils in which bishops from around the known world came to a consensus as to where the outer borders between orthodoxy and heresy were. For example, while there could be different conceptions among Christians as to how it’d be metaphysically possible for the First and Second Persons of the Trinity to be of the same substance (ὁμοούσιος), to go outside that boundary and say that the Father and Son were merely of similar substances (ὅμοιούσιος) is to say, in essence, that one does not believe in Christianity.
The same is true of all of the claims within the Creed and the Definition. Even those denominations that declared themselves non-Credal, saying they have “no Creed but Christ,” agree with the substance of the statements therein. Because these dogmas find such agreement among Christians and disagreement from Jews and Muslims, they cut a clear division between the various monotheistic sects. It’d be impossible for Al-Masih to speak to the veracity or falsity of these core components of the Corpus Doctrinae without revealing his true position. After that, His saccharine statement of walking with all men will not satisfy the sectarians with whom he disagrees.
Finally, under the umbrella of Chalcedonian theology is a refutation of Docetism. This is important in that it satisfies the Apostle John’s exhortation to “not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (1 John 4:1-2). Whether or not Jesus came in the flesh would otherwise be an entry all of its own on this list, but to affirm the Definition of Chalcedon is to affirm that point implicitly.
III. Is God the Unconditioned Reality? If so, how can God be triune? Are the three Persons of the Trinity conditions within Unconditioned Reality or not?
This is a potentially good follow up to the previous two questions. For my part, I take Fr. Robert Spitzer’s argument for a singular, unique, Unconditioned Reality as the strongest logical argument for the existence of God, wherein God is defined as being, at a minimum, the Uncaused Cause for everything else in existence, although He might have other properties beyond simply that. Karlo Broussard over at Strange Notations has an excellent and accessible summary of Spritzer’s argument. Were I to guess at a convincing response to my own first question from Al-Masih or another like him, it’d look very much like a more robust and airtight version of Spritzer’s proof.
I’d also guess that, if pressed, Al-Masih would affirm the claims of the Nicene Creed and Definition of Chalcedon. If he is indeed Christ come back, it’d be inconceivable that the orthodox Christianity to which every major branch subscribes – including Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, mainline Protestantism, Evangelicals, and even most Pentecostals – would have been blasphemously wrong for the entirety of the Church Age, and some fringe sect deemed heretical like the Arians or the Docetists should be proved correct. Alternatively, if he is a charlatan, affirming the Creed and Definition would be savvy so as not to alienate the Christians he’s trying to decieve. While he might still be able to convince some nominal Christians who are more persuaded by his apparent miracles than they are believers in the veracity of Christianity per se, he ultimately would have more to lose than to gain. Almost certainly he’d more often invite comparison to the Antichrist than to Christ. Already some Muslims have compared him to Al-Masih ad-Dajjal for apparently misquoting Muhammad, and he seems not to have had particular success courting the Jews so far. Of the three main Abrahamic faiths, Christians seem the best pool for potential recruits to his cult.
Nevertheless, were he to commit his position as credal Christianity, that traps him against making statements which contradict it. Thus the question about Unconditioned Reality. Spritzer’s own answer to this potential objection would make Athanasius’ blood boil. Per Spritzer, “The ‘Trinity’ refers to three distinct self-consciousnesses making an unconditional use of the one unrestricted, unconditioned Reality.” This is a rather unorthodox understanding of the Trinity, one in which the three Persons essentially have access to God but are not Themselves God.
Importantly, this places the Persons one rung down the ontological ladder from Unconditioned Reality itself. In summarizing Spritzer, Broussard explains, “The first step for understanding this metaphysical idea of absolute simplicity is to think about how the realities of our experience are restricted to particular modes of being. They have distinguishing notes or diversifying principles that makes them this being instead of that being. These distinguishing notes or diversifying principles constitute what philosophers call restrictions or boundaries.” The Persons of the Trinity are distinguished from one another by such diversifying principles, and therefore restrictions and boundaries. Per the Athenasian Creed, “The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding.” The properties of being or not being “begotten” and/or “proceeding” are the boundaries which would ontologically separate the Persons, even were it the case that that all shared the same Nature.
It may be that Spritzer is right in his argument for Unconditioned Reality and that Trinitarianism is true, and that as a mere mortal with a finite understanding he could not comprehend or properly articulate how to reconcile those two claims. However, were Al-Masih actually the Second Person of the Trinity in the flesh, he would not have that excuse, and should be expected to square this circle. On the other hand, if he is a fraud, two possibilities exist. The first is that he’d commit himself to a position that was untenable, either because it had demonstrable errors in logic or that violated his previous assertion of credal Christianity, thus exposing him. The second would be that, despite being a false teacher, he proves a nevertheless brilliant theologian, and – irrespective of whether Christianity is true or not – he is able to make the case for Christianity more plausible by demonstrating Trinitarianism to be compatible with certain arguments for the existence of God.
IV. How did you after your Ascension but before your return have simultaneity with events in the spatio-temporal realm?
The question of “Where is Jesus now” is not one many Christians have carefully considered. They might recall the words of Jesus to his disciples at the Last Supper: “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” (John 14:2-4) The author of Hebrews testified “When this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God.” (Heb. 10:12) But, assuming for argument’s sake Christianity to be true, what should we understand this to mean?
We’re limited in our possible answers by the Chalcedonian Definition’s claim that Christ is “acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.” That is to say, the Incarnation is permanent and did not end at the Ascension. While the indivisibility and inseparability of Christ’s two Natures can be read as refutations of Nestorius, Eutychus, and other heretics, the permanence of the Incarnation has the support of Scripture. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul tells him, “There is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.” The same resurrected body which was missing from the empty grave and which Thomas touched and which ate fish on the shore of the Jordan is the body of Christ forevermore. This excludes then the possibility that being with His Father in heaven means the disembodied spirit of Jesus is in an immaterial, spiritual realm. Wherever he is, He’s there bodily.
That leaves three possibilities. The first is that, like Doctor Manhattan on Mars, Jesus is hanging out all alone in some remote corner of the physical universe, hiding from the Voyager spacecraft as they fly overhead. The second is that He is in a separate spacetime causally unconnected to our own. The third possibility is that His material body is outside any and all material universes, in a non-material realm. Call it a spiritual realm, but for all intents and purposes it’s appear as if the human body of Christ were suspended in a void of nothingness.
The first case, while the strangest at face value, is technically the least problematic, with the only question arising being whether Christ “seated at the right hand of the Father” and “preparing a place for us” can actually mean “hiding out on Europa.” The other two raise a problem of simultaneity, which is is not absolute, but dependent on one’s frame of reference. In the second possibility, while points within our own spacetime have a quantifiable relation to each other, they have no quantifiable relationship to events within a causally unconnected spacetime. Time is the fourth dimension within each self-contained spacetime manifold, but there is no absolute space which both share, no objective present moment on a hypertime along which both proceed. Because they share no possible frame of reference, no events in each universe could ever be simultaneous.
None of this is a problem for God, Who, according to the doctrine of Divine Simplicity, is aspatial and atemporal. He has no location, and therefore no relation to any location. He has no temporal becoming or unbecoming, nor any internal change (a.ka. Immutability). While this sounds as if the same would apply to Christ were He to be suspended in a spaceless, timeless void, as in possibility three, such would not be the case. The body of Christ itself would still have spatial dimensions, extending at least the height of His head and the length of his arm span. Of course, simply having three spatial dimensions does not necessitate a fourth temporal dimension; it’s conceivable that Christ’s existence in such a void would have no temporal duration, that for all intents and purposes he simply travels forward in time directly from His Ascension to the Parousia. But such speculation does not have the support of Scripture.
According to Luke the Evangelist, Jesus appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus, asking him “Why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4) Per Matthew, Jesus said at the end of the Great Commission, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Mat. 28:20). These statements would seem to suggest that the incarnate Christ has an awareness of the events between His first and second coming. For that to be the case, some explanation is required as to how His spacetime can have simultaneity with our own. If authentic, Al-Masih will know where he himself had gone, and could explain his whereabouts. If not, given that it’s a question few theologians have grappled with, an imposter will likely struggle to comprehend the problem, let alone have a ready response on hand.
V. Why do you not have wounds in your hands and your feet, and on your side?
In addition to the wounds which the Apostle Thomas regarded as proof positive as to the identity of Christ, Jesus sustained many other injuries during His Passion which the accounts of His resurrection make no mention, such as the lashes on His back or the cuts from the crown of thorns upon His brow. This suggests that some of these injuries had been healed as part of the resurrection process, while others were a permanent part of His glorified body. Which raises the question as to the mutability of that glorified body. Did the wounds merely function as evidence of the Resurrection, after which they were no longer necessary, or do they impart on Christ a unique and extraordinary pulchritude, as my professors used to argue.
If the latter, presumably they’d be as permanent as the Incarnation itself. If the former, it’s conceivable that the incarnate body of Christ is so mutable that it could not merely heal its wounds, but reduce itself to a single zygote and re-enter into a virgin’s womb without ever separating or dividing the human and divine natures of the Second Person. This would be the only explanation conceivably consistent with Chalcedon as well as his life as Payam Golshiri, and it’d be interesting to see if Al-Masih has the prescience to argue as much. Perhaps he has an even more plausible explanation, but what such would be eludes my imagination.
VI. Why did you not appear descending from the clouds?
After He had been taken up to heaven (whatever that means; cf. question IV), angels said to the Apostles, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). This agrees with what Jesus prophesied during His Olivet Discourse, saying “They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Mat. 24:30).
Should Al-Masih answer the previous question by claiming that he returned inconspicuously, his resurrected body – able to perform such feats as walking through walls and conceal his identity – having miraculously reduced itself to a blastocyst or smaller, he’d still be on the hook as to why his return was not in the manner promised by the angels at the Ascension. Taken together, there seems no scripturally consistent way in which Christ could come incognito, as during His first coming.
VII. How do you reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity?
This is another excellent razor. If Al-Masih is God incarnate, he could easily explain the Theory of Everything, elucidating truths about the universe which eluded even Einstein and Hawking. If he’s a fraud, there’s still a non-zero chance that – as merely a matter of human genius – he still can answer the question, which, while not proving that he definitely is the Messiah, nevertheless would be of benefit to mankind. And, in the much more likely case that he cannot answer the question, or offers an answer that is easily demonstrated to be incorrect, reasonable observers – the kind who vaccinate their children and know the earth is round and realize that Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself – will know not to believe his claims.
* * *
If he’s evasive, answering questions with questions or opaque parables, as Jesus was wont to do, he should be dismissed as a liar, lunatic, or false prophet. It’s easy for anyone to say “believe in me on blind faith.” Christianity, at its most plausible, at least attempts to offer a defence as to the reasonability of that faith. But those overly credulous “christians” who believe, not based on the evidence, but on an internal feeling, or cultural norms, or family tradition, or even an apparent personal revelation, have no reason to place their faith in Jesus instead of Baháʼu’lláh, or Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, or Haile Selassie, or even Mithra. Blind faith can no more lead a man to truth than Hellen Keller could lead him to the North Pole – only by a most inconceivable accident. The followers of Payam Golshiri in Netflix’s Messiah chose to close their eyes. If they would open them, they should ask some of the above.