In Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? 12 False Christs, Matthew Richard explains how easy it is to fall into the trap of redefining Jesus to suit ourselves. The theme is one I have seen dealt with in the past by Francis Schaeffer (who also stressed the importance of worldview), and the layout of the book reminds me a bit of J.B. Phillips’s Your God Is Too Small. But I do find this book to be fresh and timely. Richard recounts real conversations he has had—in homes, on airplanes, and elsewhere—where false Christs have been brought forth. Each case strikes me as (I guess the term has to be) a “genuine imitation”; that is, these were not invented by Richard as straw men but are plausible cases of how real people have redefined Jesus, letting go of the real one.
I especially liked his introduction where he defines terms such as “free will,” “idolatry,” “cognitive dissonance,” and “postmodern relativism,” and shows from Scripture how Saint Peter fell into the very same trap the book sets out to expose—namely, redefining Jesus to better suit one’s purposes or situation. In one sense, Peter knew the true Jesus, even confessed his name, and in another, he created a substitute in order to avoid persecution. How easy this is to do.
Some of the twelve false Christs include “The Mascot,” “The Option among Many,” “The Social Justice Warrior,” and “The Mystical Friend.” I was especially happy to see Richard go after “The Mystical Friend,” as I know how real that one was in my life for a time, and how easy it is to be considered a heretic by those who think that if you don’t seek Jesus within, you’ll never find him.
If I have a quibble, it is that while I think he is correct in his identification of every one of these false Christs, I think most of them would be found primarily among liberal Christians. The strongest exception was “The National Patriot.” This problem is somewhat mitigated by the fact that most readers will realize they have fallen for most of these false Christs to some degree at some time in their own lives; so they shouldn’t go away thinking, “Those other people are falling for a false Christ. Lucky for me, I never do.”
Also, Richard ends the book with an account of how he fell for a false Christ during part of his ministry, despite earlier contact with the real Jesus at several points in his life, beginning with his baptism. This was a crucial point to make, in line with his account of Saint Peter’s fall into idolatry. It is important that we try to guard against these falls, but falling is inevitable. We seem destined to fall so that we can be restored. If we never fell, then we would hardly feel a need for a savior. Our own tendency to fall should keep us from jumping on our neighbors when they seem to be following one of the false Christs. When a neighbor does this, there is a serious danger, but we don’t need to conclude that they never knew Jesus or that he has abandoned them.
I rather wish the book had more by way of conclusion, as there are many more than twelve false Christs out there, and I would like to have a better idea how to identify them. But I think for the intended audience, this more concise treatment might be just the kind of book the reader would be willing to read.
Finally, there are discussion questions at the end of each chapter, making this book good for conversation in an adult education setting. The conversations the book will spark will be important ones to have. While there are some cases where I would prefer more nuance, I was mostly happy to see an avoidance of knee-jerk responses. The primary issue the book addresses is how our overall approaches to Jesus can lead us away from the true one. The specific issues that come up are secondary and illustrative. Readers can take the cure for each deviation even where they don’t finally, or yet, agree on all the details.
Rick Ritchie is a long-time contributor to Modern Reformation magazine.