Editor’s Note: Reza Aslan is the author of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” and the host of CNN’s original series “Believer With Reza Aslan.” The views expressed are his own.
I’ve had some pretty extraordinary experiences as the host of my new spiritual adventure series, “Believer.” But no experience surprised me more than the day I learned I had accidentally convinced the leader of a doomsday group in Hawaii that he was, indeed, the messiah.
I had come to Hawaii to immerse myself in a community led by a self-styled prophet who calls himself Jezus – that’s Jesus, but with a “z.”
Nearly two decades ago, Jezus says he began receiving revelations from the gods warning him of humanity’s impending doom, which would come as a result of catastrophic climate change.
In response, Jezus created a commune on the big island of Hawaii where he and his followers are now busy preparing for the End Times by, among other things, building a series of arks with which they plan to survive the coming flood.
If you know anything about me you know I’m the kind of person who finds this sort of thing fascinating. And so, when I heard of Jezus and his group, I was desperate to do an episode on them.
The religions we profile on “Believer” tend to be somewhat insular and secretive. Many of them are distrustful of outsiders, often with good reason. And so it usually takes a good deal of cajoling to convince these communities to let us in with our cameras.
But when one of our producers reached out to Jezus to ask if he would allow me and my crew to join him in his compound, he immediately agreed.
It was only much later that I discovered why.
It turns out that this doomsday prophet, who lives completely off the grid in a secret compound located somewhere in the middle of a volcanic island, is fan of mine.
“Your book is one of those books that changed my life,” Jezus told me during one of our conversations on a rocky beach in Hawaii.
He was referring to my biography of the historical Jesus, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”
Apparently, a few years ago, Jezus had a crisis of faith. After 15 years of preaching and gathering followers, he began to seriously doubt his prophecies. Maybe the gods hadn’t spoken to him. Maybe – just maybe – he wasn’t the messiah, after all.
“I was doubting everything,” he told me.
Most crucially, he began doubting the existence of that other messiah – you know, Jesus with an “s.”
“When you call yourself Jezus, you gotta live up to that name, you know? You gotta provide food, water, safety, shelter, and clothing to the poor… [But now] I’m like, well hell. If he didn’t even exist, you know, then what the hell am I doing, you know?”
So he gave up the whole messiah thing. He abandoned his community and his disciples and just disappeared. He secretly flew to Southern California and moved in with his sister.
No more prophecies. No more end of the world.
And then, one day, as he was riding his bike in the California sunshine, enjoying the carefree life, no longer burdened by prophecies and messianic ambitions, he heard me on the radio, being interviewed about my book on Jesus.
“When I heard you, Reza, you know, talk about the facts, you know what I did? I turned the bike around and I went straight to Barnes and Noble.”
He bought the book, took it back to his sister’s house, and read it cover to cover. And, although I have no way of explaining this, something about my treatment of Jesus of Nazareth convinced him that he had been right all along: he really was the messiah.
“It took away all my doubts about the mission that I was on. And you know what I did? I came back [to Hawaii]. And started getting ready, you know? Started getting ready for the baptism that is gonna take place.”
Of course, by baptism, Jezus means the end of the world.
Jezus and I talked for hours on that beach about the pressures he faces, the stress of being responsible not only for his flock’s spiritual life but also for their food, shelter and general well-being. He worries about insurance liability, health codes and taxes. He worries about his image, and with how to maintain his community’s confidence in him. He knows most people – including his family – doubt him. Sometimes, he doubts himself.
But he feels he has no choice but to keep on preaching his prophecy. He is driven by visions and voices and the feeling deep inside that he is called to warn the world about the coming end. He doesn’t feel like he can live any other way.
As he himself put it, “It’s hard to be a prophet.”
Until I met him myself, I had no idea how true that statement was.