Almost lost amidst the vociferous opposition to the 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ was the fact that the Jesus of the film espouses New Age theology. The movie has Jesus pantheistically proclaiming that “everything is a part of God,” a remark that caused Time magazine to think of this revised Jesus as “a recent graduate of the Shirley MacLaine school of theology.” After picking up some dirt and stones, Jesus says, “This too is my body,” signifying the cosmos. Not surprisingly, several New Age thinkers hailed the movie as a challenge to the church to radically rethink the orthodox image of Jesus.

The New Age movement claims Jesus as one of its own. Rather than being exiled to the lore of religious legend or debunked as a messianic pretender, Jesus is favored as an enlightened master who manifested a divine power available to all. He is, according to New Age author John White, “a harbinger of the New Age.”

The New Age movement is an eclectic and confusing conglomeration of spiritual seekers who have despaired of finding personal and cosmic satisfaction in either religious orthodoxies or secular materialism. Instead, they have turned to exotic and esoteric sources—increasingly available and mass marketed—in the hopes of finding what they seek in the unorthodox ambiance of the mystical, magical, and metaphysical. Given these tendencies, the biblical Jesus holds little fascination. Jesus, they think, must be rescued from a parochial orthodoxy that claims he had a monopoly on deity. The issue with New Agers is not whether Jesus is God in human form. They affirm this. The issue is whether Jesus is uniquely God incarnate, or whether we are all God in human form.

The Lost Jesus

The New Age movement has no single view of Jesus, but it offers a family of related views whose common factors can, nevertheless, be summarized.

First, the New Age esteems Jesus as a spiritually attuned or evolved being who serves as an example for spiritual discovery and evolutionary advancement. Jesus is referred to in various terms of metaphysical endearment, including Master, Guru, Yogi, Adept, Avatar, and Shaman. He is a member of the spiritual hall of fame along with Buddha, Krishna, Lao Tse, and others.

Second, the New Age separates the historical Jesus from the universal and impersonal Christ consciousness. Jesus merely tapped into this cosmic power. New Age philosopher David Spangler, echoing the ancient Gnostics, said in his Reflections on the Christ (1977) that “the Christ is not the province of a single individual.” As Joseph Campbell put it in the best-selling book The Power of Myth (1988): “We are all manifestations of Buddha consciousness, of Christ consciousness, only we don’t know it.” Christhood comes through self-discovery; we may all become Christs if we harness the universal energy.

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Third, the affirmation that Jesus is the supreme and final revelation of God is denied. Although Jesus is respected, he is not “crowned with many crowns” as the one true Lord. Janet Bock, author of The Jesus Mystery (1980), complains that “the position that Jesus was the only ‘Son of God’ … is, in effect, a limiting of the power of God, a shackling of divinity to one physical form for all eternity.”

Fourth, Jesus’ crucifixion, if recognized at all, is not deemed as having any atoning significance. Jesus’ suffering on the cross is either rejected as unhistorical or reinterpreted to exclude the idea that he suffered to pay the penalty for sin. Elizabeth Clare Prophet, leader of the Church Universal and Triumphant, stated emphatically in Science and the Spoken Word (1986) that the idea of a blood sacrifice is “an erroneous doctrine,” that it is “a remnant of pagan rite long refuted by the word of God.”

Fifth, Jesus’ resurrection and ascension are routinely denied or spiritualized so as to exclude his unique triumph over sin, death, and Satan. Many others are recognized as “ascended masters.” In The Power of Myth, Campbell interprets the Ascension to mean that Jesus “has gone inward … to the place from which all being comes, into the consciousness that is the source of all things, the kingdom of heaven within.” Jesus does not ascend to the Father but descends to the divine depths of the collective soul.

Sixth, Jesus’ second coming is spiritualized and democratized to include the evolutionary ascent of an awakened humanity. Soli, an “off-planet being” channeled through Neville Rowe, offers this eschatological insight: “You are God, You are, each and every one, part of the Second Coming.” The notion that “this same Jesus” (Acts 1:11) who bodily ascended to heaven will himself return in like manner on Judgment Day is rejected as narrow-minded literalism.

Seventh, the New Age accepts arcane, extrabiblical documents as sources forauthentic information about Jesus. Although the Bible is selectively cited, its function is secondary to texts that reveal a different Jesus. Regarding the New Testament either as questionable or unreliable, New Agers often turn to several supposedly historical records of Jesus.

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Many believe that Gnostic texts discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, provide a trustworthy record of Jesus as a spiritual catalyst who came to awaken the spark of divinity locked in corporeal confinement. Self-knowledge or gnosis is the means of salvation. Many falsely assume that the Gnostic materials, such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Peter, are historically trustworthy documents that were rejected by orthodoxy for self-serving reasons.

Another strand of historical revisionism harks back to a book called The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, published in 1894 by a Russian journalist, Nicholas Notovitch. This book claims to unveil an ancient Tibetan record of Jesus’ “lost years” (between ages 13 and 29), which he spent studying, teaching, and traveling in the mystic East. This Jesus, called “Saint Issa,” bears little resemblance to the central figure of the Gospels but serves to synthesize Judaism, Christianity, and Eastern religions into one artificial theological hodgepodge.

Others find the key to Jesus in the ancient Essene community near the Dead Sea. Looking to the Dead Sea Scrolls, they see Jesus as part of a mystical remnant preserved from the fundamentalism of his day. Shirley MacLaine puts forth this thesis in Going Within (1989) by saying that “Jesus and the Essenes, with their teachings on love and light and cosmic laws along with the Golden Rule of karma, sound very much like metaphysical seekers in the New Age today.”

These esoteric materials are often augmented or eclipsed by revelations originating beyond history. Channelers or mediums receive messages about Jesus from personal spirit beings such as Ramtha (through J. Z. Knight). Others, such as Edgar Cayce and Rudolph Steiner, key into an impersonal, celestial hard drive called the Akashic Records or the Collective Unconscious, to extract Christologies strikingly at odds with Holy Writ. The popular, pseudo-Christian three-volume set A Course in Miracles claims to have been dictated by Jesus himself, although it denies doctrines such as original sin, the vicarious atonement of Christ, justification by faith, and a literal heaven and hell.

Eighth, when the Bible is cited with reference to Jesus, an appeal is made to an “esoteric” dimension lost on the esoteric masses of wooden literalists. The Bible must be decoded to discern the secret teaching. So, according to some New Age writers, when Jesus said that John the Baptist was Elijah, he was really referring to reincarnation. When he said “the kingdom of heaven is within you,” he really meant the divinity of the soul.

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The New Age offers to Jesus erroneous endorsements and confused commendations. Jesus is severed from scriptural moorings and anchored in an alien environment glittering with New Age allure. Jesus, the Christ-conscious Master, is our prototype for spiritual discovery and power. Yet he is a Christ without cross or physical resurrection, preaching a gospel without repentance or forgiveness, before an audience of potential equals without sin or shame who are in no peril of perdition.

A Question Of Documents

How, then, can we affirm that Jesus Christ has “the name above every name” (Phil. 2:9; all Bible references are from the NIV) in the face of a growing number who deny his supremacy while confessing his greatness?

Sadly, the accusation that the Christ of Christianity “doesn’t work” has some sting to it. American Christianity too often fails to demonstrate the living reality of Jesus through sound teaching, clear thinking, moral courage, and compassion. Many New Agers complain that the church has failed them. Perhaps our vision of the real Jesus has faded and we are content with status-quo religion instead of discipleship under the cross of Christ.

While we must insist with Os Guinness that “Christianity isn’t true because it works, it works because it’s true,” we should also remember what Francis Schaeffer called “the final apologetic”: Jesus himself said that the world would judge the truth of Jesus by the love his followers manifest (John 13:34–35; 17:21). Given the indispensable foundation of ethical integrity, theological and historical arguments can be marshaled to establish the biblical Jesus as authentic and to unmask the New Age imposter.

First, we should outline a response to criticisms that the biblical sources themselves are unreliable or inferior to other documents about Jesus. As it happens, the standard arguments for the trustworthiness of the New Testament are often not so much rejected as ignored in New Age circles.

New Agers routinely undervalue the New Testament because of its antiquity, its manner of compilation, and because of the number of translations and editions. This criticism can be defused by emphasizing that the New Testament is the best attested collection of ancient literature with regard to the number and quality of manuscripts. Some 5,366 partial or complete Greek manuscripts have been recovered, dating as far back as the end of the first century. The large number of manuscripts gives scholars a rich resource for reconstructing the original text.

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Beyond this, the date of the original writings is close to the events described—in most cases, not more than a generation removed. This is more than can be said for most ancient literature. Those who wrote the documents were also in a good position to ascertain the truth of their research, being either eyewitnesses or privy to eyewitnesses.

Concerning the canonization of the New Testament, the New Age contends that it was the product of a fourth-century theological elite that excluded legitimate sources for purely political reasons. As intriguing as this scenario may be, it does not bear historical scrutiny. The documents were not given authority as much as they were recognized as already functioning in the churches with authority. Furthermore, books not included in the Canon were excluded for specific reasons, such as authorship, doctrine, and use in the church.

In light of this evidence, the burden of proof lies on any other purported record of the life of Jesus. Upon inspection, these revisionist documents fall by the historical wayside.

The Gnostic texts are second-century creations giving heretical reflections on an already existing orthodox view of Jesus. The New Testament is far better attested than Gnostic texts. None of the Nag Hammadi texts, for instance, takes the form of an actual gospel. Rather, they are largely metaphysical discourses.

The document claiming to reveal “the lost years of Jesus” spent in India, Persia, and elsewhere was soundly refuted shortly after its publication by noted Orientalist F. Max Muller and others. Despite continued interest in The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, the original manuscript has never been available for scholarly study, and there is no adequate verification of its existence. Surely it is better to have 5,366 Greek manuscripts in the hand than (at most) one exotic manuscript lost in the Tibetan bush.

Claims that Jesus was a New Ager by virtue of being an Essene mystic are refuted on two grounds. First, the Essenes were not New Agers, but rather militantly monotheistic Jews who, despite sectarian idiosyncrasies, affirmed human sinfulness, hell, and a predestinating, personal God—hardly New Age theology! Second, despite some similarity between Jesus’ teachings and the Essenes (due largely to their common reverence for the Old Testament), there is a deep rift between them concerning asceticism, ethics, salvation, and other issues. Jesus was no Essene, and the Essenes were not New Agers.

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As to channeled material, we can only ask why someone would give credence to revelations with no historical verification over documents connected with factual history, especially when these channeled sources deny the central tenets of what Christians have affirmed for two thousand years.

Confronting Exclusivity

Having argued for the source of authority about Jesus, it is critical to emphasize the exclusivity of the biblical Jesus. In an age of religious relativism, New Agers resist affirmations of absolute truth and authority. Yet many are ignorant of the actual claims of Jesus in the Gospels and the claims made about him in the rest of Scripture.

In John 3:16, Jesus speaks of himself as God’s “one and only son.” No other shares that status. Peter preached this Jesus, announcing: “Salvation is found in no one else. For there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). This leaves no room for qualification.

Another resounding anthem of exclusivity is found in John 14:6, where Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Yet some claim that Jesus is not speaking of himself as the way, but of the impersonal “I Am Presence” in us all! Such interpretive gymnastics, often performed by New Agers, are the result of what James Sire calls “world-view confusion”: an entirely alien philosophy (pantheism) superimposed on the biblical message. These esoteric detours around Jesus can be countered by a good dose of common sense. If nothing stated in the text indicates the esoteric meaning, what possible grounds can be given to support the interpretation—besides wishful thinking?

Many other passages single out Jesus as unique and supreme and should be part of our apologetic and evangelistic repertoire. But the assertion of Jesus as “the way” must be augmented by argument. Jesus’ exclusive claims were backed up by impeccable credentials.

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Most people involved in the New Age grant the legitimacy of a “paranormal” dimension beyond the visible that can affect the natural realm. They are not skeptics about the supernatural. If anything, they tend to be credulous. If we emphasize Jesus as a man of miracles who restored the blind, deaf, dumb, and leprous; cast out demons with a word; commanded the elements themselves; summoned Lazarus from the grave; and himself rose from the dead, we may catch their interest and draw them deeper into the gospel record.

The sheer number, power, and attestation of Jesus’ miracles put him in a category by himself; but the miracles alone are not sufficient to establish Jesus as Lord. As seventeenth-century apologist Joseph Glanvill put it: “’Tis not the doing of wonderful things that is the only evidence that the holy Jesus was from God … but the conjunction of other circumstances. The holiness of his life, the reasonableness of his religion, and the excellency of his designs, added credit to his works and strengthened the great conclusion, that he could be no other than the Son of God.”

This “conjunction of other circumstances” includes Jesus’ unrivaled authority as a teacher; the certainty of his words regarding his mission, his identity, and the need for human response; his fulfillment of prophecy; and his love toward those he came to rescue. These factors show Jesus as a man of integrity and compassion as well as a man of power. He had the power to save the lost whom he loved.

It is imperative to see Jesus’ compassion in light of his assessment of human nature. In the New Age, humans are divine in essence, if not in experience. Jesus, on the contrary, taught the “humanity of humanity” and the reality of a ruined race “east of Eden.” Jesus’ love cannot be reduced to the desire to see ignorant deities discover their identity and so share in his Christhood. He catalogued 13 items of infamy—such as adultery, greed, impurity—as “coming from within” and making a person unclean (Mark 7:21–23). Where the New Age sees a sleeping god, Jesus finds a tempest of transgression.

Jesus presented himself as the answer to the moral problem of humanity. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The language of vicarious atonement—so antithetical to New Age self-salvation—is often on Jesus’ lips. Speaking of his death, Jesus said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:27).

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The Crucifixion, when properly explained, can be a magnet for New Age interest for one stark reason. New Age theology reduces God to an impersonal, amoral force. Humans may partake of the divine essence, but the ultimate reality is inhuman. The Great Void makes no friends and sheds no blood.

But as humans made in God’s image, we yearn for loving relationships. The Cross expresses a personal God’s sacrificial love toward us. God’s holiness demands that a price be paid for sin; his love extends a sinless sacrifice for sinners. As Paul said, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). What greater demonstration of love can be imagined? What greater demonstration of power than the resurrection of this Jesus from the dead (Rom. 1:4)?

Yet an appreciation of this love presupposes an awareness of sin. Jesus’ love is nothing if not understood as a love for sinners. Blaise Pascal elucidated the balance to be found in Jesus alone: “The incarnation shows man the greatness of his misery by the greatness of the remedy which he required.”

The gospel is not a spiritual pick-me-up, but an objective claim on every individual. Although Jesus singled himself out of the spiritual crowd through his exclusive claims to divinity and unmatched credentials, he issues an inclusive invitation: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Christ promises and provides rest from the futile human quest for Christhood that animates New Age spirituality. We may, by his grace, become his friends, but never his peers.

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