Trent Horn’s new book explores the many ways Christ is falsely presented. He discusses these “counterfeit Christs” and why the real Christ is so much better.
Cy Kellett: Hello, welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. We continue this week with our conversation with Trent Horn, the author of the brand new book, Counterfeit Christs: Finding the Real Jesus Among the Impostors. It is out now from Catholic Answers Press. You can get it at Catholic.com.
Cy Kellett: Trent, last time we talked a little bit about prosperity Jesus, the prosperity preacher as a counterfeit Christ, we talked … We just mentioned the friendly rabbi Jesus, and we dug in a little bit to non-judgmental buddy Jesus, and I mentioned all those in part just to refresh the listeners’ memory, but also that this is basically what the book does. There’s certain images of Jesus which are not of the real Jesus. They’re pretend Christs. So, I just wanted to start this week with the question, why didn’t Jesus warn us about this? Why didn’t he give us any sense that we should be on the lookout for these phony Jesuses.
Trent Horn: Quite the contrary. Jesus said, “There are many who will say they come in my name who will say, here is the Christ, here is the Christ. But do not be deceived by them.” So, Jesus himself warned about those who would claim to be him or those who would claim to represent him, those who would claim to speak of him, but they speak falsely. And so, what I do in Counterfeit Christs is show the false portrayals and conceptions that both religious and nonreligious people have of Jesus, and then show evidence from scripture and history that reveal why these imposters, these false views of Jesus, are false and why the truth reveals who the real Jesus is.
Cy Kellett: So, I want to get into some of those imposters. We’ll continue with some of the discussion of those imposters, but I want to ask you this. In a realistic sense, if somebody says, “Hey, all right, Trent. I get it. Jesus is not the non-judgmental buddy. He’s not the prosperity guy. He’s not the socialist liberator,” which we’ll talk about in a little bit. “But okay, that’s your opinion. How am I supposed to find the real Jesus?” Everyone’s got a different vision of Jesus, different idea of who he is.
Trent Horn: Right. And I think one way, at least the path that I went down to find the real Jesus, was first I came … Well, after coming to the conclusion of who God is and that God exists, I asked, “Well, did God reveal Himself to man?” And so, I approached Jesus from a very minimalist perspective. So, I look at the New Testament. I’m not gonna assume that it’s the word of God. I don’t know that yet. If I believe there’s a god he could have revealed himself. He could reveal himself to Muhammad, he could reveal himself to Jesus, Joseph Smith, lots of different possible options here. So, I’ll look at the New Testament. What does it say about who Jesus is?
Trent Horn: And it would be fundamentalist for me … It’s funny that some Atheists take a reverse fundamentalism that some fundamentalist Christians will interpret the Bible as being 100% literally true as if the entire thing was written as a newspaper account, irrespective of genre, different things like that. Wanting to take, “Genesis must be taken as a literal 24 hour description, events, things like that.” There are some Atheists who make an inverted error, which is a similar although opposite error that they’ll say the entire Bible is incorrect and literally untrue in every single respect. But that’s silly to say … Why should I believe that this entire thing isn’t true?
Trent Horn: Surely, if you were a skeptic, you could start from the reasonable position. “Perhaps there are true things in this book. Let me sort through what those are.” There was an ancient Jerusalem, there’s a Pontius Pilate, there was a guy named Jesus. There were Christians. If there’s Christians today, there had to be Christians to start this whole thing. How did that get started? What makes the most sense is that Jesus of Nazareth existed, and this movement is named after him and that it comes from … the genesis comes from the crucifixion and reported resurrection appearances of Jesus. And for me, the best explanation of Jesus’s death, his burial, the discovery of his empty tomb, and his post-resurrection appearances to disciples and skeptics is that Jesus really rose from the dead.
Trent Horn: So, if Jesus really rose from the dead, that gives us confidence in his authority and in anyone he invests authority in, which would include the Apostles, their successors, and the Church Christ founded, which would be the Catholic Church. And so you read in the Catechism, you read about who Jesus is, understanding that he is a divine person, fully God, fully man, who became man to die and atone for our sins and rise again in a glorious, everlasting life that we will share with him if we die in friendship with God. So, the Church gives us a way of knowing who the real Jesus is. And this other evidence we have from scripture, from tradition, from history helps us know, “Okay, this shows these other false views of Jesus. They don’t work because they contradict the established lines of evidence that we have.”
Cy Kellett: Fair enough. Okay. So, there is a way to get to the real Christ?
Trent Horn: Yes.
Cy Kellett: You don’t have to settle for the counterfeit Christ. So, let me ask you about a couple of these counterfeits in here, and I will start with the Socialist Liberator. You see the Che Guevara shirts out there, and I sometimes think part of why Che is so popular as a photograph, he’s obviously a striking looking person. But there’s this little something of Jesus in that bearded Che Guevara, a little something of Jesus in the way he gave his life for the cause and all that and that people are … That’s part of the attraction of him.
Cy Kellett: We have in the New Testament this idea of the Apostles and that community around the Apostles, sharing everything in common, and Jesus travels around himself with the group and they have a common purse, Judas was in charge of it.
Trent Horn: Right. And I think that some people … In fact, as I talk about it in the book, at Stern Dining Hall at Stanford University, there is a depiction of the last supper with Chicano Heroes, Latin American heroes, and Che gets Jesus’s spot to which somebody wrote, “Why would you put a mass murderer, someone like Che Guevara who ruthlessly executed his enemies as part of his Socialist Communist revolutionary goals …
Cy Kellett: Including poets and 12-year-olds, I’d like to point out.
Trent Horn: Yes, that he ruthlessly executed those and did whatever it took to establish his revolutionary goals. If you try to say that Jesus is in common with Che Guevara. Okay, I guess they’re individuals who have beards and you can see very iconic, defiant poses, and they have a care for the poor. But then beyond that, the roads really diverge very widely here in this yellow wood.
Cy Kellett: Yeah, Jesus didn’t kill the poor.
Trent Horn: No. And Jesus, also, did not launch class warfare against the rich. Now he was very critical of the rich of his time. And the reason for that was the vast majority of the rich in Jesus’s time … Remember, Capitalism would not be … Market economies and Capitalism would not be invented for another 1,300 years and really wouldn’t come into into prominence until the Industrial Revolution. But so before that, the only way to really attain wealth was to hoard it, to steal it from other people, and hoard it. And as you hoarded wealth, that’s what led to starvation and destitution for other people. And so, Jesus rightfully chided the wealthy for doing this, but not all the wealthy.
Trent Horn: Some people will say that Jesus was a Socialist because he told the rich young man to sell all that he owned and to follow him.
Cy Kellett: That’s a good example.
Trent Horn: But that was particular advice for one individual to call him to be a disciple, to give up everything, and to follow Jesus. It was not something he demanded of all people. For example, when Zacchaeus, the tax collector who was a paradigmatic example of a corrupt rich person. Tax collectors made money in the ancient world by skimming off the top. They would collect already unjust taxes and then collect more for their own salaries. And so, Zacchaeus did this. And so, Zacchaeus climbed–he was a man of short stature–climbed a tree to go see Jesus, and Jesus saw this person who went to such great lengths to see him, who noticed there was something special about him, and Jesus says, “Zacchaeus, come down. I have to dine with you tonight.” Seeing this little guy, this little monkey man up in the tree has to see Jesus and Zacchaeus is overwhelmed.
Trent Horn: So, here’s … when we talked about last episode, Jesus is a friend of sinners. That the encounter of Jesus with sinners, his encounter to reach out to them, the Holy Spirit enters these people’s hearts, and the response is not, “Oh, great. Jesus loves me no matter who I am.” It’s “Jesus loves me. I want to be the person Jesus wants me to be.” It’s repentance. And so, Zacchaeus says, “Behold, Lord, I will repay everyone I defrauded and then I will give away half of my wealth.” Now even keeping half of his wealth, he could have still remained a very wealthy person. And Jesus didn’t say, “Well, no, give away all your wealth.” He didn’t say that in response to Zacchaeus. He said, “Today’s salvation has come to this house” in response to Zacchaeus repenting and then showing the fruits of his repentance through good works.
Trent Horn: So, here people will try to say Jesus was a Socialist because he cared for the poor. Well, sorry, Socialists do not have a monopoly on caring for the poor. Jesus said, “You have to care for the poor.” He never said how. He never said, “Should you give money directly to the poor? Should you give it to a charity? Should you give it to a church? Should you give it to a nongovernmental organization? Should you give it through a government through a grant?” The means of helping the poor are something that Christians can reasonably disagree about as prudential judgments, but the goal of helping them is something we are obligated to do.
Trent Horn: So yeah, in fact in the last appendix of the book I have, I talk about how the counterfeit Christs show up in politics. When people say that Christians must accept this particular tax policy or economic policy. Sorry, no, Christians must accept elements of the faith. The Catholics have to accept things that have been defined, that have been defined for us to believe. We either accept them with divine and Catholic faith or we submit a religious submission in mind and will to the things that the church teaches. But in many respects, the Church says, “There are areas of life when it comes to government policies, when it comes to ways to promote the common good–” The Church has not given us a definitive answer on that.
Trent Horn: So, we as Christians we can reasonably disagree about these things. In other areas we can’t, like whether an unborn baby has a right to life or whether Catholic parents have the right to educate their children. No, the answer to both of those questions are yes, we can’t reasonably disagree about them. Much the same thing when it comes to Jesus, that he’s a divine person who is fully man and fully God. You can’t disagree about that. Otherwise, you fall into heresy.
Cy Kellett: So, let’s go the other direction then. The much sterner Jesus, not the … Well, I don’t know. He probably can’t get more stern than a person like Che Guevara who tried to get the Soviets to unload nuclear weapons on the United States. That’s a pretty stern figure, but the Calvinist Jesus is a pretty cold character, I would say. That’s my characterization, not yours.
Trent Horn: There is a documentary I have not had the chance to view recently, but it’s a documentary about Calvinism. And I believe it is called Unpopular.
Cy Kellett: I wonder why.
Trent Horn: Because what do Calvinists believe? And of course, Calvinists come in different stripes and different understandings. But nearly all of them are united with the idea of elevating God’s glory, His Majesty, and his sovereignty, that God is sovereign and in control of everything.
Trent Horn: So, in many cases for most Calvinists, I would say, it leads to this conclusion: man is dead in sin. Man cannot respond to God’s grace in any way, shape, or form. So, God chooses who he will save, and he also chooses who will be damned. And Jesus died. This would be Five-Point Calvinism. Not even all Calvinists hold to this view, but many do, that Jesus died only for those God chose to save, the elect.
Trent Horn: So, this counterfeit Christ really only loves … he doesn’t love the whole world. This counterfeit God, and maybe I might write a sequel to this book called Counterfeit Gods. I’ve put that in the hopper with the 87 other books I want to write.
Cy Kellett: I like that. I might want to steal that.
Trent Horn: Right. But Jesus has the same goal, that this counterfeit does not love … he doesn’t love everyone. He loves the elect. He loves those he’s going to save because he’s done nothing whatsoever to try to make salvation even possible for those who are damned.
Trent Horn: So yeah, there’s going to be the case where the Bible talks about the elect, paragraph 600 of the Catechism talks about predestination. So of course, there is a sense that God knows the future, he’s not surprised by it, and he has chosen us. But that doesn’t mean he has not made salvation possible for other people, because verse Timothy 2:4 says, “God desires the salvation of all people.” 1 John 2:2 says, “Christ is the expiation of not just our sins, but the sins of the whole world.”
Trent Horn: So, Calvinists will say, “Well, it doesn’t really mean that. This Jesus, he only died for the elect. So, they cannot resist his grace and they can never fall away from it. So, they will definitely go to Heaven no matter what. Everyone else, sorry. You get to show the effects of God’s justice for eternity.”
Trent Horn: And then for some Calvinists, it’s even more cruel because they will affirm that the reason, “Well, why is God punishing you?” “Because you sinned.” “Well, why do you sin?” “Because you inherited a sinful nature.” “Okay, well why did Adam sin?” Some Calvinists will come right out and say, “Well, God caused Adam to sin in order to glorify him and to show his justice.” That is a pretty monstrous deity to me who directly introduces sin into the world simply to glorify himself rather than permitting sin to exist because he knows what we will do and then choosing to rescue us from our own folly.
Trent Horn: So in my book, I show that this Jesus can’t exist because the Bible is very clear that God wants all people to be saved and that Jesus died not just for the elect, he died for everyone. If you look in 1 John 2:2, John says, “Jesus is the expiation for our sins and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” Now what Calvinists will say, Cy, is that, “Well, what John’s talking about here is the whole world of Christians.”
Cy Kellett: That’s a lot of work, man, to get this to fit.
Trent Horn: He died not just for our sins in our community, but for Christians all over the world. And I would say that is a very weak interpretation because when John talks about … In Johannine vocabulary, the word cosmos, “world,” John routinely uses it to mean the entire world, believers and unbelievers.
Trent Horn: For example, in 1 John 5:19, John says, “We know that we are of God, and the whole world … ” The same phrase, by the way. “The whole entire world,” same with 1 John 2:2, “and the whole world is in the power of the evil one.” “We know that we are of God, and the whole world is in the power of the evil one.” So is he saying, “We know that our local Christian community is of God, and the whole Christian world is in the power of the evil one?”
Cy Kellett: No, that’s bizarre.
Trent Horn: That doesn’t make any sense. It makes … Read it on its face. “We Christians are of God, but the entire world,” us and non-Christians, “are under the power of the evil one.” That he’s our adversary. He’s our accuser, our tempter. We all have to … As 1 Peter 5, Peter says that “your enemy, the devil, is like a prowling lion waiting to devour you.” So, to me when you try to take these verses, it requires a lot of exegetical gymnastics to get them to say, to support this Calvinist theology, this Jesus.
Trent Horn: I had a friend once who said, “The Calvinist Jesus, Calvinism: ‘Jesus might’ve died for you.'” This is his bumper sticker slogan to to describe it. And I said, “Well, no, that is not true because Jesus … ” I can constantly say to anyone, Jesus died for you. The only thing keeping the grace he has merited for you on the cross from being infused into your soul to give you everlasting life is you. It’s the only thing keeping you apart from that.
Cy Kellett: So, the real Jesus loves you?
Trent Horn: Absolutely.
Cy Kellett: Doesn’t matter who you are.
Trent Horn: It doesn’t matter who you are.
Cy Kellett: Some of these counterfeit Christs, the victim of conspiracies, the Man of Mystery, the Pagan Copycat, the Mythical Messiah, we’ve got the prophet named Isa, the new age guru, the Father in disguise. Oh, there’s the Jehovah’s witness one. It’s God’s greatest creation. Same guy as the Archangel Michael. The gay-affirming savior, the …
Cy Kellett: Here’s the one I wanted to ask you about, and we only have a couple of minutes. So this guy’s maybe my other favorite, but there’s this idea that look, basically there’s a million guys like Jesus. It just so happens that coincidence or whatever that various historical things came together for him to become a big deal. He’s just this a flawed, failed little prophet like we see all the time. It’s just a little fire got lit under this one for whatever, and it took off. For whatever reason, it took off. But he’s just like all the rest of them, these failed prophets.
Trent Horn: And what I would say is that no, one, why do you believe that? If you’re going to believe that, say, “Okay, what happened to other failed Messiahs? What happened to them?”
Trent Horn: Scripture and ancient stories like Josephus tell us about these individuals. Both, I believe it’s Saint Luke and Josephus, tells us about the revolution of Theudas, the Egyptian prophet, different people who claim to be the Christos, the Messiah, who later were exiled or killed. And their followers simply abandoned them. Their followers went, “Okay. Oh, games up. You’re a flawed, failed prophet, move onto the next candidate.” And the next candidate is usually a member within the prophet’s own family.
Trent Horn: So, if Jesus is a flawed, failed Messiah, we would probably not be worshiping Jesus. We would have people proclaiming that James was the true Messiah or one of one of Jesus’s relatives trying to loft them up within that status.
Trent Horn: But that’s not what we see. We see instead his followers proclaiming the extremely counter-intuitive idea that Jesus had risen bodily in a glorious way before the end of the world to inaugurate the coming of the Messiah. Now a lot of people will say, “Well, Jesus was a flawed, failed prophet because his greatest prediction didn’t come true. They’ll go to Gospel of Matthew … the end of the Gospels when Jesus is proclaiming his discourse, talking about what seemed to be the destruction of the world, that “you will see the son of man coming in glory, and some of you will not taste death until you see the son of man coming in his glory.”
Trent Horn: What is Jesus talking about here? He’s also talking about how the stars will fall and there’ll be these cataclysmic events, and “some of you are going to see this, you won’t taste death.”
Trent Horn: “So, in 2,000 years he’s saying the world’s going to end.” Well, no, if you’re reading that, you’re reading Jesus talking about the end of a world, not the end of the world. It’s very clear he’s talking about the destruction of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, which did happen within the lifetime of his followers in 70 A.D.
Trent Horn: And in fact, as Josephus describes, the ancient Jewish historian, the inside of the temple of Jerusalem … the temple of Jerusalem was not just another building. It was considered a microcosm of the cosmos. It was like the universe almost shrunk into a place to go and meet God. That inside you had stars, you had elemental things. Animals written, engraved onto the walls for you to worship. And so, the destruction of the temple was thought almost to be like a destruction of the cosmos itself. When that temple came crashing down and the walls with the stars on them came, that’s the stars falling from the sky. When Jesus is talking about this, he’s here in Jerusalem and he’s making different parables and different allusions to show this is the destruction that he’s speaking about.
Trent Horn: In another case when Jesus is talking about how he’s going to … So, coming in glory would mean that Jesus came in visitation. Sometimes the Old Testament talks about how God would come and judge different nations when they would be destroyed, either by Israel or by competing empires.
Trent Horn: Also, when Jesus talks about coming in glory, he may be referring to his Transfiguration, that “some of you will not taste death until you see.” I think Jesus says this in Mark 8 because then it happens, right after it in Mark 9, those who are standing there, Peter, they go up on Mount Tabor, mount of Transfiguration, and they see Jesus in his glory.
Trent Horn: So, there’s lots of different ways to approach these texts. And if we believe Jesus rose from the dead and vindicated his claims to divinity, I think we should give him the benefit of the doubt and not just say, “Well, I think Jesus got it wrong here.” Maybe we’re the ones getting it wrong.
Cy Kellett: Trent Horn has been our guest. The brand new book is called Counterfeit Christs: Finding the Real Jesus Among the Impostors. It’s available now from Catholic Answers Press. You can find Trent … if you like listening to Trent, and who doesn’t? You can always go to Trent Horn podcast and find out all about him. TrentHornPodcast.com, and maybe become a subscribing member to his podcast, The Council of Trent. Thank you very much, Trent.
Trent Horn: Thank you for having me, Cy.
Cy Kellett: And thank you for another fine book as well.
Trent Horn: Absolutely.
Cy Kellett: And thank you to all of our listeners for joining us here on Catholic Answers Focus. If you like it, share it and maybe send people over to CatholicAnswersLive.com where they can sign up for radio club and get an alert every time this Catholic Answers Focus podcast is out. I am Cy Kellett, your host. We’ll see you next time on Catholic Answers Focus.