If Jesus Christ came back and walked among us, what would it take for you to believe it was Him?
Would the moon have to turn red for you to believe? Would you need to hear trumpets? See Him coming down from the clouds? Watch as the devil's head is stuck on a pike?
Would you expect an end to all wars, a global calm, a gigantic traffic wreck caused when all those SUV drivers get sucked up in the Rapture?
What exactly would it take for you to believe it was Him? Would you need a miracle?
What if He made you feel good, told you you were beautiful, removed your sin? Would that be miraculous enough for you, or would He have to defy the laws of physics, turn water to wine, cure a leper, maybe even sink an impossible billiards shot?
If parlor tricks are what you seek, José Luis De Jesús Miranda is not your man.
"They expect Him to come back in the clouds with a lot of angels and glory, but they forget that Paul said He would first come as a thief in the night," says De Jesús, haphazardly slapping around billiard balls in the game room of his brand-new Missouri City home. "When they open their eyes, I'll have the whole world in belief with me."
De Jesús claims he's the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Yep, you read that right. He says he's Him, the Big Man, the Son of God, the King of Kings. And he's not some alcohol-addled homeless guy screaming damnation from a street corner. He's a dapper 60-year-old from Puerto Rico who claims thousands of followers. Along with congregations scattered across the Americas, his ministry, Creciendo en Gracia (Growing in Grace), has a 24-hour cable channel, complete with sermons, news programs and music videos, that reportedly reaches over two million homes.
His message is simple (you know, once you get over the whole "I am Jesus" thing). All sin died with Christ on the cross. Anytime a priest or a preacher calls you a sinner, he's a liar who's trying to steal your money. In fact, other churches should be picketed, which is something his followers have done in Miami and Latin America.
"Believing in Jesus of Nazareth does not make you a Christian," he says. "Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew. He wasn't a Christian; he was a Jewish man...People who put their eyes on Jesus of Nazareth become Jews, and they don't know."
But those in the know are increasing, thanks to large donations and slick public-relations campaigns. Last year Creciendo en Gracia's central office pulled in over $1.4 million and added over 100 churches. You might think all these folks are being conned by a false messiah with lavish tastes, but if that's the case:
It's one happy con.
The history of the world, as told by De Jesús and his followers:
"You were a spirit before the creation of the world, and God said, 'I need you to know the power that I have and the love that I have for you, but you will know that by experiencing the opposite, which is evil,'" explains Axel Poessy, media rep for Creciendo en Gracia. "By creating the Earth, He put you in a body of flesh."
With flesh comes sin, which God made possible by establishing laws. "When someone tells you that you can't do something, that's when you actually want to do it, and that's what activated your flesh, and that's why Adam was told, 'Don't do this,' and that's the first thing he did," she says.
Enter original sin, the yoke that dragged everyone down to the depths of hell. God kept dealing out tough love, eventually offering up tablets to Moses to let us know where we were really going wrong. But then He gave the world His Only Son, Jesus of Nazareth, who was free of sin and ready to die for ours. Which He did. Quite famously.
Most of this might not sound very different from what you'd hear in a Bible study class, but right after the crucifixion is where Creciendo en Gracia takes a detour -- a very sharp detour, if you really think it through.
"Over history, when Adam was created up until the time when Jesus died on the cross, it was the Law of Moses that was applicable to humanity," says Poessy. "And that is what is referred to as circumcision, because it was by works. You had to please God by doing things or abstaining from things...
"But when Jesus died on the cross, He knew that nobody could be perfect by pleasing Him with the flesh. He said it was actually just a shadow of something better that was to be established, something else that was to come...
"So He came here in a body of flesh and by being the perfect man and being crucified on the cross, He took the Law away, and He established the gospel of grace, which is uncircumcision. And uncircumcision is equivalent to grace, and it means that it's no longer by works, but it's rather by faith."
In other words, Christ took all the sin and the Jewish laws with Him. Murder? No longer a sin. Rape? Not a problem. Theft? Not even close.
All that matters is faith.
"What religion has done is, they've taught you otherwise," says Poessy. "They're still teaching you the old law, which actually expired 2,000 years ago."
Local believer Boris Martinez, who claims he was an alcoholic before discovering De Jesús 15 years ago, says he'd always had a problem with the way traditional churches didn't give Christ enough credit: "My mom used to take me to church and every time I had trouble with this one little thing, where they would say, 'Jesus died for your sins,' but right at the end of the sermon, they would say, 'Come up front, you sinners who need prayer.'"
Religion has used sin to keep people under submission, according to the gospel of De Jesús. It's a sentiment commonly expressed by atheists and agnostics -- the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer famously said, "Religions are like fireflies. They require darkness in order to shine." -- but followers of De Jesús haven't rejected all religion; they've just found a new one.
"Religion came and lied to the world," says Poessy, "and all of a sudden God comes back to reveal those mysteries and show you what's happened."
Born to Catholic parents 60 years ago in Ponce, Puerto Rico, De Jesús says he was a drug addict in his teens, often stealing to feed his heroin habit. But he recovered with the help of a faith-based program called Teen Challenge and at the age of 20 moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he started up his own rehab program. His gospel was evangelical Baptist.
But one fateful night in 1973, he says, his young son came downstairs and calmly told him, "'Dad, I heard a voice that the Lord is coming tonight.'
"I said, 'What!?' I was scared, you know. So then I said, 'Are you afraid?'
"He said, 'No, no. I just heard a voice that the Lord is coming tonight.'
"So then I took him back upstairs and put him in bed and then I went to bed myself and when I went to my room, two angels appeared, two strong men. Tall. Strong. And they said to me, 'The King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, He is coming tonight to anoint you for the ministry.' So I was scared, I was happy, I thought He was going to give me a gift."
De Jesús expected to receive a healer's touch, but what he got was a voice in his head, a new way of looking at the Bible.
"All of the sudden He began saying things that I'd never heard in my life, and that's where this ministry began," he says. "The mysteries of the New Testament, especially the 14 letters of Paul, they became open, you know; like Romans 6.2 said that I'm dead to sin, and if I'm dead to sin, I'm sinless, because if you die, you can't sin as a dead person."
He began to think of the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as mere biographies of the life of Jesus of Nazareth; the writings of Paul became his only true gospel, and he began interpreting them like no one had before. In Galatians 2:7, Paul says he was given the task of preaching to the Gentiles, while Peter's lot was the Jews. "Paul was killed and Peter kept preaching the wrong gospel," says De Jesús, "and it's bad medicine to the whole world. Rome was defeated with the wrong gospel."
This wrong gospel, according to De Jesús, teaches us that we are still capable of sin, while Paul, and only Paul, knew the truth: that all sin died with Christ on the cross.
If you're wondering why you never heard any of this in Sunday School, that's because apparently no one except De Jesús and his followers thinks Paul believed sin was eradicated.
David Capes is a professor at Houston Baptist University and a noted Paul scholar, and he says he's never heard of such a reading.
"There's no credible New Testament writer, thinker, theologian or historian who would agree with that reading of Paul," he says. "If you look particularly in Romans 7, Paul continues to say, 'I struggle with sin.' Paul says it about himself. He says, 'The good I would like to do, I'm not able to do because sin is still working against me.' And this is the saved Paul, the converted Paul."
Capes says there's no way Paul could've taught his followers that sin died on the cross.
"To have communication of any sort, the sender and the receiver have to be on the same sort of track, and if Paul had shown up in his world saying that sin is no more and if he had shown up saying the kinds of things this fellow claims, people would not have understood him in his day," says Capes. "People couldn't have understood Paul, because that wasn't the world they were living in."
But those living in the contemporary world do seem to have some understanding of what De Jesús is talking about, and their first question always seems to be: If there's no sin, what's to stop us from doing wrong?
"I don't believe in sin and I don't do anything I want," says De Jesús, "because once you know the truth, the truth will make you free. Why hurt people? Why hurt yourself?"
At the age of 40, De Jesús heeded the voice's command to pack up his wife and kids and move to Miami, where he scored a 15-minute daily radio spot and began broadcasting his controversial sermons. Other radio preachers soon attacked his message and, as you would expect, this only made him more famous.
After being on the air for only three months, he rented a warehouse and invited listeners to a weekend seminar. More than 500 people showed up, he says, and Creciendo en Gracia was born.
The church doesn't keep records of membership, but media rep Poessy says Creciendo en Gracia now has more than 300 education centers in more than 30 countries, and De Jesús's weekly sermons are aired on more than 120 TV stations, including Channel 61 (KZJL) in Houston.
As the church has grown, De Jesús's message has veered further and further away from mainstream Christianity, a move he says eventually led to the breakup of his first marriage: "She said, 'No, no, no. I'm tired of changes.' I said, 'Let's go step by step.' And we lasted a long time, but eventually she left me because of it."
He began referring to himself as the Apostle, although, contrary to published reports, he never claimed to be the reincarnation of Paul. And then two years ago, after being prodded by his parishioners, he pulled the trigger and declared himself the Second Coming of Christ.
"It was tough for me, because already I was being persecuted," he says. "I thought about it for years."
When people wonder about his progression, ask him why it took him more than 30 years to decide he was Christ, he says, "Well, it's like you. You were a young man, then you got married, then you became a father, then your kids have kids and you became a grandfather. You grow into things in life."
De Jesús has grown into some lavish tastes. According to his daughter/accountant Joann De Jesús, his salary last year was $136,000, but that doesn't count all the gifts he received from wealthy devotees. He's quite the clotheshorse, often seen sporting fine suits and gold jewelry, and he drives a 7 series BMW. When the Houston Press visited him at his Missouri City home, he joked that reporters always liked to talk about his Rolexes, but "now it is no more Rolex, that's the problem. Now I went to Miami, to a group of businessmen, and they gave me a Pasha," a Cartier watch encrusted with enough diamonds to finance the overthrow of a small African government.
Charismatic leader with messianic tendencies? Check. Unwavering devotion from his followers? Check. Buckets of cash? Check.
Yep, that's right; it's time to play Is This a Cult?, the exciting game where you, the reader, get to decide whether or not we've got another Waco or Jonestown on our hands.
Some folks in Miami seem to think so. When reporter Mariah Blake first broke the story of De Jesús in English for Miami New Times, a sister paper of the Press, she interviewed Regina Albarracin, the mother of a man who had devoted his entire life to Creciendo en Gracia.
"They're stupid people who believe in stupidities," said Albarracin. "They're like those people in Waco, Texas. When you go there, you get brainwashed."
After Blake's story came out, Creciendo en Gracia got its own page on RickRoss.com, a site devoted to tracking destructive cults.
De Jesús has heard these accusations before. His response: "Anything people don't understand, they call it a cult. Because we are new. But I could call them a cult. A false cult. I'm a cult of truth, a truthful cult."
There are big differences between himself and the likes of David Koresh or Jim Jones, he says. "Number one: They didn't have the gospel of uncircumcision, which caused fear. We preach a different gospel. And number two: My people are too wise. Whatever I say to them, they say, 'Where is that written?'"
Apparently it's written somewhere that other faiths should be protested. Loudly. More than 80 followers of De Jesús showed up at a Protestant festival in Miami last November, shouting and holding signs that read, "Your pastor lies" and "The devil was destroyed." His followers have disrupted church services in Havana and orchestrated simultaneous protests in 22 Colombian cities. All told, there have been actions in more than a dozen countries.
"Sometimes the other people get upset," says De Jesús, "but we do it peacefully."
De Jesús envisions a global Government of God, with himself at the head, that will bring all nations to the obedience of faith.
"We're not looking to go and get the local governments out," he says. "We're just in the beginning of something bigger."
And that Government just might be based out of Houston.
De Jesús moved to Missouri City a few months ago. Miami was too crowded and he preferred somewhere quieter, he says, neglecting to mention that two of his administrators recently divorced their wives for other women, a breakdown that could help explain what is generally accepted to be a slow decline in Miami membership.
Nestled in a soulless Missouri City neighborhood, his two-story abode bears all the trappings of suburban paradise: tan walls, tan carpet, plush couches, pool table, flat-screen TV; sparsely decorated, not a thing out of place. It's cookie-cutter, even if its occupant isn't.
"Christianity today, that's the nonsense," says De Jesús. "I would love to eradicate from the Earth those teachings."
On a recent Wednesday night, Creciendo en Gracia's Houston fellowship met near Sharpstown High School, in a suite in an industrial strip center where you'd expect to see tire-repair and car-audio shops. Inside were about 100 folding chairs, lined up facing an unoccupied podium adorned with the seal of the Government of God. Forty or so Hispanics -- some in suits, others in jeans; some old, others in baby carriages -- sat in rapt attention, watching the pull-down projection screen where De Jesús was expected to make his appearance.
Creciendo en Gracia's pastors rarely address their local flocks -- this keeps the message pure, the logic goes -- and all sermons are simulcast live from Miami. But you'd guess De Jesús was standing right there in the flesh, judging from the way Houston's believers stood and cheered when he appeared on the screen and began preaching his message of salvation.
After the service, the people gathered together, gossiping and talking gospel like they would at any other church. There were wide-eyed zealots who parroted back De Jesús's teachings verbatim, but there were also folks like Miguel Corrigeux, a 37-year-old truck driver who has a more muted respect for his savior.
Corrigeux says he experimented with different faiths -- evangelical, Pentecostal, Baptist and Catholic -- before discovering the gospel of De Jesús two years ago.
"One day I was just flipping the channels and I saw him talking about the devil being destroyed forever," he says. "It's really changing my life."
No longer does Corrigeux believe he's a sinner. Nor does he believe in hell.
"The Book of Revelations is about hell, inferno, and all these souls are thrown into hell, being burned," he says. "And I said, Wait a minute, let's put this on the table. What is fire? Hell is supposed to be fire, you know. Fire burns the carpet, the wood, but the soul is not a material thing. A soul cannot be burned. That doesn't really make sense."
What makes sense to Corrigeux is that he is saved, even if not everyone is: "The Bible says that Christ died for many, not for all."
And there's where the gospel gets tricky. Jesus of Nazareth died for your sins, but unless you recognize that in the proper way, unless you realize De Jesús is the Man, your body won't be transformed into spirit at the moment of Rapture. You'll be stuck in your sack of flesh for a little while longer, and only after you've learned the truth will you be transformed.
Creciendo en Gracia accepts everyone, but it's still an exclusive club.
When asked if he believes De Jesús is the Second Coming of Christ, Corrigeux says, "At first, in the beginning, it kind of bothered me, to be honest with you. How can God be talking through a man like that?"
But the more Corrigeux listened, the more he came to understand:
"It's not the flesh; it's what he speaks about."
It's easy to see why people have embraced the gospel of De Jesús.
His followers are constantly told how good they are, how other religions have falsely categorized them as sinners. The ministry has a very open attitude toward homosexuality, for example.
"That's personal, between you and yourself," says De Jesús. "I don't reject people like that."
Much like Joel Osteen, De Jesús preaches prosperity, even if he does criticize the Lakewood pastor for not using enough of the Bible. ("He's a great motivator, but he's not a preacher," says De Jesús. "He reads one verse of the Bible and that's where he ends.") When it was time to pass the bucket during the Sharpstown fellowship, offerings were referred to as "investments," and investments they were, since Creciendo en Gracia rarely gives back to the community and spends most of its money on outreach.
If you're wondering how this jibes with Christ's recurring message that we should help the poor, you're stuck in pre-cross thinking. According to the gospel of De Jesús, everything Jesus of Nazareth said or did before the cross was only said and done as a means to an end, which was the end of sin. And once that end was achieved, nothing before it really mattered.
"Say someone comes here and kills my wife," says De Jesús. "I'm supposed to turn the other cheek? Maybe, or maybe I kill him back."
Be happy, say goodbye to guilt, only worry about yourself -- it's a message that's easy to swallow. But it can also be a little dangerous.
During a recent televised sermon, Bishop Carlos Cestero, who often introduces De Jesús, related the tale of a gay man in Cuba who had slept with someone who had AIDS. The man was sure he'd been infected. But then he found out about Creciendo en Gracia, and when he later got tested, the results were negative. And even though he had never tested positive, these results were presented as proof that De Jesús has healing powers.
"I do miracles, my God, every week," says De Jesús. "I'm a miracle. I'm 60 years old. I don't have an insurance plan. I heal myself, easy. I teach that to my people. My people, they heal themselves easily."
Members of Creciendo en Gracia seem to have a knack for constructing their own realities. Media rep Poessy told the Press the gospel of De Jesús was "causing such a transformation in people's lives that the federal government of the United States wrote to us, asking for this to be the official teaching in prison." When asked for documentation, she provided a letter from the Federal Bureau of Prisons stating the bureau had received several audio cassettes from the church and needed written permission to pass them out -- not exactly an official endorsement, but enough for a believer like Poessy to see what she wants to see.
And as HBU Professor Capes was quick to point out, Paul had plenty to say about struggling with sin. Apparently De Jesús isn't reading those parts.
"Everybody would agree -- in terms of early Christian theology, Paul and John and Peter -- that when the Messiah comes, that war is done away with," says Capes. "But the presence of war, the killing, is proof that the Messiah has not yet come."
Even if you look at the quote from Thessalonians above, which is a Creciendo en Gracia favorite, it says "the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night," not that the Lord would come like one. That line is generally interpreted to mean the Second Coming will come by surprise, out of nowhere, not that the Lord will be a former heroin addict.
But if you're bothered by such things, you probably don't believe De Jesús is the Second Coming of Christ. No problem. He's fine with that. In fact, he urges you to find Him somewhere else.
"But if you find someone else who claims to be Jesus, he has to be teaching what I'm teaching," he says. "That I know."