According to her death certificate, 18-year-old Whitney Cerak died on April 26, 2006. Nearly 1,400 people attended her funeral before she was buried in her hometown in Michigan. Six years later, Whitney got married in the same church where her funeral service had been held.
You read that correctly.
It turns out that Whitney had not died in the accident that took the lives of her friends. But due to severe head trauma and significant facial injuries, Whitney had been misidentified at the scene of the accident. It was weeks before she was able to speak, and in that time her family held a funeral service for the girl they believed to be their daughter. In reality, they buried the wrong girl.
Meanwhile, the van Ryn family faithfully cared for Whitney in the hospital, having been told that she was their daughter, Laura. Only after Whitney began to speak did they realize they had been caring for the wrong girl. Their daughter Laura had not been healing in a hospital bed; she had been buried in a mismarked grave.
Upon learning about the instance of mistaken identity, one family rejoiced at the news that they’d been wrong. The other family despaired to learn the same.
Something similar often occurs when people hear the message of Jesus. Some think they’ve understood, and rejected, the Jesus of Christianity. They held a funeral service for the faith they held a long time ago. But many of them would be surprised to learn that the faith they’ve buried was a false one. They have rejected the wrong Jesus.
Here are three impostors who are sometimes confused with the real Jesus:
1. The Jesus of Religious Hypocrites
Imagine growing up in a home where your parents forced you to attend church services but never talked about Jesus throughout the week. They often complained about society as if they were perfect saints trapped in a world of sinners. They never read the Scriptures, and they only ever prayed before meals. They talked openly of the sins of others, but never confessed their own.
For millions of people, that is not a life they have to imagine but a description of the life they’ve already lived. (Perhaps that is similar to your own story.) When children in households like that grow up, the one thing they are almost certain to abandon is the ridiculous faith of their parents. Can you blame them? Who would want to follow a Jesus that looked like that?
But religious hypocrites are not at all like the real Jesus. And the Jesus they claim to worship is not the Jesus of the Scriptures. After all, Jesus aimed his harshest words at hypocritical religion. He said that though they claim Jesus as their Lord, Jesus says that he doesn’t claim them and their shenanigans (Matthew 7:21).
In other words, people who reject Jesus because of religious hypocrisy are not rejecting the real Jesus, since the people they thought were giving Jesus a bad name do not actually belong to him. For unless they repent, Jesus will one day say to such people, “Depart from me. I never knew you” (Matt. 7:23). If Jesus doesn’t claim religious hypocrites, then why are you holding them against Jesus?
2. Jesus the Jerk
The real Jesus is not a jerk, but many people think he is. They mistake Jesus’ correction and hatred of sin as some kind of mean-spirited nitpicking or harsh criticism. But nothing could be further from the truth. It’s true that Jesus hates sin. It grieves him and offends him—but not because he’s touchy. Jesus is for justice, and therefore against injustice; he is for life, and therefore against anything that would ruin life; he is for the flourishing of his creation, and therefore against anything that corrupts and pollutes, or harms and destroys; he is for goodness, and therefore against sin and evil.
The reason Jesus hates sin—sin against him, against our neighbors, against his good creation—is because sin breaks the peace between God and us, between us and each other, and between us and God’s world. Jesus is for God’s glory and our good, and therefore against sin.
This is a little bit like when a parent tells their child that they cannot play in the street. They are not being harsh or mean by forbidding the child from playing the road. On the contrary, the parent commands them not to play there because of their great love for the child. In a similar way, Jesus commands us to avoid sin because he loves us. He knows that sin brings despair and death, but he offers us joy and life. How stupid would we be to reject Jesus for that? And how prideful must we be to think that we know better than the God who made us and the world we live in?
3. Passive, Pushover Jesus
At the other end of the spectrum from Jesus the Jerk is the Passive, Pushover Jesus. This misconception views Jesus as “a limp-wristed hippie in a dress with a lot product in his hair,” as one author put it. Now it’s true that Jesus is gracious, kind, compassionate, gentle, humble, and tender. And the Scriptures do say that he is abounding in love and mercy, offering rest to weary souls with a gentleness that will not “break a bruised reed.”
But the reason all of that is true is not because Jesus is a kindly old grandpa figure sitting in his rocking chair in the sky, patiently waiting for you to go to him, but ultimately unconcerned if you really heed his call. In truth, Jesus is also an ultimate warrior King, who promised to return to execute perfect justice in God’s world. He will do this with such fury that the images in the book of Revelation depict Jesus as a shining warrior, wrapped in a white robe, with a sword coming from his mouth. He will use the sword to slay the enemies of God, and the devastation will be so terrific that his robe will be drenched with blood—and the blood is not his own.
See, it’s easy to walk away from a kindly grandpa, passive pushover Jesus. You know that even when you disobey him, the consequences will never really catch up to you. He’ll still be there, in his rocking chair, waiting to reward you with a Werther’s original. But when you see who the real Jesus is, then you realize what your disobedience actually is. It’s rebellion against the ruler of this world. It’s disloyalty to the God who loves you. It’s unfaithfulness. It’s betrayal. And it’s suicide. The only reason we are spared from God’s righteous judgment of all sin is because Jesus offered himself in our place. He died a bloody death on the cross as both a demonstration of how severe sin is, and also as a substitution for those (like you and me) who should have died instead. And that’s something no passive, pushover would ever do.
Meeting the Real Jesus
The best guard against all of these errors is knowing the real Jesus for ourselves. And the way do that is to read the book that’s all about him, the Bible. The more familiar we are with the Scriptures and the gospel of grace, the better we will be to recognize and correct every ‘wrong Jesus’ that someone has rejected. We don’t counter with a beat down, but with good news: “Good news! You’ve rejected the wrong Jesus. Let me introduce you to the real one.”
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.