Those enamored of New Age spirituality usually find in Jesus a kindred spirit. Rather than exiling Jesus to the legendary lore of religious imagination or debunking him as a messianic pretender, New Age writers see Jesus as an enlightened master who manifested a divine power—a power potentially available to all who enter the New Age.
The New Age movement is not a conspiracy but an eclectic configuration of spiritual seekers who have despaired of finding personal and cosmic satisfaction in either religious orthodoxies or secular materialism. Instead, they have turned to unconventional and esoteric sources in the hopes of finding what they seek in the ambiance of the mystical, magical and metaphysical.[i] Given these tendencies, the Jesus of orthodox Christianity may seem inadequate. Jesus must be rescued from a pedestrian and parochial orthodoxy that demands he monopolize the deity.
Jesus in the New Age
Because of its diversity, the New Age has no single view of Jesus, but it offers a family of related views whose common factors may be summarized.
- The New Age highly esteems Jesus as a spiritually attuned or evolved being who serves as an example for spiritual discovery and evolutionary advancement. Jesus is referred to by various positive terms and titles including Master, Guru, Yogi, Adept, Avatar, Shaman, and Way-show-er. He is revered along with other religious leaders such as Buddha, Krishna, Confucius, and Lao Tze.
- Many argue for the separation of Jesus the individual person of history from the universal and impersonal Christ Consciousness, or Christ Principle. His consciousness of God and miracles were evidence he tapped into a higher level of consciousness. But if Jesus tapped into this cosmic power, he did not monopolize it. New Age philosopher David Spangler, echoing the ancient Gnostics, said that, “The Christ is not the province of a single individual.”[ii] As Joseph Campbell put it in his best-selling book The Power of Myth (1988), “We are all manifestations of Buddha consciousness or Christ consciousness, only we don’t know it.”[iii] Christhood comes through self-discovery; we may all become Christs if we tap into the universal energy, the Christ consciousness.
- The orthodox Christian affirmation that Jesus is the supreme and final revelation of God is questioned. Although Jesus is respected, he is not worshiped. Janet Bock 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.”[iv]
- Jesus’ crucifixion, if accepted as historical, is not deemed essential to restore the spiritual wholeness of humanity. Jesus’ suffering on the cross is either rejected as unhistorical or reinterpreted to exclude the idea that he suffered as the Christ to pay the penalty for human wrongdoing in order to reconcile people to a holy God. Elizabeth Clare Prophet, leader of The Church Universal and Triumphant, states emphatically that the idea of a blood sacrifice is “an erroneous doctrine,” actually “a remnant of pagan rite long refuted by the word of God” and never taught by Jesus himself.[v] Since the New Age worldview denies both human sinfulness and a personal God who is ethically perfect, Jesus’ crucifixion loses its traditional significance.
- Belief in Jesus’ resurrection and ascension is denied or spiritualized to remove them from the realm of the physical and the historical. Many others besides Jesus are recognized as “Ascended Masters” on the spiritual plane. Joseph 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 tings, the kingdom of heaven within.”[vi] For Campbell, Jesus does not ascend to the right hand of the Father but descends to the divine depths of the collective soul.
- The idea of Jesus’ Second Coming is spiritualized and democratized to refer to the evolutionary ascent of an awakened humanity. Soli, billed as an “off planet being” channeled through Neville Rowe, offers this esoteric insight: “You are God. You are, each and every one, part of the Second Coming.”[vii] The notion that “this same Jesus” (Acts 1:11) who literally and bodily ascended to heaven will himself return in like manner on Judgment Day is rejected as narrow-minded literalism (see also Philippians 3:20-21). Furthermore, final judgment after death is denied in favor of reincarnation.
- New-Age thinkers accept extra-biblical documents as sources for authentic information about Jesus. Although the Bible is often cited, its function is secondary to other texts. Instead, the spiritually inquisitive often turn to alternative records of Jesus’ life. This quest for a “lost Christianity” follows several routes converging at key points.
Many believe that Gnostic texts provide a trustworthy record of Jesus as a spiritual catalyst who came to awaken the spark of divinity locked in our bodily prison. Self-knowledge, or gnosis, is the means of salvation. Since people hear of titles such as The Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Peter, many assume the Gnostic materials are historically trustworthy documents that were expelled from orthodoxy by defensive clerics. Professor Elaine Pagels, long an advocate of Gnostic materials over the canonical Scriptures, recently drew attention to The Gospel of Thomas in her best-selling book, Beyond Belief (2003).
Another strand of 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 bears little resemblance to the biblical Jesus.
Others find the key to Jesus in the ancient Essene community at Qumran, near the Dead Sea. Claiming to base their interpretation on the Dead Sea Scrolls or other material, they see Jesus as part of a mystical remnant preserved from the Jewish fundamentalism of his day. Shirley MacLaine writes 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.”[viii]
These esoteric materials are often augmented or eclipsed by revelations thought to originate beyond history entirely. Channelers or mediums receive messages about Jesus from personal spirit beings. Others, such as Edgar Cayce and Rudolf Steiner, keyed into an impersonal plane of higher consciousness called the Akashic Records or the Collective Unconscious, to extract a picture of Jesus not in harmony with that of the New Testament. The popular three-volume set A Course in Miracles (1975), popularized by Marianne Williamson, claims to have been dictated by Jesus himself. Yet it denies historic Christian teachings such as original sin, the sacrificial death of Christ, reconciliation with God by faith in Jesus, and a literal heaven and hell.
- When the Bible is cited with reference to Jesus, an appeal is made to an esoteric dimension lost on those holding traditional interpretations. The Bible must be decoded to discern its secret substratum. So, when Jesus said that John the Baptist was Elijah, he was saying that John was the reincarnation of Elijah, not that John simply came with the same “spirit and power of Elijah” without being literally Elijah (Luke 1:17).[ix] When he said, “the kingdom of heaven is within you,” he really meant the soul is divine, not that the kingdom was breaking into history through Jesus (Luke 17:20-37).[x]
In the New Age, Jesus is understood apart from biblical moorings and placed in an alien intellectual and spiritual atmosphere. He is a Christ without a cross or physical resurrection, preaching a gospel without repentance or forgiveness, before an audience of potential equals who have no sin and are in no peril or perdition. Is this the genuine Jesus?
Is the New Testament Reliable?
Before considering the claims and credentials of Jesus, we should consider the reliability of the New Testament, since New Age sources impugn its integrity. The New Testament is often undervalued because of its antiquity and its manner of compilation. It is deemed unreliable because of the number of translations and editions. Some will reject its authority by saying, “Well, it has been translated so many times.” Yet the New Testament is the best-attested collection of literature from antiquity. Some 5,366 partial or complete Greek manuscripts of the New Testament have been recovered, dating as far back as the end of the first century. This plethora of manuscripts gives scholars ample material for reconstructing the original texts. No doctrine is affected by the small number of variant readings listed in modern Bibles.[xi] Although numerous translations of the New Testament are available, each modern translation appeals to the best ancient manuscripts available. They do not simply refer to the latest in a succession of translations. In fact, as time goes on more and more manuscripts are uncovered by archaeologists.
The date of the original composition of the New Testament books is quite close to the events described—in most cases, not more than a generation. We know that nearly all the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were in circulation by the end of the first century, because early church theologians such as Ignatius and Clement (writing at the turn of the century) refer to them or quote them. The original writers of the New Testament were also in a good position to ascertain the truth of their research, being either eyewitnesses (such as the apostles Matthew, Peter and John) or (like Luke) privy to eyewitnesses. Luke’s affirms that the material he used was “handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” that he might present an “orderly account” of Jesus’ life (Luke 1:2-3).[xii]
Concerning the canonization of the New Testament, New Age writers protest is that it was the product of a fourth-century theological elite which excluded legitimate sources such as Gnosticism for purely self-serving reasons. But this scenario doesn’t bear historical scrutiny. The canonized documents were not given authority as much as they were recognized as already functioning in the churches with authority. These books predate the church councils that canonized them by several hundred years. They were not produced or altered ad hoc. Furthermore, books were excluded from the canon for specific reasons, such as late date of composition, questionable authorship, doctrine at odds with the primitive “rule of faith,” and lack of use in the early church; they were not rejected for merely political motives.[xiii]
In light of this evidence, the burden of proof lies on any other purported record of the life of Jesus that contradicts the New Testament. Can the New Age revisionist documents bear historical scrutiny?
Testing New Age Documents
The New Testament is far better attested than Gnostic texts. The Gnostic texts are second- or third-century documents that editorially alter an already existing orthodox view of Jesus. None of the Nag Hammadi texts, for instance, is an actual gospel of the form of the canonical Gospels. Rather, they are largely metaphysical discourses that for the most part bear little resemblance to the New Testament either stylistically or theologically.[xiv]
The Notovitch material (claiming to reveal “the lost years of Jesus”) was roundly condemned as unreliable by such noted orientalists as F. Max Muller and others shortly after its publication because of its contrived and unhistorical character. Despite continued interest in The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, the supposed Tibetan original manuscript has never been available for scholarly study; there exists no adequate verification of its existence, let alone its credibility. Most scholars have flatly rejected it as a fraud. It is better to have 5,366 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament in the hand than (at most) one exotic manuscript lost in the Tibetan bush.[xv]
Claims that Jesus was an Essene do not hold up either. The Essenes of the Dead Sea Scrolls were not proto-New Agers. Rather, they were monotheistic Jews who, despite sectarian idiosyncrasies, affirmed human sinfulness, an eternal hell and a predestinating, personal God. Despite some similarity between Jesus’ teachings and the Essenes’ (due to their common belief in the Old Testament), there is a deep rift between them concerning asceticism, ethics, salvation and other issues. The Essenes were not New Agers, and Jesus was no Essene.[xvi]
With regard to channeled material, we should question why credence should be given to a revelation with no historical verification over documents with considerable historical verification—especially when channeled sources deny the central tenets of what Christians have affirmed for two thousand years. Because of this danger, the Apostle John warns: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). He goes on to encourage his readers to test the purported revelations by their views on Jesus; if they reject the biblical Jesus, they must be rejected as false messages, whatever their supposed source (1 John 4:2-3; see also Colossian 2:8).[xvii]
The simple fact is this: The evidence supports the reliability of the New Testament over the materials concerning Jesus given weight in New Age circles.
The Claims and Credentials of the Christ
But who is the Jesus of the New Testament? He speaks with a voice of authority based on both his claims and credentials.
Jesus calls himself God’s “one and only son” who was sent in love by the Father to bestow eternal life to those who believe in him (John 3:16). No other shares that status. This is no idle matter, since Jesus goes on to say that “whoever does not believe [in Jesus] stands condemned already because he has not believed in God’s one and only Son” (v. 18). Peter declared: “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). Paul affirms that “Christ Jesus” is “the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9; see also Ephesians 1:18-23).
Another authoritative affirmation comes from Jesus’ lips: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6; see also Matthew 11:27). In context, the exclusivity of this statement cannot be honestly avoided, although some, through “esoteric interpretation,” assert that Jesus is not speaking of himself as the way, but of the impersonal “I Am presence” (or God) in us all. Such interpretive innovation, often practiced in New Ager circles, is the result of “world-view confusion”—an entirely alien philosophy, in this case pantheism, is superimposed onto the text.[xviii]
Esoteric interpretation is countered by common sense. If nothing stated in the text indicates the esoteric meaning, and we have good independent evidence indicating that the document is written in code language, what grounds can be given to support the esoteric interpretation, besides wishful thinking? Although the Bible is not always easy to understand, no secret code is needed to decipher it.[xix] Peter warns of those who distort the Scriptures to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16).[xx]
By what credentials did Jesus back up his claims? Because those involved in the New Age movement grant the reality of a paranormal, dimension that affects the natural realm, they should be impressed with Jesus as an unsurpassed wonder worker. Jesus restored the blind, deaf, dumb and leprous, cast out demons with a word, commanded the elements to obey him, and summoned Lazarus from the grave. In the grandest miracle of all, he himself rose from the dead on the third day, just as he predicted. There would be no Christianity without the Resurrection.[xxi] A reading of the Gospels will disclose Jesus as another shaman or mystical holy man. He is far greater.
Jesus never claimed to tap into an impersonal realm of power. His demonstration of power was thoroughly personal. Jesus miraculous power was grounded in his identity as God’s only Son, his relationship to God, the Father, and his empowerment by the Holy Spirit. His miracles displayed his compassion and integrity. This is seen when declared that a crippled man’s sins were forgiven—an act only God could perform—and backed it up by healing him on the spot (Mark 2:1-12). Jesus healed both soul and body, and in the process forgiven the man’s sins, declaring the prerogatives of deity.
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. We must also consider 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;[xxii] 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 claimed to have the power to save the lost, whom he loved.[xxiii]
Jesus’ View of Salvation
Jesus was on a redemptive mission. However, New Age theology to the contrary, his mission was not to convince humans that they were really divine. He declared, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). Jesus understood being “lost” as sinfulness. He catalogued thirteen items of infamy—such as adultery, greed, impurity—as “coming from within” and making a person unclean before a holy and personal God (Mark 7:21-23). Where the New Age sees a sleeping god, Jesus finds a tempest of transgression. It is no wonder that Jesus often warned of the horrors of hell (Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 16:19-31).
Jesus presented himself as the answer. “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). Speaking of his impending crucifixion, Jesus said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). Christ’s crucifixion offers something alien to a New Age theology, which understands God as an impersonal and amoral Force, Principle or Vibration. From this perspective, humans all partake of the divine essence, but the ultimate reality is impersonal and inhuman. The Great Void makes no friends and sheds no blood. Yet we all yearn for loving relationships with other persons, for love, intimacy and acceptance.
We find our highest meaning in the inter-personal realm, not the im-personal realm. The Cross of Christ announces God’s sacrificial love toward us. God’s uncompromising holiness demands that a price be paid for sin: Jesus goes to the cross to bear that penalty. Yet God’s love provides a sinless sacrifice for a guilty race. As Paul said:
When we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his love toward us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)
Finding the Genuine Jesus
The gospel of Jesus Christ is an objective claim on every individual (Acts 17:30). Christ offers the life we crave but which we cannot achieve by looking within ourselves. He said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Although Jesus singled himself out of the spiritual crowd through his exclusive claims and unmatched credentials, he issues an inclusive invitation:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28)
Christ promises and provides rest from the futile human quest for Christhood. We may, by his grace, become his friends, but never his peers. We must surrender our quest for autonomy, turn from our selfishness, and turn toward the only one who can forgive our sins, give us eternal life, and equip us for good works for the glory of God. The first word of the gospel is repentance. Jesus said, “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). If we admit our sin, repent of our wrongdoings, and put our faith in the sinless sacrifice of Jesus, we can find eternal life—beginning now and continuing for an eternity in paradise with Jesus. Only through faith in Jesus can a new age truly begin (2 Corinthians 5:17).[xxiv]
[i] For more on the New Age as a movement and a worldview, see Douglas Groothuis, Unmasking the New Age (Downers Grove, Ill,: InterVarsity Press, 1986), and Douglas Groothuis, “New Age Spiritualites,” in Christopher Partridge, Douglas Groothuis, eds., Dictionary of Contemporary Religion in the Western World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 278-280.
[ii] David Spangler, Reflections on the Christ (Glasgow, Scotland: The Findhorn Foundation, 1977), 103.
[iii] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 57. This material, based on an interview with Bill Moyers, was also made into a PBS television interview, which is still shown during pledge drives.
[iv] Janet Bock, The Jesus Mystery (Los Angeles, Calif.: Aura Books, 1984), 112.
[v] Mark L. and Elizabeth Clare Prophet, The Science of the Spoken Word (Livingstone, Mont.: Summit University Press, 1986), 86-87.
[vi] Campbell, 56.
[vii] Quoted in Otto Friedrich, “New Age Harmonies,” Time, December 7, 1987, 66.
[viii] Shirley MacLaine, Going Within (New York, N.Y.: Bantam, 1989), 181.
[ix] See Douglas Groothuis, Confronting the New Age (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 95-98.
[x] See Douglas Groothuis, Jesus in an Age of Controversy (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002), 227-228.
[xi] See Groothuis, Jesus, 38-41.
[xii] For more on the reliability of the New Testament see Groothuis, Jesus, 17-63, and F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents—Are They Reliable? 6th ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1987).
[xiii] F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1988), and Groothuis, Jesus, 307-312.
[xiv] For more on the historicity of the Gnostic texts see Groothuis, Jesus, 102-118.
[xv] For more on the lost years of Jesus see Ibid., 119-151.
[xvi] For more on Jesus and the Essenes see Ibid., 152-180.
[xvii] For more on channeling see Ibid., Jesus, 181-214.
[xviii] See James Sire, Scripture Twisting: Twenty Ways Cults Misinterpret the Bible (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 23-30, 127-44.
[xix] On proper biblical interpretation see Gordon Fee and Stuart Douglas, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, 2nded. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993).
[xx] For more on esoteric interpretation see Groothuis, Confronting, 87-91; Groothuis, Jesus, 282-284; and Sire, 107-115.
[xxi] See Groothuis, Jesus, 272-282, and Gary Habermas, The Risen Jesus and Future Hope (Lanham, MA: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), especially Part I.
[xxii] On Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, see John Ankerberg, John Weldon and Walter Kaiser, The Case for Jesus, the Messiah (Chattanooga, Tenn.: The John Ankerberg Evangelistic Association, 1989).
[xxiii] For more on the claims and credentials of Christ, see Groothuis, Jesus, 237-260.
[xxiv] On coming to terms with Jesus, see Groothuis, Jesus, 285-306.