History Analysis: Humans Are Pretty Good At Worshipping Own Kind

16 Saviors, 16 Flavors

16 Saviors, 16 Flavors

How many humans have been worshiped as gods? How many have declared themselves to be the “chosen one”? 

From emperors to eighteenth-century Shakers to modern-day mass murderers, many have claimed divinity. 

Their status as gods and prophets is gained by military might or public moralizing and sometimes nothing more than charisma. 

They may have great nations of followers who believe their every word or they may be known only as frauds and criminals, with those who once believed in them memorialized as victims. 

Roman emperors were considered gods in their day, so let’s start with Caesar Augustus, who figures into the story of the most well-known “savior” of our time, Jesus of Nazareth.

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According to Luke Chapter 2, Augustus ordered a census throughout the Roman Empire which required all residents to return to their cities of origin. That’s the tale wherein Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem and had to lodge in a stable among sheep and cattle.

Unlike fictitious Jesus, Augustus is a genuine historical figure. But he and Jesus do have one real thing in common: they were deified by their followers. Augustus’ reign as a supreme being started in 9 BCE when the Provincial Assembly of Asia Minor implemented a proposal by governor Paullus Fabius Maximus. 

They composed a resolution, the Letter of the Proconsul to the Cities of Asia, which declared that Augustus was fathered by Zeus but took human form when he came down to Earth. Upon his death, Augustus returned to heaven:

Whereas the Providence... has brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving to us Augustus Caesar, whom it filled with virtue for the welfare of mankind, and who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order; and whereas having become visible, Caesar has fulfilled the hopes of all earlier times.

The proclamation also created a new calendar to further immortalize his name: “...[A]nd whereas, finally, that the birthday of the God has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel concerning him, therefore, let all reckon a new era beginning from the date of his birth, and let his birthday mark the beginning of [each] new year.” 

The influence of this proclamation continues to this day. The month of August is named for him, just as July is for Julius Caesar. We commemorate other gods from that time as well. January is named for the god Janus, March for Mars, April for Aphrodite, May for Maia, and June for Juno. 

The idea of the messianic head of state has stuck around. Emperor Hirohito of Japan was a deity in the eyes of his people until he was demoted to demigod after the country’s defeat in World War II. 

More recently, the paramilitary soldiers of Saddam Hussein had the motto that “those who swear allegiance to Saddam are swearing allegiance to God.” 

The rulers—and the dear departed rulers—of North Korea are also deities in their country. Kim Jong-il (dead) is the son of Kim Il-sung (long dead) and is the father of Kim Jong-un, the third and still-living unit of a Korean divine trinity. More on Kim Jong-un later. 

For now, let’s continue our survey of ancient messiahs and work our way up through the centuries to meet a whole smorgasbord of saviors, each with their own distinctive flavor.

Apollonius of Tyana

The philosopher Apollonius enjoyed a large following of admirers and apostles who considered him a prophet of divine birth. He supposedly led a life of moral perfection traveling and preaching throughout Syria, Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and India during the first and second centuries. 

He offered wise counsel to kings of many lands, all the while remaining humble and rejecting the label of deity. His documented words include the following advice: 

On the Mount

In his sermon on a mount to the Ephesians, he urged the study of truth, philosophy, and wisdom. 

On Slavery

Apollonius said that you show yourself to be a good man “when defending the liberty of your own land... [rather] than bringing slavery on a city.” 

On Reason

Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) wrote that he learned from Apollonius “to be free with a certainty beyond all chance, not to look to anything else but reason even for a moment.” 

On Virtue

When the judges of the Olympic Games requested his presence, Apollonius wrote, “For myself, I would come for the spectacle of the physical struggle, except that I would be abandoning the greater struggle for virtue.”

On Prayer

Apollonius recommended that you “pray that justice may be done, that laws be not broken.”

On Family

He inherited wealth but gave much of it away because it was “at best but a transitory toy. I gave it up to my brothers, my friends, and the poorer of my relatives.” 

Of course, he never performed miracles despite claims of him healing the sick, but his life, as recorded by his biographer Philostratus, was apparently exemplary and one of the kindest and most selfless ever lived. 

In his Vita Apollonii (Life of Apollonius), Philostratus wrote that Apollonius did not die, but was resurrected and physically elevated to heaven.

Jesus of Nazareth

This first-century religious zealot claimed to have the power of God to show sinners (i.e. everyone) the “way” to God because he was the son of God. 

The Bible claims that Jesus was conceived by divine intervention, healed the sick, and warned that the world was going to end very soon (Matthew 16:27-28, Matthew 23:36, Mark 9:1, and Luke 21:32). 

With his twelve sidekicks, he took his preacher show on the road, offering counsel to peasants and nobility alike in a small area of Judea. 

But if he truly wanted God’s word disseminated, why didn’t he visit Beijing, Alexandria, and/or Rome—the metropolises of his time? Details. Let’s compare some words attributed to him with the words of Apollonius:

On the Mount

In his sermon on a mount, Jesus advised to pluck out your eyes if you find yourself attracted to a woman or else you will be sent to hell (Matthew 5:28-29). 

On Slavery

Jesus had no problem with it: “Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing... 

But if that servant says in his heart, ‘My lord delayeth his coming’ and shall begin to beat the menservants and maidens, and to eat and drink, and to be drunken ... 

And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes” (Luke 12:43-48).

On Reason

Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on... Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them ... Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat?” (Matthew 6:25-31). 

On Virtue

Jesus reminded the Pharisees that they were hypocrites if they didn’t follow the uber-draconian rules of the Old Testament: 

“For instance, Moses gave you this law from God: ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death” (Mark 7:10).

 Jesus praised genocide as well:

Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the Day of Judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades” (Matthew 11:20-23).

On Prayer

And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive” (Matthew 21:22). 

So God’s a celestial vending machine; in goes your prayer, outcomes your wish. That vendor is still in business today.

On Family

If any man come to me and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). 

This is what a return to “good old Christian family values” would really look like. The author of the Gospel of Luke wrote that Jesus did not die, but was resurrected and physically elevated to heaven (Luke 24:51).

Shabbetai Zevi of Smyrna

A seventeenth-century religious zealot, Zevi was a Sephardic rabbi who claimed to be the long-awaited messiah. He had a group of followers throughout southeast Europe and believed the world was going to end very soon in Tikkun, which is the Hebrew concept of God ending and “fixing” the world.

The prime minister of Constantinople had him imprisoned and gave him the choice of death or converting to Islam. He chose the latter.

Ann Lee

Born a Quaker in England in 1736, Ann Lee believed that one could attain perfect holiness through celibacy. Her frequent public proclamations of Jesus’ imminent return garnered her a group of loyal followers who emigrated to the U.S. in 1774. 

They settled in Niskayuna, New York, and became the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. Outsiders colloquially referred to them as Shakers, after their form of worshipping through ecstatic dancing. She healed the sick (they say), predicted the future (they say), and proffered claims of miraculous events. 

Because of their adherence to celibacy, the Shakers died off without leaving successors. They do get points for being pacifists and for making great furniture, and the church still exists with a couple of childless members. Interested parties can go on their website to inquire about becoming a Shaker.

Bernhard Müller

Born in 1788, Müller emigrated from Germany to Pennsylvania in 1831. Claiming to be a prophet, he led his followers to the “promised land” of Grand Ecore, Louisiana, only to die shortly after their arrival. 

His widow continued his mission and established Germantown Colony, a socialist utopia eagerly awaiting the imminent second coming of Christ. They were dispersed by the Civil War and eventually disbanded. 

Today, Germantown Colony is on the National Register of Historic Places, complete with a museum.

Hong Xiuquan

This Christian zealot, born in China in 1814, saw “visions” and believed he was the brother of Jesus Christ. 

In his twenties, he had a nervous breakdown after failing a civil service exam for the third time. While recovering, he had a dream that he went to heaven where he met his spiritual family (different than his biological family on earth) and destroyed demons that were plaguing heaven. 

Hong instigated a rebellion to install himself as the heavenly king of the empire. As a result, anywhere from twenty to fifty million people were killed in China from 1850 to 1864 during the Taiping Rebellion.

Antônio Conselheiro

Conselheiro was a Brazilian who predicted that the end of the world would be a four-year process. He wrote that “in 1896, a multitude shall come up from the shore… In 1898 there shall be… a great scarcity of heads… In 1900 all light shall be extinguished.” 

He may be commended for one thing: Despite the Bible’s approval—and even legislation—of slavery, he fervently opposed it. Conselheiro lucked out and never had to answer for his End Times math mistake. He died in 1897, three years before the non-apocalypse. 


Fatimah Baraghani was a nineteenth-century theologian and prophet of the Bábí faith in Iran. As an exceptional beauty who was highly educated for a woman of her time, she elevated herself to a notorious position in her faith through her zealous behavior and was given the moniker Táhirih, which means “pure one.” 

For example, at one Bábí assembly, and to the horror of the men gathered, she exposed her face by removing the traditional veil from her head (a serious no-no under Islam) in symbolic rebellion against the restraint on women. 

She was revered as a martyr and saint after the Iranian government executed her by strangulation (using her own veil) for breaking Sharia Law.

Joseph Smith

This inventor of the Mormon religion and founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) claimed an angel named Moroni visited him in 1823 to alert him of some golden plates buried in the woods near his house in Palmyra, New York. 

Smith claimed that the plates, written in Reformed Egyptian (there is no such thing), told the tale of a group of people who were led by God from Jerusalem to the Americas around 600 BC. Today, the LDS Church claims a worldwide membership of over fifteen million. 

Adherents believe that each of the trillions of planets in the cosmos has its own god, each of whom was previously human. 

A “spirit child” named Elohim, the offspring of one of those post-human gods, is the father of Jesus who came to earth to impregnate Mary. 

One of Elohim’s other sons, Lucifer, convinced a third of Elohim’s offspring (there were millions in total) to revolt. 

The ones who passed on the offer and remained neutral were cursed to have black skin. After his resurrection, Jesus came to the Americas to preach to the Indians, who are actually Israelites. 

Mormon couples in “good standing” with the church will get their own planet for the husband to rule in the Celestial Kingdom of the afterlife—just like Elohim! 

Good standing requires a lot, not the least of which is to give ten percent of your income to the church, no matter who you are. 

Billionaires and slum-dwellers alike must cough it up or they forfeit their planet and spend eternity in the Outer Darkness instead. 

Charles Taze Russell

Born in 1852, this fanatic got his start as a minister in the Christian primitivism movement, which strove to practice in the pure fashion of the first Christians. 

His interpretations of Christianity rejected the bits about the holy trinity and hellfire/ damnation, so he did a very good job of glossing over all those times in the Bible where Jesus threatened people with said hell fire (Matthew 5:22, 5:29, 5:30, 18:9, 23:33; Mark 9:47; and Luke 12:5). 

When he founded the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Pittsburgh in 1881, Russell claimed he was the Lord’s special servant, and, like Jesus, he was positive the world was going to end very soon. 

He first claimed the End Times would come in 1874. Then 1904, then 1914, then 1915. The Jehovah’s Witnesses revised his predictions every few decades until the most recent, which was to be in 1994. We all know how that played out. 

They believe this world is ruled by Satan, an angel whose egotism went nuclear. They also believe Satan has backup angels who are now demons, and they are positive that exactly 144,000 humans—and not even one more—will make it to heaven. 

This number comes from Revelation 7:4: “And I heard the number of them which were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of the children of Israel.”

Revelation is the same book that tells of a war in heaven, a beast with two horns like a lamb, a seven-headed dragon, frog-like unclean spirits, and two hundred million soldiers riding on fire-breathing lion-horses.

William M. Branham

Branham got an early start. In 1912, just three years after his birth, he claimed that he heard voices. In his early twenties, he aspired to be a Baptist minister after hearing more voices around the time that his brother died. 

He was ordained in 1932. When his wife and daughter perished in the 1937 flood of the Ohio River, Branham figured it was God punishing him. In 1946, Branham received another message from God, this time via an angel who charged him with the heavenly mission of healing the sick and preparing everyone for the End Times. 

Branham is considered one of the two founders (the other was Oral Roberts) of the Healing Revival movement. 

They used the same medical techniques as Jesus: laying hands on people or praying to God to remove the devils from the unfortunate victim. 

Accordingly, Branham’s followers believed he was God incarnate. (It was actually the nonsense written about Jesus’ healing methods that inspired the early Christians to discard Hippocrates’ scientific method in favor of exorcisms and burnings at the stake.) 

On Christmas Eve 1965, Branham, unable to heal himself, succumbed to injuries he suffered in a car accident six days earlier.

Jim Jones

Born in 1931 and an ardent Marxist in young adulthood, Jones founded the People’s Temple of the Disciples of Christ and claimed to be the Messiah. 

In 1977, with Mao Zedong as his inspiration, he established Jonestown, a Christian-communist mission cobbled together in an isolated patch of jungle in Guyana. Jones believed that he and his followers would make it to heaven and live forever in mutual joy if they all died together. 

On November 18, 1978, the cult members—910 men, women, and children—died in mass suicide, most of them by drinking a punch laced with cyanide and sedatives. This catastrophe is immortalized in the expression “drink the Kool-Aid,” which refers to someone who blindly follows an idea, no matter how absurd.

David Koresh

Born Vernon Wayne Howell in 1959, he legally changed his name in 1990 to David Koresh after the biblical Persian king who freed the Jews in Babylon. 

Koresh was a member of the Davidian Seventh-day Adventist Church, a reform movement within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. 

He co-founded the Branch Davidians, a faction in the reform group that broke away. Koresh fought his way to the top of the cult after claiming to have received visions and instructions directly from God. In 1993, Koresh and seventy-five of his followers died in a fire on their Waco, Texas, compound after they refused to surrender to a raid by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. 

Federal authorities had been investigating Koresh on several accusations of child abuse and sexual abuse, but the fire killed him before they were able to bring him to trial.

Jeffrey Don Lundgren

Lundgren was born in 1950 in Independence, Missouri, the home of a Mormon splinter group, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

Believing God gave him “signs” to build his own ministry, he used his photographic memory to master scripture quotes, which impressed some folks enough to follow him as a cult leader. 

In 1988, he predicted the End Times and Second Coming as May 3 (his birthday), but as it would turn out, the end of the world did not occur. In 1989, Lundgren murdered five members of the cult for being “disloyal” (they refused to live in his house with other cult members). 

The victims were a family that included three girls, ages fifteen, thirteen, and six. He was executed in Ohio in October 2006. 

Kim Jong-il

Taking place in Russia on a bleak February day in 1941 to a Korean woman and the commander of a Soviet Brigade, the birth of Kim Jong-il supposedly included a double rainbow and the appearance of a glowing new star that caused winter to turn immediately into spring. 

If this did happen, it went unnoticed by every meteorologist in the world. North Korean propaganda makes many extraordinary claims for their leader. 

He never defecates, for example. Kim Jong-il was the Supreme Poopless Leader and deity until his 2011 death. 

He remains the Eternal Party General Secretary, and his son Kim Jong-un has taken his place as Supreme Leader of North Korea. 

After his 2001 visit, Christopher Hitchens described North Korea as a “surreal nightmare of famine, isolation, repression, and nuclear peril.” 

It’s no wonder that, as one of the most articulate anti-theists of the twentieth century, Hitchens equated North Korea with the Judeo-Christian concept of the afterlife: “Just consider for a moment what their “heaven” looks like: endless praise and adoration, limitless abnegation and abjection of self, a celestial North Korea.”

Edgar C. Whisenant

In 1987, Whisenant published a book, 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will be in 1988. “On Borrowed Time” is the online version, complete with audio and available to all at MYKEC.net/Whisenant. 

Many Christians (mostly in the Bible Belt) sold their homes in preparation for the glorious end of the world. 

This self-proclaimed messiah proffered an argument based on Jesus’ parable of the fig tree (Matthew 24:32-36 and Mark 13:28-32): “This generation shall not pass,” prognosticated Jesus, “till all these things are fulfilled.” 

The year 1988, as it would turn out, was followed by a year that historians would come to call “1989,” and thus Whisenant was in error. The end did come for Whisenant, in May 2001. 


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By Michael Paulkovich

Michael B. Paulkovich is a columnist for American Atheist, an aerospace engineer and freelance writer who also contributes to Free Inquiry and Humanist Perspective. He is a contributing editor for The American Rationalist and the author of No Meek Messiah. His next book, Beyond the Crusades, was published in 2015 by American Atheist Press.

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