Various world religions include the concept of a messiah in their doctrine including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Bahá’í Faith, Unification movement, Shakers, Rastafari movement, and others. For this reason, billions of people in the world believe in a messiah of some kind.
Traditionally, one requirement for the position of messiah has been that the person must be alive. It’s hard to bring about world change when you’re dead. A messiah is expected to accomplish various messianic tasks such as bringing heaven to earth as depicted in this colorized version of the 1896 painting Peace by William Strutt that shows an image world peace (as described in the Biblical account Isaiah 11:6-9 and 65:25).
For messianic leaders who have died, one or more of the following points are sometimes made in their defense:
- Some followers will claim their leader has not died, but been raised from the dead and is continuing to fulfill the requirements from heaven.
- Some followers will claim that their leader will return again at some point in the future to accomplish all that is required of a messiah.
- Some followers will claim that their leader, although dead, continues to live on in his/her followers and in this way, through his/her followers, will accomplish the required tasks of a messiah. In this regard, a potential messiah should be judged not only by what they did during their lifetime, but what their followers do as adherents to the teachings that were brought forth by their leader or founder. This can be a good thing or a bad thing considering that a religions (and leaders) are judged by the lives and actions of the followers.
- Some followers will claim that their leader is a reincarnation of someone, and will be reincarnated again throughout history until heaven is established on earth. For this reason, Jesus was thought by some to be the return of Elijah (Mark 8:28).
- Some followers will claim that the roll of the messiah is to set certain events in motion that will ultimately, perhaps years and generations later, result in heaven on earth.
For the five reasons listed above, it is now a widely accepted belief that candidates for the position of messiah need not be alive. For purposes of this document, someone not accomplishing the messianic tasks during their lifetime is not reason for disqualification.
Potential Candidates for the Position of Messiah
Below is an alphabetical list of candidates for the position of messiah. Some of these have been discredited, but they are listed anyway. Names are linked to Wikipedia entries. For those who believe the messiah can be reincarnated or operating through more than one person, all of the people listed below may simultaneously be the messiah.
- Baal Shem Tov. The Ball Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel Ben Eliezer) is perhaps one of the people in history most likely to be the messiah, yet he has not had a significant number of people suggesting that he is the messiah, which would, perhaps, be fittingly consistent with the humility he preached and lived. However, one story is told of when the Baal Shem Tov met with the Messiah and asked him, “When are you coming?” The Messiah answered, “When your teachings are spread throughout the world…” [source] This story suggests that the Baal Shem Tov might not be the messiah, but his teachings will bring the messiah. The Baal Shem Tov, is considered to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism, which alone is quite an amazing accomplishment. From him is theologically traced the subsequent line of Rebbes leading up to the present day Chabad movement. The Baal Shem Tov Foundation website contains more information.
- Bahá’u’lláh. As the leader of the Bahá’í Faith, Bahá’u’lláh “declared that he was the ‘Promised One’ of all religions, fulfilling the messianic prophecies found in world religions. He stated that his claims to being several messiahs converging in one person were the symbolic, rather than literal, fulfillment of the messianic and eschatological prophecies found in the literature of the major religions. Bahá’u’lláh’s eschatological claims constitute six distinctive messianic identifications: from Judaism, the incarnation of the “Everlasting Father” from the Yuletide prophecy of Isaiah 9:6, the ‘Lord of Hosts’; from Christianity, the ‘Spirit of Truth’ or Comforter predicted by Jesus in his farewell discourse of John 14-17 and the return of Christ ‘in the glory of the Father’; from Zoroastrianism, the return of Shah Bahram Varjavand, a Zoroastrian messiah predicted in various late Pahlavi texts; from Shi’a Islam the return of the Third Imam, Imam Husayn; from Sunni Islam, the return of Jesus (Isa); and from Bábism, He whom God shall make manifest.” [source]
- Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia. As the founder of the Rastafari movement, Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia (born Tafari Makonnen) has many followers who believe that he is the messiah. Selassie is no longer living, but continues to have many followers.
- Jacob Frank. As an 18th century Jewish religious leader, Jacob Frank “claimed to be the reincarnation of the self-proclaimed messiah Sabbatai Zevi and also of King David. … The heyday of Frank’s messianic movement occurred during a period of the loss of relative social and economic stability in the late 1770s resulting from the Koliyivshchyna rebellion, an uprising of Ukrainian peasantry that resulted in many Polish and Jewish casualties. … Messianism at the end of the seventeenth century assumed mystical coloring, possibly under the influence of the Rosicrucian movement in Germany, which dressed its doctrine of improvement of the World in mystical garb.” [source]
- Jesus Christ. Perhaps one of the best known messianic leaders is Jesus. Handel’s Messiah was written in recognition of Jesus. Jesus is considered the messiah by Christians and Muslims. Today’s Christians are followers of the religion created by the Apostle Paul which is a departure from the Judaism that Jesus preached and instead focuses on Jesus as the son of God, Jesus as the Messiah, and Jesus as God.
- L. Ron Hubbard. Born Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, L. Ron Hubbard was the founder of a new religion called Scientology. Some consider him a messianic figure. The book L. Ron Hubbard, Messiah or Madman? by Bent Corydon challenged L. Ron Hubbard’s messianic status.
- Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Also known as The Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson is the seventh Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch Judaism which has members in 950 cities of 75 countries. There are estimated to be more than 3,300 Chabad institutions around the world. Although Chabad does not emphasis the messianic teaching of Judaism [source], they are actively and collectively drawing on all Jewish knowledge, wisdom, and strength to bring about Tikkun Olam (the repair of the world), which is a messianic goal.
- Sabbatai Zevi. “His popularity grew, as people of all faiths repeated his story. His fame extended to all countries. Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands had centers where the Messianic movement was followed, and the Jews of Hamburg and Amsterdam heard about the events in Smyrna from trustworthy Christians. … Sabbatai had many prominent rabbis as followers, including Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, Moses Raphael de Aguilar, Moses Galante, Moses Zacuto, and the above-mentioned Hayyim Benveniste. Dionysius Mussafia Musaphia, an adherent of Spinoza, likewise became one of Sabbatai’s followers. … Although rather little is known about them, various groups called Dönmeh (Turkish for “convert”) continue to follow Sabbatai Zevi today, mostly in Turkey. Estimates of the numbers vary. Many sources claim that there are less than 100,000 and some of them claim there are several hundred thousands in Turkey.” [source]
- Torah as Messiah. According to one view of Christianity, the Torah (Jewish scriptures and subsequently revealed and developed teachings) are the messiah. The Christian scriptures (in John 1:14) state as fact that Jesus is the Word become flesh (understood to mean the Jewish sacred scriptures of that time). He is, then, an example of what would happen if the Jewish scriptures were turned into a person. The Jewish sacred scriptures are the programming code that make up God’s nature. In John 14:24, Jesus states, “These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father (God) who sent me.” This is to reaffirm that: (1) Jesus is an emissary or ambassador, (2) his words are not really his, but God’s, and (3) he is not God but simply the words of God become flesh. When Jesus says, “I am the way” he is really saying that the sacred scriptures of Judaism are the way.