Sometime in 1979, while Álvaro Theiss was fasting, he came to believe that he was Jesus Christ reborn. He received a divine message in the form of a voice in his head, and, in the days that followed, he decided to permanently shed his former name and refer to himself as “INRI Cristo,” a tribute to the inscription “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum” that the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate inscribed on the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
INRI now lives with 12 of his disciples—three men and nine women—in a compound surrounded by barbed wire and an electric fence outside of Brasília, Brazil, in a town he has named New Jerusalem.
He explained his life story and teachings to photographer Jonas Bendiksen, who visited the compound that houses INRI’s church, named the Supreme Universal Order of the Holy Trinity. His story, along with profiles of four other self-proclaimed messiahs, appear in the August issue of National Geographic magazine.
INRI’s disciples always dress in sky blue clothes. He has given them all new names, starting with the letter “A”. The youngest, Alara, was brought to New Jerusalem by her parents as a child. Twenty-five years later, she is his personal assistant, tasked with sorting out his clothes and turning on his iPad.
He told Bendiksen that he has been celibate since his original revelation in 1979, and channels his unused sexual energy to internal communication with God. He also claims that all who live in New Jerusalem are also celibate.
To mirror his continuity with the Jesus Christ, the one who came from Nazareth, INRI is known to reminisce publicly about his earlier life 2000 years ago. But a lot has changed since the days of the gospels. He loves technology and reinterpreting the final verses of the Bible in light of modern inventions.
For example, in Revelations 1, verse 7, where Jesus is promised to be “coming with the clouds,” Theiss takes to mean that he is free to travel the world by airplane. The verse continues that “every eye will see” the coming Messiah, which to INRI interprets as a mandate to spread his message on television and on the internet.
He regularly preaches on YouTube and on Facebook Live, on which he has over 330,000 followers. His disciples edit the videos at the compound in New Jerusalem.
But a messiah in the age of social media also invites far more critics, reviews, and anonymous commenters than the original Jesus had to contend with. INRI’s status on Facebook as a “public figure” means he can be reviewed by the masses, much like a restaurant or musician, and collectively, they give him 3.3 out of five stars. People who leave five-star reviews seem to enjoy his message and charisma. But the one-star reviews often accuse him of being the kind of false prophet warned about in the New Testament. As one woman wrote in January this year: “Delete this page and repent!”
Jonas Bendiksen’s book The Last Testament will be published in September 2017 by Aperture/GOST.