The Great Impostor

This article first appeared in Baptist Press.

He was known as “The Great Impostor” and inspired a 1961 film by the same name.

Ferdinand Waldo Demara impersonated everyone from physicians to monks and thus achieved notoriety. He began his nefarious career during World War II by borrowing his Army buddy’s name, going AWOL and faking his suicide. A string of pseudo careers followed. He was, among other things, a sheriff’s deputy, a doctor of applied psychology, a lawyer and a child-care expert.

He was best known for masquerading as a surgeon aboard a Canadian Navy destroyer during the Korean War, successfully completing a string of operations. His final gig: serving as a Baptist minister.

Demara’s life is a fascinating but sad story of one man’s quest for respectability. His success as an impostor also exposes the soft underbelly of a society whose people are easily duped by one who talks smoothly and claims to serve the greater good.

For Christians, Demara’s story is a warning to be on guard against those who disguise themselves as “servants of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:15). But how can we know a religious impostor when we see one? The apostle Paul gives us three clear markers in 2 Cor. 11:4. False teachers proclaim “another Jesus … a different spirit … a different gospel.”

To illustrate, let’s look briefly at three of the largest and most successful religious systems in the world today: Islam, Mormonism, and the Watchtower (Jehovah’s Witnesses) – all of which are growing worldwide and teach unbiblical doctrines concerning Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the gospel.

Islam

Jesus. Muslims say Jesus was one of God’s greatest prophets but inferior to Muhammad, who brought Allah’s final revelation to man (the Koran). The Koran denies that Jesus is the Son of God, and any Muslim who believes in the deity of Jesus has committed the unpardonable sin called shirk – a sin that will send that person to hell. Muslims believe Jesus is the Messiah, was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life and is coming back one day – but only to establish Islam throughout the earth. They do not believe He died on the cross but was called to heaven by Allah before His death and was perhaps replaced by Judas Iscariot or someone else who looked like Jesus.

Holy Spirit. Islam denies the deity and personhood of the Holy Spirit, whom the Koran describes as “the angel which brought revelation,” according to Mualana Muhammad Ali in The Holy Koran with English Translation and Commentary. The Koran also calls the Holy Spirit “Gabriel” (2:97) and the “Faithful Spirit” (26:193).

The gospel. Islam teaches that Christ was neither crucified for our sins nor resurrected; therefore salvation cannot possibly be attained through faith in Christ. In fact, sin is not man’s problem. Man is sinful by act only, not by nature. Original sin is viewed as a “lapse” by Adam. People are not really fallen in their nature; they are merely weak and forgetful. Sin is thought of in terms of rejecting right guidance. It can be forgiven through repentance. No atonement is necessary. Salvation in Islam is a combination of works and fate. Muslims pursue the five Pillars of Religion and hope Allah is kindly disposed toward them.

Mormonism

Jesus. Jesus preexisted in heaven as a spirit child of Heavenly Father (Ehohim) and one of his goddess wives (as did Lucifer and all pre-existent human beings). He then took on a human body through sexual relations between Heavenly Father and Mary. Jesus is one of three gods in the Mormon godhead, although Mormonism recognizes the Trinity only as one in “purpose,” arguing instead for a multitude of gods.

Holy Spirit. Mormon.org says the Holy Spirit “witnesses, or testifies of the Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ and reveals and teaches truth.” Sounds orthodox, but historically Mormon leaders have offered more disturbing views of the Holy Spirit. For example, founder Joseph Smith taught that:

  • The Father, Son and Holy Spirit “constitute three distinct personages and three Gods.”
  • “The Holy Ghost is yet a spiritual body and waiting to take to himself a body as the Saviour did or as the gods before them took bodies.”

The gospel. Jesus’ atonement secured “salvation” (meaning resurrection) for nearly all people, but “men will be punished for their own sins” (Article of Faith #2 by Joseph Smith). People may earn “eternal life” (godhood) by “obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel,” meaning works (Article of Faith #3 by Joseph Smith).

Godhood is the goal of Mormonism. According to fifth LDS President Lorenzo Snow, “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become.”

The Watchtower

Jesus. According to Watchtower teachings, Jesus was the first and direct creation of Jehovah God. Jesus then created all “other” things (Col. 1:16 New World Translation). Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the Trinity, speaking of Jesus as “a god” or “mighty god” but not divine. They deny His incarnation, death on the cross (he died on a “torture stake”) and physical resurrection. Jesus returned invisibly in 1914 and is working today to overthrow Satan’s kingdom.

Holy Spirit. Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that “holy spirit” (always lower case) is the invisible active force of God that moves His servants to do His will. They deny the personhood and deity of the Holy Spirit, proclaiming such beliefs to be inspired by Satan.

The gospel. Salvation in the Watchtower is a combination of faith and works, but there is no eternal security and virtually no hope of today’s Witnesses ever entering heaven, which is reserved for the 144,000 in the “anointed class.” The “other sheep” may, through faithfulness to Watchtower teachings and hard work, be brought back to life after an indefinite period of soul sleep and populate Paradise Earth. Jesus’ death is seen as a ransom paid to Jehovah that removed the effects of Adam’s sin on his offspring and laid the foundation of the New World of righteousness.

In each of his roles, Ferdinand Waldo Demara, “The Great Impostor,” was confronted with the truth – in some cases by the persons whose identity he had stolen – and exposed as a fraud. For Christians who encounter an array of false teachings today, our best defense is the truth of God’s Word.

The writer of Hebrews put it best: “For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating as far as to divide soul, spirit, joints, and marrow; it is a judge of the ideas and thoughts of the heart.  No creature is hidden from Him, but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him  to whom we must give an account” (4:12-13).

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