Major spoilers ahead!
Please note, since my background is Christian and I am not an expert in other religions, I am approaching this discussion from a Christian perspective.
Messiah premiered on Netflix on January 1st. When the show was announced, some Muslims pointed out that the title given to Messiah’s central character, “Al-Masih,” is a shortened form of “Al-Masih ad Dajjal.” Muslims believe Al-Masih ad Dajjal is a false prophet, a deceiver, and a liar. He is Islam’s version of the antichrist.
As of the end of the first season, Messiah’s central character has not definitively been shown to be the antichrist, but he has not been shown to be good either. The main question on everyone’s mind, both the characters in the show and the audience watching at home, is, “Who is he?”
Jesus gave his disciples two criteria to judge whether a person is the true Messiah: (1) the signs of the times; and (2) the fruits of his actions. Though Netflix’s Messiah is purely fictional, it provides us with good material for an interesting exercise.
The signs of the times
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus discusses with his disciples the end times and the return of the true Messiah. He predicts the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (which happened 37 years after his crucifixion) and he tells them there will be certain signs at the end of time.
“See that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and they will deceive many. You will hear of wars and reports of wars; see that you are not alarmed, for these things must happen, but it will not yet be the end. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be famines and earthquakes from place to place. All these are the beginning of the labor pains. …
Many false prophets will arise and deceive many; and because of the increase of evildoing, the love of many will grow cold. …
If anyone says to you then, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. False messiahs and false prophets will arise, and they will perform signs and wonders so great as to deceive, if that were possible, even the elect. Behold, I have told it to you beforehand. So if they say to you, ‘He is in the desert,’ do not go out there; if they say, ‘He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For just as lightning comes from the east and is seen as far as the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”
“For as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In [those] days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away. So will it be [also] at the coming of the Son of Man.”
(Matthew 24:4–8, 11–12, 23–28, 37–38; see also Mark 13:1–37 and Luke 17:22–24 and 21:5–36)
These Scripture passage cover events that will lead up to the true Messiah’s return, but Jesus also told his disciples what will happen when the true Messiah returns.
“There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:25–28; see also Matthew 24:29–31 and Mark 13:24–27)
In sum, Jesus told his disciples that at the end of time there will be: (1) wars and reports of wars; (2) international unrest; (3) famines; (4) natural disasters; (5) false prophets who deceive the masses with false miracles; (6) people who flock to different places in the world to follow the false prophets and who encourage others to do the same; (7) an increase in evil; and (8) a decrease in love. During this time, people will continue about their normal business though and even engage in excessive behavior, “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,” up until the day the true Messiah returns.
Then, at the culmination of his arrival, the heavens and the oceans will react violently and people will be struck with fear. Unlike the false prophets who arose in different places in the world, the true Messiah will arrive on the clouds and light up the entire sky like lightning.
In other words, when the true Messiah returns, people won’t have to travel somewhere in the world to see him. They won’t be confused about who he is either. It will be very clear to everyone at the same moment in time that the true Messiah has arrived. If anyone in the world is debating about whether the true Messiah has arrived, then it is safe to say that the man who they are debating about is not the true Messiah.
The fruits of the tree
Not only does Jesus tell his disciples which signs will appear, but he also tells them to be aware of the fruits of a man’s actions.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves. By their fruits you will know them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Just so, every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. So by their fruits you will know them.” (Matthew 7:15–20; see also Luke 6:43–45)
In these passages, Jesus is telling his disciples that they will be able to identify false prophets by the outcomes of their actions. Though a false prophet’s actions might appear miraculous, the true indicator of his identity will be the end results of those actions. If the end results are evil, chaotic or otherwise un-Godly, then the man who performs them is a false prophet.
Who is Payam Golshiri?
An insignificant background
As the show progresses, we eventually learn that the person people call “Al-Masih” is a man named Payam Golshiri. Payam has a brother named Adar. Their uncle raised the brothers in Iran after their parents were killed in Iraq during the first Gulf War with the United States. We learn that Payam also went to Williams College in Massachusetts for a short time before returning to the Middle East.
Christians believe Jesus was born an infant and lived a normal life as a carpenter in an insignificant village for the first thirty years of his life. Through the Incarnation, God became man. He did not take shortcuts, but rather lived the entire human experience, except for sin.
Therefore, that Payam is revealed to have an insignificant background, is not something that would make Christians suspicious. However, it is notable that Payam’s enemies, including CIA officer Eva Geller, and Israeli Shin Bet agent Aviram Dahan, scoff at the fact that Payam comes from a normal background. Their assumption seems to be that the real Messiah should come from a more distinguished background.
Schooled in the art of illusion
Payam was raised by his uncle Yusuf “the Magnificent,” who Adar says was a vagabond and trickster. According to Adar, Yusuf taught the brothers to scam and pickpocket people. He describes uncle Yusuf as a proud and cruel man who used to beat the boys and who taught them everything they know, including the art of illusion.
Remember that Jesus asked, “Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” Would the true Messiah, a good fruit, be “picked” from an evil family, a bad tree? Though people can be good notwithstanding their upbringing, the odds are stacked against them, especially if the level of familial dysfunction is great. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem that God would choose for the true Messiah to be raised by bad people.
An interest in politics
Payam is revealed to have a close relationship with his former college professor who became an anti-American, pro-social disruption political activist.
Jesus never sought to ally himself with Roman politicians or the Jewish aristocracy. When asked about paying taxes to the Temple and to Rome, Jesus told his disciples to pay the taxes rather than resist the authorities (Matthew 17:27 and 22:21).
Jesus’ earthly mission transcended politics. However, Payam appears to be very pleased when he meets the President of the United States. In fact, during that scene the President says that Payam seems to have a speech ready, as though he hoped and planned on meeting the President all along.
When the President asks Payam what he wants, Payam tells him to withdraw all American troops from overseas. The President leaves the meeting considering Payam’s demand and eventually tells his military analysts to research the effects of a complete American military withdrawal from Eastern Europe.
Unlike Jesus, Payam sees politics as a way to accomplish God’s will.
Keeping away from people, except to “help” Samson
Though Payam seems to enjoy meeting with politicians and the media when he gets to Washington D.C., he always keeps a distance from average people during his stay in the small town of Dilley, Texas. In fact, the only time Payam ever ventures outside of his private tent is when he hears a dog howling nearby.
A dog named Samson was apparently pinned underneath some rubble during the tornado that leveled Dilley just when Payam arrived. Payam follows the howling to a destroyed home where he finds a man and his young son standing over the injured dog. The boy pleads with his father not to kill Samson with his shotgun. When Payam shows up, the boy asks him to help. In response, Payam takes the shotgun from the boy’s father and shoots the dog himself. The boy cries, “You were supposed to save him.” Payam responds, “No I wasn’t. He’s not suffering now.”
Payam’s statement about Samson seems to indicate that he believes suffering has no value. Though it is debatable whether a suffering animal can have spiritual value for a human being, Jesus taught his disciples that human suffering has immense spiritual value. At the very least, Payam could have approached the situation warmly and used it as an opportunity to teach about suffering, but instead, he walks away after shooting the dog and seems to smirk at Aviram as he passes through the shocked crowd on the way back to his private tent.
Payam’s practice of keeping a distance from people remains consistent when he gets to Washington, D.C. Though pastor Felix tells a mother whose daughter is dying from cancer that there is a list of people who want to meet Payam and that her daughter will have a turn to meet him in Dilley, she doesn’t receive an opportunity for her daughter to meet Payam until she takes matters into her own hands and basically forces her way into his hotel room while they are staying in Washington, D.C.
When Payam finally meets with the sick child, he insists on being alone with her. The only other times Payam is among the people in Washington, D.C. is when he walks on the water at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, conveniently in front of news cameras, or when he talks to the media. He also briefly leaves his hotel room to talk with pastor Felix’s daughter, Rebecca, after she sees a prostitute leaving his hotel room (though it was all set up by an American politician, Payam does not sleep with the prostitute).
Payam’s habit of avoiding people and meeting with the sick child alone is strange and completely contrary to Jesus’ practice of being with average people as much as possible. Jesus spent a lot of time with people and invited the parents to be present when he raised the dead girl in Mark 5:40–43 and Luke 8:51–56.
In fact, Jesus was so open to being with people, that when the crowds following him found themselves in the desert with no food, Jesus multiplied the fishes and the loaves so that everyone could eat their fill, and there were leftovers (Matthew 14:13–21; Mark 6:31–44; Luke 9:12–17; John 6:1–14). Payam, on the other hand, never returns to the Syrian refugees he led into the desert without any supplies. After he is taken into custody by the Israelis at the border, Payam never even speaks about the refugees again or otherwise tries to help them. It seems that he used them to gain media attention and cross into Israel.
A chaotic “healing”
Payam escapes from prison shortly after he is taken into custody by the Israelis (we learn, later in the season, that a sympathetic jailer let him go because he believes Payam is the Messiah). Next, Payam arrives at the Dome of the Rock, the famous golden-domed mosque in Jerusalem where he begins preaching.
A crowd gathers around him as people stream the event live on social media. The Israeli police show up to arrest Payam. Inexplicably, a gunshot rings out as the police make their way toward him. No one seems to know who fired the shot, but the crowd assumes it was the Israeli police when they realize that a young Muslim boy has been wounded. Payam quickly walks over to the young boy, lays hands on him and then disappears into the crowd.
The young boy, apparently healed, stands up and triumphantly displays a bloodied bullet to the crowd. Bullets that strike objects, including people, warp on impact. They appear deformed and look like they have been smashed or crunched. However, the bullet the young boy exhibits to the crowd has a perfect point. It is not damaged at all and appears to be in perfect condition. No one seems to notice this detail.
When Eva, the American CIA officer, tries to locate the young boy to talk to him, she is unable to and is told by a neighbor that he and his family have left the area.
Signs and Fruits: Adding it all up
The signs of the times seem to indicate that the people of the world of Messiah are in the end times (there are wars, rumors of wars, social unrest, international chaos, natural disasters including freak sandstorms and tornadoes, etc.). However, Payam’s actions are not consistent with those of the Christian Messiah. His aversion to people is especially telling.
Furthermore, if we look beyond Payam’s immediate actions, which appear to be good on the surface, and even miraculous in some cases (withstanding a sandstorm in Syria and a tornado in Texas and walking on water in Washington, D.C.), something interesting is revealed. All of his actions seem to result in pain and misery for the people he meets, i.e., his actions produce bad fruit.
- Pastor Felix completely loses his already weak faith in God and burns down his own church (as he had planned to do before Payam arrived).
- Pastor Felix’s wife, Anna, returns to drinking and is even more distant from her husband than she was at the beginning of the story.
- Pastor Felix’s daughter, Rebecca, collapses on stage in Payam’s place after Payam is a no-show at a televised event he agreed to attend which has been heavily advertised by Felix’s father-in-law, who happens to be the pastor of a mega-church. Surely this is embarrassing for Felix’s entire family, especially his father-in-law with whom Felix already has a strained relationship.
- The little girl with cancer dies. Dying is part of life, but the little girl’s parents end up divided and headed toward divorce over her mother’s decision to stop the girl’s treatments in order to travel to meet Payam.
- Many of the starving Syrian refugees simply return home without any answers. Some are recruited to become terrorists.
- One of the refugees, Samir, is involuntarily recruited for terrorism and the other, Jibril, is used as a mouthpiece for a Muslim religious leader. Jibril and Samir meet again when Samir is blown up with a suicide vest inside the mosque where Jibril is giving a speech, killing and maiming dozens of people.
- Meanwhile, the people in Syria, Jerusalem, and America continue to riot.
Frankly, basically everyone Payam touches in the story is worse off than when they first met him. Paradoxically, however, Aviram, the unbelieving Israeli agent, and his comrades, are seemingly raised from the dead by Payam after their plane crashes in the final few minutes of the season. Payam walks away from the wreck completely unscathed. This event seems to point toward Payam being good. However, it is worth noting that the only witness to the resurrections is a young boy who, just a few minutes earlier, was teased by his classmates for making up stories about lions and spaceships.
It is also important to note that Payam did treat the prostitute in Washington, D.C. lovingly and respectfully and that she appears to be the only one who has been affected positively by meeting Payam. However, it is possible that Payam knew that he was under surveillance by the United States government when the prostitute tried to seduce him in his hotel room, so we cannot be sure whether his good actions toward her and the positive results of their meeting were genuine or just part of Payam’s persona.
So, who is he?
There is one piece of overwhelming evidence that tells us who Payam is. He did not arrive on the clouds flashing like lightning across the sky. Payam’s identity is hotly debated by the entire world. While the world might debate the identity of false prophets when they arise, there will be no debate when the Christian Messiah, Jesus Christ, returns. In the world of Messiah, people come from everywhere to meet Payam, saying “‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’” just like Jesus warned would happen when false prophets arise.
Whether Netflix makes more seasons of Messiah, the answer to the question “Who is he?” for Christians has only one possible answer. Payam is not Jesus Christ. Therefore, he is not the Messiah. He can only be a false prophet. Perhaps even the antichrist. Notwithstanding that I know the answer to that question, it will be interesting to see how the story in Messiah unfolds in future seasons should the creators decide to make more episodes.