Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda calls himself “God” — as well as “millions of followers, growing in numbers everyday,” according to the self-proclaimed prophet’s website. That includes those in Massachusetts, where there are four churches across the state in his honor.
Miranda, a 60-year-old Miami native, preaches the benefits of a lavish lifestyle for his followers, denouncing sin and claiming to disprove the existence of the devil and Hell.
According to an Oct. 2 CBS4 report, Miranda said his followers should indulge in food and luxuries including expensive clothing, jewelry and cars because sin “doesn’t exist — the devil was destroyed 2,000 years ago.”
Pastor Ivan Lopez, Miranda’s spokesman and translator, told The Daily Free Press that Miranda’s identity as the Messiah was not revealed to him overnight.
“Like Jesus of Nazareth, they thought he was a carpenter’s son, and he didn’t realize until he was 30,” he said. “Hebrews 9:28 said that the next Messiah will appear without relation to sin. We knew and he knew that he was the Messiah because he was the only person in 2,000 years to preach no sin — it’s evidence.”
Lopez said that Miranda has been preaching as Jesus since 2000, the year theologians said the next messiah would appear.
According to the CBS4 report, Miranda’s ministry — called Growing in Grace — encourages its member to burn documents of other religious denominations.
“Liars and deceivers teach what is not convenient,” Lopez said. “Their mouths must be shut. We wouldn’t use physical violence — the message’s purpose is to shut down what is not truth.”
“We don’t want to eliminate other faiths,” he continued, adding that followers are not hateful toward other peoples. “We want to eliminate false teachings. We will get books of false teachings and statues — since idolatry is forbidden — and we’ll get permits to burn them and throw them in the garbage.”
Lopez explained there are chosen people and there are evil people on Earth, and the chosen do commit sin but are immediately forgiven.
“The chosen people do bad things, but it doesn’t make them not-chosen because in this world, there are spirits and bodies,” he said, explaining that all bad things that the chosen people do are credited to their bodies.
While most Growing in Grace followers are Hispanic, Efrain Agosto, professor of the New Testament and director of Hispanic ministries at Hartford Seminary, said he is aware of Miranda’s following but did not know about the group’s document-burning.
“I have heard of a Latino pastor promoting ‘grace alone’ as a response to a more heavily law-laden, strict, legalistic theology in some Hispanic Pentecostal and fundamentalist movements,” Agosto said.
According to the CBS4 report, members who have left the ministry call it a cult, saying it takes over and ruins lives.
“He destroyed my family,” Regina Albarracin said of Miranda in the report, adding that she was once part of his ministry before leaving it with her husband five years earlier. Her son Alvaro stayed, and later donated much of his money and life to the cause.
“‘Cult’ is just a pejorative term for a new religious movement that mainstream religions don’t often understand,” said Deanna Klepper, a Boston University history and religion professor. “That is, most groups called ‘cults’ are just upstart religions, while a small few are actually destructive [or] violent organizations.”
Adair Lummis, associate professor of religion at Hartford Seminary, said cults sometimes grow into mature religions.
“Sometimes indeed cults fizzle out as their original membership expires and they cannot get new recruits,” he said. “But [they] sometimes grow to national and international networks of worshipping groups, and then maybe to a more standardized denominational body.”
Other theology professionals say assemblies like these are often formed when oppressed groups need to find support.
Trip Barnes, a first-year student at BU’s Divinity School, said there are very specific factors that can lead to the formation of these sects.
“A minority group is often the most expectant of a savior,” he said. “[Much like] the formation of the early Christian church.”
Barnes said he sees loopholes in Miranda’s doctrine, adding that having a winning personality keeps people flocking to him.
“Charisma usually trumps loopholes,” he added. “It’s very easy to diagnose one’s self as the ‘bearer of the light.’ It’s easy for him, he just reflects it off his big ring.”
“They will be watching what I say,” Miranda said in a video called The Fatigue of the Religious Systems. “And that’s exactly what we want after all. Let them hear what we have to say.”