The Trials of YouTube Jesus: A Mormon Apostate Fighting for His Family
How the Jesus Christ of YouTube left the Mormon Church, joined PewDiePie’s 9-Year-Old Army, and got locked in a legal battle to keep his kids.
As a general rule, the Bible isn’t keen on material possessions, but Jesus Christ has a thing for certain ones; specifically, he’s partial to tunics, and owns nearly a dozen of them—eight from cheap vendors on Amazon, two out of higher-end custom novelty shops. Jesus wears one wherever he goes—to Comic-Con, to WonderCon, and on all of his Twitch streams. Usually, these get-ups involve breezy, burlap-looking fabrics, topped with a regal red shawl. Occasionally, he’ll throw in a crown of thorns—he has several—or a pair of Warby Parker shades. These particular material possessions are important because they afford the wildly popular YouTuber, whose legal name is Jesus H. Christ and whose verified account has racked up more than one million subscribers, the ability to adhere to his cardinal rule: never, ever, ever, break character.
So it was a big deal when, in January this year, Jesus uploaded a video in his street clothes—his signature cotton robes swapped out for a Space-X sweatshirt, black glasses, and a beanie. The video, titled “I need your help! #savejesus #justiceforjesus,” marked a sharp departure from the online messiah’s standard fare. Usually, Jesus plays a character he calls “SoCal Christ,” a sardonic caricature of the biblical figure—like if the Buddy Christ from Kevin Smith’s Dogma had a YouTube channel, only took on more of Silent Bob’s theological sensibility. But in this video, Jesus is serious; somber, even. “Hello,” he says, staring at the ground. “My name is Jesus H. Christ. Obviously that isn’t the name I was given when I was born. I was raised in a highly controlled religious group. Some people call it a cult... YouTube set me free. I need your help.”
Then, Christ begins to cry.
By his own admission, the Lamb of God is an ugly crier. But, as the video goes on to point out, he has reason enough. Jesus grew up in the Mormon Church: his parents were Mormon, his seven siblings were Mormon, his friends were Mormon. He married a Mormon, worked as a Mormon wedding DJ, and raised three Mormon kids. When he left the church, his wife and children did not. Now, the four-minute video explains, he’s locked in an expensive legal battle to keep joint custody. “My own parents have sided with my ex-wife and are trying to strip me of all of my parental rights,” he says, directing viewers to a Patreon link to help him pay for his expenses. “YouTube has saved my life once. It unshackled me from the bonds of superstition and gave me a career. Then, it saved my career. And perhaps if I’m lucky, it can save my kids too.”
As is often the case with YouTube, conflict captured attention. The video went viral, receiving over 3.6 million views. Likes, subscriptions, and donations poured in. A day after the video was posted, Jesus’ fundraiser got a shoutout from PewDiePie, the controversial video-game streamer whose nearly 100 million subscribers puts him among the most popular YouTube personalities. Christ already had a substantial subscriber count, but after the signal boost, his fame started to snowball. He met his fundraising goal within hours; he was invited to conduct a Reddit AMA; and he was bombarded by messages from fans and reporters, begging for more details on how he went from “schlepping Jesus,” as he put it, to schlepping, among other things, Bible-themed, discount dildos.
In the past decade, the internet has become a gargantuan distortion field for religion, reshaping it in unusual ways. In some respects, the online explosion has made it easier than ever to go to church, ushering in an era of live-streamed services, hyper-linkable Bible passages, and Instagram-friendly congregations. But it has also posed a unique problem, especially for insular denominations that rely on members’ lack of ready access to information. As an ex-Mormon whose departure was brought on by the internet, who created, in a certain sense, a kind of anti-church online, and who garnered, in the span of three years, a significant fraction of the following that the Mormon Church had cultivated over nearly two centuries, YouTube Jesus seemed to embody that impulse.
But Jesus stopped responding to reporters. For all his fame, Christ had also elicited some less supportive responses. His ex-wife had begun compiling excerpts from his videos to use against him in court. Then, another YouTuber accused him of sexual assault, which he had to address in a separate video (it proved to be a hoax). All the while, demand for answers about his legal situation outpaced his ability to answer them. By the time the Reddit AMA came around, Jesus seemed weary. The thread was locked not long after it opened. “You’ve only answered 3 questions in the span of 6hrs,” a moderator wrote. “This is being removed.”
A few months later, he re-emerged and responded to my request(s) for an interview: “Hey there! So sorry that it’s taken so long to get back to you. Yes, I’m still interested. I just got completely slammed and this got lost in a sea of messages. Love, JC.”
A lot had changed in three months. In February, his channel had hit 1 million subscribers. In March, he’d linked up with Studio71, talent management company for online creators. And in May, he would be approaching the end of his custody case. Not long after his reply, we met in a Studio71 conference room dotted with heart-shaped decals. A tall guy in his thirties with billowing brown hair, a floor-length tunic and an Apple Watch, the YouTuber cuts a confusing figure. After he filed through a hallway, one woman asked audibly: “So, what’s up with that guy?”
IN THE BEGINNING
In the Mormon Church, Jesus explained, every child receives something called the patriarchal blessing right around puberty. During the ceremony, an ordained priest places his hands on the kid’s head and offers up a prediction about their future. The tradition stems from a parable in Genesis, when God speaks to Jacob and promises to make him king of a vast land (“Let people serve thee, and nations bow down to thee”). The modern version turns out to be a little less grand, and a lot more specific. “My patriarchal blessing,” Jesus said, “mentioned that I’d been called by God to help advance his work through the use of the internet, and through computers—specifically through fiber optic cables.”
At the time, Jesus was 15 years old in ’90s-era Bakersfield, California. To the extent that he knew about computers, he liked them. But, as with all aspects of his life, Jesus’ interaction with technology had been restricted. He had grown up in the conservative hamlet with his seven siblings (he’s number six), his mother, and his father, a high-ranking official in the church. Mormonism is very structured. There are your standard local congregations; then, multiple congregations are gathered into groups called “wards”; several wards make up a “stake”; and a collection of stakes makes a “region.” Jesus’ dad led their local ward, before becoming a Stake president. It was a full-time job, on top of his actual full–time job (most mid-level Mormon officials are unpaid). Jesus’ father didn’t have much time for family, but what time he did have, he dedicated to ensuring his children were raised with ultra-orthodox values. That meant waking the kids up at 5:30 a.m. for family scripture study. It meant sending the older kids off to seminary before their school days at conservative, religious academies, and requiring they give practice sermons on subjects like prayer, tithing, and fasting. It also meant banning R-rated movies, pulling Jesus out of sex-ed as a freshman in high school, and boycotting musicians like James Taylor. “He’s a commie pinko fag,” was a common household refrain, according to Christ.
It worked for Jesus. He loved the faith, the scripture, and the community. At 19, he got his endowments—the ceremony where Mormons are given their special garments (known derisively as “magic underwear”)—and left home for a two-year missionary stint in Argentina. Jesus was stoked to be in Argentina, where he could master Spanish (his father was fluent). He kept a diligent diary and wrote home every week. On their missions, Mormons are prohibited from watching TV, reading the news, or having any technological contact with the outside world, except for two annual phone calls home—and Jesus broke the rules only once, watching the 9/11 attacks on the tiny TV in the kitchen of an Argentinian-Italian restaurant. A conversion wunderkind, he baptized 24 people. “I really knew how to schlep Jesus,” he said. “It’s all about family. My first baptism, I’ll never forget—it was a widow. She missed her husband. She had his photo over the mantle. It was really easy. It was just promising that she was going to see him again, and they would be in heaven together.”
Jesus did do stuff with computers—loosely. But after Argentina, his first priority was getting married. He bypassed college, met a girl at the Singles Ward—a congregation specifically for young, dating Mormons—courted her for 50 days, and married her 50 days later. Eventually, in 2004, he started a company DJing for weddings. Four years later, he got into wedding videography. He also made other types of movies—the biggest being a $200,000, feature-length biopic of his grandfather. It took home prizes at a major Christian film festival and was rated “Five Doves” by The Dove Foundation. By the late aughts, Jesus was wholly online. But what he found there didn’t bring him closer to God. It brought him to the Google Apostasy.
I DO HAVE FAITH, BUT NOT ENOUGH
In Mormonism, as with many reclusive denominations, no group is understood to be more evil, more susceptible to sin, and more deserving of damnation than “apostates,” or people who leave the church. The prophet Brigham Young once wrote that there was, literally, a special place in hell reserved for former Mormons. Asked about the proper punishment for murderers, he answered: “Make them soap-boilers and kitchen flunkeys, we are not going to send them into hell fire, for it takes a good Latter-day Saint apostatized to get down that deep (did I say bottomless?) pit.” An apostle named Heber Kimball put it a little more bluntly: “If men turn traitors to God and His Servants, their blood will surely be shed, or else they will be damned.”
But in the 2000s, Mormons were becoming angels of the Devil in increasingly distressing numbers. It’s hard to get solid statistics on just how many people left the church or their exact reasons for doing so, but by 2012, there was an established sense that membership was dropping off, and that it had something to do with Google. Church officials blamed the spike on misinformation—a kind of proto-fake news. (“Never before have we had this information age, with social networking and bloggers publishing unvetted points of view,” former church historian Marlin Jensen told the Salt Lake Tribune that year.) But apostates saw it differently. Now online, Mormons had unprecedented access to information about their faith. If they had questions, they could Google them—and not everyone liked what they found. The church has been historically cagey about their legacy of polygamy, for example, shying away from the fact that founder Joseph Smith had multiple wives, some as young as 14. With search engines, reading up on that history became a matter of clicks. The phenomenon took on a name: The Google Apostasy.
The movement exposed church blind spots—not only in historical accounting, but in digital strategy. Mormonism hadn’t migrated online, and it quickly became cause for concern (the church did not respond to requests for comment). In 2012, Jensen told the Salt Lake Tribune that officials had assigned a staffer to draft “a strategy to get church history on the web.” Later that year, the official Mormon website—which previously had not mentioned polygamy, Smith’s wives, or many other controversial subjects—finally addressed them in a series of articles called the “Gospel Topic Essays.” (Notably: the website makes them hard to find, but here are a few). By 2015, they established “social media missionaries,” according to a leaked draft of an internal guide called “Missionary Work in the Digital Age.” And just earlier this year, they changed the church’s official URL.
At the same time, the Google Apostasy was also growing. In 2013, a PDF called the CES Letter about a Mormon’s religious doubts went mini-viral (the piece can now be read in six languages and five different digital formats). The ex-Mormon Subreddit—the site’s most-subscribed religion recovery thread—racked up nearly 120,000 followers (the official Mormon page clocks in under 10,000). In 2016, a YouTube account called Mormon Leaks released footage of internal church meetings on taboo subjects like homosexuality, marijuana, and Pirates of the Caribbean. The account later evolved into a mock-WikiLeaks whistleblowing site.
The past few years amounted to an exercise in dueling digital strategies, and it was in the early stages of the Google Apostasy that Jesus first encountered a video—shared on Facebook by his younger brother, another church skeptic—called “Science Saved My Soul.” The video wasn’t especially fancy. Most of the 15-minute piece involved a soft-spoken Brit, waxing corny on the cosmos. (“I stepped out of a supernova,” the narrator says over screensaver shots of the Milky Way, “and so did you.”) But the video was enough to plant an idea in J.C.’s head. Maybe, he thought, Mormon scripture had left some things out.
WEEP BITTERLY FOR HIM WHO IS EXILED
In September of 2011, Jesus had just come home from a wedding shoot abroad, when he was struck by an unpleasant thought. “I realized, Oh my god, I have to do this blessing in front of everyone,” he said. Christ’s third child had been born just weeks prior, and the family was making arrangements for her blessing—a Mormon rite of passage somewhat like a christening, but conducted by the father before more than one hundred uncles, aunts, and family figures whose precise position in the genetic tapestry was either unclear or had never been explained.
A crisis of faith doesn’t happen all at once; it’s a gradual build-up of pressure. For Jesus, the rumblings had started in 2008, when the Mormon Church campaigned to pass Proposition 8 in California, a ballot measure revoking the right for gay couples to marry. He hadn’t understood why God cared so much about gay marriage; the campaign left him uneasy. He’d always found ways to be busy during canvassing. After embracing the internet, that discomfort evolved into doubt. By the time of the blessing, “I kind of knew at that moment: I don’t think I believe this anymore,” Jesus recalled.
He performed the blessing, but not well. J.C.’s older brother, who had also harbored doubts, knew something was wrong right away. When they got lunch the next day, the brother told Jesus details he had never heard before: that Joseph Smith had a long criminal record; that he had a history of “glass looking,” or alleging he could use a magic rock to find buried treasure; that Mormon texts like The Book of Abraham and The Book of Moses, which Smith claimed to have translated from Egyptian papyri, had actually proved to be basic funerary texts. Jesus reeled. Later that day, when he recounted what he’d learned to his wife, she did too—though not in the way he’d hoped. “I was out that night,” he said. “I remember getting a hotel room. I remember going to Target and buying underwear for the first time in my entire life. I was 30 years old, and for the first time in my life I was buying underwear.”
Jesus moved to Long Beach, where he could stay close to his kids, while testing out his newfound secularism. Outside the church, Christ was lonely. His whole social world had come from faith. His parents weren’t speaking to him; neither were some of his siblings. He met a friend on Reddit, but mostly, all he had was YouTube, which he watched a lot: hours on end, daily, for nearly two years. He watched talk shows, tutorials, gamer streams, and sketch comedy. Above all, he watched science. He downed educational videos by the dozen. “With my worldview kind of wiped away, I got to start over again, rediscovering this stuff. I wanted to basically enroll in school again and just learn,” he said.
On YouTube, all roads lead to Joe Rogan, and in one of the libertarian commentator’s videos, he harped on a certain line, a kind of self-help disguised as machismo: Be your own John Wayne. Jesus didn’t particularly like John Wayne. But he did like the framework, the idea that people should act like the heroes of their own movie. For a man who had spent his whole life in a supporting role, acting in the image of God, it hit home. Organized religion had disappointed him, but some of it was worth saving. “I just love Jesus,” Jesus said. Not long later, he ordered a tunic on Amazon. He was 33.
WHERE IS THE ONE BORN KING?
How do you become Christ? Jesus wasn’t really sure. He knew a lot about his namesake. He’d read Jesus the Christ, a 350-page history by Mormon scholar James E. Talmage, three times through (once in Spanish). He knew about the Beatitudes: the meek being blessed and so on. He had long hair. But what would modern Jesus do? He started in an unlikely place: the freelancing site Fiverr.
In May 2015, Jesus started offering custom videos in costume, for five bucks a piece. When the first real order arrived, Christ knew he was onto something. It came from another ex-Mormon, trying to raise awareness about the misinformation in the church. (“I can quote it,” Jesus recalled. “It said, ‘If I have one nugget of truth, it is to visit Mormonthink.org.’ That’s a website for people with doubts. I just cried.”) Around that same time, he tried his hand at YouTube. He developed a loose backstory: something about the Messiah’s second coming, how He’d returned during the Super Bowl to a world too obsessed with Left Shark to notice. His first sketch was a standard unboxing video. He called it “Jesus Christ reviews Authentic Crown of Thorns from the Holy Land.” Overnight, it racked up more than 50,000 views.
But Jesus’ initial virality was hard to replicate. YouTube success is slippery—when the range of top channels involve seven-year-olds reviewing toys, gamer commentary, and guys scoring trick shots, it can be unclear to a newcomer, or to anyone for that matter, what works. His second video went all but overlooked. Ditto the next few. Christ hit something of a standstill until January 2017, when he got a Fiverr order from PewDiePie. The request seemed simple: a short greeting for another popular YouTuber named Jacksepticeye. But PewDiePie had misspelled the guy’s name, writing “Jackspedicey.” Unsure if the typo was intentional, Jesus made two videos—one with the right spelling, one with the error. PewDiePie uploaded the error, and it went viral. Jackspedicey became a meme, and Jesus became famous. It wasn’t exactly the kind of fame Jesus wanted—the joke was on him, more than with him—but it was enough to establish his account in the PewDiePie extended universe. Orders poured in with riffs on Jackspedicey. PewDiePie put in more requests too.
If it strikes you as odd that modern Jesus might be tight with PewDiePie, that’s probably because you’re not familiar with his repertoire. The Swedish gamer became the undisputed king of YouTube by way of producing gaming and online news videos, peppered with shrill, sphincter-clenching yammering, and occasionally screaming the n-word. When Jesus joined his sphere, dubbed the 9-Year-Old Army, PewDiePie hadn’t yet become wholly synonymous with the most annoying parts of the internet. But after a few more Fiverr orders, that changed. In 2017, as part of what the gamer claimed was a thought experiment, he hired Fiverr freelancers to make a string of controversial videos. One involved two Indian men holding a banner which read “Death to All Jews.” Another featured Jesus, claiming: “Hitler did nothing wrong.”
When the videos went viral, Jesus and the other freelancers were promptly banned from Fiverr. (A spokesperson for Fiverr wrote that “any attempt made to bully, harass, or use hate speech is in clear violation of our terms of service and strictly prohibited.”) The gesture was a small part of what came to be known as the “Adpocalypse”: a wave of platforms—most prominently, Youtube—banning or demonetizing content deemed “not advertiser friendly,” usually on the grounds that they constituted hate speech. But PewDiePie, who would later lose revenue of his own in the Adpocalypse, came to Christ’s rescue, calling for Fiverr to reinstate the accounts banned on his behalf, and suspend his account instead. Days later, Jesus was back online. But the scandal and his ongoing role in the 9-Year-Old Army illustrated that his new schtick was not, strictly speaking, especially sacred; or, if it was sacred, that Jesus had in mind a whole other kind of holy. Case in point: Shortly after the Fiverr ordeal, Christ named PewDiePie a Saint.
The easy read on Jesus’ relationship with PewDiePie is financial. The bigger YouTuber, despite his controversial track record, put Jesus on the map. He lifted him out of algorithmic anonymity, saved his account from suspension, and—most recently—helped crowdfund his lawyer fees. But that’s only part of it. Although Jesus does make money from his Fiverr account, he has not accepted a cent from YouTube. The proceeds go to a small charity called Aussie Rescue SoCal, a one-woman Australian Shepherd shelter not far from his home. Beyond money, what draws Jesus to PewDiePie is his following. Messiahs need disciples, and PewDiePie’s reach of nearly 96 million people comprises a significant slice of the online world. “I recognize that it was his audience that came and helped me. It wasn’t necessarily him,” Jesus said. “His audience is really a cross-section of what the internet is, of what Youtube is. This is YouTube. This is the internet.”
UPON THIS ROCK, I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH
These days, Christ lives in a condo just off a main drag in Long Beach. His apartment is a shrine to his post-Mormon interests: giant photos of Hollywood, racks of vinyl records, a small fleet of bikes (Jesus doesn’t drive), a bed for his dog (Judas), a wall of longboards, a green-screen studio, and books upon books about science. The morning I dropped by, Jesus was dressed down in a Darwin graphic tee and slacks (he breaks character at home). His arm tattoo, a diagram of the carbon atom—“six electrons, six neutrons, six protons, the most metal element”—peeked out from a sleeve. Earlier that day, a global network of telescopes called the Event Horizon Telescope had zoomed in on a black hole in the M87 galaxy, documenting the first-ever visual evidence of Einstein’s century-old theory that a colossal gravitational pull could warp spacetime. Jesus went buckwild; he’d spent the morning poring over science videos. “It’s black hole day!” he exclaimed.
YouTube has given Jesus everything: an identity crisis, a career, a vast network of friends, fans, and financial supporters. It is the closest thing he has to a church, and introduced him to the closest thing he has to a scripture: science. When he left religion, Christ turned to the video that had started it all: “Science Saved My Soul.” From there, he found videos on chemistry, biology, and physics. This thing called the Scientific Method—it struck him as the only means of drawing conclusions that couldn’t be corrupted, constructed, or turn out to have secret 14-year-old wives. If an experiment could be repeated over and over, he figured, its results were unassailable: a slice of pure, unadulterated truth. “It was like, boom. It’s the answer, finally,” he said. “I became religious about it.”
Science has also become his only hope of salvation. In November, after six years of co-parenting his kids, Christ’s ex-wife told him she planned to move to Oregon and sued for sole custody. They fought for months in court, but couldn’t reach an agreement. At its core, the custody battle came down to religious differences: Christ didn’t want their kids ordained in the Mormon priesthood; his ex didn’t want them subscribed to him on YouTube. Finally, at Christ’s request, a judge ordered something called a 730 Evaluation, a last-ditch effort for parents who can’t hash out custody. It’s a mental health study of a family and its members, prepared by a psychiatrist, to determine the best custodial outcome for the kids. “My lawyer thinks this is my only chance and I agree,” Jesus said in his YouTube video asking for funds. The results come out later this month.
Recently, J.C’s lawyer suggested he join a church, just to assist his assessment. It would make him more sympathetic, he said, help him look like a good guy. Why not swing by a service? It could even be Unitarian. “I lost my shit,” Jesus said. “I’m here because I couldn’t lie anymore.” Instead, he wants to start his own church—on YouTube. The internet, he argues, functions a lot like religion—and not just because of the crusades, the followers, and the constant claims that the whole thing is fake. For Jesus, it became his community. He plans to file a trademark on the new name: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Dudes.