THE POPE, it is said, told his assembled cardinals that there was good news and bad news. The good news was that the Lord Jesus had returned. The bad news?

He had just phoned from Salt Lake!

The joke illustrates the peril for those who, Like Colleen McCullough, are tempted to write a novel whose premise is that the Messiah returns: Which Jesus and whose Jesus is it that comes back?

In the New Testment there are five portraits of Himself (six if you hold with two Pauline traditions, one in the early epistles and a later one in Colossians and Ephesians), not necessarily contradictory, but certainly different. Moreover, if you peel away the redactions and the sources and the traditions to the original versions of te parables -- which most scholars now think are accurate reflections of the mind and the experience of Jesus -- and the "sayings," you find a paradoxical, enigmatic, and elusive person. Prophet, teacher, storyteller, religious leader, social critic, visionary, liberator, lawgiver, savior? Yes, all of these, but no, none of these alone and none either in the ordinary meaning of the words. Once you think you have a "fix" on Jesus, particularly a "fix" that's comforting to your own political or religious ideologies, you have lost him completely.

If you're going to write a book about the return of Jesus, which Jesus will it be: The fundamentalist Jesus of the moral majority? The humanist Jesus of Liberal Protestantism? The anti-abortion, anti-nuclear weapon Jesus of the Catholic bishops? (In the latter case, presumably, he will be the kind of man who would seek the permission of Archbishop Hickey to lecture over at Catholic University).

Make your choice. And, having made it, don't be surprised if he slips out of your grasp and eludes you, just as he did the men and women of his own era.

One is therefore sympathetic with Colleen McCullough. If A Creed for the Third Millennium is an embarrassing failure, despite McCullough's unquestioned skills as a storyteller, the blame for her failure may be less attributable to her than to Jesus. He is as maddeningly difficult to categorize as He ever was.

McCullough's Jesus is created in the image and likeness of the secularist Jesus of Jesus Christ Superstar or Godspell with a few theistic overtones and some Catholic devotional color.

He is a psychologist named Joshua (Hebrew: Jeshuha-Jesus) Christian, the son of a lovely and powerful woman called only "Moma" and a long diseased psychiatrist father named Joe. He has a sister Mary, two brothers, Andrew and James, and sisters-in- law Martha and Miriam. His nemesis is a woman mathematical sociologist in the Department of the Environment named Dr. Judith Carriol (Iscariot) who betrays him with a kiss and he must also deal with the secretary of the environment, a glutton named Harold Magnus (Harod the Great -- though here McCullough errs: wrong Harod), and President Tibor Reece and his nyphomaniac wife Julia (Tiberius Caesar and his Julia). If all of this sounds a little too cute, the reason, it is to be feared, is that it is a little too cute.

A THIRD of the way into the next century, with ice caps slipping rapidly southward and the United States bereft of its power and prestige, Carriol, Magnus and Reece need a man to restore the faith and hope of Americans that they can survive the crisis in which they find themselves. Christian is chosen because of his charisma after a computer search and recruited to play a role of which he is unaware. He writes a book, goes on a promotion tour, walks the streets of the frozen cities, preaches his gospel, becomes enormously popular, leads a March of the Millennium on Washington, destroys his mental and physical health with overwork and crucifies himself in the spring of 2033 (here again, McCullough has it wrong. Most scholars now say 28 or 29 of the Common Era). The book concludes with Judith declining to hang herself and electing rather to become the lover of Tibor Reece while "Moma" waits patiently for Joshua to return and appear to the "two Marys."

There are three problems with A Creed, any one of which would have been grave. First of all, like most versions of Jesus in modern fiction and film, Joshua Christian is simply not attractive enough to command the following he gathers. He is odd, a little creepy, too "nice," finally quite mad. One looks in vain for the ironic, shrewd, tough, fascinating man who leaps out of the pages of the Christian Scriptures, at least to those whose imagination has not been corrupted by the pretty pictures of Sunday school class or parochial school bulletin boards.

Second, hristian's gospel is mostly cliche. "I am an optimist. . . . I believe in the future of Man. And I believe that everything happened, happening, will happen, is both a necessary part of the ongoing evolution of Man and an inescapable part of the pattern God weaves. I believe that to despair of the future of Man is an insult unendurable to God."

Not exactly comparable with "The kingdom of heaven is like a marriage feast."

Unfortunately McCullough actually seems to believe that such "good news" is both "new"and persuasively "good" as a gospel for surviving the new ice age.

Libera Nos Domine!

Finally, Joshua Christian knows virtually nothing about God except that He exists and is benign. Most of the appeal of Jesus then and now comes from his unique and powerful experience of God, an experience which is as troubling today as we encounter it in the parables as it was in his own time. The "Father in Heaven" is like the silly father of the prodigal son who continues to spoil an already spoiled brat, like the crazy farmer who pays a full day's wage to loafers, like the lenient judge who pardons a woman taken in adultery (and who has thus threatened the structure of society by risking that her husband's family inheritance will be transmitted to one who is not of his seed) before she expresses regret or asks for forgiveness.

All these are forms of behavior which would be considered insane if humans engaged in them. And Jesus' experience of God? An encounter with a lover so hopelessly in love with His creatures that if humans acted the way His love drives Him to act, they would be considered mad.

A disturbing vision? Hell, yes. Which is why you rarely hear it from religious leaders -- whether those in the Catholic Vatican on the Tiber or the Protestant Vatican on Riverside Drive in New York or those who follow the Rev. Jerry Falwell's convictions or those who labor in the various Catholic outposts along Massachusetts Avenue in Washington.

Not exactly the kind of God who is affronted by a failure in the evolutionary process. In His/Her absence, you may have, along with Colleen McCullough, a story with many interesting characters.

You don't even come close, however, to a story of Jesus.

Andrew M. Greeley S.J., professor of sociology at the University of Arizona, is the author of "Virgin and Martyr" and other novels.