After leaving 4 years ago to join the army, 22 year-old Hazel Motes returns home to Eastrod, Tennessee, only to find the town deserted. Deciding to flee from his past, especially his memories of his fiery preacher grandfather who instilled in him a disturbing fear of Jesus as a shadowy figure, Hazel goes to the city of Taulkinham to do some things he has never done.
The first thing that he does is lose his virginity to prostitute Mrs. Leora Watts. He then encounters Asa Hawks, a supposedly blind preacher, and his coarse daughter, Sabbath Lily Hawks. An 18 year-old boy full of strange enthusiasm, Enoch Emery, dogs Hazel as he confronts Hawks and then begins to preach against him. Later, Hazel comes to the city park, where Enoch works, to ask the boy for the Hawks' address; Enoch insists on first showing something to Hazel, which turns out to be a shrunken, mummified man enshrined in the city museum. Despite Enoch not actually knowing where the Hawks lived, Hazel finds the address himself and moves into a room in the same boarding house.
Hazel begins to preach his own "Church without Christ" to make a display of cynicism even greater than that of Hawks. Hazel drives from movie theater to movie theater in a half-broken car he bought from a used lot to spread his gospel. He denies many of the conventional Christian notions like sin and salvation, arguing that one needs only the truth, and does not need to seek redemption in Jesus. Hazel asks the crowd to give him a "new jesus" for his Church; hearing this, Enoch decides that the mummy from the museum will fit the role.
A huckster named Hoover Shoats shows up while Hazel is preaching and tries to turn his ministry into a business venture, but Hazel rebuffs him. That night Hazel sneaks into Hawks' room and finally discovers for himself that the man is actually lying about being blind. He begins to take up with Sabbath, Hawks' daughter, to whom Enoch brings the mummy one day. Sabbath pretends that it is her and Hazel's baby, but by this point Hazel has had enough.
True to his word, Shoats shows up with an imposter of Hazel's and they preach their "Holy Church of Christ without Christ" to a paying crowd. Disturbed by this, Hazel hunts down his imposter and runs him over. Meanwhile, Enoch steals the costume from a man pretending to be Gonga, a famous gorilla movie star. Enoch has seen audiences clamor to shake the hand of "Gonga", and he hopes dressing up in the costume will make people want to shake his hand. However, he only scares people away.
Although Hazel tries to drive off to another city, a policeman somewhat arbitrarily stops him and then destroys his car. After walking all the way back to Taulkinham, Hazel blinds himself with lime, as Hawks had claimed to do. His landlady, Mrs. Flood, becomes very interested in him after this, to the point that she asks the strange blind man, who has begun doing many masochistic things such as wrapping barbed wire around his chest and placing stones in his shoes, to marry her. Rejecting the chance to finally have a home, Hazel walks away into the cold, rainy night. The police find him the next day, dying in a ditch, and he is brought back - now dead - to Mrs. Flood's house. Not realizing that he is dead, Mrs. Flood tries to look into Hazel's ruined eyes and sees something she has never seen before.