Tampa, Fla. -- Perry Stone Jr., Southern preacher extraordinaire, is whipping thousands of believers into a frenzy.
A chain of events surrounding Israel--the rebirth of the nation, Jerusalem's restoration as capital, the return of Jews from Russia--have been prophesied in the Bible as omens of Christ's second coming and THEYHAVE ALL COME TO PASS! Stone declares.
"They want to call you a doomer! They want to call you a gloomer! But we understand it's the coming of Christ!" Stone thunders, shaking and strutting atop a huge stage at the recent International ProphecyConference here. The crowd leaps up. They shriek. They holler. They lift their hands to the heavens. "It's really a rejoicin' time, seeing the return of Jesus Christ!" exults Landon Mosley, 21, an Ohio steelworker who says he's preparing for the Lord by stockpiling food and reading at least one prophecy book a month.
Unbelievers may call them kooks. More polite, less apocalyptic Christians call them misguided. But as the new millennium approaches, the prophets and promoters of the end-times are revving into high gear. building on an apocalyptic streak that has long been a feature of Christianity, powered by the mystical attraction of the year 2000 and given an extra boost by the tangible phenomenon of the Y2K computer problem, those who preach that the end is near have found a receptive audience among millions ofAmericans.
A full quarter of Americans surveyed in a recent Los Angeles Times poll said they believe the onset of a new millennium heralds the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. While half of Americans polled said they view Jan. 1, 2000, as "just another New Year's Day," considerable numbers say they expect an increase in natural disasters (26%) or civil unrest (30%). About one in 10 report that they are stockpiling goods.
Not all those who expect trouble with the New Year do so for religious reasons. One poll respondent from Riverside, for example, termed claims of a Second Coming of Christ "millennium mumbo jumbo" but saidhe is stockpiling goods because he is worried about potential havoc caused by computers not programmed to read the year 2000.
But belief that the year 2000 will bring momentous events is considerably more prevalent among those who say they believe in the literal truth of the Bible. Among those who take the word literally, 40% believed that the new millennium is tied to Christ's return. Among those who are not biblical literalists, only 18% said so. Preparing for the Apocalypse At the Tampa conference, Florida electrician Robert Matthews and his buddy, Jose Betancourt, say they have been stockpiling for the past year: a gas-powered generator, a solar-powered lamp, six-gallon pails of grain, 55-gallon drums of water, canned goods and extra clothes. Others here have even dug their own backyard wells.
Poll respondent Lucy Trevino of San Jose is another of those eagerly expecting the Lord. She says she avidly follows prophetic teachings through end-times videos by televangelist Pat Robertson and discussions with her Catholic prayer group. "I don't get scared. . . . I look forward to eternity," Trevino said.
The survey, supervised by Times Polling Director Susan Pinkus, questioned 1,249 adults nationwide on Feb. 27 and 28. Results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Christianity, of course, is not the only religion with a tradition about the "end of days." Such beliefs are common in many faiths. But the significance of the year 2000 is uniquely tied to Christianity-- commemorating 2,000 years since the birth of Jesus. Other faiths use different religious calendars in which the coming year has no special meaning.
Prophecy exponents say demand is surging for their lectures and material. The Internet is humming with hundreds of Web sites on anticipated end-times events: the bodily lifting into heaven of Christians, known to believers as the Rapture; the terrifying times of chaos called the Great Tribulation; the climactic Battle of Armageddon against the antichrist; and the triumphant return of Jesus, ushering in a millennium ofpeace and harmony.
Christian apocalyptic fiction is registering record sales, stunning the publishing world. Earlier this month "Apollyon," the fifth installment of the phenomenally successful "Left Behind" series by Tim F. Lahaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, hit the No. 2 spot on the New York Times bestseller list. Publishers Weekly listed the first four books on its religion bestseller list at the same time, a phenomenon "just unheard of," said Phyllis Tickle, the trade magazine's contributing editor for religion.
"For the first six or seven months of '98, we kept saying with straight faces that the millennium would be a nonevent," Tickle said. "All of a sudden, you started getting Y2K books . . . a substantive, tangible wayto talk about the spooky parts of the millennium. Then we began to watch this fiction. Now we're dealing with a seriously validated penetration of the general culture."
Not that Tickle thinks most people believe the prophetic teachings--or even want to seriously read about them. The fiction is booming, she said, precisely because it is fiction. People mainly want to "enjoy the tingle of being mildly frightened," she said.
Many, however, do take the prophecies with great seriousness. Biblical historians say that millennial fever is as old as the Bible, illustrating a perennial human desire for eternal paradise.
Early followers of Jesus expected his return in their lifetimes, but when that did not materialize the church gradually "pushed this kind of expectation into the background," said Catherine Wessinger, religious studies professor at Loyola University, New Orleans. After the Roman Empire made Catholicism the official state religion, she said, the church began emphasizing that "the kingdom of God is the church here on Earth." "If you want to maintain law and order, you can't have people running around expecting the end of the world," Wessinger said.
But millennialist movements made a comeback with the advent of the printing press in the 1450s, which put the Bible in the hands of the masses for the first time. The idea that ordinary Christians could interpretScripture for themselves--including prophecies--came to fruition with the 16th century Protestant Reformation. Since then, Protestants have led many of the millennialist movements. "This way of interpreting prophecy--looking at ideas in the Bible and applying them to one's own age--has been done many, many times in the history of Christianity," Wessinger said.
Selling Books and Videos
While many prophecy exponents are genuinely sincere about their beliefs, others may be motivated by the desire to sell books and videos, critics said.
"Most of these prophecy groups are very manipulative and massage events to fit what is written in scripture," said Father Gregory Coiro of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Among Christian churches, even critics of the prophecy movement agree that biblical prophecies, themselves, are important. Christians believe that the life and death of Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies of a Messiah and most expect an eventual second coming.
But Christians have long been divided on just how the second coming is supposed to play out, and many believe that the biblical writer, John, penned the apocalyptic Book of Revelations as a commentary on current times rather than a terrifying vision of the future.
Critics of millennial prophecy also cite scriptural admonitions against trying to discern the specific date of the Messiah. Although most of the Tampa speakers did not name dates, some believe next Jan. 1 issignificant because they believe it marks roughly 6,000 years of creation and symbolically corresponds to the six days God took to create the world. Just as God rested on the seventh day, they say, the world will complete its material labors and transform into a heavenly kingdom with the start of the seventh millennium.
Such mathematical divining has occurred for centuries--from Montanus of Asia Minor in AD 170 to the millennialists of the 990s to the Millerite movement in America, which set Christ's return for 1948. Thepredictions shared a common denominator: They were all dead wrong.
Even when prophecies don't pan out, though, the prophetic churches sometimes survive. The Worldwide Church of God, headquartered in Pasadena, took the rare step in 1994 of publicly revoking its prophetic teachings and apologizing for them. The founder, Herbert Armstrong, had predicted Christ would return in 1975; after Armstrong died 11 years later, his successor, Joseph Tkach, accepted the judgments of a doctrinal review committee that the teachings were false.
The church weathered an enormous loss of income and members--from 155,000 to 55,000, said Monte Wolverton, managing editor of the Plain Truth magazine, which is affiliated with the church. But it has held its now mainstream theological ground and recently produced a video, "Millennium Madness," that looks at past movements and how "not one of them was right," Wolverton said. "A fixation on prophecy takes all the energy away from what Christians should be doing, which is serving people and helping people," he said.
Other churches actively counsel members against millennial fever.
The general council of the Assemblies of God, one of the world's largest Pentecostal churches, recently issued a statement discouraging "hoarding food, withdrawing money from banks, believing doomsday scenarios" or expecting global collapse next Jan. 1. The council urged members to heed the words of Christ recorded in Matthew 6:34, "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself."
But some churches take the end-times seriously. At Calvary Church Golden Springs in Diamond Bar, Pastor Raul Ries plans to bring prophetic teachings to the youth through a weekly program, "New Millennium Productions," of skateboarding, hip music and Bible study. He is now preaching to the12,000-member congregation each week on the Book of Revelations. "Kids in the fourth grade are smoking marijuana. They see their parents drinking and partying and neglecting the family," Ries said. "We want togive them the expectation to look forward to the coming of the Lord. It gives you hope."
Ries said biblical prophecy is like "putting together a puzzle;" those who do it say most Christians don't because of the enormous amount of research and time required.
Among other difficulties, the prophecies are scattered throughout the Bible in the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, Isaiah, Matthew, Revelations and elsewhere. They also are written in highly figurative language.
Quoting Key Biblical Passages
One frequently quoted prophetic scripture, for instance, is Matthew 24, which records Jesus' response to questions about signs of the end-times. He cites a surge of false prophets, wars, earthquakes, famine and strange cosmic occurrences. Then Jesus says:
"Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near."
Since the fig tree was a common biblical metaphor for Israel, believers in prophecy say, the nation's establishment in 1948 fulfilled both Old and New Testament prophecies and signaled the coming of the end-times.
To those who call that stretching, Stone said: "I would ask these [critics] how much they've studied biblical prophecy."
"My second comment is, 'Wait and see!' " said Stone, who has preached for 22 of his 39 years and churned out 60 prophecy videos, more than 800 cassettes and 19 books.
Stone was one of the hottest draws at the four-day prophecy conference in Tampa. Sponsored by the Christian broadcast ministry, God's News Behind the News, the conference is the granddaddy of North American events to track the end-times. Here you can stock up on the growing pile of end-times books andvideos that are being feverishly churned out--and snapped up--with tantalizing titles like "Final Mysteries Revealed" and "Planet Earth: The Last Chapter."
In the conference bazaar of biblical goods, you can buy "witness ties" featuring Noah's Ark or a praying Jesus. You can put the year 2000 into proper religious perspective with T-shirts that proclaim, "Y2K: Yield 2 the King." You can snap up gold and silver coins as a hedge against a doomsday economic crash--as conference-goers did to the tune of $1.75 million, according to one gold seller there, Kevin DeMeritt,president of Lear Financial Inc. in Santa Monica. Matching Current Events to Bible
The conference's 13 speakers are the hottest stars on the biblical prophecy circuit. They are men of passionate conviction who spend much of their time poring over current events and matching them up with the ancient prophecies.
Jack Van Impe, known as a walking bible for his memorization of 14,000 scriptural passages, heads the nation's largest televised prophecy ministry; his Web site gives answers to every conceivable prophecyquestion. Will our pets be taken to heaven in the Rapture? (Probably not, but if you pray God can reunite you with them). Where do UFOs fit in the prophetic scheme of themes? (Demonic spirits helping Satan).
Hal Lindsay wrote the 1970s prophecy mega-hit, "The Late Great Planet Earth," and still churns out Christian bestsellers that attract long lines of fans.
Gary Kah, a former Indiana state trade official, specializes in warning of nefarious moves to create a one-world government and one-world religion, both being expected signs of the end-times.
Their general scenario is thus: War on Israel by the kings of the south and north, interpreted by them as Muslim nations and Russia. A seven-year Middle East peace treaty brokered by the head of a revived Roman Empire, seen as the European Union. (The United States appears absent from the end-times script, they say, fueling speculation of disastrous Y2K problems or fiery decimation--a fate the apocalyptic Book ofRevelations assigns to some great, rich, corrupt city.)
After that, the scenario goes, the antichrist will abruptly abrogate the treaty and tyrannically control the masses through the 666 "mark of the beast." Then Armageddon, leading to Christ's return.
The men say they rely on divine guidance and hours of daily research to draw their end-times scenarios. Any developments supporting them are pounced upon and posted on any number of prophecy Web sites. News about Russia, the Middle East, a national ID system, globalism, astronomy, natural disasters or disease are particularly prized.
Stone, for instance, draws murmurs from the Tampa crowd when he reels off a list of end-times signs he says are falling in place: the blooming of the Israeli desert, the Middle East peace negotiations, the reported birth of a rare red heifer in Israel, the appearance of comets and other cosmic signs.
Some claims, however, are suspect: Experts say there is no evidence that the number of earthquakes are increasing, as these preachers say, only that more are being recorded by ever-more sensitive equipment.
Still, the teachings are persuasive to believers of all conceivable backgrounds. Valerie Yates, a Dallas management consultant with a doctorate in business, says she has followed Lindsay for nearly 25 years and finds compelling the matchup between events like Israel's establishment and the ancient prophecies in places like Psalm 102 and Matthew 24.
Judy Rodewald, a Canadian real estate agent, is a saved ex-New Ager who gave up her crystals for Jesus. Subsequently, she says, she was attacked by Satan "big time" when her bed began violently shaking in the middle of the night. Now she feels an urgency to share the Bible's prophetic teachings with what speakers here call "heathendom." Indeed, most here say they view the end-times and Y2K as the greatest opportunity for "soul-winning" since the early years of the church "I believe sincerely that we are in the last days, and God is calling his people to share the word," Rodewald said, offering to write down a list of inspiring scriptures for later study. "There is no doom and gloom in studying Revelations because we have blessed hope, ya' know?"