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Millennium Raises Hopes, Fears

October 25, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Jesus Christ is about to return, and the 1,500 folks packed into the Sheraton Washington ballroom couldn’t be happier.

For 16 hours a day, the End-Time Handmaidens pray and sway, singing of the day they will ``dance on streets that are golden.″ Around them, middle-aged women clad in white and gold robes glide through the aisles while other believers blow into rams’ horns, their shrieks announcing the Second Coming.

The end is near. The end-timers are here.

``We’re running out of time. We’re running out of time,″ Sister Gwen Shaw, the group’s 72-year-old matriarch, says at the Handmaidens’ annual convention. ``This is God’s last call.″

While these Handmaidens may be on America’s evangelical fringe, their beliefs about the millennium and Christ’s Second Coming are remarkably mainstream.

According to a recent Associated Press poll, nearly one out of every four Christian adults _ an estimated 26.5 million people _ expect Jesus to arrive in their lifetimes. Nearly as many _ an estimated 21.1 million Americans _ are so sure of it that they feel an urgent need to convert friends and neighbors.

The results are consistent with other surveys that have found a widespread belief in the Second Coming. But the AP poll, conducted last spring by ICR of Media, Pa., probes how Christians are acting on their beliefs.

The most fervent end-timers gather at prophecy conventions such as this one in Washington, but their dreams and fears reverberate throughout the country. America may have already entered what one apocalyptic scholar calls the ``hot zone″ of end-time speculation: The year 2000 is far enough away to be plausible as Christ’s Second Coming, yet close enough to spark intense proselytizing.

``I look at prophecy as a Polaroid picture that takes five minutes to develop,″ says Zola Levitt, a Dallas evangelist on The Family Channel. ``I’d say we’re at four minutes, 55 seconds.″

At the end-timers’ convention, believers pay hundreds of dollars for Jewish liturgical instruments fashioned from rams’ horns _ for the chance to play their own small part in announcing the Second Coming. In unpracticed hands, these shofars sound like a third-grade orchestra warming up.

Others, both in and out of the mainstream, are also blowing horns of warning. There are best-sellers such as Pat Robertson’s ``The End of the Age.″ Scores of broadcasters, from Jack Van Impe to Hal Lindsey, are preaching of the end times. And the Internet offers more than 100 popular millennial sites, including Apocalypse Now, This Week in Bible Prophecy and The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Homepage.

For evangelical Christians, the Second Coming is what’s new about the new millennium. According to the AP poll, almost 40 percent of Christians expect Jesus to arrive in the 21st century, if not sooner.

They are looking past Jesus’ own admonition that ``no one knows the hour.″ By their reckoning of Biblical clues, the time is soon.

Belief in Jesus’ return has underpinned Christianity from its earliest days. Each week, Christians throughout the world recite the Apostle’s Creed, invoking Jesus who ``will come again to judge the living and the dead.″ Each day, many begin The Lord’s Prayer, passed down by Jesus, with ``Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come....″

But what makes today’s prayers so earnest? What separates this generation of end-time prophets from those of the last two millennia?

Israel.

The New Testament compares the kingdom of God, near at hand, to the growth of a fig tree. Some believers substitute Israel for the tree. They say the Second Coming is near at hand when the tree shoots forth branches _ when Israel becomes a nation.

And that happened in 1948.

``Verily I say unto you, `This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled,‴ Jesus says in Luke 21:32.

Since many end-time prophets also place the apocalyptic Armageddon in Israel, developments there continue to stir interest. In 1967, when Israel reclaimed much of Jerusalem from Jordan, the prophecy in Luke was only strengthened.

During the 1991 war between the United States and Iraq, many evangelists _ from Billy Graham to John Walvoord, chancellor of the Dallas Theological Seminary _ envisioned the beginning of the end.

And when the 1993 Mideast peace pact was signed, radio evangelist Monte Judah of Norman, Okla., identified the beginning of seven years’ tribulation heralding the Second Coming.

For evangelicals, signs of the end can be found anywhere, anytime. Worldwide disasters _ floods, wars, earthquakes _ are what Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, told followers to look for. The Hale-Bopp comet, famine in Africa, developments in the European Common Market, even the convergence of full moons and Jewish religious festivals _ all are sifted for clues of the apocalypse.

``There’s a lot happening in our time that would give most people a concern and an excitement that the Lord is going to return,″ Thomas A. McMahon says. He is executive director of the Berean Call, a religious newsletter out of Bend, Ore., that circulates to 80,000 Christians.

``Every day has significance. Every political, social, economic event has significance,″ says Philip Lucas, general editor of Nova Religio: The Journal of Emergent and Alternative Religions. ``Your whole experience of time is greatly heightened.″

If the time is near, why not sometime around the year 2000? For end-timers who cite a divine plan, great things tend to happen in 2,000-year periods.

Abraham and Isaac, patriarchs who established a covenant between God and humans, were born around 2000 B.C. Two millennia later, Christians believe, God became man with the birth of Jesus.

Those who believe human history is 6,000 years old wait with special expectancy. Consider the mathematics in Peter’s Second Letter: ``One day with the Lord is as a thousand years.″ For these believers, the new millennium starts on the seventh day of creation.

For them, after 6,000 years of strife and turmoil, it’s time for 1,000 years of heavenly rest as Jesus rules over the Kingdom of God on Earth.

``A lot of people think maybe the year 2000,″ says Leon Bates, head of the Bible Believers’ Evangelistic Association in Sherman, Texas. ``I would go along with the thought that it would be just like the Lord to have an overall 7,000-year plan.″

Oleeta Herrmann believes the end could come any time. She traveled to the end-timers’ convention from Xenia, Ohio, where three 25-foot crosses in her back yard warn neighbors to get right with God.

Like others at the convention, she has heard the rustle of angels preparing the way of the Lord. One night, she says, Jesus appeared in her bedroom to reassure her that nieces and nephews would not be left behind when she is lifted into the clouds to join others in her family who have died.

``You’re bringing the rest of them with you,″ were the Lord’s words, she says.

Willie Mae Johnson, at the convention from Lighthouse Free Methodist Church in St. Louis, has no such assurances. What will happen to her father, her children and other relatives who have not accepted Christ?

She is beginning to waver as 2000 approaches.

``I don’t want to leave anyone behind, so you say yeah, and you say no,″ she says. ``I want Jesus to come back right now, but just wait a little while, Jesus.″

Even vendors at the end-timers’ convention raise provocative questions, selling T-shirts that feature three frogs plopped on a lily pad and asking: ``Where are you goin’ when you croak?″

Many people are not going to make it through the tribulation. ``He has given us...a burden for lost souls,″ says the Rev. Dorothy Mottern, accompanied to the convention by church members from Virginia.

For those who read Revelation as a literal forecast, the future is frightening for people without God’s seal on their foreheads. In that Book, a third of the Earth burns, and angels kill a third of those who survive. For others, torture is so severe that ``people will seek death, but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will flee from them.″

Warnings like these can change lifestyles.

In the AP poll, 98 percent of those who believe Jesus will return in their lifetimes say they urgently need to get right with God.

About 21.1 million Americans, the poll estimates, have decided to get others right, too, wanting to convert friends, neighbors and relatives. Among age groups, the urgency is felt most widely among Baby Boomers. By region, it is most prevalent in the South.

This urgency has created sweeping evangelistic campaigns. Celebrate Jesus 2000, a Minneapolis-based coalition of evangelical churches and ministries, wants to reach the ``entire nation for Christ″ by the third millennium.

In an unprecedented action, the 15 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, last year vowed to make special efforts to evangelize the Jews.

Of course, the end of the world has been predicted many times before.

But dates for the Second Coming have come and gone. In the 1840s, followers of William Miller quit jobs, sold belongings and moved to upstate New York to await the return of Jesus. He didn’t come.

Two successful churches arose from the Millerite Movement: The Seventh-day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Both continue to anticipate the end-times but no longer specify the date.

Charles Taze Russell, founder of the modern-day Witnesses, predicted that the millennial age would begin in 1914. World War I raised hopes he was right, but the movement’s catchword _ ``Millions now living will never die″_ gradually lost its urgency.

Two years ago, the Witnesses officially dismissed date-setting as speculation, declaring Jesus was right that ``no one knows the place and the time.″

The Worldwide Church of God also no longer sets dates for the end-times, partly because founder Herbert W. Armstrong was so often wrong. Hal Lindsey’s ``Late Great Planet Earth″ raised end-time fears in the 1970s. Now he has a new best seller, ``Planet Earth - 2000 A.D.″

So what will happen this time, if life goes on?

Some worry that fringe end-times movements may act in increasingly desperate ways. They point to the mass suicides of the Heaven’s Gate and Branch Davidian communities, whose charismatic leaders believed they had special word from God about end-times.

``There’s generally an element of ego involved for anybody who believes,″ says Stephen O’Leary of the University of Southern California, author of ``Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric.″ And many leaders believe that ``the crisis must happen while I am alive,″ he says.

However, most experts on evangelical Christianity think believers will accept delays _ and perhaps even be a bit relieved.

In the AP poll, only 61 percent of Christian respondents who believe Jesus will arrive in their lifetime are praying for his quick return.

Walvoord, of the Dallas Theological Seminary, says it reminds him of a Sunday school teacher who asked the class who wants to go to heaven. When only one boy failed to raise his hand, the teacher asked: ``Don’t you want to go?″

``Yeah,″ the boy replied, ``but I thought you were getting a load to go right now.″

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