Millennium Madness

For most of the 1990s, the man who called himself only Elijah was one of Jerusalem's lesser curiosities, an American who claimed to be the Biblical prophet. He called himself a witness from the Book of Revelation, predicting that 2000 would usher in the end of the world. Then in the last year he attracted a small following from among the thousands of Christians, many of them American, who have lately flocked to the city to be on hand for the prophesied return of Christ. For Israeli authorities, Elijah was no longer a harmless eccentric. In this most tense of nations, which expects 3 million visitors during the millennial year, officials fear that some may try to hasten the Second Coming by sparking a violent conflict. Elijah was asked to leave the country. "We don't expect masses of cults coming over," says an Israeli police officer who declined to be identified. "The majority will be innocent pilgrims. But we have to be prepared."

For millions of Americans the prophecies found in Revelation are not literary allegories but a blueprint of the events to come--if not in 2000, then soon enough. According to a new NEWSWEEK Poll, about 18 percent of Americans expect the endtimes to come within their lifetime. This translates to roughly 36 million people--not just fringe extremists but your office mate, mail carrier or soccer coach. Or your U.S. representative: House Majority Whip Tom DeLay has a wood carving in his office that reads this could be the day, a phrase widely used to refer to the Rapture.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell recently announced that the Antichrist was "probably" already among us. Speaking to NEWSWEEK last week, Falwell avoided setting a date for the big day--"That's usually the tragedy of these surges of prophecy preaching"--but applauded what he sees as a grass-roots rise in endtimes sermons. "There are happenings today: the approach of one world government, the global-nation syndrome that is so prevalent today, the cashless society," he said. "There are many who believe that we could be in the last century." Tapping this spirit, a rash of best-selling novels and movies--including the stealth-hit film "The Omega Code," which grossed $2.4 million in its opening weekend this month after being marketed strictly through Christian networks--has rechanneled the last days as popular entertainment. Monitoring all these rumblings, the FBI is warning local police departments to be on the lookout for increased militia activities as the new year approaches. As many as 239 Web sites, by one recent count, are multiplying millennial scenarios. "Doomsday sayers aren't standing on street corners proclaiming the end of time," says Ted Daniels, director of the one-man Millennium Watch Institute in Philadelphia. "Instead they've all gone on the Internet."

In his small, nondenominational End Time Ministries in Elizabeth, N.J., the Rev. Al Horta is one of the keepers of the apocalyptic faith. The signs, he believes, are all around: wars, school shootings, AIDS, earthquakes, the Y2K bug. The founding of the state of Israel in 1948--an oft-cited precondition for Armageddon--means to Horta that we are "of the generation" and "in the season" that will see Christ's return. Carmen Lanier, 39, a member of the New Hope Revival Church in Columbus, Ga., concurs. For her, these "last days" are a time to get right with God. As "things get darker on the earth and the perversion of man increases," she says, she and other faithful will be "emboldened" to minister to lost souls. "I will have the power of Jesus Christ," she says. "I will be able to heal the sick, to speak to the dead." For those not saved in the Rapture, she envisions a world sunk in "complete madness, a period of darkness, a horrible time to be alive."

Yet among Christian communities, the coming millennium has inspired a surprisingly low count of doomsday survivalist cults, says J. Gordon Melton, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara. After two decades of studying Christian schisms, splinter groups and rogue denominations, Melton finally concluded that the millennium is a bust, apocalypsewise. Except for the odd group hoarding water or fretting over the Y2K computer bug, the Armageddon wires have been surprisingly quiet. "I expected to have a field day with millennial groups," he says. "And there was nothing."

But for true believers, ground zero for apocalyptic zealotry remains the city of Jerusalem. There are already about 100 Christians living on the Mount of Olives, the spot where the Bible says Jesus will return to earth. On a recent Jerusalem evening, an American named Brother David led five congregants in an ecstatic prayer vigil, singing and speaking in tongues. David once had a ministry in Brooklyn, N.Y., but he sold everything 18 years ago to launch his House of Prayer group in Jerusalem, where he expects to be on hand for the day of days. "I feel the Lord's returning," he told NEWSWEEK, "and the millennium is to be the time of his coming." He hastens to distance his sect from those who would commit violence. Such groups, he says, "are not Christians, they are cults. Nobody I know would do any violence. But with these cults, well, you never can tell."

Even among such dedicated millennialists, the deadline of all deadlines remains fungible. History has not been kind to prophets who fixed a date for Christ's return, only to see it pass. After one 19th-century believer sold his worldly possessions, his son sued him for squandering his inheritance. For modern would-be prophets, maybe it's just too soon to know. Some doomsayers are already looking ahead to 2033, the second millennium of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. And why not? In this game, you only have to be right once.