TOKYO — For hundreds of followers of the Dami Mission in Seoul, the most amazing thing about today is that it arrived.
They, like an estimated 20,000 South Koreans, had believed they would be lifted into heaven at the stroke of midnight Wednesday in the beginning of the end of the world.
The phenomenon known as the Rapture, prophesied in the Book of Revelation, set off a social crisis in South Korea as scores of believers sold their homes, quit their jobs, abandoned their families and underwent abortions to prepare for the one-way ride to heaven.
At least four followers committed suicide before Wednesday, but no new suicides were reported after midnight.
At 12:10 a.m. today, as 1,500 riot police officers, 200 plainclothes detectives and 100 journalists kept watch outside the church, a teen-age boy stuck his head out the third-floor window and yelled to the crowd: "Nothing's happening!"
Eight minutes later, two girls peeked out the same window. They told reporters they never believed in the Rapture anyway, although their parents were inside, crying in despair because they had not been lifted away.
It was Dami Mission's pastor, Lee Jang Rim, who spread the Rapture theory throughout South Korea. Although he was arrested in September on charges of fraud in connection with bilking followers of hundreds of thousands of dollars, 1,000 religious pilgrims nevertheless showed up at the church Wednesday evening.
At the mission's branch in the city of Wonju, 54 believers burned their furniture and awaited the Rapture in white clothing, while 20 followers in Pusan bequeathed $22,000 to fellow pilgrims left behind on Earth.
Police took elaborate precautions to ensure that mass suicides would not occur.
Besides the 1,500 riot officers dispatched to Dami Mission, ambulances and other emergency vehicles lined the street. Some detectives were placed inside the church for surveillance; stairs leading to the building's roof were blocked and windows barred to prevent suicide leaps.
Authorities also opened a damage report center to take complaints of deception or fraud.
Analysts have not offered authoritative explanations as to why the Rapture phenomenon seemed to seize so many in South Korea, a well-educated nation where about 20% of the people are Christians and where religion has long played a major role in the society.
But observers say that many South Koreans have expressed the desire for some form of divine certainty amid their country's rapid postwar change, its suddenly declining economy and continued political unrest.
Mainstream preachers have denounced the Rapture prophecy as a misinterpretation of the Bible.
Cult expert Tahk Myeong Whan said scores of parents are still desperately searching for children who had been spirited away by the more radical sects preaching the Rapture theory in mountain hide-outs and other secret locations.
Experts say that Rapture adherents number up to 20,000. They worship in more than 300 churches, including some in Los Angeles and New York.
In Seoul, officials at the Dami Mission had issued church members special identification cards so they could be admitted for what were presumed to be the final services at the church.
A closed-circuit television set outside showed parishioners inside kneeling on cushions, singing and raising their arms as a chorus sang and a steel-guitar player performed hymns. "Jesus is coming!" they screamed.
But the television set was smashed by a teen-ager, Lee Hang Sup, whose brother was inside the church. He was arrested.
In Los Angeles, a call to Maranatha Church on Wednesday was answered by a woman who sounded as if she had been crying. Her voice was hoarse. When asked how things were at the church, she replied, " Hyoo-go (Rapture) is over" and hung up.
Maranatha, at 605 S. Serrano Ave., has come under fire after one of its 200 or so members died last month following a 40-day fasting and prayer ritual, reportedly in the belief that Jesus Christ would arrive soon. The death of Chang-Young Mun, 36, prompted Koreatown clerics to call for the church's closure.
Former Maranatha members and relatives of present church members have formed the Maranatha Church Victims' Assn. and have demonstrated at the church on Sundays for weeks.
A Korean-American elementary school child who left the church--his mother remains a member--said on a Korean-language television broadcast last week that he was not allowed to sleep or go to the bathroom while the congregation was engaged in an all-night prayer preparing for the Rapture.
K. Connie Kang, a Times staff writer in Los Angeles, and Jungnam Chi, a Times researcher in Seoul, contributed to this report.