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 THEY HAVE 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 Prophecy Conference 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 of Americans.
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 said he 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 of peace 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 way to 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."