WASHINGTON - 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," 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."
His is not a voice crying in the wilderness. There are best-sellers, including 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' home page.
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."
But what makes today's prayers so earnest? What separates this generation of end-time prophets from those of the last two millennia?
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.
Since many end-time prophets also place the apocalyptic Armageddon in Israel, developments there continue to stir interest.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 that is published from Bend, Ore., and 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."