As time passed after Waco, I learned more about the theology of David Koresh. Koresh did not have much formal training in the Bible, but he had the ability to memorize large portions of the Bible and to explain in a convincing manner texts that puzzled most people, like the Seals and Trumpets of Revelation and chapter 11 of the book of Daniel. Koresh was particularly fascinated by the seven seals of Revelation. In many ways he was a man of contradictions. He could enforce strict dietary rules on his community, but break them on a whim. He could be lovable one moment and scary the next. He was funny sometimes and deadly serious at other times. He was very spiritual much of the time but could be quite carnal at other times. This led some to call him “the sinful Messiah.”
Koresh did not believe that he was Jesus Christ re-incarnated, as many have come to think, but he believed he was the end-time Cyrus (Koresh) who would come from the east (Isa 45:1-4; Dan 11:44-45; Rev 16:12) and be God’s final messenger on earth. He considered himself the last in a line of such messengers as Luther, John Knox, John Wesley, Ellen White and Victor Houteff, the founder of the breakaway Adventist movement (“Shepherd’s Rod”) that spawned the Branch Davidians. He reported that on a trip to Jerusalem in 1985, God gave him a vision of seven angels anointing him (the biblical Cyrus was God’s anointed messenger [Isa 45:1] as the last living prophet on earth. The Bible, in his view, was full of clues as to just when and how Jesus would return and how His people were to prepare. End-time salvation would come from believing Koresh’s message regarding the seven seals of Revelation (Rev 6:1 – 8:1), which he considered the last message to a lost world. The practical aspect of the message was to “endure to the end, no matter what the cost” (Matt 10:22), and so find end-time salvation. He was raising up an exclusive end-time people who would become God’s sole channel of salvation. They were the bearers of “present truth.”
As God’s last-day prophet, he anticipated a violent, apocalyptic end to his life. Death was not something he feared, he believed it was part of the path God had laid out for him. His death would come at the hands of end-time “Babylon” (Rev 17:1-5). He saw that Babylon everywhere; in mainstream religion, the US government, and even in his former spiritual home, the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Apparently his view of God allowed him to believe that taking up arms to defend “the truth” was in harmony with God’s plan for the end of time. In this belief he deviated greatly from the end-time convictions of Seventh-day Adventists, who have been largely pacifist from the beginning. SDAs believe that deliverance in the end-time will not come from guns, but from direct deliverance by God.
In spite of many differences, his free-wheeling use of proof-texts from the Bible, interspersed with quotations from Ellen White, mean he was a bit more Adventist than most Adventists would like. The Branch Davidians kept the Sabbath, were vegetarians, abstained from tobacco, alcohol and most drugs, were constantly talking about Bible prophecy, and believed that the King James Bible was the only true and authoritative version. The Branch Davidians were culturally very similar to the most conservative of Adventists.
This came home powerfully to me when my family and I spent two weeks in New York City in 1999. As a family we stayed in a small apartment behind and above my childhood church, now called Church of the Advent Hope, in Manhattan. One evening the kids (12, 14 and 17 at the time) got a little bored, so I went down the street and rented the documentary “Waco: Rules of Engagement.” I had seen it at a scholarly conference (where I met James Tabor) some time before and thought they would find it interesting. The documentary includes footage of both federal attacks and also video from inside the compound between the two attacks (February 28 and April 19).
My children were not easily frightened by videos, but this documentary completely traumatized them. They couldn’t sleep the whole night afterward. When I questioned them about it later, they emphasized several things. The Davidians inside the compound talked and acted so “Adventist.” As children in Sabbath School they had been taught that the end-time persecution was coming, and it would affect them personally. To them the video was evidence that what they had been taught was beginning to happen. So when my children saw the charred bodies of Davidian children, they identified very strongly with them and feared that the end-time persecution was about to happen. Koresh in many ways deviated strongly from Adventism, but the similarities are troubling. While commitment and faithfulness are important things, in an end-time context they can be carried too far. And that reality will bring us eventually to ISIS, which also has some troubling similarities. . .