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Search for Palmdale religious group draws attention to 'end times' debate

September 25, 2010 |  4:20 pm

Church group leader

Religious leaders prophesying a date for the apocalypse have always faced a special challenge to their credibility: Everyone who's tried that before has turned out to be wrong.

But the predictions continue. A week ago, concerns flared in Palmdale when a small Christian group was reported missing after taking off into the night on a mysterious religious trip. Authorities said the group, led by a Salvadoran immigrant, left farewell letters to loved ones that indicated their belief that the end of the world was near.

The 22-hour search that followed commanded attention from media outlets worldwide, but scholars say the idea of end times followed by a messianic arrival is an ancient one that spans religions. In Christianity, the concept often includes an event referred to as the "rapture," when Christ will return in spectacular fashion and separate the "sheep" (his followers) from the "goats" (nonbelievers).

The idea can be a comfort to the disenfranchised, a guarantee that justice will be served and scores settled, said theology scholar Cecil Robeck Jr. In a time of joblessness and economic frustration, Robeck said, that pledge can be particularly appealing.

"People are desperate. When someone says, 'You're in a terrible situation now, but if you'll follow me, I'll make it OK,' people are hungry, they need hope, they'll follow," said Robeck, a Pentecostal minister and professor of church history at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

That appeal is part of the reason that the concept of the rapture, when true believers are expected to be lifted into heaven, is most common in churches with poorer, less-educated congregations, Robeck said.

The Palmdale group was said to be predominantly composed of recent Salvadoran immigrants. Former neighbors said its leader, Reyna Marisol Chicas, 32, had left school after fifth grade and struggled to find steady work.

Read the full story here.

-- Robert Faturechi

Photo: Deputies question Reyna Marisol Chicas, leader of the church group that disappeared. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times