For thousands of years, prophets have predicted the end of the world. Today, various religious groups, using the latest technology, are trying to hasten it.
Their endgame is to speed the promised arrival of a messiah.
For some Christians this means laying the groundwork for Armageddon.
With that goal in mind, mega-church pastors recently met in Inglewood to polish strategies for using global communications and aircraft to transport missionaries to fulfill the Great Commission: to make every person on Earth aware of Jesus' message. Doing so, they believe, will bring about the end, perhaps within two decades.
In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has a far different vision. As mayor of Tehran in 2004, he spent millions on improvements to make the city more welcoming for the return of a Muslim messiah known as the Mahdi, according to a recent report by the American Foreign Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank.
To the majority of Shiites, the Mahdi was the last of the prophet Muhammad's true heirs, his 12 righteous descendants chosen by God to lead the faithful.
Ahmadinejad hopes to welcome the Mahdi to Tehran within two years.
Conversely, some Jewish groups in Jerusalem hope to clear the path for their own messiah by rebuilding a temple on a site now occupied by one of Islam's holiest shrines.
Artisans have re-created priestly robes of white linen, gem-studded breastplates, silver trumpets and solid-gold menorahs to be used in the Holy Temple -- along with two 6 1/2-ton marble cornerstones for the building's foundation.
Then there is Clyde Lott, a Mississippi revivalist preacher and cattle rancher. He is trying to raise a unique herd of red heifers to satisfy an obscure injunction in the Book of Numbers: the sacrifice of a blemish-free red heifer for purification rituals needed to pave the way for the messiah.
So far, only one of his cows has been verified by rabbis as worthy, meaning they failed to turn up even three white or black hairs on the animal's body.
Linking these efforts is a belief that modern technologies and global communications have made it possible to induce completion of God's plan within this generation.
Though there are myriad interpretations of how it will play out, the basic Christian apocalyptic countdown -- as described by the Book of Revelation in the New Testament -- is as follows:
Jews return to Israel after 2,000 years, the Holy Temple is rebuilt, billions of people perish during seven years of natural disasters and plagues, the antichrist arises and rules the world, the battle of Armageddon erupts in the vicinity of Israel, Jesus returns to defeat Satan's armies and preside over Judgment Day.
Generations of Christians have hoped for the Second Coming of Jesus, said UCLA historian Eugen Weber, author of the 1999 book "Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages."
"And it's always been an ultimately bloody hope, a slaughterhouse hope," he added with a sigh. "What we have now in this global age is a vaster and bloodier-than-ever Wagnerian version. But, then, we are a very imaginative race."
Apocalyptic movements are nothing new; even Christopher Columbus hoped to assist in the Great Commission by evangelizing New World inhabitants.
Some religious scholars saw apocalyptic fever rise as the year 2000 approached, and they expected it to subside after the millennium arrived without a hitch.
It didn't. According to various polls, an estimated 40% of Americans believe that a sequence of events presaging the end times is already underway. Among the believers are pastors of some of the largest evangelical churches in America, who converged at Faith Central Bible Church in Inglewood in February to finalize plans to start 5 million new churches worldwide in 10 years.
"Jesus Christ commissioned his disciples to go to the ends of the Earth and tell everyone how they could achieve eternal life," said James Davis, president of the Global Pastors Network's "Billion Souls Initiative," one of an estimated 2,000 initiatives worldwide designed to boost the Christian population.
"As we advance around the world," Davis said, "we'll be shortening the time needed to fulfill that Great Commission. Then, the Bible says, the end will come."
An opposing vision, invoked by Ahmadinejad in an address before the United Nations last year, suggests that the Imam Mahdi, a 9th century figure, will soon emerge from a well to conquer the world and convert everyone to Islam.
"O mighty Lord," he said, "I pray to you to hasten the emergence of your last repository, the promised one, that perfect and pure human being, the one that will fill this world with justice and peace."
At the appropriate time, according to Shiite tradition, the Mahdi will reappear and, along with Jesus, lead Muslims in a struggle to rid the world of corruption and establish justice.
For Christians, the future of Israel is the key to any end-times scenario, and various groups are reaching out to Jews -- or proselytizing among them -- to advance the Second Coming.
A growing number of fundamentalist Christians in mostly Southern states are adopting Jewish religious practices to align themselves with prophecies saying that Gentiles will stand as one with Jews when the end is near.
Evangelist John C. Hagee of the 19,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio has helped 12,000 Russian Jews move to Israel, and donated several million dollars to Israeli hospitals and orphanages.
"We are the generation that will probably see the rapture of the church," Hagee said, referring to a moment in advance of Jesus' return when the world's true believers will be airlifted into heaven.
"In Christian theology, the first thing that happens when Christ returns to Earth is the judgment of nations," said Hagee, who wears a Jewish prayer shawl when he ministers. "It will have one criterion: How did you treat the Jewish people? Anyone who understands that will want to be on the right side of that question. Those who are anti-Semitic will go to eternal damnation."
On July 18, Hagee plans to lead a contingent of high-profile evangelists to Washington to make their concerns about Israel's security known to congressional leaders. More than 1,200 evangelists are expected for the gathering.
"Twenty-five years ago, I called a meeting of evangelists to discuss such an effort, and the conversation didn't last an hour," he said. "This time, I called and they all came and stayed. And when the meeting was over, they all agreed to speak up for Israel."
Underlining the sense of urgency is a belief that the end-times clock started ticking May 15, 1948, when the United Nations formally recognized Israel.
"I'll never forget that night," Hagee said. "I was 8 years old at the time and in the kitchen with my father listening to the news about Israel's rebirth on the radio. He said, 'Son, this is the most important day in the 20th century.' "
Hagee's message is carried on 160 television stations and 50 radio stations and can be seen in Africa, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and most Third World nations.
By contrast, Bill McCartney, a former University of Colorado football coach and co-founder of the evangelical Promise Keepers movement for men, which became huge in the 1990s, has had a devil of a time getting his own apocalyptic campaign off the ground.
It's called The Road to Jerusalem, and its mission is to convert Jews to Christianity -- while there is still time.
"Our whole purpose is to hasten the end times," he said. "The Bible says Jews will be brought to jealousy when they see Christians and Jewish believers together as one -- they'll want to be a part of that. That's going to signal Jesus' return."
Jews and others who don't accept Jesus, he added matter-of-factly, "are toast."
McCartney, who only a decade ago sermonized to stadium-size crowds of Promise Keepers, said finding people to back his sputtering cause has been "like plowing cement."
Given end-times scenarios saying that non-believers will die before Jesus returns -- and that the antichrist will rule from Jerusalem's rebuilt Holy Temple -- Jews have mixed feelings about the outpouring of support Israel has been getting from evangelical organizations.
"I truly believe John Hagee is at once a daring, beautiful person -- and quite dangerous," said Orthodox Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, vice president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York.
"I sincerely recognize him as a hero for bringing planeloads of people to Israel at a time when people there were getting blown up by the busloads," Hirschfield said. "But he also believes that the only path to the father is through Jesus. That leaves me out."
Meanwhile, in what has become a spectacular annual routine, Jews -- hoping to rebuild the Holy Temple destroyed by the Romans in AD 70 -- attempt to haul the 6 1/2 -ton cornerstones by truck up to the Temple Mount, the site now occupied by the Dome of the Rock shrine. Each year, they are turned back by police.
Among those turned away is Gershon Solomon, spokesman for Jerusalem's Temple Institute. When the temple is built, he said, "Islam is over."
"I'm grateful for all the wonderful Christian angels wanting to help us," Solomon added, acknowledging the political support from "Christians who are now Israel's best lobbyists in the United States."
However, when asked to comment on the fate of non-Christians upon the Second Coming of Jesus, he said, "That's a very embarrassing question. What can I tell you? That's a very terrible Christian idea.
"What kind of religion is it that expects another religion will be destroyed?"
But are all of these efforts to hasten the end of the world a bit like, well, playing God?
Some Christians, such as Roman Catholics and some Protestant denominations, believe in the Second Coming but don't try to advance it. It's important to be ready for the Second Coming, they say, though its timetable cannot be manipulated.
Hirschfield said he prays every day for the coming of the Jewish messiah, but he too believes that God can't be hurried.
"For me," he said, "the messiah is like the mechanical bunny at a racetrack: It always stays a little ahead of the runners but keeps the pace toward a redeemed world.
"Trouble is, there are many people who want to bring a messiah who looks just like them. For me, that kind of messianism is spiritual narcissism."
But some Christian leaders say they aren't playing God; they're just carrying out his will.
Ted Haggard, president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals, says the commitment to fulfilling the Great Commission has naturally intensified along with the technological advances God provided to carry out his plans.
Over in Mississippi, Lott believes that he is doing God's work, and that is why he wants to raise a few head of red heifers for Jewish high priests. Citing Scripture, Lott and others say a pure red heifer must be sacrificed and burned and its ashes used in purification rituals to allow Jews to rebuild the temple.
But Lott's plans have been sidetracked.
Facing a maze of red tape and testing involved in shipping animals overseas -- and rumors of threats from Arabs and Jews alike who say the cows would only bring more trouble to the Middle East -- he has given up on plans to fly planeloads of cows to Israel. For now.
In the meantime, some local ranchers have expressed an interest in raising their own red heifers for Israel, and fears of hoof-and-mouth disease and blue tongue forced Lott to relocate his only verified red heifer -- a female born in 1993 -- to Nebraska.
Cloning is out of the question, he said, because the technique "is not approved by the rabbinical council of Israel." Artificial insemination has so far failed to produce another heifer certified by rabbis.
"Something deep in my heart says God wants me to be a blessing to Israel," Lott said in a telephone interview. "But it's complicated. We're just not ready to send any red heifers over there."
If not now, when?
"If there's a sovereign God with his hand in the affairs of men, it'll happen, and it'll be a pivotal event," he said. "That time is soon. Very soon."