Nietzsche notwithstanding, God is not dead.
"You could go outside the New York Public Library, and there will be 20 Christs, a couple of Pauls and some Peters," says Dr. Jonas Rappeport, who retired as chief medical officer of the Baltimore Circuit Court last year and is considered the father of forensic psychiatry. "These are terribly sick people, so no one follows them, no one pays attention to them. But then there are these chaps who are less ill, and who are charismatic and can get people to follow them, like this one in Texas and Jim Jones."
When David Koresh, head of the cult involved in a protracted standoff with federal agents outside Waco, Texas, proclaims that he is Christ -- or alternately, the Messiah or "the Lamb of God" -- he is treading on familiar turf. A number of cult leaders, criminals and the simply psychotic have announced over the years that they are some variant of the highest deity. Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church, Jim Jones of the People's Temple in Guyana and Yahweh Ben Yahweh of the Nation of Yahweh in Miami, for example, are just a few who have crowded the heavenly field.
And it's not just religious leaders. Defendants in criminal trials have been known to claim godhood -- either in true delusion or as a way of copping an insanity plea. An Anne Arundel County man named Robert James Smith, for example, said he was God and killed his father, whom he said was the devil. (Mr. Smith was declared insane; he pleaded guilty but not criminally responsible for the 1990 murder.) In California in 1967, a police killer responded to his last, failed bid for clemency by slashing his wrists and claiming to be Jesus Christ -- a proclamation he continued all the way to the gas chamber.
While such claims are considered blasphemy by adherents of many mainstream religions, they make a perverse sort of sense, at least when the claimant is obviously delusional.
"If you're going to have a delusion, you're not going to imagine you're Joe Jerk," says Dr. Rappeport. "People who feel inadequate or isolated, by identifying with a powerful figure, hope they will derive some of that power.
"Believing you're Jesus, unless you really are, would be considered a delusion. It would most frequently be a symptom of paranoid schizophrenia," he says. But, he cautions, it's impossible to diagnose Mr. Koresh from this far afield.
And Mr. Koresh's statements, especially on his role vis-a-vis God, have varied day-by-day, and he seems to have backed off " from an initially reported claim of being Christ himself.
"But there's little doubt he's made claims that put him high up in the hierarchy. The group believes they will be the governing authority in the kingdom when it's established [after the apocalypse], and he seems to think he's going to be Jesus' prime minister," says J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religions in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Dr. Melton, editor of the three-volume Encyclopedia of American Religions, says very few religious leaders claim to be God Himself; more commonly, leaders will say they're prophets or have some sort of special pipeline to God. And, as the saying goes, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely: For some cult leaders, proclaiming themselves God, or something close to it, can go to their head, Dr. Melton says.
"What happens usually is the leader starts to take himself too seriously," Dr. Melton says. "With the grandiosity that comes with being a leader, you assume you can do anything. You are above the law."
There is one case, he says, in which a group's leader claimed to be God yet didn't abuse the power: Father Divine, who was born George Baker Jr. and lived in Baltimore as a young adult, had millions of followers in his Peace Mission movement during its heyday in the 1930s. He died in 1965, but his widow continues the work of his group, which combines the tenets of various Eastern and Western religions as well as what would be considered New Age thought today. And its founder used his influence to empower the unempowered, Dr. Melton says.
"He seemed to handle it well. He accepted the adulation, but he also set strict rules for those who joined," he says. "They had to get a job, for example, or they were out of the group."
By contrast, he says, there is Yahweh Ben Yahweh, who also claims divinity but uses his power in violent ways. The leader of a Miami-based sect that considers itself a lost tribe of Israel, Yahweh Ben Yahweh was convicted last year for ordering 14 murders of "white devils" and former followers.
Cult opponents point to claims of godhood as one way that such groups' leaders consolidate power and "brainwash" their followers -- a charge that the groups themselves deny. Religious leaders often start out saying they are emissaries of God, but eventually cross a thin line into believing that they are God, the anti-cultists say.
"He might start out saying, 'God has been speaking to me. God told me this,' " says the Rev. Lawrence J. Gesy, a Roman Catholic priest who serves as the "cult consultant" to the Archdiocese of Baltimore. "It's easy to go from, 'God told me,' to 'I am God.' "
While it may be a small step for the cult's leader to cross that line, it would seem a greater leap of faith for the cult's members to follow along. But Father Gesy says cults work by drawing its members into an intense, emotional and social web that shuts down their ability to think critically and makes any sort of dissent just about unthinkable.
"The group substitutes for the usual social matrix," agrees Cynthia Kisser, executive director of the Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network. "Most cults have what's called a 'sacred science,' that there is some truth that is only available through this leader. The only path to your salvation is within this group. Some people may be unhappy in the group, but if you leave, you lose your chance for enlightenment."
The Christian God, of course, isn't the only higher being invoked by leaders of religious groups. Wallace Delaney Fard, who founded the Nation of Islam about 50 years ago, was considered Allah incarnate. Some groups, especially those of a New Age bent, claim they channel for other deities. Elizabeth Clare Prophet, the leader of the Church Universal & Triumphant in Montana, for example, says she is a sort of conduit between her congregation and the "ascended masters," a large group that includes Jesus, St. Germain and lesser-known beings.
Yet because most Americans profess to be Christians -- 90 percent in a recent Gallup poll -- many cults draw upon that legacy, Ms. Kisser says, estimating a third of the groups she is aware of are Bible-based. (Other categories, she says, include New Age, political and Satanic.)
But while these cults may start with the Bible, they stray from what mainstream religion accepts, says Harold O. J. Brown, a professor of systematic theology at the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., who is affiliated with the Center on Religion and Society.
Traditional Christianity believes God may reveal himself to an individual on occasion, but the message is only valid for that person alone and not for others, Dr. Brown says. He offers a hypothetical: It's possible that God would tell a person to go help Mother Teresa in Calcutta, but he wouldn't tell that person that he wants someone else to go to Calcutta. For an alleged revelation of God to have wider application, the occurrence would have to be documented -- just as Bernadette's vision of the Blessed Virgin at Lourdes in 1858 has been authenticated by church officials, he says.
And, while the apocalypse is part of standard Christian faith and groups such as Mr. Koresh's in Waco, Dr. Brown says people should be skeptical when a leader claims he knows specifically when and how the end of the world will occur.
"Jesus himself said," he quotes, " 'you won't know the day and the hour.' "