Waco eyewitness argues that
1993 holocaust was avoidable

by Dixon Cartwright

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- April 19, 2014, is the 21st anniversary of an event seared into the synapses of the brain of Phillip Arnold.

On April 19, 1993, Dr. Arnold, founder and director of The Reunion Institute in Houston, was both a spectator of and participant in events near Waco, Texas, that ended the lives of 80 Sabbatarian Christians, including 16 children.

An inferno erupted after personnel of two U.S.-government agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), decided to end a 51-day standoff.

They ended it by storming the headquarters of a religious movement known as the Branch Davidians.

Mount Carmel

Mount Carmel was the name of the buildings and land on which adherents to the little-known Sabbath- and feast-keeping religion lived under the iron fist of one David Koresh.

Mr. Koresh was leader of the group founded by Seventh-day Adventist dissident Victor T. Houteff in the 1930s. Mr. Houteff had moved from Los Angeles to Waco in 1935 and, with a small group of followers, bought 189 acres outside of town, naming it Mount Carmel after references in Amos 1:2 and 9:3.

Originally known as the General Association of the Shepherd's Rod Seventh-day Adventists, the members shortly thereafter became known as "Davidians" because of their belief that they would someday establish a "Davidic" kingdom in Palestine.

Claimed to be SDAs

The Davidians still considered themselves members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, even though the SDAs and the Davidians had major theological differences.

In 1942 they renamed themselves the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists. After World War II the Davidians formally split from the mother church.


In 1957 the Davidians divided up and sold the original Mount Carmel property to developers and bought 941 acres farther out of town, nine miles east of Waco.

Mr. Houteff died Feb. 5, 1955, and his wife, Florence, took over control of the group.

Latter-day Elijah

On April 22, 1959, Mrs. Houteff announced to 600 Davidian members that Mr. Houteff (even though he was dead) was the "latter-day prophet Elijah who is to return just before the Day of the Lord."

Some Davidians at the time expected Mr. Houteff to be resurrected to fulfill his destiny as Elijah.

The Branch

Mrs. Houteff served as the group's leader for a time, then Benjamin Roden emerged in 1959 as the new Davidian "prophet."

The Davidians saw several splits during the 1950s and 1960s, some of them violent.

In 1962 Mr. Roden and his wife declared they were the rightful heirs to the new Mount Carmel. The Rodens began calling their faction of Davidians "The Branch."

Later, when Mr. Roden gained power among Davidians in general, they came to call themselves the Branch Davidians. Mr. Roden explained that "Branch" came from prophecies of Christ, such as in Isaiah 11:1, which refers to the Messiah as a Branch.

Gunfights with rivals

Over the years the Branch Davidians lived a frequently stormy existence that included gunfights between rival Davidian factions, with other leaders, such as George Roden, son of Benjamin, ruling in "exile" for a time in Palestine, Texas. Later the group again operated out of Mount Carmel.

Vernon Howell

By 1990 another leader emerged, Vernon Howell, a songwriter and band leader who that year changed his legal name to David Koresh.

Koresh is Greek for "Cyrus," who in Isaiah 44:28 is described a Messiahlike terms.

One of Mr. Koresh's recordings, in 1987, had been of a song prophetically titled "Mad Man in Waco."

Tyrant or victim?

A book also called Mad Man in Waco, by Brad Bailey and Bob Darden (WRS Publishing, Waco, 1993), paints a picture of Mr. Koresh as a tyrant and sexual abuser of female Davidians.

The book claims Mr. Koresh took followers' wives and daughters as young as 11 years old as his "wives" and concubines and ruled the Branch Davidians through arcane and out-of-context interpretation of Scripture.

A few other books, such as The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation, by Dick J. Reavis (Syracuse University Press, 1998), and Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America, by James Tabor and Eugene Gallagher (University of California Press, 1997), depict the Branch Davidians as the victims of monumental governmental blunders.

Hard to understand

In the early ’90s Waconians were accustomed to seeing David Koresh around town, and many had heard rumors of strange goings-on at the Mount Carmel compound and of caches of weapons on the premises.

On March 1, 1993, Phillip Arnold (along with millions of other people the world over) heard that the ATF had surrounded the property belonging to the group.

"I realized that law enforcement was not going to understand what this guy, David Koresh, whom I'd never heard of, was saying," Dr. Arnold told The Journal during an interview at the Feast of Tabernacles in San Antonio, Texas, on Oct. 10, 1998.

"This fellow really believed that he knew the prophecies of the book of Revelation. He's serious; he's sincere; he really believes it. He's not going to surrender!"

Dr. Arnold, then 45, quickly concluded he had a moral obligation to explain to the FBI and ATF officials surrounding Mount Carmel why David Koresh would never willingly leave the compound.

"So I jumped in my car and drove to Waco."

'Cult watcher'

Dr. Arnold traveled to Waco from Houston, where he operates The Reunion Institute and Reunion Ministries. He is known in some circles as a "cult watcher," although he dislikes that term and says it is not accurate.

"I don't even use the word cult," he said. "There are intense religious commitments, and there are nonmainstream churches."

Humpty-Dumpty churches

Dr. Arnold, whose institute and ministry are involved in sponsoring lectures on biblical and archaeological subjects, writing, research, counseling and teaching about the Bible, had heard Herbert Armstrong's The World Tomorrow for the first time in 1962.

At that time he was a teenager living in San Antonio on a military base with his family.

His father was in the Air Force, and the Arnolds had moved frequently after Phillip was born, in 1948 in Greenville, S.C. Growing up, he attended 14 schools in 12 years.

He later attended Ambassador College, Big Sandy, graduating in 1970.

He studied for a while at Pepperdine University in California, then earned a master's degree in American colonial history from the University of Houston.

Next he attended Rice University in Houston, earning a master's in religious studies. He acquired a Ph.D. in religious studies from Rice in 1991.

The Protestant principle

Phillip Arnold was a member of the Worldwide Church of God until 1974. He recalled the experiences and thought processes that led him to set up Reunion Institute and study religious groups and practices, including his conclusions about why many churches fragment and refragment.

Church splits are a natural outgrowth of the "Protestant principle," he said. "The Protestant principle is the term Paul Tillich, the theologian, coined to describe tendencies of non-Catholic churches that use the Bible as the source of their authority, sola Scriptura."

The fragmentation happens, Dr. Arnold maintains, because a group that takes its authority from Scripture is in danger of eventually breaking up.

That's "because each individual, guided by the Spirit, is responsible to interpret Scripture as he or she sees fit."

Off the (Humpty-Dumpty) wall

It was inevitable, for example, that the Worldwide Church of God would fragment, even though the WCG didn't historically think of itself as Protestant.

It was and is -- in its current identity as Grace Communion International -- Protestant, he said, in the sense that the WCG/GCI, unlike the Roman Catholic Church, sees Scripture alone as authoritative.

This is in contrast to the Catholic belief that church tradition and encyclicals penned by Peter's successor can authoritatively reinterpret Scripture.

"That it took so long for Mr. Armstrong's movement to fragment so thoroughly is a testimonial to the authority and charisma he had," said Dr. Arnold, "and now that he's dead we see a blitzkrieg of fragmentation.

"I used to be able to recite all the offshoots [of the Churches of God] from 1884 up to about 1974. But, after that, Humpty-Dumpty fell off the wall."

The pejorative 'cult'

The WCG and its breakaways and many other Christians obviously have strong religious commitments, he acknowledges.

"If we didn't have strong religious commitments, we wouldn't be here at the Feast of Tabernacles. I don't believe in using a pejorative term like cult to describe anyone, including people with strong religious commitments, and it's a nonacademic term. Jesus has a strong sway over people's minds.

"You can talk about healthy religious experiences, and you can talk about abusive churches. I just don't use the words heresy or cult very often."

The WCG had problems

But Dr. Arnold's memory of the Worldwide Church of God is that it was a group that fostered "abusive practices" and tended to be "totalitarian" in nature.

"Individuals [in the WCG] were reduced to objects to be used. There were a lot of abusive situations, especially divorce and remarriage and healing, where people were made to feel very, very guilty if they didn't follow the party line.

"To ask questions seemed to be infringing on the authority of the leading evangelists and apostle or the church. This stifled creativity, individuality and freedom, and that was very abusive psychologically, financially, emotionally -- in many ways."

Time to get out

Dr. Arnold reached a point at which he decided the WCG had problems that for him were insurmountable.

"I would say it was probably around 1971, -2, -3 or -4. I began to research doctrines like D&R [divorce and remarriage], the United States and British Commonwealth in prophecy, those kinds of things.

"I began to study them open-mindedly. There were some other Church of God people, some Church of God (Seventh Day) people, who challenged me to study, and I challenged them to study certain things.

"I began to see that D&R was crucifying the lives of many fine people and that our money was going to promote such cursed doctrine, and with that blood on my hands I had to do something.

"So I spoke out. I wrote papers and articles and sent them to Charles Dorothy, and I talked to Herman Hoeh and Lawson Briggs.

"I did this as a team player. I wasn't standing up in front of church trying to cause dissent."

Keys of the Kingdom

When Dr. Arnold did not see certain hoped-for changes taking place in the Worldwide Church of God, "I began to reconsider my affiliation."

The straw that broke the camel's back for him came when Mr. Armstrong, in altering the D&R doctrine in 1974, "said that anything that he had decided previously was bound in heaven because he had the keys of the Kingdom.

"I thought that sounds kind of like the doctrine of the papacy, and the Catholics have much bigger and better buildings. I'm being facetious."

Mr. Armstrong, concluded Dr. Arnold, had assumed a position of authority he was not entitled to.

Sickliness of the spirit

"Finally, there were so many sermons in that time, ’74 or ’75, about how we should not criticize the authority in the church. We should not question it. This was every week. There was nothing then about spiritual growth and the spirit of Christ and the Holy Spirit. There was so much emphasis on tapes from headquarters.

"To be in church services created a sickliness of the spirit in me.

"It wasn't a doctrine that made me leave. It was a sense of not being spiritually fed from the pulpit but being spiritually oppressed, spiritually attacked and assaulted.

"That created a depressing spirit, a depressing attitude, a depressing atmosphere.

"Even when someone would say, 'Look at Christ,' it was understood that Mr. Armstrong was the real source of revelation and authority. 'Look at Mr. Armstrong and then see Christ.'

"So slowly but surely I didn't attend anymore. I don't think I was ever disfellowshipped. I just faded away and continued to fellowship with members of the church who would come over."

Quiet people for a change

Later, while studying history at the University of Houston, he realized his first love was still the study of the Bible and religion.

"I didn't want to go to a seminary, so I studied religious studies at Rice University, an academic approach to the Bible and religion, and started visiting various churches. I never lost faith in God.

"I found that visiting with Quakers was very helpful because they were quiet.

"That was such a refreshing change: to sit in a circle of quiet people."

Dr. Arnold has not affiliated with any church but enjoys visiting friends in various congregations.

For example, in 1998, the year of the first interview this article is based on, he attended and delivered a sermon (contrasting Jesus' message with that of Adolf Hitler) at the Amarillo, Texas-based Christian Church of God's Feast site in San Antonio.

Window dressing

Returning to the events of 1993, Dr. Arnold told of his trip to Waco to try to help peacefully resolve the situation at the Branch Davidians' compound.

"I implored the FBI to listen to David Koresh. 'I can help you interpret what he's saying so we can resolve this crisis peacefully,' I told them."

At the time, Mr. Koresh was making statements, widely disseminated through the news media, about the seven seals in the book of Revelation.

"But the FBI expressed no real interest in what I was saying to them [about Mr. Koresh's beliefs]. So I returned to Houston but got a call from them about three days later asking if they could call on me should the situation warrant it."

Dr. Arnold readily agreed to help, even though he interpreted the call as only "window dressing" and not a sincere request for assistance.

"But I did go back up to Waco and called the agent who had contacted me. I figured from talking to him that David Koresh was thinking that the fifth seal, chapter 6 [of Revelation], was in the process of being fulfilled.

"Some of the Davidians had gotten killed by this time. The fifth seal shows some of the righteous being killed. Then it was time for the sixth."

No time to lose

When Dr. Arnold realized Mr. Koresh thought he was in the midst of the seals in the very end time, he knew he had to do something.

"I knew people were going to die," he said. So he stayed in Waco.

"I went to press conferences. The local Waco police threw me out of a press conference because of no accreditation and told me not to come back.

"The FBI talked to me on the phone a couple of times. Eventually they sent a couple of my cassette tapes in to David Koresh to listen to. This was around the middle of March."

One of Mr. Koresh's lieutenants, attorney Steve Schneider (who was to perish the next month in the holocaust), told the police that if they could get Phillip Arnold on the telephone "some of us might come out."

The Davidians had heard Dr. Arnold briefly on radio news broadcasts.

"The FBI never put me on the telephone to them, but some of my tapes did get in."

People will die

By the end of March, less than three weeks before the fiery conclusion of the stalemate, Dr. Arnold heard from a contact in the news media that the bureau planned to attack the compound with gas.

"So I called Jim Tabor on the telephone and said, 'Jim, the FBI's going to go in there, and people are going to die. The only way I know to stop this from happening is to go on the radio station that David Koresh listens to every morning.'"

Dr. Tabor, another man with a WCG background, is a friend of Dr. Arnold's and professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

The radio station Dr. Arnold referred to was KGBS, Dallas. The voice on the air every morning was that of Ron Engelman.

Mr. Engelman "was anti-FBI and anti-ATF, and the Davidians were listening to him every day," said Dr. Arnold. "If we could get on that program, we could talk directly to David Koresh and circumvent the FBI because they were not doing anything right. Let's just go around the FBI."

Taking over a radio show

So Dr. Arnold telephoned Mr. Engelman. "Would you let us be on your radio program? We'll talk directly to the Davidians for 20 or 30 minutes. Ron, would you mind if we just took over your show?"

Mr. Engelman said that, no, to save lives, he wouldn't mind turning the microphone over to Dr. Arnold and Dr. Tabor.

Talking his language

"We would be on the show to discuss the seven seals. So we came on that Thursday morning, I think it was April 1, 1993, and we just started talking.

"We didn't talk down to David. It wasn't like we were teaching. We just used language that he would understand.

"We said that he would be a great dialogue partner. We talked about the Dead Sea Scrolls, about the seals.

"We said that Nisan 10 was four days before the Passover and was the day that the lamb came out and was kept up for four days to Nisan 14, when it was sacrificed. Could that represent him and his community coming out safely?

"We said all kinds of things to entice him to come out. We wanted him to recognize that we were people who could talk his language.

"We talked about every great prophet and teacher who would have been willing to go to jail for his beliefs. Paul wrote the prison epistles, we mentioned. We talked for a good 30 or 40 minutes on the radio."

Dr. Arnold and Dr. Tabor learned later from Mr. Koresh's lawyers that he and the other people inside had heard them.

"Eventually we had Dick DeGuerin, David Koresh's attorney, take in an audiotape of our broadcast so they could listen to it carefully."

Announced he would surrender

On April 14, five days before the disaster, Mr. Koresh announced he had had a revelation that he should surrender, that he and the other Davidians should leave the compound after he finished writing down a message about the seven seals.

"He had never written anything," said Dr. Arnold. "Now he truly believed that a voice or a vision revealed to him, just like it had told him around March 1 not to surrender even though he had said he would.

"The earlier message had said wait. David had no choice but to obey God and wait. That's why they were waiting. They were waiting for God to let them come out. Finally, Koresh believed that he had received the word to come out after all this waiting."

The Koresh letter

Mr. Koresh wrote a letter to his lawyer, Mr. DeGuerin. Dr. Arnold paraphrased it as follows:

"Dear Dick: I received a revelation to come out, and I will come out as soon as I write down the message of the seven seals. As soon as you get it, give it to Jim Tabor and Phillip Arnold. As soon as it's in their hands, I'll come out."

Mr. Koresh was writing the message on the night of the 18th. He wrote into the wee hours the morning of the 19th. That same morning the FBI announced it was coming in.

FBI without a clue

"I was shocked when I saw what was happening," remembered Dr. Arnold. "What are they doing? He got the word to come out!"

The FBI, not fathoming the religious language, not understanding the Davidians' thought processes, didn't realize how important the message of the seven seals was to David Koresh, that from Mr. Koresh's point of view he had received the word to surrender and therefore would surrender.

Davidians on fire

The FBI used specially attached nozzles fitted onto military tanks to poke holes and fire tear gas into the compound, and somehow about noon the flames ignited.

"One of the bigger tanks pushed up against the area where the women and children were praying and hiding and waiting, and at that moment the Davidians thought this was the end," said Dr. Arnold.

"Maybe the tank knocked over a light, a candle or a kerosene lamp that may have started the fire. More likely the Davidians believed that God wanted them to build a wall of fire to protect themselves, because Zechariah 2 says that Jerusalem shall be surrounded by a wall of fire.

"Or perhaps there were Molotov cocktails set out to block the tanks.

"They prayed and trusted God that this fire they would create would protect them, as the prophecies indicated."

Wasn't suicide

The Branch Davidians, said Dr. Arnold, did not believe they were committing suicide.

Most of them had no idea what was happening, but the Davidian leaders probably believed they were protecting themselves, that God would honor them for their faith and keep the attackers from hurting them.

"Certainly the FBI precipitated the fire by making such a stupid decision," said Dr. Arnold.

"With the gas and the winds, the fire spread rapidly. The Davidians went down praying and singing praises to God, thinking they would be protected any moment and translated into the Kingdom or delivered from the fire.

"They believed they were like the three Hebrews who were in the fiery furnace in the book of Daniel."

In all, 80 Branch Davidians died: 74 in the holocaust on April 19 and six in the initial exchange of gunfire on Feb. 28. Four ATF agents also died in the February shooting.

Telling the truth

After the annihilation, Dr. Arnold and Dr. Tabor believed they should tell what they believed to be the truth about the way the U.S. government bungled the events leading up to the disaster.

"So we went on radio all over the country explaining this to the American people.

"I was on Larry King's and Ted Koppel's programs, and I said these things."

He also, in 1995, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee, which investigated the Waco debacle.

"Yes, I was fearful of some retaliation, perhaps even from some Davidian sympathizer who may have not understood what we were trying to do -- and you always wonder if there are some heavy hands in government. But I was not bothered by anybody.

Freemen better ending

"In fact, eventually the FBI replaced some of the people who were in charge and put a new team in.

"Then, when the Montana Freemen situation happened in 1995 and 1996 -- and when I heard that some of the Freemen were maverick Mormons and therefore people of religious faith -- I contacted the FBI and they agreed to fly me up.

"I spent about a week with the FBI studying the Montana Freemen's belief system and giving the FBI advice about that."

The Freemen situation ended on a considerably less-catastrophic note with several members of the group surrendering and facing trial and incarceration.

In the FBI, Dr. Arnold said, "you have negotiators and you have tacticians; you have men who drive the tanks, and you have the negotiating types.

"For the first 30 days in Waco the negotiators were more or less in control, but as time went by they were not getting enough of the Davidians to surrender. So the tactical people began to demand more responsibility.

"By the time you get to the end, the tactical types have assumed control."

Timothy McVeigh's motivation

The Journal asked Dr. Arnold about Timothy McVeigh, the man convicted of bombing the Murrah building in Oklahoma City in 1995 on the second anniversary of the Waco holocaust.

"Timothy McVeigh was at Waco," Dr. Arnold said, "and he was aware of what the FBI did at Waco. That was his motivation."

Dr. Arnold predicted that as the year 2000 approached, and the new millennium a year later on Jan. 1, 2001, there would be more of these instances because an "apocalyptic fever" was building up.

"So Ruby Ridge [another government-vs.-citizen standoff in 1992 in Idaho in which three people lost their lives] became evidence to some people that there's a great battle between the beast and the people of God.

"That fuels the flames that produce more of these events. These people are seeing the fulfillment of prophecy.

"People read Scripture and look for events in world news that point to more and more fulfillments of prophecy. They see this as part of the great tribulation and the woes."

Dr. Arnold predicted "more conflicts between religious groups and law enforcement, and you'll find some religious groups doing some extreme things."

Religion and charisma

Dr. Arnold thinks the danger is intensified when people believe that a particular person is their pipeline to God.

"When you combine that with the apocalyptic expectation, the year 2000, all these woes and plagues and earthquakes and this kind of mentality and then the man in charge may think that he receives revelations, that's when the powder keg is ripe to go off."

Some negotiators at Waco believed David Koresh was a con man who was after "sex, money and rock 'n' roll," said Dr. Arnold. Another psychologist observing from the sidelines thought Mr. Koresh was merely delusional.

"The FBI refused to believe David Koresh was a victim of messianic delusions of grandeur," said Dr. Arnold. "They wrongly concluded that he was a lying con man.

"But I thought he was a religious figure. I don't use the categories a psychologist does. 'Delusional' doesn't really capture it as well as 'charismatic religious figure.'"

Apocalyptic movement

The Branch Davidians, he said, "were an apocalyptic movement that combined the Old Testament and the New Testament with a view of God as the Father, and then there was the Son, and the Holy Spirit was a female figure.

"They believed in gifts of the Spirit and that God would send a prophet to the end-time church to explain Scripture. They thought that David Koresh was the last in a long line of prophets."

Convoluted logic

A certain convoluted logic motivated Mr. Koresh, said Dr. Arnold.

"He believed that in the end time God would send a figure, a Messianic, lamblike figure, who could reveal the seven seals. He believed that the book of Revelation predicted that in the end time the revelation for the last generation would be of the seven seals.

"If someone could not explain the seven seals, then he was not qualified, really, to give the message to the end-time generation."

Mr. Koresh believed he could explain the significance of the seven seals, and only he could explain it.

"If you could explain it, he would permit you to do so. But, since no one could give a better explanation than he could, he thought he was the end-time figure."

The Lamb who could explain

Mr. Koresh would say: "See? I can explain this. Therefore I must be the Lamb."

By calling himself the Lamb, Mr. Koresh was not saying he was Jesus Christ, said Dr. Arnold. "The Lamb was whoever could explain the seals. The seven seals were the end-time message. He was the end-time messenger who could explain the seals."

Many religious groups and individuals, said Dr. Arnold, cite Scripture to place current events in a certain light. They pray for the Holy Spirit to guide them and lead them to correct interpretations of events in a scriptural context.

"So you've got the Spirit, the text and the events. All that combines sometimes to form a pretty powerful and dangerous powder keg."

What does Dr. Arnold believe can set off the powder?

What if the ATF came to the Feast?

"That becomes the problem. We can't sit here and say this particular man is dangerous and this one isn't. There may be no danger unless something precipitates it, like the ATF comes into this hotel room right now.

"If the ATF barged through that door right now, here at the Feast of Tabernacles, that could precipitate something. What if that happened?

"Then what if somebody said, 'You know, I dreamed just last week that this would happen. The ATF is an agent of the beast. We've got to defend the church'? That's why law enforcement has to be careful."

David Koresh would have surrendered

Would David Koresh and his Davidians really have come out had the FBI left them alone a little longer?

"Yes, they would have come out. Koresh got through only seal one or two [in his writings]. But he would have surrendered.

"The FBI used the excuse that David Koresh told two or three big lies.

"But, when you look at those assertions by the FBI, you find that they [the FBI] are the ones who are wrong."

Voice from heaven

Mr. Koresh's first alleged "lie" was that he would come out on a certain date. He didn't come out, so according to the FBI he lied.

"But that's not exactly true," explained Dr. Arnold. "Koresh said he would come out and he would come out March 1 or 2.

"But while he was recovering on his cot -- he was on a stretcher because he had been shot and was still bleeding -- at that moment a voice from heaven speaks to him and says, 'David, wait, wait.'

"He's praying and moaning deep within himself like Jesus at Gethsemane. He said, 'Wait, we have to wait.'

"It wasn't a lie he was telling. What could you do when God speaks? What did Abraham do?"

Waiting for Passover

Another "lie" the FBI accused Mr. Koresh of telling was saying he would leave the compound after the Passover.

"Passover on the Davidians' calendar, I believe, ended about the 14th of April," said Dr. Arnold.

"He was coming out shortly after Passover. Some calendars, Jewish calendars, I think, that year put Passover ending around the 7th or 8th of April.

"But the point is the FBI thought Passover was one day, and they didn't understand it was a period.

"They were not that interested in religious questions."

Did he really hear God's voice?

Dr. Arnold doesn't believe Mr. Koresh really heard God's voice. "But I believe he believed he heard a voice. If I had believed he had heard a voice from God, I would have been in there with him. Wouldn't you?"

An easy mark

Dr. Arnold thinks ATF personnel precipitated the whole grotesque incident because they thought they had an easy mark: a bizarre religious group in possession of illegal weapons.

"It is true, I think, that Koresh had some weapons modified that he had not registered properly.

"Now, Koresh told the ATF he would be glad to have them come out to look at the place for weapons if they wanted to. But they wanted a raid because it was going to be easy pickings, and there were budgetary considerations coming up for the ATF, and this would be good news. It would be a good media play.

"I think that's why they chose that group on that day at that time.

"But once again they underestimated religious conviction. They should take a lesson from the Muslim jihad people."

Heavenly consciousness

David Koresh, said Dr. Arnold, believed he was a Messiah figure.

"He would say things like, 'Well, it's like I told the woman at the well.'

"But he didn't mean he was Jesus Christ. He believed he was a heavenly consciousness that was there. The Christ fell upon Melchizedek, upon Jesus and now upon Vernon Howell [David Koresh]."

Still meeting in Waco

The Branch Davidians were crushed, but some of them are still around.

"Some of them are still in Waco meeting," said Dr. Arnold.

"Some are still in jail. Some just kind of gave up and went on with their families and careers.

"About 80 died."

How to know beforehand

The Journal asked Dr. Arnold how could a potentially explosive situation with a religious group or organization be identified beforehand.

"I would say, fundamentally, if you take any group that is deeply religious -- be it a convent, a monastery or these people here [Church of God members observing the Feast of Tabernacles in 1998] -- and you do something that threatens the essence of their faith, you could have a similar situation.

"What if right now the police came into this hotel and said, 'Stop celebrating the Feast'? Wouldn't you go to jail if the police came in here and said that? Wouldn't you go to jail as a protest?

"What if they said, 'We'll whip you with this billy club'? Then a lot of people would get whipped with a billy club rather than voluntarily ceasing to observe the Feast.

"So was the fault really with the group or with the tactics used by the government?"

Beliefs to die for

Religious commitment is more powerful than people's desires, than all of a nation's laws, even than one's culture, Dr. Arnold said.

"Religious faith points us to a God that transcends human laws. So, when there is a conflict, we'll obey God rather than man.

"It's just like Hitler going after the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Jews, and the Russians going after churches. The Jews had their Masada. People die for their beliefs.

"The Davidians were in that same position and had to decide what to do."

The power and reality of religious conviction is why the FBI needed to consult with -- and follow the advice of -- a religious-studies expert, Dr. Arnold said.

Billy Graham probably wouldn't do

"They did not necessarily need Billy Graham there or the pope, because they would come at it from their own particular perspective.

"They would have said: 'David, you're wrong about this. You don't understand the seven seals. Come on, David, get with it.'

"They would have talked in religious language, but their words would have been counterproductive."

Can't get it all right

The Waco situation cried out for an expert to think and then communicate in terms that the Davidians could comprehend. The expert would have helped control the situation by talking David Koresh's language and understanding his worldview.

Dr. Arnold -- after his disillusionment with the Worldwide Church of God, his later experiences with the Branch Davidians and the Montana Freemen and his work with various religious people in his Reunion Institute -- says he is still a follower of Jesus.

"God hasn't fragmented," he said. "God is one.

"As a Christian in the Body of Christ, I fellowship with Christians wherever they may be found.

"I believe the Christian life is basically one of trusting in God and believing in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, through whom we are reconciled unto God -- and from that basic position my recreation is studying and learning more and more about the doctrines and the teachings of this God and this Christ."

No one can get all Christian beliefs right

Dr. Arnold said he doesn't decide that people are non-Christians because of their beliefs and practices, "because there's no way anyone will have all the right beliefs or all the right practices. We just can't get everything right.

"If getting everything right before God is your purpose, then you're doomed to failure. Therefore if someone disagrees with me it doesn't matter, as long as he is forgiven and has faith in God and God's Christ."

Some learned from their mistakes

Dr. Arnold thinks some in the FBI learned a lesson from the Waco disaster, "but the FBI has many levels, and, no, they have not all learned their lesson.

"Bringing in psychologists and religious experts during the Freemen situation does not bring back the dead Davidians.

"It does not bring back the child who was born into a hellish inferno, whose first sight was the flames burning it up."

Contact Phillip Arnold

Write Dr. Arnold in care of The Reunion Institute at P.O. Box 981111, Houston, Texas 77098, U.S.A., or E-mail him at

For James Tabor's chronology of the events at Waco, see his book (cited earlier in this article), or go to

For an earlier article based on the interview with Dr. Arnold, see issue No. 22 of The Journal, dated Nov. 30, 1998.

Church Links  -  Addresses  -  Church Logos  -  Finances  -  Photos  -   Memorial

The Study Library  -  In Transition  -  Messages Online  -  Live Services

Back Issues  -  Subscribe  -  Email List  -  Ad Rates  -  Site Map

© The Journal: News of the Churches of God