David Koresh — high school dropout, rock musician, polygamist preacher — built his church on a simple message: “If the Bible is true, then I’m Christ.” It was enough to draw more than a hundred people to join him at an armed fortress near Waco, Texas, to await the end of the world. The same message tempted Koresh to entertain a vision of martyrdom for himself. He would die in a battle against unbelievers, then be joined in heaven by the followers who chose to lay down their lives for him. Koresh moved a little closer to that nightmare vision last week after more than 100 agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms assaulted his compound. When the firing finally stopped after an hour, four agents lay dead and 16 were wounded; inside the compound as many as 10 cult members were reported dead, including, Koresh said, a two-year-old girl, one of many children that Koresh has fathered by more than a dozen wives. The body of a man presumed to be a Koresh follower was found outside later, clutching a gun. Koresh eventually let 21 children — none of them his own — and two elderly women leave the compound, but he remained holed up inside with 90 adults and 17 children awaiting instructions from God. He claimed to be wounded, but he sounded remarkably fit as he broadcast his end-of-the-world message across the airwaves in exchange for a promise to surrender. Meanwhile, more than 200 law- enforcement officers surrounded the compound and waited, day after day, for Koresh to make good on that pledge. The Waco cult is the product of an apocalyptic theology, refined over decades by a succession of zealous but nonviolent splinter groups, that was seized at last by a charismatic and combustible leader. The son of a single mother, Koresh was born Vernon Howell in Houston in 1959. Growing up in the Dallas area, he was an indifferent student but an avid reader of the Bible who prayed for hours and memorized long passages of Scripture. He also played guitar — not badly by some reports — using rock music as well as his magnetic preaching to recruit followers. Some of the spartan interiors in the Waco compound were decorated with posters of the wild man rock guitarist Ted Nugent and the heavy-metal band Megadeth. Koresh dropped out of school in the ninth grade. Raised in the mainstream Seventh-day Adventist Church, he found comfort as a young man in the teachings of an obscure offshoot, the Branch Davidians, which was a mutation of an earlier Adventist splinter group. The Davidians trace their roots to Victor Houteff, a Bulgarian immigrant who was expelled from a Los Angeles Adventist church in 1929. Houteff had become obsessed with passages in the Book of Ezekiel in which an angel of God divides the faithful from the sinful before Jerusalem’s fall to the Babylonians. Believing that passage to be a warning to Adventists, Houteff established a splinter congregation in 1935 on the outskirts of Waco, in the deeply religious prairie land of Texas. When he died 20 years later, his widow Florence assumed leadership of the sect. She dissolved it after the failure of her prediction that the last days of creation would commence on April 22, 1959. But some members stayed on near Waco with Benjamin Roden, a preacher who styled himself as the literal successor to King David of Israel.