Cults are composed of adherents of an exclusive system of beliefs and practices. According to the UK Cult Information Centre, every cult can be defined as a group having all of the following five characteristics:
1) It uses psychological coercion to recruit, indoctrinate and retain its members.
2) It forms an elitist totalitarian society.
3) Its founder/leader is self-appointed, dogmatic, messianic, not accountable and has charisma.
4) It believes 'the end justifies the means' in order to solicit funds and recruit people.
5) Its wealth does not benefit its members or society. Some cults are religious groups considered unorthodox or spurious. They are a form of radical mystical individualism, an entirely inward spiritual religious form, indifferent to moral discipline, public worship, and social concerns.
Cults, as opposed to sects, lack authoritative grounds for discerning heresy from orthodoxy because of their epistemological individualism. This precludes stable doctrine, organization and membership. Cults lack creedal and sacramental authority of the church and the ethical rigour of the sect. The antinomian and subject cult creates no community because it possesses neither the sense of solidarity nor the faith in authority which this requires, nor the no less necessary fanaticism and desire for uniformity.
For apocalyptic cults, especially biblically based ones, the millennium is viewed as the time that will signal a major transformation for the world. Many apocalyptic cults share the belief that the battle against Satan, as prophesied in the Book of Revelation, will begin in the years surrounding the millennium.
Apocalyptic cults see their mission in two general ways: They either want to accelerate the end of time or take action to ensure that they survive the millennium. For Aum in Japan Shinrikyo wanted to take action to hasten the end of the world, while the militia compounds in the US in general are built to survive the endtime safely.
The cults of greatest concern to public authorities are those that: (1) believe they play a special, elite role in the endtime; (2) believe violent offensive action is needed to fulfill their endtime prophecy; (3) take steps to attain their beliefs. Those factors may culminate in plans to initiate conflict with outsiders or law enforcement agencies.
The violent tendencies of dangerous cults can be classified into two general categories - defensive violence and offensive violence. Defensive violence is utilized by cults to defend a compound or enclave: The 1993 clash in Waco, Texas at the Branch Davidian complex is an illustration of such defensive violence. History has shown that groups that seek to withdraw from the dominant culture seldom act on their beliefs that the endtime has come unless provoked.