Knocking on Heaven’s Gate

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken April 13, 1997

At the end of March, 1997, 39 members of a California cult committed suicide. When law enforcement officials entered their mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, they found the bodies of the cult members neatly laid out on their beds. Each was dressed in black from head to toe; most were carefully draped with purple shrouds. The victims had packed their bags carefully and had taken pains to provide proper identification. Many had sent exuberant farewell videotapes to friends and family. It was all very orderly, almost serene. It was also very frightening.

The cult has since become known as the Heaven’s Gate Cult, mainly because its E-mail address was heavensgate.com. In the weeks leading up to the suicide their home page on the Internet featured a “Red Alert.” It warned that the approach of the Hale-Bopp comet was humanity’s last chance to move up to a higher level of existence. (And while we are on the subject of the comet, let me just pause to say, “Wow!” and “Praise God!”). The cultists took the comet as a sign that the gate to “The Kingdom Level Above Human” was about to close. So they committed suicide, expecting to be rescued by a spaceship, perhaps one lurking in the comet’s tail [See TIME, 4/7/97].

The Heaven’s Gate Cult reminds us of at least three great facts of human existence. The first is that many people are on a spiritual quest. In her farewell videotape, one cult member said, “I’ve lived on this planet for 31 years now, and there’s nothing here for me.”

Such feelings of futility are shared by many, many Americans. In a recent column in the New York Times, Marty Kaplan wrote of

… the sadness at the heart of our secular lives. No one wants to live in a pointless, chaotic cosmos, but that is the one that science has given us, and that our culture has largely championed. We may yearn for the divine, but our feet are stuck in the moral relativism (or even nihilism) that such a culture breeds… inside it feels awful. The things you want a God for—an afterlife, a comfort, a commander—seem unavailable… Too stable to be seduced by cults, too secular to be born again, too pained to ignore our unease, we have become a generation of seekers, searching for something transcendent to fill the hole where God was [“Maybe Reason Isn’t Enough, 4/97].

That is an apt summary of the American soul, except for that part about “too stable to be seduced by cults.” Many Americans yearn for spiritual reality but despair of ever finding it, which is why so many people are vulnerable to charismatic cult leaders. The Internet is crackling with bizarre religions, both ancient and modern. As G. K. Chesterton famously observed, “Once people stop believing in God they do not believe in nothing, they believe anything.”

The second thing the Heaven’s Gate massacre indicates is how little some people know about Christianity. Apparently, some people think anything having to do with Jesus is Christian. The media coverage has been alarming, with many journalists describing the Heaven’s Gate Cult as “partly based on Christianity.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The cult was profoundly anti-Christian. If it was partly based on anything it was not Christianity, but Star Trek, or the X-Files, or UFO’s, or various and sundry tenets of the New Age movement.

What is the difference between Christianity and the Heaven’s Gate Cult? Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ is fully human, as well as fully divine. The Heaven’s Gate Cult maintained that Jesus of Nazareth was an alien life form. The Bible teaches that human beings are made a little lower than the angels. The cult held that human beings are on an evolutionary pathway.

Christians celebrate the body. They believe in the joy of sex, the pleasures of feasting and the resurrection of the body. The cultists believed that the body is a temporary “container” or “vehicle” that needs to be left behind. It is not surprising that a number of them were neutered, or that they cropped their hair to make themselves look as identical as possible. Their world view demanded a sexless, joyless, bodiless existence. This is the ancient heresy called Gnosticism, the belief that the human body is inherently evil.

I do not blame the media for mistaking the Heaven’s Gate Cult for Christianity (even though it is their job to get their facts straight). Rather, I blame the church. The coverage of these suicides reminds us that there are still far too many people in our culture who have no idea what Christianity teaches. It is our divinely-ordained job to tell them (Matt. 28:18-20). Sometimes Christians are called to defend their faith, but most of the time all we need to do is explain it. As long as we are willing to tell people what the gospel is, the Holy Spirit can do the rest. If these suicides are any indication, we still have plenty of explaining to do.

Finally, these tragic events remind us that there is a gateway to heaven. It is all stated very plainly in the Bible. Jesus Christ says, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate… whoever enters through me will be saved.” (John 10:7-10). There is no point founding your own cult, or surfing the Internet for ancient deities, or scanning the skies for comets or killing yourself to leave this life behind. Jesus is the gateway, the only gateway, to heaven. The reason he died on the cross and rose from the dead was to open heaven’s gate. Everyone who trusts in Jesus will gain entrance to heaven, either at death or when he returns to this earth in all his glory.

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