A Christian’s Reflections on the "Heaven’s Gate" Cult

by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

© 1997 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

In late March 1997, stories of a mass suicide by members of a California cult called "Heaven’s Gate" exploded onto the national scene. Thirty-nine cultists, including cult leader Marshall Applewhite, ingested a deadly mixture of phenobarbital and vodka, and were found lying in bunk beds and covered with purple shrouds in an estate north of San Diego. Videotapes and notes found after the suicides showed that they believed that they were shedding their bodies in order to meet a UFO purportedly hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet. Facts later emerged indicating that Applewhite had been organizing a religion around himself and his wife Bonnie Nettles since the mid 70s, using an eclectic mixture of ideas and terms from Christianity, New Age thought, and the world of computers.{1}

Some of the outreach of Applewhite, who called himself "Do," was done via the Internet, and at this writing much of the material posted by Applewhite and his disciples was still freely available by that means. This material affords a case study in the way that such cults operate and achieve dominance in the minds of prospective disciples.

In their book Cult Watch: What You Need To Know About Spiritual Deception,{2} John Ankerberg and John Weldon remark on some "common characteristics" shared by cults. For one, "Cultic religion is often less than frank concerning its real beliefs, whether by design or ignorance."{3} We need not therefore be surprised to find out that "Heaven’s Gate" attracted potential recruits to its lectures with posters that were "misleading, making it appear that the discussion was simply about UFOs."{4} Also, even though the suicide of its members gives it perhaps an unintended irony, the cult’s web site continues to carry a paper entitled "Our Position Against Suicide"! Nevertheless, even this paper shows how malleable definitions can be in the hands of a cult: "The true meaning of ‘suicide’ is to turn against the Next Level when it is being offered."{5}

Another characteristic in Ankerberg and Weldon (one which overlaps with the lack of frankness mentioned above) is "the rejection of biblical teaching," often because these have supposedly been superseded by new revelations.{6} In the "Heaven’s Gate" cult, there was a convenient selectivity as to the use of the Bible. On the one hand, the cult made the following statement:

We hope you won't misunderstand our use of these Bible quotes. Though most people think of these records as religious, they are for the most part, in spite of their many inaccuracies, the only historical record we have of periods when the Next Level was relating to man. A great percentage of the materials have been corrupted by mistranslations and councils of so-called scholars. . . .{7}

At the same time, this "corrupted" Bible was repeatedly referenced by the cult, both by allusion (e.g., phrases like "those who had ears to hear" and "speak in tongues"){8} and directly:

We can't blame you for "buying into" the "Luciferian" program. What else has been available during those periods when no Representative was present? Almost nothing - save some warnings in the Scriptures, i.e., Luke 20:34-36, Luke 21:23, Mark 12:25, and Mark 13:17-19. Check these out. {9}

The fact that such scriptures as these--

Mark 12:25 (KJV) For when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven.

Mark 13:17 (KJV) But woe to them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! 18 And pray ye that your flight be not in the winter. 19 For in those days shall be affliction, such as was not from the beginning of the creation which God created unto this time, neither shall be.

--lose their meaning when taken out of context is, of course, part of the cultic design. In fact, it would have been well for their souls had Applewhite’s disciples read the verses surrounding their leader’s citations.{10} They would then have found out that the real "Luciferian" was Applewhite himself, a "false Christ" (Mk. 13:21-22) who, unlike the true Christ (Mk. 12:24), downgraded the scriptures because they did not testify of him (cf. John 5:39).

Yet another characteristic from Ankerberg and Weldon is "an authoritarian element leading to spiritual intimidation and often the suppression of independent, critical thinking."{11} Much of this factor can also be traced to the Jonestown, Guyana cult of Jim Jones, which led to the mass suicide of 912 people in November 1978.{12} One of Jones’ flock who survived Jonestown described the surrender of her will to Jones:

You voluntarily chose not to question. You voluntarily chose to allow someone else to make your decisions. Then you kind of turned off this logical portion of your mind which people use to make everyday decisions. You stopped using it. And eventually you lost the capability of making decisions. {13}

The "spiritual intimidation" mentioned before appears very clearly in the following Applewhite statement:

The next statement that we will make will be the "Big Tester," the one that the "lower forces" would use to clearly have you discredit or disregard us. That statement is: Unless you are currently an active student or are attempting to become a student of the present Representative from the Kingdom of Heaven - you ARE STILL "of the world," having done no significant separation from worldliness, and you are still serving the opposition to the Kingdom of Heaven. This statement sounds - to humans who have been so carefully programmed by the "lower forces" - arrogant, pompous, or egotistical at the least - as if by taking this stand we had something to gain - as if we were seeking recognition as "Deity" or as self-appointed prophets.{14}

The cult leader thus appeals to those who may not be well-grounded in their faith with a statement possessing biblical undertones. For example, Paul had said of the true gospel:

1Cor 2:14 (KJV) But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

However, the proclaimers of the true gospel had encouraged and still encourage the seeker to use his intellect to determine the truth or falsity of Jesus’ claims. The church of Berea, for instance, "received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so" (Acts 17:11). Jesus Himself urged the searching of the prophets as a verification of His Person (Jn. 5:39), going so far as to link belief in Moses’ writings with belief in Him (Jn. 5:46-47).

Applewhite had no use for anyone with a searching mind. Rather, he looked for the type of people of whom Milton said, "There is not any burden that some would gladlier post off to another than the charge and care of their religion."{15} His strategy, as seen above, involved shutting off the minds of his hearers by pretending to have a gnosis or hidden knowledge that those "of the world" cannot receive. The appeal for hearers of being among the few enlightened ones--to put it bluntly, a form of snob appeal--has been a great motivator throughout human history. Obviously, many of Applewhite’s victims felt that checking one’s brains at the door was a small price to pay to be among the "chosen."

However, anyone who is "Rooted and built up" and "stablished" in Jesus Christ (Col. 2:7) realizes instantly that such cultic preaching as Applewhite’s of "another gospel" renders the preacher "accursed" (Gal. 1:8-9). A Christian firm in the faith sees through the cultic psychobabble and attempted manipulation. It is weak believers, "unable to distinguish cultic belief and practice from what they learned as Christians,"{16} or those who have been raised in a "Christian" culture but who have never really believed, who are the most susceptible.

The media has seemed very impressed with the ability of the "Heaven’s Gate" cult to lead thirty-nine deluded people to their deaths. But given the fact that these individuals were proselytizing actively and reaching out via the Internet, their final harvest seems rather pathetic. Nor are the hundreds who died at Jonestown much more impressive. Even the claims of groups who count millions among their adherents, such as the Mormons, are not so substantial when one considers that a "multibillion-dollar institution" with "vast holdings in real estate, insurance, financial services, broadcasting, and publishing"{17} propels the proselytizing. By contrast, to borrow the words of Spurgeon,

Look at the saints in the martyr age. In the early days of Christianity, when this great thought of Christ’s exceeding love was sparkling in all its freshness in the church, men were not only ready to die, but they grew ambitious to suffer, and even presented themselves by hundreds at the judgment seats of the rulers, confessing the Christ.{18}

The gospel spread throughout the Roman Empire and the world without the benefit of television advertising, web pages, or any other technical wonders. It required no flashing "Red Alert" graphics{19} or posters calling people to a UFO discussion that was really a camouflaged mission effort. These attempts to resuscitate the stillborn message of men pale in comparison with the Breath of Life that fills the true gospel message: the living Son of God, Jesus Christ. Have you heard the message of the One who died for you?

John 4:14 (KJV) But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.


{1} See William Booth & William Claiborne, "Cult Group's Leader Among Suicides," Washington Post, 3/29/97; Marc Fisher & Sue Ann Pressley, "Founder Sought to Purge Sexuality Via Cult," ibid.; Ed Timms & Jeffrey Weiss, "Cult began in Houston in mid-'70s," Dallas Morning News, 3/28/97.

{2} (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House, 1991).

{3} p. iv.

{4} Frank Bruni, "A Cult's Two-Decade Odyssey of Regimentation," New York Times, 3/29/97.

{5} Emphasis original. The cult's materials are cited from a mirror site by Spacestar Communications, Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and from files made available on the Washington Post's web site.

{6} Ankerberg & Weldon, p. v.

{7} "Heaven's Gate Documents -- Appendix B: Bible Quotes."

{8} "Overview of Present Mission."

{9} "Do's Intro: Purpose - Belief."

{10} In fact, the testimony of one former cult member (in Bruni, "A Cult's Two-Decade Odyssey . . .") that "We were told not to watch television or to read anything but the red-letter edition of the Bible" (emphasis mine) suggests as much, in my opinion. Since the Bible quotes posted by the cult ("Heaven's Gate Documents -- Relevant Bible Quotes") are almost exclusively short quotations from the words of Jesus, the cult leaders may have told their followers to concentrate on these--with anything in Christ's words inimical to their teachings being explained away as something "corrupted by mistranslations and councils of so-called scholars" (see above).

{11} Ankerberg & Weldon, p. vi.

{12} Flo Conway & Jim Siegelman, Snapping: America's Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change (NY: Dell, 1979), p. 229.

{13} Ibid, p. 244.

{14} "Do's Intro: Purpose - Belief." Emphasis original.

{15} John Milton, "Areopagitica," in M.H. Abrams et. al., eds., The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 4th ed., Vol. 1 (NY: Norton, 1979), p. 1405.

{16} Ankerberg & Weldon, p. viii.

{17} Ibid, p. 9.

{18} C.H. Spurgeon, "Alas! I Can Do Nothing," in All of Grace (Electronic version published by Ages Software, Albany, OR).

{19} A feature of the "Heaven's Gate" site was a "RED ALERT!" animated graphic that swelled and receded at the top of the introductory page.

(March 30, 1997)

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