Lessons to be Learned: Heaven's Gate Tragedy
by James K. Walker
In the days following the first thirty-nine Heaven's Gate suicides, the staff at Watchman Fellowship was barraged by the news media. Nightline, ABC World News Tonight, CNN, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and a host of other international, national and local journalists interviewed our staff. At one point there were three network news teams setting up cameras and lights simultaneously in Watchman's offices. They were all asking crucial questions: "How could these people be so deceived?" "Could more suicides follow in the coming months?" "Don't these people have the right to choose death?" "By voluntarily giving their lives for their faith, were Applewhite and his followers really different than Christian martyrs?"
One of the frustrations in working with television news media is the necessity of reducing significant and complex discussions to the infamous ten second "sound bite." Difficult and important questions need a more thorough discussion. This issue of the Watchman Expositor is intended to provide a much needed deeper evaluation and analysis of the Heaven's Gate tragedy from an evangelical Christian perspective.
There is much more to this story than a few lost souls drawn together by a bad science fiction plot. This was not, as media mogul Ted Turner described it, a good way to get rid of "a few nuts." This was a real tragedy involving real people. In 1994, Watchman staff member Bob Waldrep met and questioned four members of Heaven's Gate at one of their recruitment meetings (see story p. 24). Two of them died in the mass suicide. It is more difficult to ignore these needless deaths when it affects people you have actually met. It must be devastating to the family and friends who are left behind to grieve.
More suicides may still happen. Just days after the first 39 bodies were discovered, Washington Post religion editor, Laurie Goodstein and I were interviewed on NPB's News Hour with Jim Lehrer. Goodstien and I disagreed when we were both asked if we thought there could be more Heaven's Gate suicides in the weeks and months to come. She felt that all the true believers were now dead. I went on record with my concerns that there could be more suicides to follow. I wish I had been wrong.
Just days later, a man in Northern California who was never connected with the cult committed a "copycat" suicide. Also, about a month later two other cult members attempted suicide near Rancho Santa Fe, California. Wayne Cooke died, while Chuck Humphrey survived his suicide attempt. After being released from the hospital, Humprey called a press conference announcing his plans to launch a speaking tour giving lectures on Heaven's Gate beliefs. In a recent telephone interview with Watchman Fellowship, former Heaven's Gate member Dick Joslyn said he feared there could be as many as seven others who still believe strongly enough in Applewhite's doctrine to consider suicide.
Cults that commit suicide and murder instantly leap from obscurity to capture the world's attention. When cult members die in mass, everyone watches. Recent examples include: Soko Ashahara's Aum Shinri Kyo, The Order of the Solar Temple of Canada and Switzerland, Jim Jones' Peoples Temple, and David Koresh's Branch Davidians.
In reality there are thousands of other cults whose leaders will never appear on the cover of Time magazine. They may never perform a ritualistic mass suicide, or release poison gas in Tokyo's subways. But the same cult structure is there. You have it any time a group of people are led to place their total faith and unquestioned loyalty in a religious leader or organization. This kind of faith should be reserved for God and not a man (Psalm 118:8; Proverbs 29:25).
These groups are dangerous even if they never buy weapons or mix poison. The leaders are exercising an inappropriate and unhealthy control over the lives of their followers. Such control is never good and almost always leads to bad doctrine and evil practices.
Humans by nature are religious. God created people with an innate desire to find spiritual answers to life's deeper questions - to seek a "higher source" outside of the human experience. When people find these answers in the Person of Jesus Christ the resulting relationship is healthy - emotionally, spiritually and physically. When people put this same kind of faith and trust in the person of Marshall Applewhite, David Koresh, or Jim Jones, the resulting relationship is a recipe for disaster. Faith is not the issue, rather, the object of one's faith.
This Expositor explores the history, doctrines and practices of Marshall Applewhite's cult - what went wrong and how - and points the way to the real Heaven's Gate - Jesus Christ (Matthew 7:13-15; John 10:7-18).