In 1997, a news headline shocked the world. The discovery of 39 members of a monastic religious sect, known as Heaven's Gate, who had all committed suicide inside a San Diego mansion, sent shockwaves through society. The group was quickly dubbed a "suicide cult" and their beliefs were considered bizarre and nonsensical by the wider public. However, according to Benjamin Zeller, a scholar of new religious movements, Heaven's Gate was not necessarily the crazy aberration it was made out to be.
In his book, Heaven's Gate: America's UFO Religion, Zeller argues that Heaven's Gate was a group of "spiritual seekers" who had latched onto popular trends in American culture. These trends included conspiracy theories, apocalyptic beliefs, and the fusion of science and religion. Ultimately, these beliefs led them to a tragic end.
The origins of Heaven's Gate can be traced back to 1972, when a nurse named Bonnie Lu Nettles met a seminary dropout named Marshall Herff Applewhite. Both Nettles and Applewhite were experiencing spiritual crises, with Nettles going through a divorce and Applewhite feeling like God was calling him to a new vocation. The two became spiritual soulmates and claimed to be in communication with spirit guides and angels.
Together, they received their own revelation: The Bible, when it talks about God, Jesus, and angels, was actually talking about extraterrestrials, a superior race of aliens who appeared to us as gods. In the last days, the aliens would arrive in their spaceships, destroy or "recycle" the Earth, and save the faithful who were ready to "graduate" to the "Next Level."
The idea of mixing UFOs with religion was not new, as it was already popularized by the 1968 best seller Chariots of the Gods. Specifically, Nettles and Applewhite came to believe they were the "Two Witnesses" prophesied in Revelation 11 who would testify and teach on Earth before the Final Judgment. According to the prophecy, the Two Witnesses would be killed and then resurrected, but not by magic or miracle, but by extraterrestrial technology.
By 1975, Nettles and Applewhite were fixtures of the alternative spirituality scene in California and Oregon. They opened a New Age store and began offering classes where they would share their message: this earthly life was an intermediate realm where we learn to battle evil (bad aliens), transcend our human bodies, and transform into perfected beings. They referred to their group as "The Class," and over time, it grew in size.
As the 1990s rolled around, Heaven's Gate had become more isolated from the wider world. Members were encouraged to cut ties with family and friends who did not share their beliefs, and they began to prepare for the "Next Level." The group's final act was to take their own lives by ingesting a toxic cocktail of barbiturates and alcohol. Laying under purple shrouds, the deceased were dressed in identical dark clothing, wearing white Nike sneakers, and with $5 bills and rolls of quarters stuffed in their pockets.
Heaven's Gate may have been seen as a bizarre and tragic cult, but it was a product of its time. It was a group of individuals who were searching for answers in a world that was becoming increasingly complex and uncertain. While their beliefs may have been unorthodox, they were not necessarily crazier than the beliefs of other religious groups throughout history. In the end, Heaven's Gate serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of extremism and the importance of critical thinking.
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