Theologically speaking, the nature or concept of God and beliefs or practices differ based on religious doctrine. In some cases, some religious groups base or borrow their doctrines on established ones or from known mythological narratives. This is especially true for cult groups that establish their significance on symbolism that is familiar to most people. Heaven’s Gate set an example because it is a cult that formulated its doctrines from pre-established canons such as those found in the Holy Bible infused with elements of science fiction. The result of which is a reinterpretation of the Bible within the context of science fiction. The succeeding discussion focuses on Heaven’s Gate theology and an explanation of the mythology that forms the foundation of this cult’s doctrines.
Heaven’s Gate: A Backgrounder
Perhaps the easiest way to learn about Heaven’s Gate is to watch the video created by Do, one of the founders of Heaven’s Gate. Do, whose real identity will be discussed later on, created a two-part video in 1996 in an effort to persuade viewers to join Heaven’s Gate prior to the group’s departure in 1997. Essentially, Heaven’s Gate doctrine was influenced by the extraterrestrial. The first video named Last Chance to Evacuate Earth before It’s Recycled reflects Heaven’s Gate’s urgent call for people to heed the group’s warnings. Although Heaven’s Gate’s influences were teachings in Christianity as depicted in the Bible, Do claimed that people will not go to heaven simply by living a good life but by shunning human beings’ way of life, which is ridden with different compulsions or addictions (Heaven’s Gate, 1996a).
Heaven’s Gate offered people a means to rid themselves of these addictions by denouncing the human way of life. Consequently, if people followed the teachings of Heaven’s Gate and prepared their physical bodies for the next cycle of the Earth, then they could be saved and accepted in heaven. Based on Do’s arguments in the video, one can only be saved through the guidance of a being sent from heaven, also known as the Kingdom Level or Evolutionary Level Above Human, tasked to spread the cult’s message and lead believers to the right path. Those who denounce Heaven’s Gate’s doctrines were dubbed as sinners that will not gain a chance to enter heaven. Do claimed that many people do not believe Heaven’s Gate because the end of the world is near. Consequently, as the apocalypse draws near, Do believed that those who were thrust out from the Kingdom of God – the fallen angels and Satan or Lucifer – will tempt people into straying away from Heaven’s Gate because they are jealous and resentful (Heaven’s Gate, 1996a).
During the End of the Age, the Earth returns to its original state. Do described it as God’s way of recycling, refurbishing, and rejuvenating the Earth. As Do claimed, “The mess that the humans have made of it during this civilization is cleaned up. It is healed” (Heaven’s Gate, 1996a) after the apocalypse. Before the End of Age, people can escape the recycling but those who can do this are the ones who found the person that can teach them how to prepare for the End of Age and their departure from Earth. Do claimed to be that person. Therefore, Heaven’s Gate’s relevance lays in the cult’s claim of harboring a representative from the Kingdom Level that will lead and help believers or followers prepare themselves so they can survive the End of the Age, and journey in a spaceship to heaven (Heaven’s Gate, 1996b).
Heaven’s Gate’s Theology and Mythology
Marshall Herff Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Trousdale Nettles met during a difficult time in their separate lives. Applewhite had been dismissed from his job as a professor at the University of Alabama over his romantic relations with a student while Nettles was going through a divorce. Shortly after Applewhite met Nettles, a nurse working at the psychiatric hospital he was admitted in, both took interest in astrology and the extraterrestrial. Consequently, Applewhite and Nettles established a metaphysics center in Houston. Applewhite and Nettles read many books, mostly about science fiction, but also the Holy Bible. Applewhite and Nettles greatest influence is Chapter 11 in the Book of Revelations, which is about the Two Witnesses. The Two Witnesses are two prophets who will bear witness and testimony and harvest souls on earth. Applewhite and Nettles believed that they were the Two Witnesses and that it is their responsibility to spread the word about the end of the world. Applewhite and Nettles subsequently named themselves Do and Ti respectively.
Heaven’s Gate traces its beliefs to parallels in the Bible. A closer look at Heaven’s Gate’s doctrines reveal Christian influences, but also science fiction elements, that make the cult’s canon incongruous. Within the context of creation as a basic concept in religion, Heaven’s Gate believed that God the Father, who is inhabiting the Kingdom Level created all things. The Kingdom Level “created everything that is, or made everything that is, and among those things it made, it made a number of things that advance in an evolutionary progression” (Heaven’s Gate, 1996a). God created good alongside evil because people are expected to make their own choice, the better choice being a believer and follower of Heaven’s Gate. Moreover, the world works such that the End of the Age signals the obliteration of the “old Earth” so that that a new, rejuvenated Earth can come into being (Ramsland, n.d).
When Applewhite and Nettles preached to other people, they used the Bible but they also reinterpreted some passages in the Scriptures to match the context of space and extraterrestrial life. In the Bible, the term cloud represents the cloud of heaven. Although Applewhite and Nettles adopted this concept of heaven from the Bible, they interpreted the cloud as a spaceship or an Unidentified Flying Object (UFO) that will come to get the followers of Heaven’s Gate and bring them to the Kingdom of God or the Evolutionary Level above Human. Once the UFO comes, all followers of Heaven’s Gate will be saved while the rest will remain on Earth and perish after the End of the Age. Applewhite and Nettles also taught their followers that hell is part of the Earth and this is where the Satan or Lucifer and the fallen angels are preparing to lure people into their own scheme so they would choose not to follow Heaven’s Gate (Heaven’s Gate, 1996b).
Heaven’s Gate drew its importance from the idea of the End of the Age. Heaven’s Gate offered its followers an escape from suffering the End of the Age. Nevertheless, Do asserted that at the End of the Age, the Earth does not cease to exist but will continue to evolve as a haven for the new human civilization. God wants people on Earth to be saved but for people to escape the End of the Age, they must heed the teachings and warnings of a representative sent by God from the Kingdom Level to prophesy and educate people. Do insisted that people’s only chance to survive the End of the Age is to follow Heaven’s Gate so they can survive by preparing themselves for their departure from Earth. Nevertheless, people will not be prepared without heeding the call and demand of a representative from the Kingdom Level. In the video, Applewhite claimed that he is one of the representatives, as he was the son of God while Nettles or Ti, on the other hand, was God himself incarnated in their physical bodies (Ramsland, n.d.).
Apparently, God came to earth in 1975 and assumed a human body and called himself Ti, bringing with him his son, Do. Ti and Do are Nettles and Applewhite respectively, the Two Witnesses whose responsibility it was to spread the word about the end of the world and to prepare people to go to heaven. In 1985, Ti passed on due to cancer so Do led Heaven’s Gate. One of Heaven’s Gate’s teachings was that the group’s members will be resurrected after death. However, this false teaching materialized when Nettles was not resurrected when she died. Do then reinterpreted Heaven’s Gate’s teachings, as he often did, and told its members that Ti’s soul was not resurrected in physical form because she was preparing the spaceship that will come and take them to the Kingdom of God (Heaven’s Gate, 1996b).
Applewhite assumed the role of Jesus Christ, hence, he claimed that he was the son of God. In doing so, Applewhite explained that Jesus, as a soul assumed a human body 2000 years ago. Applewhite argued that the UFO did not arrive then because people before were not prepared to depart for the Evolutionary Level above Human. After Jesus Christ’s death, his soul returned to Earth and incarnated into the body of Applewhite. While Applewhite campaigned for Heaven’s Gate and sought to initiate people into the group, he argued that the similar message of salvation that he preached was proof that he was Jesus Christ because it was the same message that Jesus preached to his disciples. During his time, Applewhite claimed that the extraterrestrial elements in Heaven’s Gate’s teachings was because he, as Jesus Christ, delivered the same teachings he did 2000 years ago in a way that people would understand salvation and discipleship in the modern world (Heaven’s Gate, 1996a).
Based on the doctrine of Heaven’s Gate, human existence is of the extraterrestrial kind. Applewhite and Nettles discouraged the idea that all humans have souls and claimed that only those who saw the truth – the truth being everything Heaven’s Gate taught – were the ones with souls, which would later on be harvested by the UFO. This idea, however, somehow contradicts another teaching of Heaven’s Gate – that all beings are extraterrestrial, even Satan or Lucifer and the fallen angels. Just like God and his son from the Kingdom Level, Satan or Lucifer and the fallen angels are souls that inhabit human bodies that are on a mission to prevent others from following Heaven’s Gate. Do called them the evil or space aliens. On the other hand, those from the Kingdom of God are good souls that inhabit human bodies so they can teach other souls inhabiting other human bodies the way to enter the Kingdom Level after the End of the Age. While the representatives of the Kingdom Level, such as Do, can teach and guide other souls, those who will enter heaven can also be pre-determined. Souls from the Kingdom Level can visit the Earth and deposit a part of their soul to infants. By the time these human beings become adults, the souls come back to earth and inhabit their physical bodies. Do claimed that those who have deposits in their bodies will be the ones who will recognize Heaven’s Gate’s doctrine.
A believer who saw the “truth” in Heaven’s Gate’s teachings would give up all his material possessions and abide by the rules imposed by the cult. Heaven’s Gate denounced most of human activities as evil or sin, such as having a family and employment. It is within the context of materialism that Applewhite decried teachings in other religions, including Christianity. He pointed out that in some religions, people are made to believe that God bless these people because He wants them to live abundant lives. Although influenced by Christianity, Heaven’s Gate shunned materialism. Applewhite argued that people must actively seek entry to the Kingdom Level but because most people believe that they are entitled to abundant lives, they seek material possessions instead. Applewhite told people that this quest of materialism was Satan’s plan of distracting people so they would fail to see truth in Heaven’s Gate’s doctrine. Heaven’s Gate also prohibited sexual relations among its members. Hence, people who joined the cult would leave their families and their work, and consequently devote their time and energy to prepare for the arrival of the UFO. Part of this preparation is physical transformation. Members of Heaven’s Gate had to get in good physical shape while also transforming their bodies into genderless beings. Heaven’s Gate believed that physical transformation is important because their entry into the Kingdom of God depended on how well they shaped their physical forms into perfection.
Heaven’s Gate prophesied the arrival of the spaceship numerous times so its members prepared for it by congregating at the cult’s campsite. It was a communal ground where members of the Heaven’s Gate lived. Nevertheless, the spaceship never came. Consequently, some members left the group and returned to their families but others remained. Wary of losing more members, Applewhite and Nettles reinterpreted Heaven’s Gate’s teachings and asserted that the coming of the spaceship and their departure in space as souls is metaphorical in nature. Heaven’s Gate continued to demand several practices from its members. Members trained together with the mindset of a crew as they would behave inside the UFO to navigate the spaceship. By 1997, following the discovery of the Hale-Bopp comet, Applewhite used an unofficial image of the Hale-Bopp that appeared to be beside an unidentified heavenly body to persuade Heaven’s Gate’s members that it was the spaceship that would take them to Kingdom Level. Applewhite told them that the only way they could travel in the space ship was if they committed suicide to rid themselves of their physical bodies. Thirty-nine members of Heaven’s Gate, including Applewhite, took lethal toxic chemicals mixed in their drinks. The authorities later on discovered the bodies and the media extensively covered the mass suicide due to the incident’s sheer degree of loss on account of a cult’s teachings.
Personally, Heaven’s Gate’s arguments and bases for its doctrine are enough to prove the group’s false claims. Aside from this, Applewhite’s history of being admitted at a psychiatric hospital signifies that something was amiss and that his teachings as Do and the founder of Heaven’s Gate may have been a result of a phantasm resulting from a psychological disorder that he suffered while he was alive. If anything, Applewhite’s case says something about mental health institutions. Moreover, there is a reason why science fiction is named as such, which is because narratives in this genre are fictional. Hence, since Applewhite and Nettles base Heaven’s Gate theology and mythology on fiction and their muddled interpretation of the Bible and Christianity, the ludicrous teachings of the cult are unsurprising. It is only unfortunate that some people followed Applewhite and Nettles, which eventually led to their demise.
Heaven’s Gate. (1996a). Last chance to evacuate Earth before it’s recycled. Retrieved from http://www.heavensgate.com/misc/vt092996.htm
Heaven’s Gate. (1996b). Planet about to be recycled – your only chance to survive – leave with us. Retrieved from http://www.heavensgate.com/misc/vt100596.htm
Ramsland, K. (n.d.). The Heaven’s Gate cult. Retrieved from http://www.crimelibrary.com/notorious_murders/mass/heavens_gate/1.html