The recent event in Rancho Santa Fe, CA has focused national attention on the subject of apocalyptic prophecies in contemporary America. While many are puzzled and disturbed by the UFO/alien related theology of the Heaven's Gate members, it is clear from their writings and the writings of other ufo groups that they were certainly not alone in their beliefs. A quick search of the World Wide Web will reveal hundreds of sites related to alien speculation, many of which contain highly detailed analyses (proofs) of impending planetary doom. These themes are also prevalent in many new age books and magazines (Nexus, Magical Blend and Fate, to name a few). During a recent presentation by John Mack (the Harvard psychiatrist who has given a great deal of credibility to the alien abduction phenomenon) I was particularly struck by the apocalyptic references and imagery which consistently appear in many of his subjects' alien abduction claims. Indeed, it is safe to say that a significant ufo subculture currently exists within the United States.
As the most recent apocalyptic event Heaven's Gate joins a growing list of millennial outbreaks which are only now receiving the attention they deserve. Included among these incidents are Jonestown, Ruby Ridge, Waco, Aum Shinri Kyo and The Solar Temple. While each of these events arose from unique circumstances, they all share a common element: a deeply held devotion to the "millennium myth." The millennium myth teaches that we are living in the final days of human history; it perpetuates the idea that the present generation is in some way "chosen", having some role to play in either witnessing or participating in the culmination of the final days prophesied in various written sources. Ironically, much of America's history is founded upon this millennium myth.
One of most significant apocalyptic events of the latter part of the twentieth century, which stands out from the others, is the tragedy that occurred on 19 April, 1993 at the Branch Davidian ranch in Waco, Texas. While government agencies may have sincerely believed they were acting in the best interest of the Davidians, as well as the American public, they inadvertently "played the part" of the antichrist spoken about in the biblical Book of Revelation. The federal government literally fulfilled the apocalyptic role which the millennial myth perpetuates; a role which is easily recognizable to millions of prophetically inclined Christians in the United States.
As a result, the militia and patriot movements which we commonly refer to today trace their contemporary inceptions to 19 April, 1993. Much to the dismay of the remaining Branch Davidians, the events at Waco have been used as a rallying call for many disparate, yet apocalyptically-leaning, antigovernment groups. Indeed, it is widely understood that the worst act of domestic terrorism (the Oklahoma City bombing of 19 April, 1995) was carried out as retaliation for the governments actions in Waco. It should be painfully clear to all that this was not a random date.
Much has been written about the Waco tragedy over the past four years. Unquestionably, the Branch Davidians were an apocalyptic religious sect whose manichaen world view was entirely foreign to those law enforcement officials who encountered it. Clearly, though, the Branch Davidians were living the millennial myth. The resulting government tactics only helped to affirm the preexisting beliefs of the Davidians and their understanding of history. From the Davidians perspective, they already knew the outcome for it had been prophesied in the biblical Book of Revelation. This is a clear example of how an understanding of the millennial myth (by law enforcement officials) may have allowed for a pragmatic and less tragic resolution. In her book Welcome To The End Of The World, Teresa Kennedy astutely states that: "In viewing the tragedy of Waco, it is clear that society, as represented by the BATF, the media, and members of CAN (Cult Awareness Network) were perhaps in a far more apocalyptic mood than were the Davidians themselves."
The repercussions from the Waco tragedy are truly astonishing. In addition to the "official" organizing of militia and far right groups, the pervasive conspiratorial antigovernment climate which now popularly exists and the alleged explanation for the Oklahoma City bombing (retaliation against the federal government for the Waco incident) references to Waco can also be found in the literature of the Heaven's Gate UFO group. In a declaration from their internet web page they state that after some 20+ years of preparation they fully expect to be picked up by a spacecraft to be taken to the "Next Level" very soon. They continue:
"It could happen that before that spacecraft comes, one or more of us
could lose our physical vehicles (bodies) due to "recall," accident or
at the hands of some irate individual...Another possibility is that, because
of the position we take in our information, we could find so much disfavor
with the powers that control this world that there would be attempts to
incarcerate us or to subject us to some sort of psychological or physical
torture (such as occurred at both Ruby Ridge and Waco)."
Clearly, the members of Heaven's Gate were aware of how the government has previously dealt with unconventional, unpopular and "fringe" religious groups. It is indeed disturbing to think that, upon reflection, Heaven's Gate members concluded (for good reason) that the U.S. government would not hesitate to inflict bodily harm upon any group it deems unhealthy, unconventional or "a threat to society."
A Pagan Prophecy?
Inherent to apocalyptic prophecies is the appearance (real or perceived) of a sign, some sort of "Grand Signal" from beyond (either from God or some other superhuman being) that can be used as "proof positive" that the end is at hand. Signs can range from the sublime to the senseless depending upon the particular belief structure. Historically, natural occurrences or disasters such as earthquakes, floods, fires or astronomical appearances may provide such a sign. Government misconduct (willful as well as accidental) can often act as another sign. While the appearance of the comet Hale-Bop may be met with great wonder and excitement by the scientific community, as well as the general public, there are others who view its appearance as a sign that the end of one age and the beginning of a new age is here.
It is important to acknowledge the difference between apocalyptic and millennial themes. Millennial beliefs relate in some way to a transformation of the current social, cultural, spiritual, and political collective human condition. An apocalypse is generally understood to be the "cleansing process" which humanity must endure to allow for the establishment of the new order (Heavenly Jerusalem, Kingdom of God, Heaven on Earth, etc...). Though images of fire, death and destruction may be the images that apocalypse evokes, we must remember that apocalypse literally means "a revealing of that which is hidden."
Historically, millennial beliefs have envisioned an earthly paradise. At first glance this chiliastic idea (the belief that good will overcome evil, resulting in a new and better world order here on earth) seems strangely lacking from Heaven's Gate theology. Upon further examination, however, their beliefs read something like the Christian Premillennial Pretribulational Rapture scenario.
According to Heaven's Gate doctrine: "We will rendezvous in the "clouds" (a giant mothership) for our briefing and journey to the Kingdom of the Literal Heavens." This sentiment is strikingly similar to Thessalonians 4:17: "Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord." This, of course, is the basis for all Christian rapture scenarios.
Essentially, Heaven's Gate has appropriated the rapture imagery of the biblical Book of Revelation (in addition to various Gnostic, science fiction and conspiracy theory motifs). The Premillennial Pretribulational Rapture scenario in particular proposes that the true Church will be raptured (caught up in the air) when the Lord (Jesus) descends from the clouds. The dead will rise first, followed by the living Church. The rapture signals the beginning of a seven year Tribulation period on earth, a time of unspeakable horror, violence and moral and spiritual decay. Following the seven years Jesus again returns to destroy the antichrist and begin his one thousand year reign on earth (the Millennium).
In the Premillennial Pretribulational Rapture scenario the true Church does not have to endure the horrors of the Tribulation period. They are taken away before the Tribulation begins. The followers of Heaven's Gate also believed that we are presently in a Tribulation period (as do many Christians). The great emphasis on personal materialism, irrelevance of mainline religions and hostility to religious messages of salvation coupled with the appearance of comet Hale-Bop led Heaven's Gate to believe that a cleansing period was well under way. Like premillennial pretribulational Christians, Heaven's Gate also believed that they would not have to endure the tribulation period on earth. Thus, a confluence of powerful factors (cultural/social dislocation, popular hostility to their message, the appearance of a brilliant comet) contributed to their act of suicide. If they were not meant to go through the tribulation period than they obviously had to "leave their containers (bodies)" behind. Their belief in a spaceship following behind the comet provided the perfect catalyst for them to be caught up together in the clouds.
There are many ironies to this event. One of the primary differences between the Christian rapture scenario and Heaven's Gate spaceship salvation is the role of the supernatural. The Christian scenario believes in a physical Divine intervention. Thus, suicide (unquestionably a human act) is forbidden. Also, the notion of hope is very strong within all the varying Christian endtime scenarios. If you are one of those "left behind" then it is your task to figure out why, to change yourself and those around you (through evangelism), and to accept Jesus upon his return. Up until the very final moments of human history there is still hope for all who want to be saved.
Heaven's Gate, however, held a very different idea of the supernatural.
Their ideas were far more metaphysical, even gnostic, and less supernatural.
Thus, the everyday physical world was only one realm of being. I would
surmise that they were well aware they were never going to be literally,
physically picked up by a spaceship. Instead, it was their souls, their
spirit, absent the body, that would rise to meet the spaceship. In actuality
there was very little belief in divine intervention. All of the signs that
were considered meaningful were actually common or natural phenomena. Again,
it was the confluence of so many of them that acted as an extremely powerful
catalyst. Thus, for whatever reasons, the aliens would be hovering over
the earth while waiting for Heaven's Gate members to ascend. Divine or
supernatural intervention is not an option. Only through the evacuation
of their containers (in this case, a human act) can they rise to meet the
spaceship. What we consider suicide, Heaven's Gate understood as an act
of transformation, a releasing of the spirit from the body.
Like many aberrant religious movements Heaven's Gate raises many disturbing yet fascinating questions about human behavior while also offering a kind of critique of the post-modern world in which we all find ourselves struggling. Unfortunately, in examining how this incident could have occurred, most of the media/popular analysis has focused on issues of brainwashing, mind control and thought reform. While these are important issues for discussion, they ultimately obscure the deeper significance and meaning of the peculiar yet strangely familiar (some might say desirable) belief structure of Heaven's Gate. Though the collective action taken by Heaven's Gate may be viewed as extreme, many of their ideas and beliefs are widespread, and even mainstream.
It is for these reasons that I look to the future with some trepidation. In a short amount of time the appearance of apocalyptically inclined groups and incidents has risen dramatically. At the same time, the ideas upon which many of these groups base their understanding of history and the cosmos are too often ignored, dismissed as pop folly or relegated to the realm of the lunatic fringe.
We would be wise to explore in a serious manner the range of apocalyptic and millennial ideas residing within contemporary popular culture, no matter how bizarre, illogical or undesirable they may be. We must remember that the acknowledgement of a bizarre or exotic belief system is not necessarily an acceptance of it, nor is the ability to recognize and participate in a discussion about eschatology necessarily a legitimization of particular eschatological scenarios. The more we scoff at and deride sincere belief in the bizarre, the further we alienate those believers until the logical conclusion they reach is that the world won't listen.
Finally, the best way to "inoculate" popular culture from the destructive aspects of misguided or zealous apocalyptic and millennial thinking begins with a serious inquiry into the history, terminology and concepts that currently reside within popular culture. Participation in the apocalyptic and millennial milieu must begin with an acquisition of the language. Should we choose to ignore or dismiss the apocalyptic world-view then we almost certainly allow for the unchallenged proliferation of apocalyptic rhetoric by the only people with the desire (and ability) to talk about apocalyptic issues: the zealous apocalypticists for whom the end can't come soon enough.
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Copyright 1997 by the Center for Millennial Studies and Aaron M. Katz. All Rights Reserved.