I covered the story of the mass suicide of the 39 Heaven's Gate followers. As one of several New York Times reporters, I joined the hordes of journalists who flocked to the scene of this very bizarre event.
It was not the way I anticipated spending Holy Week. For three days I did nothing but conduct interviews, attend press conferences, dig up information, and write about this group. Right at Easter, when I like to celebrate new life in Jesus, my desire to worship was overshadowed by this attempt to find meaning in "the next level."
It bothered me, too, because it tore back the veneer of my own beliefs.
Heaven's Gate followers believed they could reach paradise by leaving their bodies and joining a UFO that followed the Hale-Bopp comet. They believed that God resided in one of their leaders. Much of what they said in their videos and Web sites about community, love, and eternal life I had heard for years in evangelical churches—about death to self and ultimately about death itself.
So I considered my own beliefs: I believe in a man who came back from the dead. He then ascended to heaven, although without aid of a UFO. He claimed to be the Son of God. He invites us to leave everything—families, if necessary—to follow him and to join a community of believers. He invites us to take up our crosses, tells us not to be surprised when people make fun of us, calls us to die so that we might live. And then he tells us he is coming back for us so we can join him in paradise—the next level.
The foolishness of it all As unsettling as the similarities are between these cultists' beliefs and Christianity, I was even more unsettled by my nine-year-old's question. After I had spent the whole day at the suicide site, ...1
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