The TV footage was disturbing—people with identical short haircuts, long robes and brand-new Nike sneakers telling us why they were about to take their own lives. Their Web site told of a spaceship hiding behind comet Hale-Bopp that would take them to a higher plane. They lived in a millionaire’s mansion in San Diego and called themselves Heaven’s Gate. They jump-started their own personal eschaton by committing mass suicide.
The idea that the end of the world is nigh is familiar to Jews and Christians. It is an idea that began in Judaism during the Second Temple period and has taken many forms in the two millennia since. The theology of Heaven’s Gate is a strange brew, interpolating Star Trek and other sci-fi ideas into the old beliefs, but it is not surprising to find such a blend of old and new—especially in California in the 1990s. Here is the “new and improved” version of that old-time religion.
So what went wrong? An old blues lyric says, “Everybody wants to go to heaven / but no one wants to die.” These people wanted so badly to go to heaven that they decided to die, incited by their fearless leader. Among the many causes of this tragedy, one can be singled out—impatience. These people wanted to eat their dessert before the main course was over. The problem, of course, is that no one really knows if dessert will be served in this case, and if so, to whom. Maybe it would be best to wait for dessert until after you’ve finished your dinner.