The Closing of Heaven's Gate
In recent days the comet Hale-Bopp has been seen streaking across the earth's skies, and many have been looking to capture a glimpse of this rather rare celestial event. But members of the Heaven's Gate cult had visions of a different sort; they thought a massive UFO might be riding in the wake of the comet, and that this UFO could transport them to a better world. The cult's leader, named Do (as in dough), considered himself to be a Christ-like figure, and led his New Age followers to believe that mass-suicide ("leaving these containers," as they put it) was the means of escape to "the level above." Since this occurrence, the subject of religious cults and their bizarre belief systems has been much discussed. Once again, UFOs are in the news.
For many people of common-sense the whole scene appears ludicrous. Surely, the beliefs of groups such as Heaven's Gate pose no threat for the sane individual. Or do they? Is there something relevant to glean from this tragedy? Are there lessons we should learn and take to heart? Thirty-nine deluded individuals left this earth to stand before their Maker. Their legacy is, at the heart, religious in nature. Therefore, true believers in Jesus Christ should have something to say about these matters.
1) False teachers will always be among us.
Jesus warned that there would be false teachers among us who would mislead many (Mt 7:15ff; 24:11, 23ff), and His words have been fulfilled countless times throughout history. In the early days of the Church some denied Christ's humanity, while others denied His deity. A large segment of the professing church even erred when it came to understanding how men can know God. Other errors (e.g., invalid Greek arguments for the primacy of human reason) have been more subtle. But false teaching is not merely an ancient problem; it is one which still haunts us today. Included here are various cults and false religions, atheistic secularism (which denies the need for God), and evolutionary theory. The faces and methods may change, but the message always leads in the same direction—away from Christ and the teachings of the Bible. The recent scene in San Diego is but a sensational example of what occurs daily throughout our land. Buying into religious deception is a way of life for many people. And this reminds us that evil forces really do exist. As Paul stated centuries ago, "our struggle is...against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Eph 6:12).
2) Even intelligent people are susceptible to deception.
In our pseudo-intellectual age, the prevalent notion is that "education"—scientific and secular knowhow—is all we need to shield us from foolish choices. Of course, there is some truth to this idea; (proper) education can dispel ignorance. But secular man is usually unaware of other factors which play a role in the decision making process. Man's heart is deceptive and easily led astray (Jer 17:9; Mk 7:20-23). And, as mentioned above, there are spiritual forces which leave their mark on humanity. Indeed, the prince of these forces is said to lead people captive at his will (2 Tim 2:26)! Although a number of those involved in the recent situation in San Diego were characterized as intelligent, this evidently was no buttress against the moral/spiritual deception they experienced. Something greater than personal ability is required for fortification against error; we need the Spirit of truth, the third member of the triune Godhead. He, Jesus said, leads us to a knowledge of God (Jn 15:26). Likewise, the Spirit has given us the Word of Christ (Col 3:16), by which we can discern the difference between truth and error (see I Jn 2:20ff). Wisdom dictates, therefore, that Christians avail themselves to those influences which draw them toward their Lord, and thereby protect them from spiritual chicanery. The bottom-line here is that anyone (even believers) can be led astray. We must determine in advance, then, to "be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might" (Eph 6:10).
3) The popular UFO movement can be dangerous.
Few contemporary concepts have had a more powerful (though sometimes inconspicuous) impact on modern man than the UFO phenomenon. From motion picture movies and TV programs to popular literature on the subject, UFOs are a part of the American psyche. While most people never take the UFO mentality to the extreme witnessed in the Heaven's Gate cult, many have gradually succumbed to popular New Age concepts. Recent polls show that a large percentage of Americans believe in life on other worlds. And often the belief in extraterrestrial creatures has taken on a religious flavor. In fact, an increasing number of individuals believe there is some tie between space-visitors and ancient religion. This was popularized some years ago by Erich Von Daniken, and today millions have been influenced in similar ways through the writings of men like Zecharia Sitchen. Even among those who aren't exposed to official "alien" propaganda, there is a tendency in our day to explain all of life via higher technology. When speculation goes unchecked, you are left with a technological model of life in which much of our religious history is explained in terms of extraterrestrial visitors. Though many Christians are prone to dismiss the UFO movement as mere fanaticism, there is an undeniable societal trend toward "alien" religion. That is, many are willing to place alleged extraterrestrials in the category of creator-savior. Surely, this is an unbiblical philosophy, and one which is a cause for concern among Christian people. The Church must be prepared to give answers within our contemporary milieu, even when this involves dealing with those whose claims are "out of this world."
As Christian apologists we should be cognizant of the matters we have addressed here. False teaching will always be with us; all of us are susceptible (at some level) to deception; and the UFO phenomenon is one current route by which error is promulgated. It is essential that we "contend earnestly for the faith" (Jude 3) within our contemporary culture. This involves being well grounded in biblical truth (What is the gospel?, What does it offer modern man?, How does the Christian answer modern dilemmas?, etc.). Furthermore, we must counter current arguments of an anti-Christian nature, including those propagated by believers in alien religion and UFO encounters. The fringe elements of this movement (the type popularized in the tabloids, etc.) must not be allowed to blind us to the reality that many, many individuals have (consciously or not) bought into a quasi-religious brand of UFOlogy. May God enable us to center our lives in the true "man from heaven," Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:47). He alone provides the stability needed for the task of evangelizing the misguided people of our modern world.
1. This booklet was spawned by the events surrounding the March 1997 mass-suicide of thirty nine members of the Heaven's Gate cult near San Diego. Our commentary, however, extends beyond the extreme activities of this single group to the extremely influential UFO/New Age phenomenon.
2. Marshall Applewhite, the cults co-founder and leader, was known by various names including "Father John," "Bo," and the above mentioned "Do." He apparently had an interest in reincarnation and UFOs, and held to a gnostic-like religious philosophy.
3. One analysis of a recent Gallup poll suggests that for every Christian there are five UFO enthusiasts, and that these UFO believers outnumber the voters who placed our last three Presidents in office. See Phil Cousineau, UFOs: A Manual for the Millennium (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1995), p. 179.
4. Erich von Daniken is the Swiss writer whose Chariot of the Gods? sold more than 25 million copies in the 1970s. Sitchen's books (which are of a more scholarly tone) include: The Twelfth Planet, and Stairway to Heaven which became part of a series known as the Earth Chronicles. Recently, he has published his interpretation of the book of Genesis, which he titles Genesis Revisited. These men and many others have helped to popularize the idea that ancient astronauts (aliens) play a major role in earth's history.
5. The Bible does not appear to speak to the issue of possible life on other worlds. What we do know is that earth is the object of God's special attention, the theological/redemptive center of the universe. Whether or not the current New Age messages originate in outer space is irrelevant on this point. Any teaching which contradicts/denies the Word of God must be deemed invalid, deceptive, and anti-Christian.
6.From the Greek apologia, meaning "defense." Apologetics is "that branch of Christian theology which has as its aim the reasoned advocacy of the Christian faith." Millard Erickson, Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology ( Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), p. 14. John M. Frame defines apologetics as "the discipline that teaches Christians how to give a reason for their hope." Apologetics to the Glory of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Company, 1994), p. 1. At some level, therefore, we are all Christian apologists.
7. Although most of the Church has ignored the UFO phenomenon, there is some good literature on the subject. Clifford Wilson has written Crash Go The Chariots, The Chariots Still Crash (both refutations of Erich von Daniken's ideas), and The Alien Agenda. More recently, there is William Alnor's UFO's in the New Age (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992). Also of interest are the works of Jacques Vallee, one of the premier investigators in the field of UFOlogy. Though Vallee is no friend to Christianity, his interpretations of the UFO phenomenon sound remarkably biblical. See especially his Revelations: Alien Contact and Human Deception (New York: Ballantine Books, 1991).
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