Heaven’s Gate cult leader Marshall Applewhite, who committed suicide with 38 of his hapless followers in San Diego, California, in late March, reportedly likened himself to Jesus Christ. Applewhite is on record saying that Jesus also had to leave His body and His identity to move on to the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Heaven’s Gate cultists were persuaded that their bodies were merely “containers” that they had to leave behind in order to attain what they called the “Next Level” of existence in heaven. These tragic techno-groupies no doubt believed that they were on the cutting edge of New Age spirituality, but their half-baked belief system was really just another recycled version of an ancient heresy called Gnosticism.

The term “Gnostic” derives from the Greek gnosis or “knowledge,” Gnostics of the early Christian era combined elements of near-Eastern and Hellenistic paganism with selected Christian ideas. They formulated a radical dualism between God (or Spirit) and matter – the physical world was alleged to be the creation of an inferior being, while the spiritual realm was the domain of the supreme God.

Disdain for body

This construct led to contempt and disdain for the human body, manifesting either in rigorous asceticism (the Heaven’s Gate cult discouraged sexual activity, and several male cultists, including Applewhite, had been castrated), or alternatively – extreme licentiousness. The famous collection of ancient manuscripts discovered near Nag-hammadi in Egypt in 1949 were from a Gnostic library.

Gnostic belief distorted Christian teachings and cited Scriptural texts out of context, in order to bolster the notion that the body, subjects as it is to death and decay, was to be despised, and that the material world in general was to be regarded as evil. Gnostic theorists postulated another world spiritual cosmic reality in which all goodness resided, and looked forward to redemption from the material sphere through divinely inspired knowledge that would reveal the true nature and destiny of humanity and its need to transcend the evil world of matter.

The “Gospel of Truth” by 2nd-Century Gnostic leader Valentius, one of the Nag-hammadi texts, reads (p.22): “He who knows is a being from above. When called, he hears, he answers, he turns to the one who calls him in order to return to him.” The Heaven’s Gaters believed that they (or at least Applewhite) had heard the “call” from an alien spaceship shadowing Comet Hale-Bopp, and that their souls would be transported to the ship when they checked out of their bodies. Canadian cult member Erika Ernst was cited by her sister as saying that some sort of extra-terrestrial being would return to earth to claim them one day.

The Church has struggled against Gnostic heresies down through the centuries. One Gnostic sect, Manichaeanism, proved especially persistent. The movement’s 3rd-Century Babylonian founder, Menes, theorized a cosmic conflict between Princes of Light representing spiritual goodness and reality, and the Demons of Darkness representing evil matter. Fleshly men were trapped in of the devil’s realm, but had received a divine revelation that they must free the imprisoned Light within themselves and return it to the spiritual dimension. The Manichaean “elect” lives a life of strict asceticism based on the notion that the desires, appetites and pleasures of the body were essentially satanic, very much similar to what the Heaven’s Gate cult believed.

In 1207, Catholic armies mounted a crusade against the Albigensians, beginning a war that lasted seven years, ending in a rout of the heretics’ political power. However, the resilient Manichaean heresy went underground again, and has re-emerged sporadically in various forms ever since, from St. Thomas Aquinas’s philosophical battles with Manichaeans in the mid-13th Century, to the present-day crop of New Age Gnosic cults like Heaven’s Gate. Plus ça change, plus ça meme chose.

Leader’s folly

Unfortunately for his disciples, Marchall Applewhite was sorely mistaken about Jesus, in whose Incarnation God became a man with a material body, in which He was resurrected, and in which He ascended to Heaven, with nail holes in His hands and spear wound in His side. St. Cyril of Jerusalem observed: “It is this selfsame body that is raised, although not in its present state of weakness; for it will put on incorruption (1 Cor. 15:53); and so be transformed. Do not let us say as the heretics say, that the body is a garment . . .” The body, in Christian understanding, is an integral part of the whole person. The separation of body and soul at death is considered something contrary to God’s original plan, an evil consequence of the Fall. However, for Christians the separation is temporary, and we look forward, beyond death, to the final resurrection on the Last Day, when body and soul will be reunited once again.

The Heaven’s Gaters were caught up in an evil deception that is as old as the Fall at Eden. The Gnostic spirit is anti-creation and anti-life, but the “fruit of the tree of knowledge” remains as seductive as ever. “Your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods,” the serpent still whispers. It is still a diabolical lie. “Enter by the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction,” Jesus warmed. “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

Sadly, the 39 souls in San Diego who so badly wanted to pass through Heaven’s Gate missed it completely.

(Charles Moore is regular contributor to The Interim. He resides in Sherbourne, Nova Scotia).