A Christian Refutation of Applewhite's Doctrine: Closing "Heaven's Gate"
by Jason Barker
An Associated Press article distributed on March 29, 1997, titled Christianity, Cult Compared, seemed to link the belief system of the Heaven's Gate cult to Christianity, declaring:
"Thoughts of death and resurrection are hardly confined to California cults, especially around Easter. The story of Jesus dying on the cross and rising from his tomb lies at the core of Christianity. If this suicide cult's New Age trappings of UFO spirituality seemed bizarre, its frustrations with worldly woes and its dreams of a better life beyond were more familiar."
That both groups believe in an approaching end to this world and maintain a hope for a paradisical life beyond our mortal existence is indisputable. Mainstream Christians reject the explicit linkage of orthodox Christianity with the New Age teachings of Heaven's Gate, however, staunchly maintaining that the cult's suicidal pursuit of UFO transports and celestial evolution differs dramatically from the Bible's message of salvation by God's grace.
The presentation of doctrines in the comparisons below is obviously not exhaustive, for either Christianity or "Heaven's Gate" theology. It will show, nonetheless, that despite Applewhite's use of Christian terminology, claims of an orthodox Christian foundation for Heaven's Gate theology are erroneous.
The Kingdom of Heaven
Applewhite / Heaven's Gate:
The literature distributed by Heaven's Gate used the terms "Evolutionary Level Beyond Human" and "Kingdom of Heaven" interchangeably. The Kingdom of Heaven is a physical locale inhabited by souls (inhabiting physical bodies) who dwell at the highest level of existence. The beings at this "Kingdom Level made the human kingdom, and designed the planet, designed all of its resources, designed all of its life forms, designed humans, and even designed humans with the potential of leaving the human kingdom in order to go to the Kingdom Level Beyond Human" (Video Transcript, September 29,1996).
Notably, the denizens of the Kingdom of Heaven even created evil. Applewhite explained, "The reason they created everything that there is, including negative options, is so that you could become exactly what you choose to become when you have the opportunity to become it" (ibid.).
All creation by the higher beings in the Kingdom of Heaven is designed to perpetuate evolutionary development (why these beings desire the development of lesser beings is unexplained). All mammalian bodies on this planet are "plants" in which souls can be placed (Do's Intro. . ., a document on the Heav-en's Gate Web site). Souls are originally placed into animal life. Those souls worthy of evolutionary progression are then placed into human plants (the criteria for progression from animal to human are unexplained). Souls worthy of evolving into higher beings are taken from the human plant at death and transported by UFO to the Evolutionary Level Beyond Human, the Kingdom of Heaven.
The standards for evolving from human to higher being are examined in the section on salvation.
There are some similarities between Applewhite's teachings and general Christian teachings about the Kingdom of Heaven. Both assert that it is a place in which higher beings dwell, the place from which the creation of Earth and all life was accomplished. The Christian specifics regarding heaven, however, differ radically from those espoused by Heaven's Gate.
The Bible uses the terms "Kingdom of Heaven" and "Kingdom of God" interchangeably (see Matthew 19:23-24). The Kingdom of Heaven refers to the divine authority given by the Father to the Son (Luke 22:29), the object of which is the redemption of humankind (1 Corinthians 15:23-28). The Kingdom of Heaven arrived with Jesus' incarnation (Luke 4:21), and will be completed when he returns (John 14:3). For the believer, life in this Kingdom involves living according to God's will in "righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17). While living according to a high standard is upheld by both Heaven's Gate and Christians, only Christians believe that the Kingdom of Heaven is living in submission to Christ in accordance with God's will through the empowering of the Holy Spirit, in a relationship initiated, established and sustained by God apart from human effort.
Heaven is also a specific locale in Christianity. Heaven is the dwelling place of God (Jonah 1:9; Matthew 5:16, 45; 6:1, 9), the site of his throne (Psalm 11:4; Isaiah 66:1) from which He oversees human actions (Deuteronomy 26:15; Psalm 14:2; 102:19-22; Isaiah 40:22-24) and gives decrees (Deuteronomy 4:36; Nehemiah 9:13). Christ was raised by the Father to sit at His right hand in heaven (Ephesians 1:20; Heb. 8:1), and all believers place full assurance in the hope that they will be raised to heaven to sit with Christ (Ephesians 2:6; 1 Peter 1:4).
Heaven is also the abode of the angels who execute the Lord's commands (Genesis 21:17; 22:11; Matthew 18:10). Unlike the celestial beings in Heaven's Gate theology, who appear able to progress to the level of "Older Member" or spiritual leader and mentor and who participate in the creation process ('95 Statement by an E.T. Presently Incarnate, document on the Heaven's Gate Web site), angels do not become omnipotent (Hebrews 1:4-8, 13, 14) or participate in creating souls (Genesis 1:26ff; Jeremiah 1:5). These are the province of God alone.
The objects created by God also differ from the creations of the Evolutionary Level Beyond Human. God judged all His creation to be good (Genesis 1:4, 10, 18, 21, 25, 31). The difference between Applewhite's and Christianity's view of creation can be seen in the Hebrew word for "good," towb, which can also be defined as "best." God's creative acts are flawless; He did not create a flawed world in order to mandate evolutionary development. Also unlike Applewhite's definition of the creative process, which based upon the lack of any described motive seems a pointless endeavor, the Bible states precisely why God created the world: for God the creative act is a concrete expression of His love (1 John 4:16-17, 19).
The perfection of God's creation as depicted in the Bible directly contradicts Applewhite's teaching that sin is a necessary part of creation. The Bible asserts that God created man and woman (Genesis 2:7, 20-21), and shows that all of His creation is good. Why, then, is there sin? Paul stated in Romans that sin "entered the world through one man" (5:12), indicating that creation was perfect until the first humans improperly exercised their free will and thus introduced sin into the world. In other words, the presence of sin in our lives resulted from a conscious misuse of the gift of free will on the part of created humankind rather than a defect deliberately created by God.
Applewhite / Heaven's Gate:
The nature of the soul may seem a strange subject to precede a discussion of the person of the Father in a topical hierarchy. In Heaven's Gate theology, however, the soul is the primary component in the evolutionary development of all beings (including such "Older Members" as the Father).
The soul in Heaven's Gate theology is also referred to as a "deposit . . . the 'seed' or 'chip' with a program of metamorphic possibilities" ('95 Statement. . .). This "deposit" is placed in "vehicles" or mammalian bodies (also called "plants") that are acceptable "containers" for allowing the evolution of that soul into the Level Beyond Human (Do's Intro. . .). For example, Applewhite claimed his soul had occupied the vehicle named "Jesus" 2,000 years ago (ibid.). (This will be examined in greater detail in the section on The Person of the Son.)
Notably, the "Older Members" responsible for the evolutionary progression of the souls on this planet frequently leave behind their bodies in the Level Beyond Human and are placed into plants at this lower level in order to take an active role in physically mentoring their subjects. According to Applewhite, the Father, Jesus and the apostles have all returned to new vehicles on Earth in this century in order to facilitate the development of lesser souls (ibid.; Video Transcript. September 29, 1996, and October 6, 1996).
Upon death, worthy souls are transported by UFO to the Kingdom of Heaven. Heaven's Gate literature, however, explains neither how the souls are transported to the UFO nor when a new vehicle is readied for the soul in the Level Beyond Human.
The placing of souls into an existing plant raises a crucial, though unaddressed, question: what is the operative force driving these vehicles before the soul is implanted? Despite his teaching that the body is no more than a "suit of clothes" for the soul ( Video Transcript. Spetember, 29, 1996), Applewhite's claim that his previous vehicle was named "Jesus" before its implantation implies that Jesus was already a conscious and developing person before the implantation. This assertion is further supported by the Heaven's Gate teaching that bodies containing souls can easily be identified from those that are barren, because the non-implanted bodies view an implanted body as "duped, crazy, a cult member, a drifter, a loner, a drop-out, a separatist, etc." ('95 Statement. . .). In other words, all bodies contain distinct personalities and thought processes, but those bodies containing a soul are more highly evolved than other mammalian life forms.
He explicitly stated: "But then a spirit or a mind that had previously occupied another human plant, but has gone into the spirit world (or is outside of a body because it lost its body from death or whatever, but is still in the environment), can move in and take over that vehicle and be stronger than the mind that is the mind of that vehicle. In other words, it can invade that vehicle. It can take it over. It can pretty much keep the mind of that vehicle quiet and do what it wants to do with that vehicle" (Video Transcript September 29, 1996).
The conclusion is obvious: in Heaven's Gate theology, this cycle of evolution toward the Next Level involved two savage deaths in the case of each crew member - if the personalities originally controlling their bodies were not destroyed outright by the implantation of their souls, certainly nothing was left when those souls killed and abandoned their bodies, for transport to the Evolutionary Level Beyond Human.
The soul is depicted in the Bible as life itself (Job 33:18, 20, 28, 30). In this sense, humans are souls. There is an additional biblical meaning, however: the soul is the "inner being" of the person created by God for endless existence. The soul lives after the death of the body (Matthew 10:28; 2 Corinthians 5:8).
Despite the existence of the soul apart from the body in both belief systems, the soul in Christian theology differs greatly from the soul created by Applewhite's Level Beyond Human. The Bible explicitly states that the soul is created with the creation of each human (Genesis 2:7); soul and body are a unified whole throughout the physical life of the individual (1 Thessalonians 5:23). This directly contradicts Applewhite's teaching that the soul implants the body at a relatively late date, overcoming and repressing the individual's original personality, which sounds remarkably like the demon possession against which Jesus warred in the New Testament (Mark 9:17-27).
The Person of the Father
Applewhite / Heaven's Gate:
The members of Heaven's Gate followed no single deity. Each soul has a corresponding "Older Member" assigned the responsibility of nurturing its growth; this "Older Member" is the soul's "father" (Last Chance to Advance Beyond Human, a document on the Heaven's Gate Web site).
Because Applewhite claimed to have been Jesus in a previous incarnation, the existence of his Father is of great interest to Christians. He clearly identifies his Father as "Ti," known to non-implanted bodies as Bonnie Lu Trusdale Nettles (Video Transcript, September 29, 1996). Both the Father and Son returned in the early 1970s into the plants of Applewhite and Nettles in order to finish the development of the current group of souls before Earth is "recycled" (Video Transcript, October 6, 1996). The female plant for Applewhite's "Father" died from cancer in 1985.
The Father in Christian theology is one member of the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; three persons in one God (Matthew 28:19).
The Bible teaches us that Christians are adopted by the Father, and are thus in such a close relationship with Him that we can even address Him by abba or "daddy" (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6). Despite this close relationship with our heavenly Father, and in direct contradiction to Applewhite's assertion that the Father was a woman who died in 1985, Jesus states that no one has seen the Father (John 6:46). As we shall see in the Christian teachings about the Son, however, the disciples saw the second member of the Trinity made incarnate.
Also in direct contradiction to Heaven's Gate theology is the Christian belief that there can only be one Father. Isaiah explicitly states that there neither has been nor will be any true God other than our God and Father (Isaiah 43:10; 44:6).
The Person of the Son
Applewhite / Heaven's Gate:
As stated previously, Applewhite taught that he was the soul incarnated in Jesus, the Son of the Father. Jesus was simply a vehicle appropriate to the soul's task of advancing the evolutionary development of souls in human bodies (Do's Intro. . .). He explained: "that mind that was in Jesus - What? That mind, that spirit, that soul is me, and in this body called 'Do' that you're looking at? You'll have to decide that for yourself. I must admit that I am here again" (Video Transcript, October 6, 1996).
Applewhite claimed that his soul invaded the Jesus plant when Jesus was "29 or 30 years old" (Do's Intro. . .). He expanded upon the unique nature of this implanting: "at the time referred to as its baptism by John the Baptist (the incarnating event was depicted as '...the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove' - Luke 3:22). [That body (named Jesus) was tagged in its formative period to be the receptacle of a Next Level Representative, and even just that 'tagging' gave that 'vehicle' some unique awareness of its coming purpose.]" (Do's Intro. . .; brackets in original).
To paraphrase Applewhite, the Jesus plant was exceptional and was thus chosen early in its existence for implantation by Do's soul. By becoming filled with the Holy Spirit, the soul was purging Jesus of his human personality and filling him with "the mind" (or desire for leading other souls to further evolution) of his Father (Video Transcript, October 6, 1996).
The Father and Son were not the only souls that returned to Earth for this final course in celestial evolution before the end of the age; the apostles also were implanted into vehicles in the early 1970s (ibid.).
The Bible teaches that Jesus is the Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity (Matthew 28:19) and the Christ (Mark 8:29). Unlike the evolving Jesus portrayed by Applewhite, the Bible asserts, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8).
Applewhite's claim that his soul was implanted into Jesus at the age of 29 or 30 through the baptism of the Holy Spirit is easily refuted by the Bible. When Mary asked how she, a virgin, could conceive a child, the angel Gabriel responded: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:35) Thus the Bible is clear in its assertion that Jesus was divine at his conception, not from having a soul implanted at his baptism by John.
In direct contrast to the Heaven's Gate belief that there are many totally separate souls responsible for celestial administration, the Bible teaches that a single God (consisting of three distinct persons) is sovereign. The Jesus of the Bible asserted his status in the Holy Trinity by stating "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30), and "anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). The apostles saw the second member of the Trinity made incarnate in Jesus.
The Bible's description of Jesus' bodily ascension into heaven and future return also refutes Heaven's Gate theology. Rather than Do's soul leaving the Jesus container behind as it traveled via UFO to the Level Beyond Human, Jesus was witnessed as rising bodily into heaven (Acts 1:9). Similarly, rather than returning in the body of an obscure new age music teacher, the Bible prophesies that Jesus will return in notably triumphant fashion (Acts 1:11).
"For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever" (1Thessalonians 4:16-17).
That these events have yet to occur is incontrovertible.
Angels and Demons
Applewhite / Heaven's Gate:
Angels as altruistic divine beings do not appear in Heaven's Gate literature. In their place are asexual extraterrestrial bodies that host the highly evolved souls in the Evolutionary Kingdom Beyond Human (Video Transcript, October 6, 1996). These beings make up the Older Members who direct the creation and evolution of souls in this lower level.
In direct opposition to these beings are the "fallen angels," the "Luciferians." These beings, while receiving their training from their designated Older Member, revolted and claimed: "This world [the Level Beyond Human] is not for me. I can be my own 'god.' I don't need that Kingdom Level. I resent that I cannot be my own individual - that I can't lead my own flock" (Video Transcript, September 29, 1996).
Much like Lucifer in Milton's Paradise Lost (from which Applewhite quite possibly derived this theory), these rebellious beings are now engaged in open warfare against the stifling regulations imposed by the Kingdom Level. They exist both on Earth and on other planets with an atmosphere capable of sustaining mammalian life. In fact, the grotesque pictures we have seen of "space aliens" are actually pictures of these fallen angels - their appearance, according to Applewhite, contrasts with the "beautiful" appearance of the Older Members (ibid.).
Their purpose - which was ordained by the Level Beyond Human - is to halt the progress of souls through deception. Applewhite identified their deception as based largely on orthdox Christianity and traditional Western values: "Above all, be married, a good parent, a reasonable church goer, buy a house, pay your mortgage, pay your insurance, have a good line of credit, be socially committed, and graciously accept death with the hope that 'through His shed blood,' or some other equally worthless religious precept, you will go to Heaven after your death" (Do's Intro. . .). Any individual who espouses such teachings is likely to be a plant inhabited by one of the "lower forces" (Video Transcript, September 29, 1996).
Many biblical passages describe angels. Angels were present at the creation of the universe (Job 38:4-7), but unlike Applewhite's Older Members they were not the creators. Angels, as previously mentioned, carry out the commands of God (Genesis 21:17; 22:11; Luke 1:19, 26ff). They are "sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation" (Hebrews 1:14).
It appears that the angels of the Bible manifest themselves in a human form (cf. Luke 24:4f; John 20:12; Acts 1:10). Unlike the souls within physical bodies described by Applewhite, however, their essential nature is spirit (Hebrews 1:14). Balaam could not see the angel he encountered until "the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam" (Numbers 22:22-31). Similarly, the demons of the Bible do not have material bodies; a legion of demons existed in a single human cured by Jesus (Mark 5:9).
The fallen angels, or demons, of the Bible differ from the "lower spirits" of Heaven's Gate in more respects than simply physically. The description shared by both groups of demons as deceptive beings is in accordance with biblical teachings. However, the message of church attendance and traditionally responsible behavior in the home and community that Applewhite claimed is deceptively promoted by demons is instead supported by the Bible.
One of the primary activities in which demons engage in the Bible is obscuring the gospel message of salvation through the free gift of God's grace. A particularly effective way in which demons accomplish this obfuscation is by promulgating doctrines that add requirements such as celibacy and fasting for salvation (1 Timothy 4:1-3). Interestingly, these were some of the methods required by Heaven's Gate for eradicating "human ways" ('95 Statement. . .).
Applewhite / Heaven's Gate:
The vision promoted by Heaven's Gate was highly apocalyptic. Their Web site flashes: "Red Alert! Hale-Bopp Brings Closure to Heaven's Gate." All readers know that this closure was the suicide of the Heaven's Gate members so that their souls could board the UFO transport. The apocalypse they fled, however, is yet to come.
The Evolutionary Level Beyond Human is supposedly preparing to destroy all life on Earth: "The Earth's present 'civilization' is about to be recycled - 'spaded under' - in order that the planet might be refurbished. The human 'weeds' have taken over the garden and disturbed its usefulness beyond repair" (Last Chance. . .).
Humans have become too corrupted with "human-mammalian behavior" to be of use as plants for souls from the Level Beyond Human. The Older Members have thus decided to raze the planet and start anew.
As in other apocalyptic cults, however, salvation can be earned only by following the requirements set by the human leader. (And despite his claims, Applewhite was certifiably human.) The requirements for members of Heaven's Gate are to reject all "human ways" as defined by their Older Member, Marshall Applewhite. They must "overcome human flesh - the genetic vibrations, the lust of the flesh, the desire to reproduce, the desire to cling to offspring, or spouse, or parents, or house, or money, or fame, or job, or, or - that could go on and on - overcoming the human flesh and its desires - even its religious desires" (Video Transcript, October 6, 1996).
This overcoming involved celibacy, poverty, renouncing outsiders (including family), and rejection of all orthodox Christianity. Only by developing an increasingly stringent practice of self-denial could the members of Heaven's Gate evolve to the point where they would be eligible for UFO transport to the Level Beyond Human. Applewhite's rigid code of self-discipline so conditioned his followers to engage in self-abnegation that several males castrated themselves, and a group of 39 members committed suicide.
Most Christians do believe in a coming apocalypse in which "the elements shall melt with fervent heat" (2 Peter 3:7, 10-12), God's enemies will be destroyed (2 Thessalonians 1:6- 9; 2:12) and His people saved to eternal life with Himself (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17; 5:9-10). This Christian doctrine is most to be feared, and thus hated, by the secular world. Naturally, it is the chief means by which they hope to smear Christianity with Applewhite / Heaven's Gate paint.
Such treatment is superficial, at best. There is a radical difference between Applewhite's and Christian doctrine on the means by which one should prepare for the world's end. Paul labeled the teachings that require following rigid rules in order to earn salvation as "demonic" (1 Timothy 4:1-3). Instead of earning salvation through an arbitrary set of rules, Christians place their secure hope in the grace of God. They believe they are "justified freely by [God's] grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Romans 3:24), that all their sins are already forgiven (Colossians 2:13-14), that in a real sense they are already delivered from the power of darkness and transferred into Christ's eternal Kingdom (Colossians 1:12-14).
Rather than fear destruction in the razing of the world by a Level Beyond Human, Christians cling to the promise of John 3:16-17: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." This hope, based upon God's Word, offers far greater assurance to Christians than the claims of a self-styled intergalactic prophet.
Despite Marshall Herff Applewhite's extensive use of Christian terminology, his theology differed dramatically from the teachings of orthodox Christianity. The radical asceticism of the Heaven's Gate cult, combined with its explicit rejection of biblical teachings and values, place the two belief systems on opposite sides of the theological fence. A more accurate thesis for the Associated Press article might have been "Christianity, Cult Contrasted."