Take the followers of Heaven's Gate at their word: They didn't want to die, they wanted to live. On a higher level, another planet, free from pain and heartbreak, stress, and taxes. And the key theological question about their mass suicide is the one that sounds the craziest: How do we know they didn't make it? How do we know their mother ship didn't come in?
We don't know. We think we do, just as non-Christians think they know that a wafer of bread isn't the body of the Son of God. But Christians know, or think they know, that the wafer is the body of Christ. Many know, or think they know, that the stock market will never crash. We know what we know by faith. And what makes this particular set of beliefs obviously crazy? If life after death is as blissful as they say, why not get there ASAP?
In a time of market-oriented everything, of situational ethics and opinion polls, seeing people act on firm beliefs—even to the point of self-extinction—is a terrible, confusing spectacle. The first instinct is to psychologize and minimize, if not to mock. A spaceship during Holy Week? What were these Easterterrestrials thinking, flying away on a saucer and a prayer? And why, the clinician-within asks, were they thinking it? Troubled childhoods? Too much time online? The airwaves fill with expert talk of "factors," when the most basic, most human explanation hides in plain sight. The Heaven's Gaters believed.
But in what, exactly? A kind of Astrognosticism, it seems--a principled contempt for physical embodiment that might appear insane in its intensity, but isn't all that different in temperament from Silicon Valley's futuristic faith in the virtue of virtual reality. Indeed, the outlines of Heaven's Gate's theology offer—in caricature—a portrait of premillennial America that isn't too far off. What investor in the long bull market hasn't believed, some of the time, in a New Age of permanent prosperity? What late-1990s calendar watcher hasn't felt a twinge of cosmic apprehension at the rollover of Earth's odometer? And as for the cybernauts' apparent conviction that their bodies were nothing but "containers"—dumb hardware programmed with spiritual software—what disassociated Net surfer can't relate, especially if his favorite sites deal with, say, the cloning of human beings or the discovery of life on Mars?
The Heaven's Gaters might have lost perspective, but what they were focused on—computers, space, a sense of imminent technosocial breakthrough and equally imminent secular breakdown—are the same things the rest of us earthlings are looking at. And it's not hard to lose your perspective. The media issue plural truths on every question, subject to infinite splicing and distortion on the branching byways of the Net. Punch in any two words, however unlikely the combination ("UFO" and "salvation"), and chances are you'll find a kindred spirit, if not a congregation. Exchange a little e-mail, and you have a budding cult.
Heaven's Gate might have looked through the wrong end of its telescope, but the lens was still pointed at our common night sky. On late-night talk radio following the first news stories, many callers seemed eerily serene about the Rancho Santa Fe disaster. To them, it wasn't a disaster at all, but a (strange) free decision made by (odd) free people. To others, particularly fundamentalist Christians, the suicides were an apocalyptic sign in their own right. Different strokes, that's called. The same week the Heaven's Gaters were lying down beside their laptops to await ascension, hundreds of millions of other fervent believers were celebrating the resurrection of a Palestinian carpenter. The two churches aren't comparable in other ways, but they do share one great, untestable belief: Through death comes life. As long as this vision continues to inspire, seekers will watch the heavens, and some—ridiculously, poignantly, but maybe (maybe) even successfully—will sacrifice everything to reach them.