What a UFO cult taught me about Easter

SELF | 7 mins

I used to believe in aliens.

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At least enough to check out every single book on UFOs my small town library had to offer. The X-Files was at the height of its TV dominance, and as a middle schooler, my stated career plan was to become Fox Mulder. Mom must have been so proud.

While I was busy studying grainy images of extraterrestrials in my bedroom, a fringe religious group was taking things much more seriously. On March 26th, 1997, police in San Diego made a ghastly discovery. Thirty-nine members of a religious cult had participated in a mass suicide. The men and women, ages 26-72, willfully ingested poison over the span of three days. The adherents to the cult, known as Heaven’s Gate, believed a UFO was approaching earth, traveling in the shadow of an approaching comet. The only way to board the ship, which would take them to another level of existence, was to free their soul from their body.

I was in 7th grade when the suicide happened. I distinctly remember hearing about it on the evening news; the images of the deceased in matching jumpsuits and shoes; the terrifying picture of their leader, Marshall Applewhite, a crazed look in his eyes. Even for a middle schooler, I felt an amazing clarity about the situation: this -ish is crazy. I kept watching The X-Files, of course, but my interest in UFOs waned dramatically. Felt like the safest decision.

Twenty years after the tragedy, a new podcast, also called Heaven’s Gate, took a deep dive into the backstory of the infamous cult. They examined the founders, profiled adherents to the faith, even found ex-members and interviewed them about their experiences. It’s engrossing. I couldn’t stop listening to it. And even while I did, I kept having the same thoughts my 7th-grade self had upon first hearing the news: this is bat-shit crazy.

Among the evolving tenants of the cult was the belief that life on earth was seeded by extraterrestrials; that the world was about to be recycled; and to prepare for the next level, where members would feed on pure sunlight, the followers were expected to give up all human aspects of life, including family, friends, sex, individuality, money, and possessions. Crazy, right?

And then I remember Easter.

I actually believe that God—the deity who created all life on earth—became a man. I believe that man, named Jesus, lived thirty-three years on earth. He never did anything wrong. In fact, he did a lot of things right. He healed people who couldn’t see and couldn’t walk. He brought people back from the dead. He said things about God that were scandalous to the religious elite of his day. The Roman government killed him on trumped-up charges. And craziest of all? I believe three days after his death, he came back to life. On paper, that belief system sounds about as plausible as Heaven’s Gate.

But I do believe it. And I can’t stop, because I believe the message of Jesus is truth. I’ll even take it one step farther and say that Jesus isn’t just my truth—as in, it works for me on a personal level—but I believe it’s a universal truth, a truth that is true for everyone. Granted, most people in the world probably wouldn’t agree with that last statement, or at least their lives unaffected by it. But ignoring something doesn’t make it any less true.

I believe in this truth because I’ve seen it with my own eyes. The followers of Heaven’s Gate were hoping for something better. Even with the craziness surrounding it all, I empathize with their search. They wanted something better, more transcendent, a life of meaning and an afterlife to hope for. That desire was strong enough for them to end their own lives on the hope of finding it. I want all the same things they did. The only difference—I found it.

As a child, I was racked with anxiety and worry, to an almost debilitating level. I lost sleep. I gave myself stomach aches. I hid in my room as much as I could. On top of that, I suffered from a speech impediment that made it nearly impossible to communicate. Loneliness ratchets up to a whole other level when you can’t speak.

As a late adolescent, I was sexually abused by a close friend. I suffered in silence for over a decade. In order to feel worthy, I embraced religion. I worked hard to be perfect. I was racked with guilt when I made mistakes. I had the discipline of a drill sergeant. If I couldn’t control anything else in my life, I would at least get God on my side. That’s a dangerous (and really weird) place for a teenager to be.

But that person—the anxious stutterer, the abused perfectionist—he’s utterly dead today. I believe Jesus came back to life on Easter morning, because his power has resurrected me.

As I left religion and entered into a relationship with a God of love, I learned that I didn’t have to perform anymore. God’s love was a constant despite my successes or failures. As I wrestled with the degree of forgiveness applied to me, I learned to forgive my abuser. I opened my mouth and shared my story, and found the power of silence crippled. Even that—opening my mouth—I count as a miracle. I don’t know how it happened, and it certainly didn’t overnight, but God slowly gave me the ability to communicate again. My first job was as a teacher—I literally spoke for a living. Seeing God peel back the layers of brokenness from my childhood freed me to trust him completely. Anxiety doesn’t keep me up at night anymore. I’ve had to walk through fire, but I’ve learned that God is trustworthy. It’s been a journey that has taken my entire life. And I’m still not finished.

Spring is nearly here. Flowers are beginning to bloom. You can hear birds singing outside your windows again. Everything is coming back to life after a long winter. Easter is your invitation to join in the rebirth; to get a taste of resurrection.

On that fateful morning, two thousand years ago, when a few followers of Jesus went to his tomb to mourn for him, they found an unexpected scene. A huge stone rolled out of the way. An empty tomb. And an angel making an unbelievable pronouncement: “He is not here. He is risen.”

I used to live in a tomb of anxiety, of loneliness, of abuse and religion. But I am not there anymore. I have been resurrected, because Jesus has been resurrected.

Believe me, I know how it sounds. Crazy. Too good to be true. As far out there as UFOs and comets. But it’s my story. And I completely believe it can be yours.

And the best part: no matching jumpsuits required.

Written by Caleb Mathis on Apr 18, 2019