Heaven's Gate

America's UFO Religion

304 pages

8 halftones, 4 tables

October, 2014

ISBN: 9781479881062



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Benjamin E. Zeller is Assistant Professor of Religion at Lake Forest College.

All books by Benjamin E. Zeller

Robert W. Balch is Professor of Sociology at the University of Montana.

All books by Robert W. Balch

2015 Best Book Award from the Communal Studies Association
The captivating story of the people of Heaven’s Gate, a religious group focused on transcending humanity and the Earth, and seeking salvation in the literal heavens on board a UFO.  
In March 1997, thirty-nine people in Rancho Santa Fe, California, ritually terminated their lives. To outsiders, it was a mass suicide. To insiders, it was a graduation. This act was the culmination of over two decades of spiritual and social development for the members of Heaven’s Gate.
In this fascinating overview, Benjamin Zeller not only explores the question of why the members of Heaven’s Gate committed ritual suicides, but interrogates the origin and evolution of the religion, its appeal, and its practices. By tracking the development of the history, social structure, and worldview of Heaven’s Gate, Zeller draws out the ways in which the movement was both a reflection and a microcosm of larger American culture.The group emerged out of engagement with Evangelical Christianity, the New Age movement, science fiction and UFOs, and conspiracy theories, and it evolved in response to the religious quests of baby boomers, new religions of the counterculture, and the narcissistic pessimism of the 1990s. Thus, Heaven’s Gate not only reflects the context of its environment, but also reveals how those forces interacted in the form of a single religious body. 
In the only book-length study of Heaven’s Gate, Zeller traces the roots of the movement, examines its beliefs and practices, and tells the captivating story of its people.


  • "Zeller has written the most thorough work on the cult of Heaven's Gate that is presently available...Zeller provides a thorough presentation, and his 'Why Suicide' chapter is the most comprehensive in this fine publication."


  • "Zeller’s prose is clear and attractive, and he has a great story to tell, making Heaven’s Gate a sparkling read.  This book is highly recommended to all interested in new religious movements, apocalypticism, and American religions.  Its relevance extends far beyond the small group that became forever notorious in 1997.”

    Journal of Religious History

  • "The glare of media attention has long since passed from Heaven’s Gate and its group suicide in 1997, but Benjamin Zeller now brings a far more discerning light to the movement’s history, beliefs, and practices. He carefully situates the group within the broader religious culture of the late twentieth century, including its substantial engagement with both Protestant Christianity and New Age currents. In the process, he turns Heaven’s Gate, an idiosyncratic UFO religion, into one richly emblematic of America’s questing, apocalyptic cultural landscape."

    —Leigh E. Schmidt, Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities, Washington University in St. Loui

  • "Despite the extensive media coverage of the Heaven’s Gate suicides in 1997, no single-authored academic book has yet been written about this group. This volume thus fills an important gap. This is an extremely valuable book, which should be of interest not merely in academic circles, but more widely. Anyone who has an interest in new religions and wonders how a charismatic leader can persuade 39 people to commit collective suicide will find it a highly readable account of Marshall Herff Applewhite and his followers."

    —George Chryssides, University of Birmingham

  • "A dramatic and engaging story. The writing is crisp and clear, and the argument, particularly about the indebtedness of Heaven’s Gate to the Bible and Christianity, as well as to New Age and UFO milieux, is well-articulated and persuasive. Zeller effectively captures the particularity of the members of Heaven’s Gate, why they thought and acted as they did, and what led them to the fateful decisions to take their own lives. In the process he rescues them from being dismissed as mindless 'cult members' and makes understanding them both more challenging and more rewarding. This volume should become the standard reference on Heaven’s Gate."

    —Eugene V. Gallagher, author of Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America