Last week marked the 30th anniversary of the “Jonestown tragedy.” Those of you who are old enough surely remember that on Saturday, November 18, 1978, a total of 918 members of the People’s Temple Church in Jonestown, Guyana committed suicide/murder. Of this number, 294 of the dead were children under the age of 18.
I was 16 years old at the time. I remember spending about a week talking about the events in my 10th Grade World Culture class. Though 30 years have passed, I still vividly see in my mind the pictures of hundreds of people lying dead on the ground; arms wrapped around one another, mother’s holding their babies, and a father embracing what must have been his wife and children.
The question that people asked then, and continue to ask today is, “How could so many people do such a senseless thing? How could so many people forfeit their lives, and the lives of their children?” While I still find these questions hard to answer, I do believe I have a better understanding of it today, than I did 30 years ago.
Jim Jones, the founder of “The People’s Temple Church” was a charismatic leader. In 1952, he left the Methodist church. He claimed to be the “manifestation of the Christ principle.” He claimed to heal the sick, and even raise the dead just like Jesus did. He also demanded absolute loyalty from his followers. Being disloyal to him was tantamount to being disloyal to Christ, Himself. Jones said:
“I have put on Christ, you see. I have followed after the example of Christ. When you see me…. it’s no longer Jim Jones here. I’m crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ that lives here. Now Christ is in this body…. You will not get Christ’s blessing in Jim Jones’ blessing until you walk like Jim Jones, until you talk like Jim Jones, until you act like Jim Jones, until you look like Jim Jones. How long will I be with you until you understand that I am no longer a man, but a Principle. I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light. No one can come to the Father but through me.”
Jones claimed that he was the only way to the Father. Therefore, those who believed in him were willing to unquestionably follow him, even to death. But how can religious people be so mistaken?
I believe the answer can be found in a comment made by the Major in charge of the Army operation to remove the bodies from Jonestown. In disbelief, he said, “There were no Bibles in Jonestown!” These people had been weaned away from the word of God, and had learned to trust in the words of a man.
Can such a tragedy happen again? Of course it can. It happens every day. Not the mass suicides, but people who turn from the Word of God to follow the words of a man. Loyalty to God’s Word can save us from the tragedy of following a man to our own physical and eternal destruction. “Where there is no vision [revelation – S.H.], the people perish…” (Proverbs 29:18).