They were cyber-cruisers and stargazers, wise in the ways of Web sites and video cams. But in choosing to take their own lives, the 39 members of the "Heaven's Gate" cult proved to be spiritually more rooted to the low-tech era of the first century.
That was an age when Gnostic philosophers sometimes advocated suicide as a quick means of transportation to the afterlife. And unlike the mass suicides and killings of cult members in Jonestown, Guyana, and Waco, Texas -- events triggered by outside threats -- members of Heaven's Gate apparently marched to death on their own timetable, concluding that the approaching Hale-Bopp comet was their call to salvation.
A transmission on the Heaven's Gate World Wide Web site reportedly linked to the cult sums up the group's urgent sense of mission, as well as its belief in unidentified flying objects, stating that recent knowledge from "the Evolutionary Level above human (the 'Kingdom of Heaven') has made it clear to us that Hale-Bopp's approach is the 'marker' we've been waiting for.
"Our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion -- 'graduation' from the Human Evolutionary Level. We fully desire, expect and look forward to boarding a spacecraft from the Next Level very soon (in our physical bodies).
"All who hope to enter the Kingdom of Heaven must study and bond or 'graft' with the Representative and literally LEAVE the human kingdom and Earth as He is about to do. Staying behind, for any significant period, could jeopardize that 'graft.' That window to Heaven will not open again until another civilization is planted and has reached sufficient maturity."
Those who study cult behavior say such beliefs classify Heaven's Gate as neo-Gnostics, latter-day cousins of a variety of groups that were early competitors to Christianity.
"There is a certain Gnostic element at work here -- people believing they have some esoteric knowledge that others aren't privy to, and then act upon it," said William D. Dinges, an associate professor of religion at Catholic University in Washington and a specialist on cults.
Carl Raschke, a University of Denver authority on such groups, and other experts theorized yesterday that Heaven's Gate might have grown from the remnants of the "Bo Peep" UFO cult of the 1970s.
That group was led by a man and woman who called themselves Bo and Peep, Raschke said. The couple claimed to be "witnesses of the [biblical] Book of Revelations, and said they come to gather the lost sheep."
A UFO piloted by the couple was supposed to rescue followers from the disintegrating order of life on Earth.
Raschke said the group "sort of disappeared back in the late '70s and early '80s," a timetable that fits with references on the Web site of the Higher Source -- the cult's business arm. One such statement is, "The individuals at the core of our group have worked closely together for over 20 years."
In its beliefs in space travel and divine intervention, and in its grim suicidal results, Heaven's Gate mirrored the recent doings of the international cult known as the Order of the Solar Temple.
Since Oct. 5, 1994, when Swiss authorities found the bodies of 48 people burned to death in a remote group of chalets, a total of 74 deaths by suicide and murder have been linked to the cult in Europe and Canada. The most recent occurred six days ago in St. Casimir, Quebec, when five adults burned themselves to death. The group's members believe that suicide transports them to a new life on a planet they call Sirius.
At one time, such groups would have had to spread their gospel by printing pamphlets and books "literally by the thousands," said James Tabor, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and author of "A Noble Death," a study of religious suicides in the ancient world.
Not only were such publishing tactics arduous and inefficient, they were also tainted by a certain unseemliness that detracted further from credibility, Tabor said.
"The Internet has changed everything," he said. "Now you can have a glittering, flattering Web page. Instead of a tiny little group going out to the world, you have the world immediately being able to access the group. There's not a religious group on the planet that hasn't gone and gotten itself a Web site."
The irony in the case of Heaven's Gate, Dinges said, "is that this was a group that was reclusive, and yet, in the context of the Net, it was global. It is a post-modern condition."
But for all its global reach, some realms of cyberspace can seem bizarrely narrow and Byzantine, almost claustrophobic in their disregard for conventional precepts. UFO theories merge with religious theories, which merge with dark theories of government conspiracies. It is fertile ground for conquest by anyone who can appear to make sense of it all, no matter how outlandish the theory.