What Cult Suicides Are and Why They Happen

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Cult suicides are some of the most publicized and terrorizing aspects of what can happen within a religion. The fear of such an event happening leads some people to distrust many new religious movements, even if a specific movement shows no indication that suicide would be acceptable or beneficial.

"Cult" is commonly used in society to denote a dangerous or destructive religion. Mass suicide is by its very nature destructive, so religious mass suicides are generally termed cult suicides.

Homicide vs. Suicide

While such events are commonly described as mass suicides, they frequently are actually murder-suicides: the most dedicated members kill the less dedicated ones without their consent, then take their own lives. Child victims are almost always victims of murder.

Those determined to die may do the deed themselves, or they may assist each other in their deaths. Since all parties in this scenario are consenting to death, they are generally discussed as suicides.

Reasons for Mass Suicide

Mass suicides are most often undertaken by groups who feel trapped within circumstances they cannot control or escape other than through death. There have been several events in history where groups of Jews have killed themselves (or each other, as suicide is strongly condemned in Judaism) to escape torture, painful execution such as burning, or slavery, for example. Other groups throughout history have committed mass suicides for similar reasons.

Suicidal cults often have a strongly apocalyptic theology. In some cases, the apocalypse will be worldwide. In other cases, it will mean the destruction of the community at the hands of its enemies, which might include, death, imprisonment, or spiritual slavery, forced to accept ideas counter to that of the religious community.

Like other destructive cults, suicidal cults generally center around a single charismatic authority figure whose word is accepted as something akin to scripture. Often these figures are described as saviors or messiahs. Some even describe themselves as an incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Below is a quick look at some well-known suicide cults.


Over 900 people died at a religious commune in Guyana in 1978. The commune was generally known as Jonestown after the group's leader, Jim Jones. The group, known as the Peoples Temple, had already fled San Francisco for fear of persecution from authorities and media wishing to investigate the treatment of some members.

At the time of the suicide, the group was once again felt itself threatened. A U.S. congressman, accompanied by a couple of staffers and news reporters, visited Jonestown to address claims that members were being held against their will. The group, joined by a couple defectors, was attacked at the airport from which they would return to the US. Six died, and nine were injured.

Jones urged his community to die with dignity rather than submit to the capitalist forces he saw as their enemy. Some suicides were voluntary, but many others were forced at gunpoint to drink poison, and those attempting to flee were shot. Jones was among the dead.

Heaven's Gate

In 1997, 39 members committed suicide, including the group's founder and prophet. All participants appeared to have been willingly involved. They ingested poison and then placed plastic bags over their heads. A surviving member continues to spread the message of their faith.

Heaven's Gate believers believe that an apocalypse is close at hand, and only those who have spiritually reached the Next Level have a chance at salvation, which involves joining our alien creators. The suicide coincided with the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet, which they believed hid an alien spaceship ready to collect their souls.

Branch Davidians At Waco

The status of the Waco deaths is debated. Certainly they expected the apocalypse to be close at hand, at which time they would have to fight the overwhelming forces of the anti-Christ.

However, the fire that killed most of the members was not deliberately set by the Branch Davidians at Waco (not to be confused with other Branch Davidians not associated with the Waco group), although reports suggest their leader, David Koresh, insist they remain inside, and those trying to escape were shot. Koresh himself was killed by a bullet that did not appear to be self-inflicted. He may have been killed so that others could escape.

Solar Temple

In 1994, 53 members spread over multiple compounds died by a combination of poisoning, suffocation and gunshot, and the buildings in which they died were burnt. In previous years, they had been connected with multiple suicides and murders. Their founders were among the dead.

In 1995, another 16 members suffered similar deaths, and five more died in 1997. In is debated how many people were willing participants, as some showed signs of struggle.

They believed the apocalypse was close at hand, and that only through death they could escape, expecting to be reborn on a planet in orbit around the star Sirius. Exactly how this theory came to be formed is still unknown; for most of the Solar Temple's existence, it focused on survival skills and equipment to help survive the apocalypse. Their leaders may have felt pressured by authorities, whom they thought were persecuting and spying upon them.

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Your Citation
Beyer, Catherine. "What Cult Suicides Are and Why They Happen." Learn Religions, Oct. 12, 2021, learnreligions.com/cult-suicides-95794. Beyer, Catherine. (2021, October 12). What Cult Suicides Are and Why They Happen. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/cult-suicides-95794 Beyer, Catherine. "What Cult Suicides Are and Why They Happen." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/cult-suicides-95794 (accessed March 28, 2023).