Lessons From The Jonestown Suicides

By Mike Willis

Our nation has been somewhat shocked and, perhaps, sobered by the news report of the death of over nine hundred people in Guyana. Following the murder of Representative Leo J. Ryan, a Democrat from California, Jim Jones led his people in the commission of mass suicide. The newsreels have shown the mass self-murder victims; the papers have given a tremendous amount of space to this event. Undoubtedly, it will be the major news story of the year.

So far as I have been able to piece together, the story of Jim Jones and his group may be briefly summarized as follows. Jim Jones began a rather respectable (in the eyes of the world) religious group in Indianapolis. Because of “persecution,” he left Indianapolis with about 120 followers to establish the People’s Temple in California. For several years, he worked in California primarily ministering to the blacks and underprivileged. During this time, he rubbed shoulders with some of the well known political figures in California. When things happened which did not please Jones in California, he started a colony in Guyana. During the course of this time, Jones became paranoid and tyrannical in his control over his religious sect. Mass suicides were rehearsed periodically. When Ryan was murdered after his investigation of the sect, the whole colony (with the exception of a few survivors) committed suicide by drinking cyanide poisoning mixed with Kool-aid. The death total reached 914.

In thinking of this horrible event, let us try to assess what happened in light of the Scriptures and remember some of the lessons revealed therein. Let us glean what good we can from these stark events.

Lessons Which We Need To Be Reminded Of

1. Call no man “lord. ” We need to be reminded of the dangers of following any man religiously from what has happened in Jonestown. Even the most dedicated and zealous of men can be wrong. Their thinking can become distorted to lead hundreds, yea even thousands, of people into error. If the people in Jonestown had realized that no man had authority over them to the degree that Jones exercised, they would not be dead at this time. They would not have administered cyanide poison to their infants.

Hence, we need to be reminded that there is but “one Lord” (Eph. 4:5). Jesus said, “But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master; even Christ” (Matt. 23:810). Although we have used these verses to teach the sinfulness of wearing religious titles (a legitimate usage of the passage), a more important point to be observed is that only God has the right to command men what to do.

The difference between the Pope, a council or synod, and Jim Jones is only in regard to what they command their followers to do. All of them assume a position of authority (to legislate to man) which has not been given to them. Indeed, we need to be reminded that all authority belongs to Jesus Christ (Matt. 28:18).

2. One church is not just as good as another. For many years, denominationalists have been preaching that one church is as good as another. Indeed, anyone who has the audacity to teach the oneness of the church (Eph. 4:4), is considered to be some kind of narrow-minded, bigoted idiot. Yet, the naked truth was driven home with force as secular newsmen and political commentators alike could see that this was not a “good” church.

Yet, Jim Jones’ church has just as much authority for being in existence as does Joseph Smith’s, Martin Luther’s, John Wesley’s, or John Calvin’s. He had just as much authority for making rules for his members – yes, even the rule of mass suicide – as does any one of these above-mentioned men or the councils and synods which presently govern these bodies started by these men. They legislate spiritual laws for their members, although Jones had just as much authority to demand his followers to commit suicide as the United Presbyterian Church had for demanding its followers accept homosexuals as priests. Jones had just as much authority to demand his followers to commit suicide as the Roman Catholic Church has to legislate regarding birth control, eating meats, forbidding priests the right to marry, and a host of other pernicious doctrines.

We need to remember, from the lesson at Jonestown, that one church is not just as good as another. Christ built His church (Matt. 16:16). He built but one church (Eph. 4:4). The church which He built is governed by Him as its Head (Eph. 1:22-23). There is no human denomination, planned by men, built by men, and governed by men which is as good as the church which God planned, Jesus built, and continues to govern! Whereas it is true that one human denomination is just as good as any other human denomination, no human denomination is as good as the church built by Christ. One church is not as good as another.

In a day when some Christian men are wanting to court denominationalism, Christians need to be reminded of the sinfulness of religious denominationalism. It is condemned of God (1 Cor. 1:10-13). Churches which wear human names, follow human creeds and men, practice things not authorized in the Scriptures, and other similar departures from God’s revealed word are disapproved of God. Men cannot be saved while associated with them.

The doctrines taught by these groups will damn men souls in eternity and, frequently, destroy their lives while on this earth beneath. The ways revealed in the word of God must be understood to be the only ways which have the “promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come” (1 Tim. 4:8).

3. The body is devoted to the service of God. The mass suicide of 914 souls is hard to comprehend. I cannot imagine hundreds of people thinking that they are best serving God by murdering their babies and themselves. Yet, this is what happened in Guyana. Christians need to be reminded of the truth of God’s word regarding their bodies.

First of all, I need to be reminded that my fleshly body is not inherently sinful. Some, having so concluded, believe that its passions are to be indulged or that asceticism is the means of controlling this sinful body. Both views are wrong. My body was created by God. Its desires are not inherently sinful; every desire that my body has can be legitimately fulfilled without transgressing god’s word. What has happened is that Satan uses the body as a means of persuading men to sin.

Secondly, I need to remember that nothing is to control my body. “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (1 Cor. 6:12). Anything which enslaves my body is sinful.

Thirdly, I need to remember that my body has been purchased by Christ. “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Inasmuch as my body belongs to Christ, He is the one who determines how it is to be used. My body is to be presented as a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1-2) wholly dedicated to His service. Whatever He commands me to do with my body is what must be done with it.

Fourthly, I need to remember that my body will be raised up in the last days (1 Cor. 6:14). The Bible teaches a bodily resurrection. This doctrine is altogether undesirable to some present-day eastern religions and first century gnosticism which religions had the hope of a release of the spirit from the body. Christianity, however, teaches the resurrection of the body.

Remembering these doctrines taught in the Bible regarding the body, we cannot hold in high esteem those who wilfully destroy their bodies. There is nothing glorious in suicide, under any circumstances. Any person who holds such a low view of his body as to be willing to destroy it, has departed from following the revealed will of God.

4. “If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch” (Matt. 15:14). The lesson that the blind followers of blind guides will be equally destroyed can be clearly seen from the events at Jonestown. Jones not only hurt himself, he took others with him into hell.

For years, Catholics have been teaching blind obedience to their spiritual leaders. Here are some quotations from Catholics which demonstrate this dogma:

“There is only one remedy for this evil (over scrupulous conscience – SGD), and that remedy is absolute and blind obedience to a prudent director. Choose one consult him as often as you desire, but do not leave him for another. Then submit punctiliously to his direction. His conscience must be yours for the time being. And if you should err in following him, God will hold him, and not you responsible” (Explanation of Catholic Morals, p. 24).

“Once he does so (enters the church – RJM), he has no further use for his reason. He enters the Church, an edifice illumined by the superior light of revelation and faith. He can leave reason, like a lantern at the door” (Ibid., p. 76).

“Obey blindly, that is, without asking reasons. Be careful, then, never to examine the directions of your confessor . . . In a word, keep before your eyes this great rule, that in obeying your confessor you obey God. Force yourself, then, to obey him in spite of all fears. And be persuaded that if you are not obedient to him it will be impossible for you to go on well; but if you obey him you are secure” (Liguori, Spouse of Christ, p. 161).

(These quotations are taken from Handbook of Religious Quotations, edited by Samuel G. Dawson and Rod MacArthur, pp. 43-44.) This position which is taught by Catholics regarding their members’ responsibilities to obey implicitly their leaders is exactly the kind of obedience which led to the death of 914 people in Jonestown. We simply must remember that one has a responsibility to find out whether or not what his teacher is teaching him is the truth. If a man follows a false teacher in his damnable doctrines, his would will be damned, according to Jesus.

Despite the fact that we can see this so clearly with reference to the people in Jonestown and with reference to the Catholics, some cannot see the ‘same thing with reference to problems among us. There are some who are teaching that those who blindly follow their leaders into using instrumental music in worship, participating in the sponsoring church arrangements, supporting recreational activities from the church treasury, and other such false doctrines will not suffer the consequence of their sins. They teach that if one openly and rebelliously participates in these sins that he can lose his soul. Yet, if he ignorantly commits these sins, the grace of God forgives him of that sin automatically. If this works for some people, it should work for all people. Will the grace of God automaticaliy forgive those responsible people who followed Jim Jones in Jonestown? Will the grace of God automatically forgive those Catholics who blindly and ignorantly follow their leaders? If not, by what authority does one teach that those who blindly and ignorantly follow their teachers into the sins committed with reference to the sponsoring church, church sponsored recreation, and other sins will receive automatic forgiveness?

Brethren, we simply must manifest confidence in the statement of Jesus. He said, “And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch” (Matt. 15:14). The blind followers of blind guides are just as lost as are the blind guides. They need salvation! That is why it is so important that we reach them with the truth of God’s word.


Perhaps there are several other lessons which we need to learn from Jonestown which I have overlooked. However, these lessons are so blatantly obvious that all of us need to learn from what happened there this points that we might never forget our responsibility to obey the Lord’s commandments.

Truth Magazine XXIII: 3, pp. 51-53
January 18, 1979