People’s Temple Group – Theology That Relates?

By Jimmy Tuten, Jr.

The horrifying mass suicide of hundreds of men, women and children led by the charismatic, but demoniac self-styled prophet, Jim Jones, staggers the imagination. Why did the nightmare at Jonestown take place? How can so many be so vulnerable? What causes the entrapment of otherwise intelligent youth into surrendering their ability to think clearly and independently? Why is cultism on the rise? Many are searching for answers: Anthropologists, Sociologists, Psychiatrists, are all responding. Can they give us the answers? Knight News Services have pointed out that “our psychological theories are inadequate to cope with the cult phenomenon.” They may be right. As Joan Beck says, “that inexplicable tragedy in the Guyana jungle can’t simply be written off as an isolated aberration” (“aberration” means an act of wandering from the right way; deviation from truth, Jt., Quote from News and Courier, Charleston, S.C.). As the Associated Press points out, Foreign Press, Nov. 22, 1978, sees its roots in the 1960s, “the era that spawned both the `flower children’ and the evil of Charles Manson.”

More and more, as I look back at Guyana, I am convinced that the answer lies in the word “aberration,” departure from truth. Certainly, to some degree at least, social, political and religious factors have their part in contributing to the phenomenon of cultism. However, I do not believe that cultism results from collective irresponsibility. I am tired of hearing people blame society for the lawlessness of individuals. This “passing the buck” is not a thing in the world but a failure to recognize that the real problem is a loss of individualism. People no longer afford the luxury of a conscience so they avoid personal responsibility. It is like the Bay of Piegs invasion, when afterwards President Kennedy asked, “How could we have been so stupid?” What Kennedy failed to see was that group thinking can produce prodigious blunders that any individual can avoid (Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin? p. 112). Perhaps Anna Russell’s sardonic jab is appropriate here: “At three I had a feeling of ambivalence toward my brothers, and so it follows naturally I poisoned all my lovers. But now I’m happy; I have learned the lesson this has taught; that everything I do that’s wrong is someone else’s fault” (The Crisis in Psychiatry and Religion, O. Hobart Mowrer, p. 49). It is sad that sin and the notions of guilt which once served as restraint have been eroded by the presumption that the individual has less to do with his actions than assumed. What this writer is trying to say is that the dilemmas of cultism are more and more the expression of internal personal moral problems instead of external social, or environmental complexities. Sure, there is always some environmental determination (1 Jn. 2:15-17; Rom. 12:1-2), but what right have we to exclude individual determination (2 Cor. 5:10, etc.)? Guyana: do we blame Jim Jones or the threat of a neutron holocaust? No, it is the failure of the individual as a creature of choice to make the right decision at the right time. There would never had been a tragedy at Jonestown if individuals had not let the blind lead the blind!

Searching For Roots

Misfits from scattered backgrounds are flocking to the cults. They have already shown disrespect for God, parents, seniority and authority, even the Bible itself. We are going through an antinomian revolution! Having rejected God’s Word as archaic and obsolete as far as modern man is concerned, mankind is adrift on the sea of uncertainty. Biblical morals are outdated and outworn. Ethics? Who cares any more? “We live in the here and now, and we are living it up! Experience (more on this later) and effectiveness, these are the watch words today. We want a new morality. Old-fashioned sin is out.” Listen friend, whether you accept it or not, sin haunts our age. There is nowhere to go but to the Lord (Jn. 1:29; Eph. 1:3, 7; Gal. 2:12-13). Sin may be a weary word to you, but as Bernard Murchland says, “the reality it signifies is energetic and destructive” (Whatever Became of Sin?, p. 209). Rob your soul of Biblical convictions if you wish, but something will take its place. Yes, you will find something new, a new life-style perhaps. Leave God and what He says out of your life, and as surely as I type this article, you ultimately will be disappointed in life itself. Man left to himself is altogether vanity (Psa. 39:5). He cannot be established by wickedness (Prov. 12:3). It is not in man to direct his steps (Jer. 10:23). Mankind need roots and the search goes on, but the roots you need are behind you, in God and His Word (Prov. 12:3b). All else is vanity (Prov. 12:14-15; Eccl. 1:2). So it is: a rootless youngster migrating in Winter may drift by Spring into any one of a dozen cults.

Experience Over Knowledge

This writer sees something else as he looks at modern cultism (Thanks to Earl Radmacher’s “Relational Theology-or Theology That Relates?” Ministry, November, 1978). But first observe that God’s Word furnishes man completely in every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Only Truth will free and give roots (Jn. 8:31-32; 1:17; 14:6). It is adapted to man whose disposition and general makeup is as it has been since Adam (I am not advocating inborn sin). Apostolic teaching applied to the first century man, but it also applies to us. For nineteen hundred years, mankind’s spiritual needs have been the same. That is why the New Testament is relative today. External circumstances, have changed, but sin is still sin (call it crime or sickness if you wish). Morality is not something you discover based upon the situation. It is taught (Tit. 2:11-14), it does not come by external circumstances. It must be learned! Christianity is a teaching religion. It involves the mind (1 Cor. 1:21; Mk. 16:15-16; Rom. 10:13-17).

Instead of objective reasoning regarding Truth, the religious today are relying more and more on personal experiences as authority. “I would not exchange the way I feel for all the Bibles in the world” is a thread-bare argument demonstrating pure subjectivism. Experience is not authority even though subjective emotionalism has replaced the proper role of objective Truth. Calvinism’s faith as a gift (irresistible grace in the form of the direct operation of the Holy spirit on the heart apart from the Word), the charismatic movement, no patternism among brethren and modernism’s distrust of our plea for restoration New Testament Christianity as “let’s-go-back defeatism” have all contributed to subjective emotional authority. Disturbing results of what we are talking about are seen in “churches of the Lord” whose numbers are speaking the language of Ashdod. We now hear brethren talking about “giving my testimony” and “witnessing.” We see churches like the Cross Roads in Gainsville, Florida with their unstructured emotionalism in the form of candle-light services, chain prayers, circled hand-holding exercises, etc. It is all heading in the same direction: experience as authority. No wonder young people cannot find a “theology” that relates. Some of our brethren are, indeed, practicing the philosophy of Howard Ervin, popular Baptist charismatic leader, who says, “experience, not logic, lets us know who Christ is.” Can you imagine trying to convince someone of the historical Christ by saying, “I know Christ exists because I talked to Him this morning”? Here is the secret of Jim Jones’ mind control: pressure of experimentalism. Our society is driven more and more by the authority of experience than the experience of authority.

Do our brethren really know that true experience grows out of sound doctrine? Have we allowed reason and logic to become dirty words? Do you not see that in theological circles the rational is presumed to be shallow and the irrational interesting, often profound and usually true? Who was it that said, “The man who has an experience is never at the mercy of the man who has an argument”? The weakness of experience over knowledge is obvious: it is the same reasoning used by those who claim they have found the answer in transcendental meditation, ESP, Hare Krishna, the People’s Temple Group and other bizarre cults.


It is the same plea: Back To The Bible! Book, chapter and verse precede experience. Call it what you wish: “legalism,” “propositional theology,” whatever. One thing is certain. We cannot sacrifice Truth on the altar of interpersonal relationships. The early church did not turn the world up-side down by telling people about their personal experiences or how to discover the ecstasy of the Spirit-filled life (better-felt-than-told experience). They preached the Word (Acts 8:4), Christ (Acts 8:5), and people like the Samaritans “believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ,” and “they were baptized, both men and women” (Acts 8:12). Evangelism is not centered on what happened to the individual, but on the proclamation of the gospel. No, we are not overlooking the principle of a “new creature” (2 Cor. 5:17), “joy” (Phil. 2:18; Acts 8:39) or “fruits of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-26). I know that in many of our assemblies our worship has become stereotyped and formal, but spontaneous unstructured emotionalism is not spirituality.

Experience that is not founded upon truth (how many times must we say it?) lacks proper moorings and sets us adrift on the hopeless sea of subjectivity. “I am sure no new theology can really be theology, whatever its novelty, unless it expresses and develops the old faith which made those theologies that are now old the mightiest things of the age when they were new” (Peter Taylor Forsyth, Positive Preaching and The Modern Mind, p. 6). Experience must remain the effect, not the cause.

How sad that hundreds involved in the People’s Temple Group allowed themselves in the jungle of Guyana to be led blindly into an untimely death in this life and hell hereafter. They, because of subjective experience, looked for a theology that relates. Instead, they let the blind lead the blind. “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (1 Jn. 4:1).

Truth Magazine XXIII: 5, pp. 87-89
February 1, 1979