In what remains probably the most suspenseful moment in the Holy Bible, Abraham ascends the mountain, firewood and dagger in hand, after reluctantly obeying to kill his only son at God’s request. His son asks, “But father, where is the sheep?” Abraham replies, “Son, the Lord will provide the sheep.” Minutes later, as a shuddering Abraham raises the blade over Isaac’s alter-bound body, God’s angel appears to stop him.
The story today remains one of the most powerful analogies of faith and a source of surprisingly rich conjecture. Was Abraham just calling God’s bluff? Or was he truly about to murder his child to prove his unquestioning servitude? If the former, then it seems he didn’t pass any test of faith at all; if the latter, he intended to commit a deadly sin even conflicting with God’s own teachings. And yet somehow it makes no difference what Abraham was thinking, because either way he couldn’t have outsmarted the all-knowing God.
Perhaps one distinguishing feature between a globally practiced religion and a breakaway religious movement—or cult—is the level of harmony between the belief system and the widely accepted practices of society at large. God stopped Abraham because, like any sane person in any regular society, he would never condone the murder of an innocent child. But history shows us organized religion and common secular values often have a symbiotic relationship—neither really precedes the other. Values can form belief systems which in turn can change values; and given the latter, we know that human behaviour can be bent, distorted or warped under some stranger notions of organized beliefs and causes.
But beliefs are more than just religious, superstitious or supernatural convictions. Countries, cultures, ethnicities and professions all typically preach their own forms of belief which, some might say, simply boil down to different ways of living and viewing the world. But oh, how many ways there have been, and how strange, fascinating, and downright eerie they can be.
This list gives a brief run down of the eight biggest human sacrifices or mass-suicides in recorded human history; large groups of people who decided to collectively end their life in the name of a cause. For anyone expecting a list of bizarre cults you won’t be disappointed, but the variety of “causes” here might surprise…
8. Heaven’s Gate, 1997: 39 suicides
This “UFO religious” group based out of San Diego, California hybridized Christian doctrine with elements of science fiction and doomsday prophecies. Members referred to human bodies as “vehicles” designed to take the true self to the “Next Level” of being, renouncing all human-like characteristics of family, friends, sexuality, individuality, jobs, money and possessions. They preached that Earth was soon to be wiped clean and “recycled”, and the only chance for salvation was abandoning the planet in an alien space craft.
In 1997, police found 39 decomposing bodies in a rented San Diego mansion. They had each ingested an anesthetic mixed with pineapple juice and vodka and subsequently wrapped their heads in plastic bags. They lay draped in purple cloths on individual bunk beds, wearing identical black shirts and sweatpants, brand new Nike shoes, and armbands reading “Heaven’s Gate Away Team” (a Star Trek reference).
7. Order of the Solar Temple, 1994: 53 suicides
This still-active secret society once met in covert lodges from Quebec to Australia to Switzerland to observe the ideas of the Knights Templar from the 13th century. The Lodges contained alters for conducting rituals, attended in religious Crusader-type robes to pay tribute to Christ’s fore coming as a “solar god-king”, unifying all sects of Christianity and Islam to establish “correct notions of authority and power in the world”. What the order is most known for, however, is a series of mass suicides starting in 1994; 15 by poison, 30 by bullets and smothering, and 8 by uncertain causes that year. Police discovered most bodies in a secret underground Swiss chapel full of mirrors and symbolic Templar objects.
6. Jonestown Massacre, 1978: 909 suicides
In 1978, cult leader Reverend Jim Jones of the “Peoples Temple Agricultural Project” in Guyana led the biggest premeditated death of American civilians before 9/11. The cult preached “apostolic socialism” which aimed at a holistic anti-capitalist community centered on Jones’ ideas of communal-agrarianism. Following a mass shooting at a nearby airport by cult loyalists, the frantic and disturbed Reverend convinced 909 followers to join him in a “revolutionary suicide” by drinking red Kool Aid laced with cyanide. The well-rehearsed ritual took five minutes to complete. Jones then shot himself in the head.
5. Siege of Masada, 73 A.D.: 960 suicides
Jewish extremists settled this large isolated mountain-top in modern-day Israel during the Great Jewish Revolt of 66 A.D. against the Holy Roman Empire. Their last stand began in 72 A.D. when 15,000 Roman troops lay siege to the compound. The attackers spent months constructing ramps and high-towers to breach the treacherous plateau, but when they finally battered through the fortress walls in 73 A.D., they found the entire settlement burned to the ground and 960 dead in a pre-meditated fight to the death. Only well-stocked food storerooms remained intact, as a brazen message of suicide over slavery.
4. Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, 2000: 300-1000 suicides
It’s strange to think this Ugandan Catholic doomsday movement made headlines for mass suicide just fourteen years ago. Hatched in the 80s by three Ugandans claiming visions of the Virgin Mary, the group preached strict adherence to the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus Christ to avoid apocalyptic damnation. In fear of breaking the Ninth Commandment, the group even discouraged talking.
After a failed doomsday prophecy on January 1, 2000, faith in the cause began crumbling. Members demanded return of their money and possessions from cult leaders, who quickly predicted a new date and promised an unforgettable celebration on March 17th. On the day, sometime after members filed into their church to sing and pray, a fire decimated the building and everyone inside. Police found all windows and doors boarded shut.
The ensuing investigation uncovered hundreds more dead from poison and stabbing across the group’s worship sites in southern Uganda.
3. Battle of Saipan, 1944: 8,000 suicides and murders
Just days after Operation Overlord began in Europe, an Allied fleet from Pearl Harbour took the Imperial Japanese Army by surprise on the Pacific island of Saipan. Isolated far south of Japan in the Mariana Islands, the outnumbered and outclassed 43rd Japanese Division stood little chance against the invaders. Within a month, Lieutenant General Yoshitsugu Saito and the remaining survivors faced imminent capture, but they refused to surrender.
As dawn rose on July 7th, 12 Japanese wielding an enormous red flag surged onto American frontlines; 3,000 able troops tailed, and thousands more crippled and wounded troops barely armed with bamboo spears reared the final banzai charge on the 105th American Infantry Regiment. By the time the some 8,000 suicide soldiers fell, only 650 Americans lay dead or wounded on the front.
2. Re-consecration of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan, 1487: Tens of thousands sacrificed
Our shoddy, hundred-year-old records make the extent of religious sacrifice in Mesoamerica hotly debated; nevertheless a handful of surviving reports from Spanish explorers allege this particular set of rituals consecrating the Templo Mayor—a chief Aztec temple in modern Mexico City—killed tens of thousands over the course of just four days. Aztecs were said to arrange platforms along the perimeters of temple tops, from which humans would be thrown to their death down the temple sides. Forty years later this particular temple lay in ruins from Spanish conquest; five hundred years later it became a UNESCO World Heritage site.
1. Battle of Okinawa, 1945: estimated 84,000 suicides
Our largest recorded event of human sacrifice returns once again to Pacific Japanese-American conflict in WWII (an ocean, ironically, named after the Latin word for peace). The “violent wind of steel”, as the Japanese remember it, was the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific War—the culmination of America’s long campaign of conquest from island to island en route to Japan on Okinawa, just 340 miles off the mainland, two months before the atomic bombs came down. It remains a particularly bitter defeat in Japanese history, especially for the indigenous civilians who still occupied the island at the time of battle.
Accounts say Japanese soldiers went to great lengths to encourage mass suicides among the local civilians, even distributing grenades to self-explode at the dawn of defeat. They claimed barbaric U.S. soldiers would unleash unbearable suffering and torture on their prisoners, and by many accounts a lot of them took the advice. With high estimates of 84,000 suicides, up to a third of the native population and over a hundred thousand Japanese soldiers died over 81 days of battle on land and sea.