The Biblical Garden of Eden was probably somewhere in modern-day Iraq. But what a lot of people don't know is that there's another Eden, a secretive place where people are preparing for the end of the world, right here in the middle of the Indonesian capital.
Two weeks ago, I found myself standing at the gates of Eden, too scared to ring the bell. I grew up hearing tales of Jakarta's Eden, a mysterious cult run by a woman named Lia Eden who claims to have a direct line to God. According to her, God is angry at humanity for allowing religion to ruin the Earth. It's gotten so bad, that the only way forward is for the "purified" few to board a UFO piloted by the Archangel Gabriel and ride to to a different Earth, in another galaxy, where we can start civilization over again without the negative effects of religion.
It's a pretty bold statement to make in a country where blasphemy is illegal, and Lia Eden—real name Lia Aminuddin—has actually been jailed twice for insulting religion. It was back in 2005 during her first arrest that I started to hear about Lia Eden and her cult. People were calling her a "misguided," person who claimed to be a prophet or angel. Others just said she was downright delusional.
The prison sentences, once in 2006 and again in 2009, decimated her organization. Eden once boasted of having more than 100 members, but today it's a more small-scale affair. It's also much more secretive. The group closed ranks and stopped talking to the press after the infamous Monas incident (more on that later), concerning themselves with the "purification," instead of spreading their beliefs in the press.
I had no idea how they were going to react to a journalist showing up at their front door. Sure, I've spent time with cults before—hanging out with the followers of the Swissindo debt relief cult—but no two groups are exactly the same. Would they even let me in the front door?
A neighbor saw me stalling outside and walked over to offer his help. Suddenly, a voice boomed out of a CCTV speaker. "Where are you from and who are you looking for?" A short time later, a woman in her 60s opened the door and invited me in. She told me that she has been with Lia Eden for the last 21 years, before explaining that she can't tell me her name because God has forbid them from doing anything that makes them stand out. So instead, I am going to call her Eve. (They also refused to be photographed, which is why you're only seeing picture of me in this story.)
Eve brought me to a small, pretty serene terrace in front of the house. I'm not going to lie, Eden's garden was a little slice of heaven. It's not every day you find a place in this city full of flowers and trees. A tiny waterfall flowed into a small fish pond, washing the entire place in the soothing sounds of trickling water. I found myself feeling really relaxed, almost forgetting that it was hot as hell outside that day.
I sat on a chair and Eve offered me a glass of what she called "Eden water," explaining that it was taken directly from a source discovered by Lia Eden herself decades ago. The water came directly out of the tap, and it was safe to drink it without running it through a filtration system, Eve told me.
“Please drink this Eden water,” she said. “In this house, we have three wellheads. The one in front tastes brackish, this one for drinking is a bit sweet, the one at the back is a bit salty and usually used as medicine.”
On a normal day, I wouldn't ever drink a glass of unfiltered water straight from the tap. Our water in Jakarta, like in much of the world, is full of bacteria and all kinds of stuff that makes you really sick. But I wanted to be polite, so I took a sip. It tasted like normal water, but maybe a bit sweet, like coconut syrup.
Eve took a seat next to me and explained that their leader, a woman they call "Paduka Bunda Lia," no longer does interviews with the press or researchers. She decided to stop talking to us after being released from prison a second time. The same goes for her 20 or so followers, who are forbidden from talking to the media.
Then a second woman walked into the room and bowed to me. She too didn't have a name, so I guess we'll call her Eve 2 here. Eve 2 had good news. She spoke to Paduka Bunda Lia, who herself just got done speaking to God, and, together, they ended the ban on speaking to the press.
Eve 2 said that she was happy to speak with me, as long as we only talk about one thing—doomsday. Eden is obsessed with the end of the world. Their website, which has been repeatedly blocked by the Indonesian government, is full of lists that they say are signs of the coming apocalypse. The signs of the coming doomsday include sinkholes (the result of nuclear bombs), the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines MH370 (the magnetic poles switched positions), and something called the snout hole (it's a tiny black hole in Louisiana).
There's a whole lot more, but the point is that the end of the world is coming and only those pure enough will be able to board the Archangel Gabriel's UFO and get the hell out of here before it's too late.
It was a difficult interview. Any time my questions wandered off the doomsday track, the women would cut me off and try to redirect me, saying, "Oh, let’s not get into that. You’re only here to ask about the doomsday, right?"
The only non-doomsday question they were willing to answer was whether or not Eden was a cult. No, they said, of course it isn't. "Paduka Bunda Lia Eden is simply a figure who receives messages from God," one of the women explained.
OK, so back to the end of the world. Eve explained to me that it's right when the final days are approaching that the Archangel Gabriel will appear to save them from the dark days to come. They will accompany him to start their new lives on the new Earth, a place free of the destructive effects of organized religion, Eve told me.
“It’s called the civilization of heaven," she explained. “There will be categories of people as well. Those who are not chosen will be left behind and they will have to go through the doomsday. Others will have their natures changed. Everyone will be categorized by their own karma."
I had so many questions, but the first one to escape my lips was, "How?" How are they going to get to this new Earth?
“By plane, of course!” Eve said.
“A UFO!" Eve 2 clarified. "Some sort of UFO!”
They've been burned for talking about these UFOs before. In May of 2015, the members of Eden sent a letter to President Joko Widodo asking for his permission to allow a UFO to land on the grounds of the National Monument (Monas) in the middle of the city. The letter was sent by Lia Eden herself, and it was contained in a blue box with six other envelopes and a few DVDs.
In her letter, Lia Eden told the president that the Archangel Gabriel was on his way to pick them all up before the apocalypse struck. All they needed was his permission to allow the spacecraft to land.
The president never responded and the UFO never arrived.
“We knew it was a test from God,” Eve 2 told me. “We were utterly humiliated by God in front of everyone. But we’re stronger now. After the Monas incident, God sent down so many amazing revelations and new knowledge to us, including what God looks like and how the Earth works. Those came to us after the Monas incident.”
The women told me to check out their website to learn more about these revelations. They include new discoveries about how God is a massive ball (detailed in, "God’s Shape is Spherical as The Most Enormous Ball") and how, despite what NASA and the ESA says, the universe totally isn't a cube (detailed in "THE HOLY SPIRIT’S LETTER Addressed to NASA and ESA Related to the Hypothesis of the Universe in a Cube by Some Scientists.")
But it's their discoveries about doomsday that are the most important. The signs are everywhere: methane gas being released by melting glaciers, the Lapindo mud disaster, and, of course, the looming threat of nuclear war.
“That’s what we’re trying to avoid,” Eve 2 told me. “The purification program is supposed to help us avoid nuclear war.”
It's religion, specifically Abrahamic religions, that are to blame for humanity's inevitable end, they explained.
“Religion is used for personal pride, for power,” Eve 2 said. “So God will erase them. In Eden, the most important thing is absolute monotheism. If you believe entirely in God, there won't be any more institutionalized religion. Only the concept of divinity will remain.”
It's this, Eden's outspoken criticism of religion, that attracted researcher Al Makin to study the group. He eventually wrote a book about his time with Eden titled, Challenging Islamic Orthodoxy: Accounts of Lia Eden and Other Prophets in Indonesia, where he argued that Eden was a New Religious Movement (NRM), not a cult.
Al Makin tracked the emergence of groups like Eden at the turn of the new millennium as a response to the political turmoil of the time and beliefs that we were entering the end times—because 99 is the final number, and 00 is an end, or a new beginning, depending who you ask.
He discovered that as many as 1,300 NRMs had taken root in Indonesia since the country declared its independence in 1945. Most of them were concerned with syncretism, the blending religions, cultures, and schools of thought. But Eden was alone in offering a clearly articulated criticism of organized religion. The members of Eden had actually read all of the holy texts of the Abrahamic religions, studying them and using scriptures and verses in an attempt to bolster their own beliefs, Al Makin told me.
“Eden was the only one who dared to lay out their criticism in court,” he said. “Lia Eden was incarcerated twice, and both times she argued that criticizing Islam was our a tradition as a society. She said that we shouldn’t be narrow-minded and think of Islam as only as a theological power. I liked that idea. Right now, it’s difficult to criticize Islam. You can only do this in Indonesia. It’s impossible to do it in Saudi Arabia, let alone in a place like Afghanistan.”
Eden was unapologetic in their criticism of fundamentalist Islam and conservative strains of Christianity, he explained. It's a rare to find this kind of open criticism of religion anywhere else in Indonesia.
"We need to be critical of the government, since they rely so much on theology," Al Makin said. "Indonesian Muslims are still very theological, very sensitive. And the worst thing is, our politicians take advantage of it”
But, despite his positive views on the group, Eden itself was pretty upset with Al Makin's book. They released a 101 page response to this book, calling his research "misguided," and dismissing his findings outright as irrelevant or based on ideas Eden had since abandoned.
Today, the group is far too closed to allow someone like Al Makin back in. They stopped recruiting new members and seem to focus their energies on their website and YouTube channel.
Soon, our interview was done. Once we covered the basics of how the world was going to end, the women were no longer interested in talking to me about Lia Eden or her other beliefs.
So I left. But our conversation got me thinking about what the group stands for. Behind all the talk of UFOs, black holes, and the end of time, Eden is preaching about a future that's free of some of the prejudices we all face today. Sure it's not perfect, but I found myself liking their version of heaven the more I thought about it. Most religions talk about heaven as a place of endless pleasure, a paradise in the afterlife reserved for only the most holy of us.
But, to Eden, heaven isn't a paradise. It's a chance to start anew, to try to build a new world in their own vision. And the 20 or so remaining followers really seem to believe this, regardless of whether it costs them friends, family, or their freedom.
On my way out the door, I walked past a photograph of Lia Eden standing in what appeared to be a prison cell. The words beneath it read, "I was imprisoned for one reason, promoting the peaceful freedom of religion."
This article originally appeared on VICE ID.