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Heaven, Hell, and the Hereafter in the Bahá’í Faith

Representation of the gateway to the hereafter

Representation of the gateway to the hereafter

Two Contrasting Views on Life After Death

The Eastern religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism subscribe to the doctrine of reincarnation—the belief that all human souls are predestined to recurrent and unending cycles of birth, life, death, and rebirth. This is in contrast to the Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the Bahá’í Faith—which generally believe man has only one chance on earth, with no hope of return after physical death.

Bahá’ís maintain reincarnation is not possible because the spiritual worlds are infinite in their range, and disembodied souls progress towards perfection by migrating from their respective habitations to worlds higher up. Thus, there is no need for souls to reincarnate (or return repeatedly to earth) to gain perfection.

The Promised Messianic Return

For Bahá’ís, movement (or migration) in the hereafter is in one direction only. A return to earth for a disembodied soul will constitute a backward movement, which is against divine law.

From a biblical perspective, that is why Elijah did not return to earth in the flesh (as anticipated in Malachi 4:5 of the Old Testament Bible) but appeared symbolically in the person of John the Baptist, a different personality (see Matthew 17:10-13; cf. John 1:21). And that is why those expecting the self-same Jesus of Nazareth to return to earth will be disappointed.

The Christian faithful might need to ponder over the allusions to a “new name” in Revelation 2:17 and 3:12. The implication of those two verses is that the Holy One who comes will not be called Jesus Christ. Even so, there is no contradiction with the promise of a return of Jesus because it is the same Holy Spirit that returns with the coming of each Emissary from God.

The Bahá’í Concept of Life After Death

While Bahá’í teachings on life after death are similar, in many respects, to those held by the other Abrahamic faiths, there are also significant differences.

A common belief amongst all Abrahamic faiths is that a spiritual realm exists beyond this earthly plane. A belief in the existence of heaven and hell is also commonly held by these faiths. The Bahá’í version, though, is more elaborate. It discounts any notion that the places of existence for the human soul are limited only to the three realms of earth, heaven, and hell (or four if the doctrine of purgatory, subscribed to by some Christian denominations, is included).

For Bahá’ís, the afterlife realm is neither two worlds—heaven and hell—nor three—heaven, purgatory, and hell—but an infinite number of spiritual worlds. Each soul settles into that celestial realm that best aligns with his level of spiritual attainment while on earth—the more developed souls inhabiting worlds closer to the world of God and the least developed being furthest away.

Students of the Gospel might recall the expressive words of Jesus, in John 14:2, that “In my Father’s house are many mansions….” By “many mansions,” he meant “many realms of existence,” according to Bahá’í interpretation. The Qur’an also says something similar. Qur’an 39:20 refers to the heavenly realm as “lofty mansions, one above another,” and Bahá’ís interpret it as meaning the same thing.

Each soul inhabits the heavenly realm that aligns with his level of spiritual attainment while on earth.

Each soul inhabits the heavenly realm that aligns with his level of spiritual attainment while on earth.

Those souls nearer to the world of God receive an ampler share of the divine bounty emanating from His Throne and are bathed in all goodness. This is what is referred to as heaven—because it is an extremely blissful existence, filled with love, light, life, warmth, beauty, harmony, serenity, perfection, power, knowledge, and many other sublime attributes.

Inversely, those farthest away from the world of God find themselves in a relatively cold, dark, lifeless, hellish zone, in a condition of spiritual loss, agony, regret, and remorse for wasted opportunities on earth. This is what is referred to as hell. Hence, hell is not a material lake of fire where the sinful are tortured for all eternity. Such a literal and over-simplified interpretation of scripture does not take account of God’s transcendental nature as All-Loving, All-Merciful, and Ever-Forgiving. The Christian Bible summarises His nature in three simple words: “God is love” (Cf. I John 4:8, 16).

God is All-Loving, All-Merciful, and Ever-Forgiving.

God is All-Loving, All-Merciful, and Ever-Forgiving.

Lessons From Near-Death Experiences

A lot of research is currently being carried out by scientists, in Western research institutions and universities, to better understand the nature of the afterlife realm using the near-death experiences of people who have been resuscitated after clinical death. From the research, some findings seem to have emerged that are not contradictory to Bahá’í perspectives on the subject. We look at three of those:

  • First is that the afterlife realm is not a place of fire, suffering, and everlasting torment for lost souls, as often depicted by some religions, but rather generally of overwhelming love. People return with tales of pervasive love.
  • The second is that the spirituality we cultivate here is of far more critical importance in the hereafter than outward religious observances. This makes a lot of sense given that spirituality is about the inner transformation of a soul while religion is merely a vehicle to that end. The true aim of religion, after all, is the spiritual transformation of individuals and societies.
  • And third is that small acts of kindness done in this life are often seen in the afterlife realm as of far greater spiritual value than some of the supposedly grand accomplishments that people pride themselves on here.
Spirituality is more impactful in the hereafter than outward religious observances

Spirituality is more impactful in the hereafter than outward religious observances

The Heaven and Hell of the Bible

It must be pointed out that not all allusions to heaven and hell in the New Testament Bible are necessarily referring to the same thing. A close examination of all the gospel texts will show that the references can be divided into two separate themes. One is about the condition of a soul in the hereafter after its separation from the body. The heaven and hell discussed so far in this article belong to this category. So, the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31) will fall very clearly in this category.

The other allusions to heaven and hell centre around the circumstances of the Second Coming of Jesus. This is when, according to Christian eschatology, the dead souls will rise from their graves to join the living for judgment. Then, after the judgment, the righteous will be shepherded into heaven, while the unrighteous are despatched into hellish fire.

To Bahá’ís, though, this second scenario is not about the heaven and hell of the hereafter but about events in this mortal life. Resurrection, judgment, heaven, and hell, in this case, are metaphors conveying deeper truths about the unfoldment of the Second Coming.

Representation of life beyond death: A newly departed soul on the way "home".

Representation of life beyond death: A newly departed soul on the way "home".

Bahá’í Viewpoint on Some End-Time Events

It cannot be emphasised enough that many of the teachings in the holy books of the past are in the form of symbols, parables, allegories, metaphors, similes, and simple (but otherwise vivid) illustrations to make it easy for people of ancient times to grasp profound concepts more easily.

Here follow the Bahá’í perspectives on the expectations of the last day. (In the discussions, by such terms as “promised Redeemer” or “promised Christ” is meant the Christ of the Second Coming).

1. The Resurrection of the Dead

The resurrection of the last day is not a literal rising of long-dead people from their graves. That will be inconsistent with the divine order, contrary to the natural order and to the laws of science. A physical resurrection of the dead would have had more far-reaching consequences for the established order than reincarnation. And just as reincarnation is not possible, so can bodily resurrection not be possible.

The appearance of the promised Redeemer brings about a spiritual reawakening for those individuals who recognise his appearance and respond positively to his call. Over time, perhaps centuries down the line, a general reawakening takes place when society at large turns in overwhelming numbers to his cause. These two related situations constitute the resurrection of the last day promised in the holy books of the past.

2. The Judgment of the Last Day

The judgment can also not be about people standing in a queue to be judged one after the other for their past deeds. This is a very human depiction of what judgment entails. God does not operate according to human methods and standards, and His judgment is beyond human comprehension. No, the judgment of the last day is about the choices each person makes when the call of the promised Christ reaches his ears. Does he investigate and accept the message, or does he ignore it and turn away? Each soul has to make a determination for himself.

This situation is vividly illustrated in the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). In the parable, the determination as to whether to be or not to be with the bridegroom (representing the promised Christ) was down to the preparations and actions or inactions of the virgins themselves. And that was the judgment. That was how the two groups of virgins were separated—one group easily connecting with the bridegroom, the other failing to gain access to the marriage hall of his presence.

Symbols of earthly judgment

Symbols of earthly judgment

3. Heaven After the Judgment

Those who respond positively to the call of the promised Christ earn a blissful outcome, which is what is referred to as heaven. In this case, heaven is recognition and acceptance of Christ, the God-sent Messenger, because that comes with access to a new divine revelation. Access to the new divine revelation, the new Word of God, is, for believers, a source of blessings, deeper insights, spiritual growth, and inner transformation. Ultimately, it fosters the elevation of masses of worshippers to new spiritual heights.

True seekers recognise the sun of a new divine revelation when it dawns on the horizon of the world.

True seekers recognise the sun of a new divine revelation when it dawns on the horizon of the world.

4. Rapture of the Saints

And by the way, this elevation of worshippers to new spiritual heights is what some Christians have characterised as “the rapture.” The rapture cannot be a physical rising of believers to the skies above. That will be scientifically impossible. The rapture must be about the rapid spiritual growth of congregations of worshippers after their recognition of and engagement with the promised Christ.

5. Hell After the Judgment

Correspondingly, those who respond negatively to the call of the promised Christ, or fail to respond at all, earn themselves a miserable outcome—and this is what is referred to as hell. So, at the expected Advent, hell is the reserve of those who reject and fail to engage with the promised Christ. It is hell not to engage with Christ because that leaves one deprived of access to the new Word of God that he brings. The unenviable option that remains for such deniers of the Christ is recourse to the same old erroneous and discredited interpretations of past scriptures.

The hell associated with the messianic Advent has nothing to do with burning in a material fire.

The hell associated with the messianic Advent has nothing to do with burning in a material fire.

The Separation of Men and Souls

A staunch believer of any of the older religions, not knowing who Bahá’u’lláh truly is, might struggle to accept the Bahá’í way of interpreting scripture. Yet, should he reflect dispassionately on the explanations given, he would see how everything falls into place and makes spiritual and practical sense.

To summarise, in the hereafter, souls are separated and dispersed into countless heavenly realms and hellish zones according to their spiritual attainments on earth. However, for those still living on the earth plane in the last day, a different kind of separation takes place. This separation, the outcome of an invisible judgment, seamlessly divides the whole of humanity into two camps. In one camp are to be found the believers (or elect) of the promised Christ; in the other, the faithless deniers of his cause and of the new spiritual order.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Kobina Amissah-Fynn