Religions are often perceived as a means to answer questions about what happens after we die. Will it be absolute non-existence after our body’s last breath? Is there life after death at all? And if there is, will we remember our life on this earth? Do we really go to heaven or hell?
Shoghi Effendi states:
Evolution in the life of the individual starts with the formation of the human embryo and passes through various stages, and even continues after death in another form.1
In order to understand better the concept of life after death and what could be meant by “another form”, it can be helpful to start by looking at the reality of the human soul.
The soul has its origin in the spiritual worlds of God. It is exalted above matter and the physical world. The individual has his beginning when the soul associates itself with the embryo at the time of conception … The soul does not belong to the material world, and its association with the body is similar to that of a light with a mirror which reflects it. The light which appears in the mirror is not inside it; it comes from an external source … there is a special relationship between it and the body, and together they form a human being.2
Baha’u’llah tells us:
Verily I say, the human soul is, in its essence, one of the signs of God, a mystery among His mysteries.3
To be a “sign of God” can thus mean that the soul is a reflection of the attributes of God and therefore is an expression of His existence. Therefore, the attributes of our soul, such as love, patience, and forgiveness constitute signs of God.
In considering the existence of the soul, we begin to realise that life cannot be seen only as the changes and chances we experience as we go through on this material plane. We understand that this world is only one of many and that the soul is the form through which life continues after our material body perishes.
And now concerning thy question regarding the soul of man and its survival after death. Know thou of a truth that the soul, after its separation from the body, will continue to progress until it attaineth the presence of God…4
A relevant point from this last quote is the idea that the soul will always continue to move towards its Creator. We can then think of life as climbing a mountain. Each step up the path helps us develop our muscles, while simultaneously bringing us a step closer to the top. The very act of expressing an attribute of God, being like Him, brings us closer to Him.
…we learn that nearness to God is possible through devotion to Him, through entrance into the Kingdom and service to humanity; it is attained by unity with mankind and through loving-kindness to all; it is dependent upon investigation of truth, acquisition of praiseworthy virtues, service in the cause of universal peace and personal sanctification. In a word, nearness to God necessitates sacrifice of self, severance and the giving up of all to Him. Nearness is likeness.5
The idea of movement towards God is important to understand as it conveys the Baha’i view with regards to two concepts widely associated with the afterlife – ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’. These are not seen as actual physical spaces people go to, but, considering that the purpose of life is to come closer to God, and to come closer means to be aligning ourselves more with godly attributes, heaven is the state in which a human being has developed its perfections and is then near to God. And hell is the state lacking those divine potentials, thus resulting in remoteness from God. Therefore, when we question, where is Paradise, and where is Hell? The answer may simply be:
The one is reunion with Me; the other thine own self…6
The difference and distinction will naturally become realized between all men after their departure from this mortal world. But this (distinction) is not in respect to place, but it is in respect to the soul and conscience. For the Kingdom of God is sanctified (or free) from time and place; it is another world and another universe.7
The rewards of the other world are peace, the spiritual graces, the various spiritual gifts in the Kingdom of God, the gaining of the desires of the heart and the soul, and the meeting of God in the world of eternity. In the same way the punishments of the other world, that is to say, the torments of the other world, consist in being deprived of the special divine blessings and the absolute bounties, and falling into the lowest degrees of existence.8
I find it helpful to relate things to what I know and as I have played basketball for over seven years, I use it as another analogy. When I have a game coming up, I will always be sure to have a long warm-up. In that warm-up, I will shoot some balls at the basket, run in the court and stretch my muscles. Although the warm-up doesn’t count as part of the game – as the number of baskets I make before the game starts doesn’t count – it is nonetheless an essential preparation for the game. If not done properly, I could enter the game unfocused, or worse, get injured. I only have one chance to warm-up before the game.
Similarly, as the purpose of the warm-up is in the game that follows, and the purpose of the life of an embryo in the world of matrix is to develop the needed organs for life in this material world, the purpose of our life in this world is to develop the spiritual capacities that we will require in the next.
We come on to this planet once only. Our life here is like the baby in the womb of its mother, which develops in that state what is necessary for its entire life after it is born. The same is true of us. Spiritually we must develop here what we will require for the life after death. In that future life, God, through His Mercy, can help us to evolve characteristics which we neglected to develop while we were on this earthly plane.9
Death is then a change of condition in this process of the soul’s movement towards God. It starts while man is in the embryonic form, carries on through our material life, and continues after our body’s death.
To consider that after the death of the body the spirit perishes, is like imagining that a bird in a cage will be destroyed if the cage is broken, though the bird has nothing to fear from the destruction of the cage. Our body is like the cage, and the spirit is like the bird … if the cage becomes broken, the bird will continue and exist: its feelings will be even more powerful, its perceptions greater, and its happiness increased.10
And as we continue this journey, the experiences and the life we have in this earthly plane are not forgotten:
As to the question whether the souls will recognize each other in the spiritual world: This (fact) is certain; for the Kingdom is the world of vision (i. e., things are visible in it), where all concealed realities will become disclosed … Likewise will they find all the friends of God, both those of the former and recent times, present in the heavenly assemblage … Likewise, a love that one may have entertained for any one will not be forgotten in the world of the Kingdom. Likewise, thou wilt not forget (there) the life that thou hast had in the material world.11
In exploring the nature of our souls, it is perhaps essential to remember that our understanding of this ‘mystery’ will always fall short:
The mysteries of man’s physical death and of his return have not been divulged, and still remain unread.12
Thou hast asked Me concerning the nature of the soul. Know, verily, that the soul is a sign of God, a heavenly gem whose reality the most learned of men hath failed to grasp, and whose mystery no mind, however acute, can ever hope to unravel.13
- Shoghi Effendi in a letter to an individual believer, November 26, 1939 in Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 536 [↩]
- Section 1, Unit 3, Reflections on the Life of the Spirit – Ruhi Institute [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 160 [↩]
- Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah LXXXI, pp. 155-56 [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 148 [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 132 [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v1, p. 205 [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith – Abdu’l-Baha Section, p. 324 [↩]
- From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, April 22, 1954 in Lights of Guidance, p. 537 [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith – Abdu’l-Baha Section, p. 326 [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v1, p. 205 [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 345 [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 158 [↩]