Death and Dying in the Bahá'í Faith
by Moshe Sharonpublished in Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, pages 55-56
[ excerpt; download the full original at www.hum.huji.ac.il ]
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The intermediary world of spiritual reality is often defined as the world of “Command” namely the abode of the creative Divine Word commanding creation; and since all God’s attributes are one and the same, it can be described as the Abhā Kingdom, the kingdom of the most Glorious Name. This is the abode of the souls after death where they meet each other, and enjoy the presence of the Manifestations of God.
By portraying three layers of existence: the concealed secret of the Divine Oneness; the realm of the Abhā kingdom or the intermediary world of spiritual reality; and the world of physical realty (“the world of possibility”) the subject of death and dying could easily fit into a reasonable pattern and be treated from various aspects. The idea that this world is only the preparation for the world to come is an idea common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The reward and punishment awaiting the person after death is the outcome of his behaviour in his earthly life, and each of the former religions found ways to describe the pleasures of reward and the pains of punishment or simply the joy of Paradise and the fire of Hell.
These notions are completely absent from the Bahá’í Faith that regards the whole idea of Heaven and Hell as allegorical rather than real. The physical is not a preparation for the spiritual existence. The existential theories of the Bahá’í faith regard human life as moving between the two poles of the physical and the spiritual, and the two worlds are not separate from each other, they are rather interwoven with each other. The only difference is that the world of physical existence has the dimension of temporality whereas the world of spiritual existence is eternal. Life in this world does not prepare for afterlife but since the spiritual world is not detached from the physical world activity in this world influences that which continues in the spiritual one. Death does not mean movement into another life, but continuation of this life. It is simply another category or stage of existence. The best that a person can do in this world, therefore, is to achieve spiritual growth, if this is achieved in this world it will continue in the Abhā Kingdom as well.
Death is regarded as the shedding away of the physical frame but no more, the real part of the person is the soul, which is indestructible. In this there is nothing new, but the Bahá’í thought added another dimension to this idea. The soul is the sum total of the personality it is the person himself; the physical body is pure matter with no real identity. The person, having left his material side behind, remains the same person, and he continues the life he conducted in the physical world. His heaven therefore is the continuation of the pure life that he conducted in the physical world, and his hell is the continuation of the immoral life, which he conducted on earth. The effort to come nearer to God in the physical world continues with coming near God in the heaven of the mystical paradise. Remoteness from God in the physical life means remoteness in the world to come. Or, in the words of Bahá’u’lláh, Heaven is reunion with the Manifestation of God in the Abhā Kingdom, and hell is remaining with oneself. Heaven and Hell exist everywhere in this world as well as in the world to come. The difference between the two is the difference between the state of perfection achieved leading to the nearness of God here and hereafter, and the state of imperfection, which is caused by the failure to attain to virtue and the falling away from God.
The challenge of life in this world continues in the world of spiritual reality as well, only that in the latter the meeting of this challenge is easier because the person is free from physical needs.
Although death causes distress and pain to the friends and relatives of the deceased in fact it should be regarded as nothing more than a stage of life. It comes suddenly like birth, and it is comparable to birth, because like birth it is an open door to a new and greater life. This attitude, so simply defined, is not unfamiliar to other religions. The attitude to death as a stage in life is known from primitive religions that regarded human life as a series of stages, each finishing with death and each beginning with birth. Death and birth follow each other in the movement from stage to stage and are symbolized by the well-known ceremonies of the “rites of passage.” In this way real physical death is also considered as a stage followed by birth into an invisible world but no less real.
It is clear that no logical explanation can soften the grief of death. Bahá’ulláh was very aware of this, and emphasized therefore its mysterious element. He said: “The Mysteries of man’s physical death and of his return have not been divulged, and still remain unread… Were they to be revealed, they would evoke such fear and sorrow that some would perish, while others would be so filled with gladness as to wish for death, and beseech, with unceasing longing, the one true God – exalted be His Glory – to hasten their end.” (Gleanings, 1978:344)
Bahá’u’lláh explains that since the mystery of death has such fateful effects, it better remains unrevealed, but he confides that far from being an occasion for grief, death is an opportunity for joy. For the soul is freed from the material form just like the bird is freed when the cage is broken. In his well known mystical work the Hidden Words he wrote “I have made death a messenger of Joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve?” Death brings the person, free from any hindrance, to a position where he can progress to having the divine light shining on him. “Death proffereth unto every confident believer the cup that is life indeed. It bestoweth joy, and is the bearer of gladness. It conferreth the gift of everlasting life”. (Ibid.) His separation from those whom he had left behind is very short because all meet in the Abhā World, or the Divine Kingdom. Since they remain the same persons but in the purified form of the souls they recognize each other and can continue their earthly interaction, only in pure and totally free conditions.
However Bahá’u’lláh was not oblivious to the major event of the separation between soul and body, which means the destruction of a perfect union. There is no question about the fact that death constitutes an act of great calamity for the body in this union, and these facts cannot be ignored. The psychological imbalance caused by death, in spite of all explanations, had to be treated because, as Bahá’u’lláh put it, the spiritual world of God is hidden from our eyes as the physical world is hidden from the eyes of the child in his mother’s womb. It is, therefore, very difficult for those who were left behind not to feel the suffering of the separation from their loved ones. The only consolation that can be offered to the bereaved is to convince them of the existence of the realm of spiritual realty, and of the categorical necessary reality of the spiritual world or the Divine Kingdom.
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[ end of excerpt; download the full original at www.hum.huji.ac.il ]