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Written for possible inclusion in The Baha'i Encyclopedia. Posted with permission of both the author and of the editor of the Encyclopedia project. Mirrored with permission from rsmd.net/research/heaven.

Heaven

by Robert Stockman

1995
    Heaven and Hell. Concepts of the afterlife found in most of the major religious traditions, heaven generally symbolizes an abode of bliss or a place of union with God, while hell symbolizes a place dominated by Satan or evil forces or a place far from God. In Judaism before the exile God was seen as residing in heaven; below the earth was she’ol, the realm of the dead, which was poorly defined. Zoroastrianism envisioned a celestial realm filled with light and occupied by Ahuramazda, and a realm of darkness and evil dominated by Ahriman. These ideas influenced Judaism in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C.E., when Jewish writers and thinkers lived under Persian rule; as a result Judaism acquired a belief in heaven and hell and the idea of Satan (from Ahriman).

         Traditional Christian and Islamic ideas developed from Jewish notions. From popular Jewish and Greek notions, medieval Catholicism developed the idea of an intermediate stage, purgatory, where souls were punished for and purged of their sins and prepared for heaven; only the unrepentant were destined for hell. Islam views heaven as the reward of the true believer and hell as the destination of the infidel, though some will be released from hell after a period of suffering.

         Early Hinduism gradually developed a concept of heaven as an abode where one enjoyed the pleasures of life but not the pains; a realm where one lived with, and like, the gods. The idea of hell as a shadowy, evil place, developed more gradually. With the rise of the idea of rebirth ("reincarnation") because of the accumulation of good or bad karma (actions), heaven and hell came to be seen by some Hindus as states into which one could occasionally be reborn, but the achievement of moksa (liberation) became the ultimate goal instead. Other Hindus spoke of a state of nirvana ("extinction"; bliss) and defined it variously as union with Ultimate Reality or unqualified communion with God. Buddhism developed out of later Hinduism and preserved the Hindu ideas of heavens, hells, karma, and rebirth, but redefined nirvana and viewed it as the ultimate goal. Some Buddhist sects, however, located the future Buddha in a level of heaven, the "Pure Land," and stated that faith in him could result in rebirth in the "Pure Land."

         The Bahá’í Faith rejects the idea of heaven and hell as actual places. It views afterlife as involving progress through a series of spiritual realms, termed the Abhá ("Most Glorious") Kingdom. Depictions of the Abhá Kingdom are metaphorical, not literal, because the next life is a mystery that can not be adequately described. In the next world human beings remain in the human station–they can not progress to the station of, for example, a Manifestation of God–but in the human station they progress infinitely. The Abhá Kingdom possesses a spiritual hierarchy of stations, as the following passage from the Long Obligatory Prayer suggests: "I testify unto that whereunto have testified all created things, and the Concourse on High, and the inmates of the all-highest Paradise, and beyond them the Tongue of Grandeur itself from the all-glorious horizon. . ." (Bahá’í Prayers, 2d United States edition, 13). Bahá’u'lláh mentions a similar set of levels to the Abhá Kingdom in His mystical work, The Seven Valleys: "Others have called these the worlds of the Heavenly Court (Láhút), of the Empyrean Heaven (Jabarút), of the Kingdom of Angels (Malakút), and of the mortal world (Násút)" (The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys, 25). Here Bahá’u'lláh is quoting Súfí ideas.

         The Bahá’í Faith usually defines the concepts of heaven and hell as "restricted to this world" (`Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, 282) and "conditions within our own beings" (Shoghi Effendi, High Endeavors, 48). In other words, heaven and hell represent the state of the soul in its progress toward, or remoteness from, God, and its degree of obedience to divine law.

         The Bahá’í scriptures also use heaven and hell as symbols and literary devices; these uses constitute the great majority of occasions where the words "heaven" and "hell" appear in the writings of the Báb, Bahá’u'lláh, `Abdu’l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi. Bahá’u'lláh notes that "in every instance, He hath given the term `heaven’ a special meaning" (Kitáb-i-Íqán, 68). Among the common uses are the following:

         1. A literary device of contrast. This involves contrasting the word "heaven" with one of its opposites, such as: "make mention of Me on My earth, that in my heaven I may remember thee" (Bahá’u'lláh, Hidden Words, Arabic no. 43); "Creator of earth and heaven" (Bahá’u'lláh, Proclamation of Bahá’u'lláh, 58); "satanic conduct can not be turned into heavenly behavior" (`Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablets of Abdul-Baha Abbas, 39); "all the keys of heaven God hath chosen to place on My right hand, and all the keys to hell on My left" (the Báb, quoted in Promised Day is Come, 43).

         2. A symbol denoting the "loftiness and exaltation" of something (Bahá’u'lláh, Kitáb-i-Íqán, 66): hence "the heaven of the religion of God" (Bahá’u'lláh, Kitáb-i-Íqán, 40); "enter the heaven of communion with Me" (Bahá’u'lláh, Hidden Words, Persian no. 8); "he. . . hasteneth to the heaven of inner significance" (Bahá’u'lláh, The Seven Valleys, 12); "the foundations of idle fancies have trembled, and the heaven of vain imaginings hath been cleft asunder" (Bahá’u'lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u'lláh, 119); "the heaven of statesmanship is made luminous and resplendent by the brightness of the light of these blessed words" (Bahá’u'lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u'lláh, 166).

         3. As part of a term referring to the Manifestation of God: "Birds of Heaven" (Bahá’u'lláh, Kitáb-i-Íqán, 211, 254; Tablets of Bahá’u'lláh, 261); the "melody of the dove of heaven" (Bahá’u'lláh, Hidden Words, Persian no. 8); ". . . that they may recognize Him Who is the Day-Star of Thy Revelation, the Dawning-Place of Thy signs, the heaven of Thy manifestation" (Bahá’u'lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u'lláh, 114).

         4. As part of a symbol of revelation or the source of revelation. The term "Maid of Heaven" is the most common example of this usage (Bahá’u'lláh, Gleanings, 91; Tablets of Bahá’u'lláh, 251). "Heaven of divine Revelation" also occurs (Bahá’u'lláh, Kitáb-i-Íqán, 44).

         5. As a symbol or part of a term referring to God: "neither [man nor woman] is superior to the other in the eyes of heaven" (`Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, 162); "raise your suppliant hands to the heaven of the one God" (`Abdu’l-Bahá, Secret of Divine Civilization, 2).

         6. Rarely, as a metaphor for the Abhá Kingdom: ". . . the Supreme Concourse, the angels of heaven and the dwellers of the Kingdom of El-Abhá" (`Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablets of Abdul-Baha Abbas, 527).

         7. Occasionally the term is used literally: "we are waves of one sea, grass of the same meadow, stars in the same heaven" (`Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, 174); "the heaven which doth not exist at all, for it is but space" (`Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of `Abdu’l-Bahá, 168).

         The term hell is used much more rarely in the Bahá’í scriptures than the term "heaven," and possesses a similar range of symbolic meanings. Use of "hell" as a contrast to the term "heaven" or some other positive idea is most common; for example "they hasten forward to hell fire, and mistake it for light" (Bahá’u'lláh, Gleanings, 42). Just as "heaven" is occasionally used to symbolize the Abhá Kingdom, "hell" is occasionally used as a symbol for this world: "In truth, [upon death] from hell it [the soul] reaches a paradise of delights" (`Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’í World Faith, 327). "Hell" is also used to symbolize evil: "shun the manifestations of the people of hell" (`Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’í World Faith, 431).

         Bibliography. An excellent article on "heaven and hell" can be found in Mircea Eliade, Encyclopedia of Religion (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1987). James Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1911) has an excellent and lengthy article on "Cosmogony and Cosmology." Both of these articles were used as the source of information on the religions other than the Bahá’í Faith.

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