The Afterlife: Life’s Inscrutable Afterlife
Editor’s Note: SpokaneFāVS is publishing a series of columns on the subject of life after death. This long fascination with the afterlife crosses centuries, cultures, geography, religions, philosophy and science. What does life after death mean? Is it a subjective existence, a continuation of our consciousness or personhood as we knew it on earth? Is it a bodily existence, or a disembodied/spiritual existence? Who or what decides the character of the afterlife ? Is it possible to believe in God and deny life after death? If there is no afterlife, does that mean religion has lost its purpose? Does it mean our lives on earth are meaningless? These and other questions will be addressed over the next few weeks.
By Pete Haug
We can’t contemplate an afterlife without wondering whose life we’re contemplating. Physical bodies decompose quickly after death, so what’s left to live a life after life?
Enter the soul, rational and immortal. Most religions associate an afterlife with the existence of God, an entity outside time and space as we understand them. In Baha’i scripture, God is an “Unknowable Essence.” The soul is another entity that defies description. During our physical existence, the soul is the link between the material body and God.
The nature of the soul
Baha’u’llah writes, “The nature of the soul after death can never be described, nor is it meet and permissible to reveal its whole character to the eyes of men.” He explains that “the soul, after its separation from the body, will continue to progress until it attaineth the presence of God, in a state and condition which neither the revolution of ages and centuries, nor the changes and chances of this world, can alter.”
That soul “will endure as long as the Kingdom of God, His sovereignty, His dominion and power will endure.” Further, it “will manifest the signs of God and His attributes, and will reveal His loving kindness and bounty.”
Heaven, a condition rather than place
Some religions consider Heaven a place, somewhere beyond description. Baha’is believe one’s soul begins an eternal spiritual journey at conception. After death, a soul continues its eternal journey on a timeless, placeless continuum along which all souls progress towards God.
A soul’s place on that continuum is determined by how well that soul nurtured its spiritual capacities during its earthly life. If spiritual capacities are well developed, that soul will be “nearer” to God than one which failed to develop and nurture such capacities.
Consider the development of the embryonic child. In the womb, the embryo develops organs necessary to live an earthly existence. It knows nothing of the outside world it’s destined to enter. Similarly, we humans can understand little about an afterlife that exists outside of time and space.
Living in the material world, the rational soul chooses how its mind and body will behave. How closely those choices accord with God’s teachings determines where on the continuum that soul will continue its eternal journey after death. Another unknown is God’s infinite mercy, for which we pray. We can never know in this life how much forgiveness we will be granted by a loving Creator.
The afterlife brings consequences that include rewards and punishments. Most religions urge their believers to follow their faith’s religious teachings. Baha’u’llah enjoins us to monitor our own behavior:
“Set before thine eyes God’s unerring Balance and, as one standing in His Presence, weigh in that Balance thine actions every day, every moment of thy life.” He continues, “Bring thyself to account ere thou art summoned to a reckoning, on the Day when no man shall have strength to stand for fear of God, the Day when the hearts of the heedless ones shall be made to tremble.”
If, at the hour of death, a soul is “sanctified from the vain imaginings of the peoples of the world,” it “liveth and moveth in accordance with the Will of its Creator, and entereth the all-highest Paradise,” which, Baha’u’llah states, “signifieth first and foremost the good-pleasure of God.” The “loftiness and glory of so exalted a station” is beyond description.
But what about Hell?
“The world is established on foundations of reward and punishment,” Baha’u’llah explains. “Knowledge and understanding have ever affirmed and will continue to affirm the reality of Paradise and Hell, for reward and punishment require their existence.”
He warns that souls of infidels shall, “when breathing their last be made aware of the good things that have escaped them, and shall bemoan their plight, and shall humble themselves before God. They shall continue doing so after the separation of their souls from their bodies.” Following physical death, they shall “estimate the worth of their deeds, and realize all that their hands have wrought.”
In contrast, “They that are the followers of the one true God shall, the moment they depart out of this life, experience such joy and gladness as would be impossible to describe, while they that live in error shall be seized with such fear and trembling, and shall be filled with such consternation, as nothing can exceed.”
The good afterlife
The afterlife is something to anticipate positively. Because we can’t fully understand forces that shape us from infancy, we can’t judge ourselves. But we can try to bring our lives into accordance with God’s Will, knowing we’ll never succeed. That’s where we rely on God’s mercy.
Pete plunged into journalism fresh out of college, putting his English literature degree to use for five years. He started in industrial and academic public relations, edited a rural weekly and reported for a metropolitan daily, abandoning all for graduate school. He finished with an M.S. in wildlife biology and a Ph.D. in systems ecology. After teaching college briefly, he analyzed environmental impacts for federal, state, Native American and private agencies over a couple of decades. His last hurrah was an 11-year gig teaching English in China. After retiring in 2007, he began learning about climate change and fake news, giving talks about both. He started writing columns for the Moscow-Pullman Daily News and continues to do so. He first published for SpokaneFaVS.com in 2020. Pete’s columns alternate weekly between FāVS and the Daily News. His live-in editor, Jolie, infinitely patient wife for 61 years, scrutinizes all columns with her watchful draconian eye. Both have been Baha’is since the 1960s. Pete’s columns on the Baha’i Faith represent his own understanding and not any official position.