In this series of essays, taken from my book Understanding Death, we look into the deep well of the Baha’i teachings for wisdom, understanding and knowledge.
The reason we will often consult the Baha’i texts and teachings regarding life in relation to death, and life in relation to the afterlife is in large part because I am a member of the Baha’i Faith. I have been since 1959, my sophomore year at Vanderbilt when I converted from the Methodist Church after studying the Baha’i religion rather intensely for three years.
But please don’t worry about my trying to convert you or convince you I am right or that the Baha’i Faith is the single valid source of salvation or consolation about being mortal. I intend to examine various opinions, beliefs, and theories about death and the afterlife, but it is only fair that I offer full disclosure that I approach this subject already convinced that there is an afterlife, that our conscious self continues to exist after our bodies malfunction, and that this afterlife experience will be tailored to our individual situations, since no two of us has had the exact same experience or has responded to our experiences in exactly the same way.
However, you may be assured that though I approach this subject as a person of faith and with a particular perspective derived from the tenets of the Baha’i system of beliefs, I am no less affected by the process of aging and possibly no less intrigued by and apprehensive about approaching that point of transition and the subsequent change I will undergo than is anyone else.
In short, while I am comforted and sustained by my beliefs, I am still in need of this discussion, even as I suspect most people are. Indeed, I am constantly amazed by the depth of logic set forth in the Baha’i writings about the reality of human existence. But I am no less curious by the prospect of what will happen to me when I my body no longer exists, though I have to confess I am less concerned than I might have been when it was unwrinkled, taut, and mildly attractive.
Perhaps I am not supposed to admit this concern. The writings of my own Faith assert unambiguously that any exact knowledge about the process of the continuation of our lives is purposefully withheld from us so that we can go about fulfilling the earthly phase of our existence. The Baha’i writings imply, even while assuring us that death is “a messenger of joy” and a point of release from the constraints of physical limitations, that this bewilderment, awe, and wonder is likewise purposeful, that the details about the afterlife are veiled from our exact knowledge for a very specific reason:
If any man be told that which hath been ordained for such a soul in the worlds of God, the Lord of the throne on high and of earth below, his whole being will instantly blaze out in his great longing to attain that most exalted, that sanctified and resplendent station. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 156.
In short, one reason we are not told by the prophets or manifestations of God more exact information about the afterlife is that we would not be able to restrain ourselves from “crossing over”—a euphemism for suicide. In this same passage, yet another reason for this veiling of the afterlife is implied—we need to focus on preparing ourselves for that next stage of existence by willfully developing those spiritual faculties and capacities that we will require if we are to navigate in a metaphysical environment:
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. The Prophets and Messengers of God have been sent down for the sole purpose of guiding mankind to the straight Path of Truth. The purpose underlying Their revelation hath been to educate all men, that they may, at the hour of death, ascend, in the utmost purity and sanctity and with absolute detachment, to the throne of the Most High. – Ibid., p. 156.
Notice that in this same statement, Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, has implied another obvious but worthy observation regarding our inability to learn what comes next: we have no context for understanding an environment that has no physical properties, no frame of reference for comprehension.
We would have the same problem trying to explain to a child in the womb the properties of this world, were we able to converse with the unborn child: “You’ll really like it here. There are trees, bicycles, and furry animals.” Then we have to try to describe such objects to someone who has no context for comprehending dimension, color, or any other attributes we would have to employ in conveying the properties of physical reality to a being that as yet has no adequate conscious sensual perception.
But as soon as the child is born into this new reality, all the senses, arms, legs, opposable thumbs and other tools it has been slowly developing suddenly enable it to learn firsthand the benefits of all that was occurring in the uterine world. All those reasons for its development that we could never have explained before are now readily apparent without explanation.
Next: We’re All Gonna Die!