My terminally-ill Baha’i friend Leland said this story made him feel much better about his impending death. It might comfort you, too.
At a course I gave at LouHelen Baha’i school a while ago, the students and I were talking about several passages in the Baha’i writings that speak about the progress of the soul after this life. Specifically we were discussing the extent to which we will have sufficient free will after death to bring about positive change in our condition, should we die in a condition of “sinfulness” or despair or faltering faith.
One student in the course offered a scenario in which someone had lived a decent life, but at the last minute had lost faith and died in a state of fear and consternation. “What would God do with such a person?” the student asked. The question was a good one because Baha’u’llah remarks in one place about the possibility of some last-minute conversion or, alternatively, a last-minute loss of faith. This passage seems pointedly devised to inspire vigilance and constancy in pursuing one’s spiritual development:
He [the “true seeker”] should not wish for others that which he doth not wish for himself, nor promise that which he doth not fulfil. With all his heart should the seeker avoid fellowship with evil doers, and pray for the remission of their sins. He should forgive the sinful, and never despise his low estate, for none knoweth what his own end shall be. How often hath a sinner, at the hour of death, attained to the essence of faith, and, quaffing the immortal draught, hath taken his flight unto the celestial Concourse. And how often hath a devout believer, at the hour of his soul’s ascension, been so changed as to fall into the nethermost fire. – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, p. 194.
“That is a frightening consideration,” I remarked after we read the passage together; “the idea that we could work all our lives in the service of others and the promulgation of God’s teachings, and then suddenly lose our faith with our dying breath!”
I paused, considered what Socrates might do by way of some logical strategy for getting the student to end up articulating the answer to her own question the way the old Greek geek would inevitably do.
“Tell me,” I asked, “Are you afraid of God?”
“Aren’t we supposed to be?” She answered. And she quoted a passage from the writings of Baha’u’llah:
Fear ye God, and turn not away disdainfully from His Revelation. Fall prostrate on your faces before God, and celebrate His praise in the daytime and in the night season. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 38.
“And what is it about God that we are supposed to fear, do you suppose?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” she answered in perfect candor.
“Well, surely it’s not God’s love, or His mercy, or His forgiveness.”
“Of course not,” she laughed along with the rest of the class. “But I suppose that none of us knows if we have done sufficiently well to merit His . . .” and she paused. That was the big question—at what point does God stop being merciful and loving and forgiving, and become a strict judge who might deem us unworthy!
“Look,” I said, “we are given the impression in the Old Testament that God is a pretty rough character, like a tribal chieftain. Right? I mean He is jealous, vengeful, even at times capricious, or so it seems. He overreacts. He’ll smite down an entire tribe because of what we might consider some trivial transgression. I mean, turning a woman into a pillar of salt because she looked the wrong way, that does not sound like a God you want to decide your fate, am I right?”
“Exactly,” she responded. “That’s precisely what I mean.”
“I think I understand your concern,” I responded. “It sounds like a pretty reasonable apprehension. In other words, you would prefer to deal with God the Father, the loving Father that Jesus describes, rather than God the Jealous Lord of Creation.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, a bit puzzled.
“Well, Jesus talks about God as a loving Father who is about to sacrifice His only begotten Son to atone for all our sins. You’d rather be judged by that God, I guess. Because the God in the Qur’an also seems a lot like the God of Moses—he condemns infidels and talks about hell and retribution a lot more than Christ does.”
“Hold it!” Said a former Jew in the class. “What about the Psalms of David? In Psalm 23 God is portrayed as a loving shepherd who protects us, his sheep. You know, ‘Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.’”
“Interesting,” I said. “The rod is used for smacking the sheep when they stray from the path and the staff with its crook is used to rescue the sheep who have gone astray or fallen into some bramble. And yet both the retributive act and the act of salvation are portrayed as the acts of a loving shepherd.”
“This is nuts,” said the woman who had asked the question to begin with. “We are all in agreement here that there is only one God and that He is changeless!”
“Good point,” I said. “Then let’s assume that these different images of God are simply different points of emphasis, different perspectives from different cultural and different historical points of view. So let’s temporarily set these biased images aside and construct God from what we ourselves have discerned to be the attributes of this Deity as depicted in the Baha’i writings.”
So the class and I proceeded to begin quite a long list of the attributes of God. He is kind, loving, omnipotent, ever-forgiving, omniscient, a kind parent, a perfect teacher, a guardian of humankind. He creates not out of need, but in order to fashion beings capable of receiving and willingly benefitting from the beauty of creation itself, and from the love and bounty God has to bestow.