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What happens when we die? Do our souls live on, or do we perish into nothingness?

The Baha’i teachings say that this life and the spiritual life beyond our physical existence are really one and the same. That’s the reason for such a forceful emphasis in the Baha’i writings on the strategic relationship in our physical lives between our actions and our spiritual development.

The Baha’i teachings are very existential in this regard. In no sense is physical life viewed merely as a period of waiting until one enters a spiritual realm. The physical world, properly understood, is an integral part of spiritual reality, indeed, a precise expression of that world. But if our actions greatly affect our spiritual progress during our physical existence, we might reasonably assume that our overall performance on earth might likewise have a significant effect on our spiritual existence in the afterlife.

Therefore, the critical question of the nature of that relationship between our earthly lives and our eternal spiritual destiny is our final concern in examining the spiritual purpose of physical reality.

The Fear of Death

In the Baha’i paradigm of divine justice our departure from the physical world is not portrayed as a separate venture, not really an “afterlife,” but a continuation of the same life, at least in terms of our soul and conscious self:

Didst thou behold immortal sovereignty, thou wouldst strive to pass from this fleeting world. But to conceal the one from thee and to reveal the other is a mystery which none but the pure in heart can comprehend. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, p. 36.

While noble aspirations and actions in the physical world are extremely important in determining our spiritual condition when we enter the next stage of our life, the afterlife according to the Baha’i paradigm of reality is not, in any ordinary sense, merely a “heavenly” experience based on the result of our efforts made in the physical phase of our eternal existence. For if our physical life has as its primary objective the development of spiritual faculties and the incremental improvement of our soul in preparation for a more expansive life and a more complete encounter with reality, we can be assured that the continuation of our life has these same objectives.

Of course, belief in a continuation of life after the soul dissociates from the physical body is not necessarily comforting.

After all, this continuity might imply that all the arduous efforts we have made at spiritual transformation in our physical life lead only to further challenges in the next stage of our existence. But perhaps the most startling realization we come to as we consider this promise of future existence is the simple fact that there is ultimately no escape from ourselves!

This is a matter well worth pondering for a moment or two, for if we are unhappy or dissatisfied with who or what we are now, and if the soul continues after the body perishes, will we not likely be just as disappointed after death? Certainly the nature of the challenges we will face in an entirely spiritual realm will be significantly different from the trials we presently confront, and that’s comforting. After all, physical difficulties probably account for the greater part of our struggle in this life—aches and pains, dentist appointments, financial hardships, car repairs, and the like. In the next life, all these mundane concerns will have vanished.

We can only guess at how our lives will proceed in the next world insofar as a regimen of spiritual development is concerned, but in the Baha’i teachings we can discover some profound and important realities about that existence and, more to the point, about the relationship between this life and the next. In particular, we are able to discover the relationship between what we do in the physical part of our existence and what we experience in life beyond this world, a source of great concern for the followers of many systems of belief.

On the one hand, the Baha’i teachings seem totally comforting in this regard. Repeatedly in his writings Baha’u’llah emphasizes that were we to understand adequately the operation of God’s creation, we would cast aside all fears of death: “I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve?” – Ibid., p. 11.

Nevertheless, most of us continue to fear death, and for many understandable reasons. If we do not believe in the continuity of the soul and our consciousness after death, we may dread the prospect of nonexistence. If we do believe in a continuation of our lives, we may be concerned about what sort of judgment awaits us. If we are dissatisfied with who we are or what we have become, we may fear the inability to escape from our own consciousness, in which case the prospect of nonexistence might seem appealing.

But if there is nothing to fear—if, as Baha’u’llah says, death is “a messenger of joy”—we cannot help asking why so little is revealed to us about that existence. Why, in other words, are we not given ample detail about how our development will continue so that we can accept this assurance, become comforted by it, and approach our physical tasks with relief and enthusiasm?

In the next essay in this series, we’ll explore those questions, and see if we can find answers in the Baha’i teachings about our inevitable physical death and what lies beyond it.

9 Comments

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  • Christian Lovato
    Apr 08, 2018
    "After all, physical difficulties probably account for the greater part of our struggle in this life-aches and pains, dentist appointments, financial hardships, car repairs, and the like. In the next life, all these mundane concerns will have vanished" I study teachings of religions for the improvement of my life on this earth, and I'm not sure the plan of God is that we have to have those problems in this life. In the Gospel Jesus says: "Look at the birds in the sky! They don’t plant or harvest. They don’t even store grain in barns. Yet your Father in heaven ...takes care of them. Aren’t you worth more than birds?". I think that the plan is that we free from those basic needs, entering in a heavenly world even in this existence.
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    • John Hatcher
      Apr 10, 2018
      Absolutely. Indeed, the principal objective of the teachings of the Baha'i Faith is to strive daily to incorporate spiritual principles into every aspect of our lives--individually and collectively. The focus of all we do should be to bring about what Christ described as the kingdom of God on earth even as it is in the spiritual realm. The blueprint for effecting this reality is explicitly described in the Baha'i Writings, and while it will be accomplished by degrees, we can take great comfort in Baha'u'llah's assurance that it will come about. So, as you note, we should not disdain ...this life, but we should strive for joy and justice, both for ourselves, our family, our community, and humankind as a whole.
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  • Guy Pierre Poulin
    Apr 07, 2018
    This concept of continuity, or overlapping, between the physical and spiritual realms is to my knowledge what takes us far away from the Manichaeism that often prevails in western spirituality, including many of the new age movements. On another hand, it can serve as a fertile and promising topic to open a dialogue with friends of eastern traditions, such as Zen Buddhism. Sincere thanks for this enlightening article. P.S.: Since you mentioned Bill in one of your reply, may I add that he is very first Baha'i I met. He was a man on a continuous ...quest, a true spiritual knight striving to connect both realms with his mind and his heart. Yes, he must now be delighted. I give him a grateful salute!
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  • Rosslyn and Steven Osborne
    Apr 06, 2018
    Excellent article and well written. I am so looking forward to the next article. thanks.
  • Alan
    Apr 06, 2018
    Thoroughly enjoyed this article! It reminds of a question asked by preacher friend of mine who was upset because I didn't come to his church. He asked, "Don't you want to get to heaven?" And, without thinking, I said, "If I'm not in heaven now, I'm never going to get there!" Yes, realizing that we can "never escape ourselves" is essential. I had to laugh out loud upon being struck by this simple truth! Thanks
    • Guy Pierre Poulin
      Apr 07, 2018
      Lovely! I wonder what your preacher friend had to say about your enlightened statement.
  • Regina Smith
    Apr 05, 2018
    Dear Mr. Hatcher, I am looking forward to your series of articles. I have enjoyed anything written by you and your brother very much. Such a talented set of brothers! Thank you, Gina Smith
    • John Hatcher
      Apr 06, 2018
      You are most generous and kind, and we appreciate your taking the time to share. (Bill has passed, but I am sure he is pleased).
  • Apr 05, 2018
    At my stage of physical existence, I really look forward to your next series of articles. Thank you for your efforts to share your insights with all of us.