The process of humankind’s spiritual evolution continues because God sends messengers to humanity from time to time. That concept, called progressive revelation, underpins the Baha’i teachings.
These periodic messengers, known as prophets, manifestations, and the founders of the world’s Faiths, provide the means of humanity’s development and progress throughout the ages. They are responsible for our elevation from a lesser to a greater degree of understanding regarding the existence and purpose of God.
In fact, the only way people can know of God’s purpose for us is through the messengers God sends. These prophets and messengers, or manifestations of God as Baha’u’llah calls them, are the spiritual teachers of humanity. They educate the souls and minds of humanity and provide us with both spiritual and social guidance. When they appear they supply humankind with the teachings required for that age. They come one after another as teachers belonging to the same long-term educational process. Baha’u’llah called this system of human spiritual education “progressive revelation:”
Contemplate with thine inward eye the chain of successive Revelations … I testify before God that each one of these Manifestations hath been sent down through the operation of the Divine Will and Purpose, that each hath been the bearer of a specific Message, that each hath been entrusted with a divinely-revealed Book and been commissioned to unravel the mysteries of a mighty Tablet. The measure of the Revelation with which every one of them hath been identified had been definitely fore-ordained. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah
These holy messengers raise the level of our spiritual understanding by revealing God’s word, and each time they appear they fill the world with fresh spiritual impetus and advance humanity another step forward. Progressive revelation is more than an educative process, it is part of the eternal covenant of Abraham in which God promised never to abandon humanity. In fulfilment of that covenant, God has sent prophets to every people, including Krishna, Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Christ, Muhammad, the Bab and, most recently, Baha’u’llah.
Every one of these divine messengers, the Baha’i teachings say, brought a message appropriate to their time and place. Each dispensation – the sum-total of the teachings the messenger has dispensed to humankind – is perfectly suited to that stage of our spiritual development:
Know of a certainty that in every Dispensation the light of Divine Revelation hath been vouchsafed unto men in direct proportion to their spiritual capacity. Consider the sun. How feeble its rays the moment it appeareth above the horizon. How gradually its warmth and potency increase as it approacheth the zenith, enabling meanwhile all created things to adapt themselves to the growing intensity of its light. How steadily it declineth until it reacheth its setting point. Were it, all of a sudden, to manifest the energies latent within it, it would, no doubt, cause injury to all created things … In like manner, if the Sun of Truth were suddenly to reveal, at the earliest stages of its manifestation, the full measure of the potencies which the providence of the Almighty hath bestowed upon it, the earth of human understanding would waste away and be consumed; for men’s hearts would neither sustain the intensity of its revelation, nor be able to mirror forth the radiance of its light. Dismayed and overpowered, they would cease to exist. – Ibid
The eternal process of progressive revelation extends backwards into a time long before written records. Because of the antiquity of some of these revelations, the names of the messengers themselves and the spiritual traditions they initiated have been lost. Within the period of time for which we do have historical records, even in cultures without written histories, we have ample evidence of this process. As with our understanding of the purpose of our physical existence, progressive revelation is easier to understand in retrospect. The process of sequential divine messages is not new to religious understanding. However, which of the messengers a particular religion chooses to acknowledge is a matter of geography and chronology.
Throughout recorded history, many of the messengers of God have arisen in that part of the Asian continent which extends from the shores of the Red and Mediterranean Seas in the West to the mouth of the River Ganges in the East. This part of the planet has been the birthplace of most of the world’s best-known religions, and the western part of this region has a great religious tradition which has witnessed a long succession of messengers. However, because of the chronology, the followers of each religion only recognize the ones who came before their particular messenger. For example, Judaism acknowledges both Abraham and Moses; Christianity recognizes Abraham, Moses and then Christ; Islam identifies the succession of Abraham, Moses, Christ and then Muhammad. The Bible itself, with its Old and New Testaments, bears witness to the progressive revelation that led from Judaism to Christianity.
Each of these religions has understood something of the process of progressive revelation, but failed to recognize that it extends forwards as well as backwards in time. The Baha’i Faith sees within our human spiritual heritage all the messengers of the past, and recognizes Baha’u’llah as the most recent; but it also acknowledges that he will not be the last. To ensure that the succession of messengers continues and that humankind is able to recognize them each time they appear, each one fulfils the prophecies of the previous messengers and in turn foretells the coming of the next. In like manner, Baha’u’llah promises that another messenger will come after him, but not for at least a thousand years. Progressive revelation is an eternal process that moves ever forward. As long as human beings exist, God will continue to send His messengers to guide our progress.
What does progressive revelation mean for us? Every individual has the twin responsibilities of accepting the messenger of God for the age in which they live, and then following the teachings that the messenger brings. These teachings are found in the sacred scripture of each of the prophets and messengers. In the times in which we live, the writings of Baha’u’llah provide us with the guidance, the knowledge and the spiritual sustenance this age requires.