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We can only understand the afterlife by analogy – because we can’t describe the soul in absolute terms like the physical phenomena of this world, or explain it in conditional terms with abstract concepts.
The Baha’i teachings tells us that the human soul and life after death are neither tangible realities nor intellectual abstractions, and because of the limitation of our experience their existence can only be alluded to. As the mystics have known for millennia, intimation is perhaps the only way to describe anything metaphysical in nature.
This descriptive problem, common to all religions throughout the ages, makes death and the afterlife a mystery, so the messengers of God in each age have employed in their holy scriptures analogies of things familiar to the people of their times. As times changed, however, so did the analogies. The comparisons of Moses were simple and direct, while Christ chose to teach his followers using parables, a special form of narrative analogy with hidden spiritual meanings. In this age, Baha’u’llah has written:
Know, verily, that the soul is a sign of God, a heavenly gem whose reality the learned of men hath failed to grasp, and whose mystery no mind, however acute, can ever hope to unravel. It is the first among all created things to declare the excellence of its Creator, the first to recognize His glory, to cleave to His truth, and to bow down in adoration before Him. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah.
Baha’is believe that the soul forms the ultimate reality of the individual; creating one’s true identity. The body and mind act as the instruments of our individual physical and intellectual existence, but the soul transcends their limitations and possesses abilities which the other human realities do not – including the potential to recognize the existence and glory of God. On this physical and ephemeral plane, however, the body and mind are necessary to the process of our spiritual development. This life prepares us for what comes after death, just as our pre-natal existence within the womb prepared us for this life:
We often see the purpose of something best in retrospect. This becomes evident when we compare the following two questions: “What was the purpose of the time spent in the womb of our mother?” and: “What is the purpose of this earthly life?” Hindsight makes the former question easier to answer than the latter. That 36- to 40-week period of gestation prepared each of us for our physical survival in this world. By analogy, the time we spend in this world serves as the gestation period for our birth into the next.
That parallel helps us understand why we need to prepare in order to progress. In the womb of our mother, we lived in a self-contained and personal universe, small but sufficient in size to provide everything we needed for our existence. We had the sustaining warmth from our mother’s body, the nutrition and oxygen we acquired through the placenta and umbilical cord, but above all we had the nurturing love and attention of our mother.
Now that we are here in this world, it is not difficult to see that the purpose of that existence in the womb involved growth. However, we can only understand that fact because we can now look back. While we were in the womb, it was not so clear. Most of the things we were growing were of no real use to us in that confined and limited world. We developed legs in a place with nowhere to walk; lungs in an airless aquatic world of amniotic fluid; eyes and ears in an environment less than ideal for sights and sounds. Not until after birth did those limbs and organs become useful.
Aside from this, we were not even aware that we were growing these faculties. In fact, if we were conscious of their existence at all, they would have been mysterious and alien, because there was no way we could even have guessed their function and future value. Had we been given the choice, we might have decided not to grow them, because we could not envision their use. If we had been able to make that decision, to stop growing arms, eyes and legs, imagine how handicapped we would later have been in this world.
Continuing the analogy, this world functions as the womb of the next – it has the future-oriented, forward-looking purpose of providing us with an environment conducive to a different kind of growth – the growth of the soul. What we are growing, so to speak, are those spiritual senses and abilities which we will need in the next world – the limitless inner spiritual attributes of the soul, such as the ability to love unconditionally, to show kindness, to be selfless. Those attributes adorn our soul even as our limbs and eyes adorn our bodies. We take those spiritual qualities with us into the next world when we die, where we will need them the most.
Just because on this earthly plane of existence we cannot fully recognize their worth, we should not neglect those things which are conducive to their growth. Spiritual neglect can cause the soul to be hindered in its development, just as insufficient nutrition can stunt the physical growth of the unborn child. Prayer, meditation, obedience to the laws of God, and service to humanity spiritually nourish the soul.
So the question arises – what happens in the afterlife if we neglect the soul in this life? The Baha’i teachings say that in this life the progress of the soul depends upon the will of the individual; but in the life beyond, progress continues by the Will of God.
With this in mind, you can understand why Baha’is see eternal life as having already begun.
Eternal life is not something that magically starts at death. Conception, birth, life, and death are all stages along a spiritual continuum. Our true reality emanates from our eternal Creator at the moment of our conception; humans are both physical and spiritual beings already on the pathway of eternity. Carried in association with our body in this world and then joyously set free, the soul passes from one state of existence to the next on its journey back to God. This immortal part of our being is the repository of unseen faculties. The soul is mysterious in nature; in this life we only have an inkling of its abilities. Baha’u’llah further explained:
Verily I say, the human soul is exalted above all egress and regress. It is still, and yet it soareth; it moveth, and yet it is still. It is, in itself, a testimony that beareth witness to the existence of a world that is contingent, as well as to the reality of a world that hath neither beginning nor end. Behold how the dream thou hast dreamed is, after the lapse of many years, re-enacted before thine eyes. Consider how strange is the mystery of the world that appeareth to thee in thy dream. Ponder in thine heart upon the unsearchable wisdom of God, and meditate on its manifold revelations … – Ibid.
This physical universe, at least on the level at which we function within it, is bounded by four dimensions: three spatial and one temporal. Physical things, including our material selves, exist with height, breadth and depth, and at a particular moment in time. As with the subconscious mind in the dreaming state, the soul, together with the spiritual eternity in which it exists, is not limited by these four dimensions of our contingent world.
Our realization of the nature of the soul must embrace a concept of both physical and spiritual paradox. Within the physical universe, perceptually we will always find ourselves at the midway point between the microcosm and the macrocosm. Within us is folded the universe of molecules, atoms and subatomic particles which are infinitely smaller than humans, and at the same time, we as humans are enwrapped within the universe of a stellar system, in solar systems and galaxies infinitely larger than ourselves.
The soul exists within and beyond this physical cosmology, in spiritual dimensions we cannot perceive from the limited vantage point of this material life. The human soul is endowed with potentialities which will only later become manifest. Again by analogy, just as the double-helix structured DNA in our cells carries the genetic code of physical life, so the soul somehow carries the spiritual code of our eternal existence.
Because of the evanescent nature of physical life, the Baha’i teachings say we must not become overly attached to the material world or forget we have a soul. Referring to the soul, Baha’u’llah explains:
If it be faithful to God, it will reflect His light, and will, eventually, return unto Him. If it fail, however, in its allegiance to its Creator, it will become a victim to self and passion, and will, in the end sink in their depths. – Ibid.
This ancient message of detachment occurs in all religious teachings – but our knowledge of the existence of God and our understanding of the nature of the soul and eternal life have grown over the ages, as humanity has progressed from one stage to another in the ongoing process of our collective spiritual evolution.
This series of essays is adapted from Joseph Roy Sheppherd’s book The Elements of the Baha’i Faith, with permission from his widow Jan Sheppherd.