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Existential paradise and hell are to be found in all the worlds of God, whether in this world or in the heavenly realms of the spirit… Similarly, ultimate retributions and punishments consist in being deprived of the special bounties and unfailing bestowals of God and sinking to the lowest degrees of existence. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, pp. 257-259.
Each of us has our own kind of hell.
I’m not talking about an actual place of fire and brimstone—Baha’is believe that old conception of hell simply provides us with a metaphor for the inner, existential torment we all suffer as a result of our actions and the actions of others.
For some people hell happens every day of every year. Luckier ones suffer through it for only periods of time–whether going through severe sickness, or seeing a loved one taken by cancer or car accident. Some hells come suddenly, and many last so long they strain all human endurance.
I thought about hell a lot while watching the film Selma this morning. The sole occupant of the movie theatre, I was free to cry and moan openly and loudly at the injustice and hurts, and the sheer hatred from the perpetrators. I prayed “Amen” to God, just as that black congregation did–only my prayer was that God’s tears would fall on those perpetrators and burn them to dust. That somehow, magically, as throughout the Bible, the Hand of God would strike the oppressors down.
That’s one vision of hell, ground to dust without hope of heaven, and sometimes it seems well-deserved by some mortal’s inhumane sins committed against our fellow human beings. When human beings act worse than animals, what chance of heaven do they deserve?
Hell can also take the form of a life of discrimination, poverty, segregation and prejudice, as is too often the case here in America for all its law and order. We’ve seen that kind of hell demonstrated clearly by the murders of unarmed, some even mentally impaired, young men in the news recently, by the murderous warfare in the Middle East, and by the countless rapes of young women taking place across the world, too.
These hates and criminality arise out of dreams–dreams of sexual conquest for the pervert, dreams of wealth for the criminal, dreams of a closed society for the fanatic or terrorist, dreams of conquest and power for the tyrant. These terrible dreams, reminiscent of the Dark and Middle Ages, make it hard to tell the difference in the barbarity between then and now.
All of these living hells require every fair-minded, good-hearted person to work for positive change. No matter which town, village, city, county, state and nation you live in, you can do your part, joining the thousands and millions, even billions that dream of a world without hell.
If we don’t all take part, it will never end.
The Baha’i teachings tell us that hell on earth was never meant to last. We might think centuries of discontent, and greed, and demagoguery will always continue. But they won’t—the world will gradually improve as we adopt a more spiritual civilization, the Baha’i teachings say:
If love and agreement are manifest in a single family, that family will advance, become illumined and spiritual; but if enmity and hatred exist within it destruction and dispersion are inevitable. This is likewise true of a city. If those who dwell within it manifest a spirit of accord and fellowship it will progress steadily and human conditions become brighter whereas through enmity and strife it will be degraded and its inhabitants scattered. In the same way the people of a nation develop and advance toward civilization and enlightenment through love and accord, and are disintegrated by war and strife. Finally, this is true of humanity itself in the aggregate. When love is realized and the ideal spiritual bonds unite the hearts of men, the whole human race will be uplifted, the world will continually grow more spiritual and radiant and the happiness and tranquillity of mankind be immeasurably increased. Warfare and strife will be uprooted, disagreement and dissension pass away and universal peace unite the nations and peoples of the world. All mankind will dwell together as one family, blend as the waves of one sea, shine as stars of one firmament and appear as fruits of the same tree. This is the happiness and felicity of humankind. This is the illumination of man, the glory eternal and life everlasting; this is the divine bestowal. – Abdu’l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, p. 18.
The Baha’i Faith assures us that the turmoil and travails we now experience are preparing us for a world of peace, safety and felicity, when the hatreds of people have been exposed, excoriated and finally eliminated.
We absolutely do not need to live in an existential hell here on this earth. We have the power in our own selves and with certitude and faith to create a world of justice and enjoyment for all.
The final hell? It happens when we don’t even try, and turn a blind eye to the pain of others. It happens when we have the power to change, and don’t use it. It happens when we miss the opportunity to do something now, at this moment in history.