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We have seen how the ancient Hebrew prophets both agreed and differed with the beliefs of the surrounding regions regarding the human soul and its destiny beyond the grave.
One all-important truth drastically shifted the ancient Israelites’ perception—the revelation of God’s oneness. Surrounding cultures often worshipped the departed souls of their rulers and ancestors, sparking a great demand for professional necromancers and sorcerers to communicate with these deceased souls.
The monotheism of the Torah absolutely forbade the practice of consulting or worshipping the dead. The prophets cut off the cult of the dead at its root with their radical teaching that what was truly spiritual in man was the gift of God, a fraction of God’s almighty spirit that returned to Him after death.
At a time when departed souls were treated as minor deities, it makes sense that the prophets of monotheism placed little emphasis on the mythic cosmology of surrounding cultures, downplaying specific concepts of life after death. Instead they placed their entire focus on God’s sovereignty, holiness and righteousness—emphasizing God’s gift, bestowal, reflection and image in man’s goodness. The Hebrew prophets taught that apart from the quickening spirit of God, the human nefeš, ‘soul’ or ego is nothing, a ghostly apparition. In his extensive survey “The Hebrew Idea of the Future Life”, Lewis Bayles Paton observes:
In Semitic and early Hebrew anthropology nefesh and rûaḥ were synonymous terms for ‘spirit’; in prophetic anthropology rûaḥ [spirit] was distinguished from nefesh as the vital principle and the seat of higher faculties. It was imparted by God to the nefesh during life, but reclaimed by him at death… the vitality of the human soul depends so completely upon the indwelling spirit of God, that activity ceases when the divine breath is withdrawn. All individual rûḥôth [spirits] are absorbed in the one rûaḥ of Yahweh. – pp. 253-254.
The prophets thus conceived of man’s spiritual nature as inseparable from the spirit of God:
But it is a spirit in man, and the breath of the Almighty, that giveth them understanding.—Job 32:8.
If He set his heart upon Himself, if He gather unto Himself His spirit and His breath; all flesh shall perish together, and man shall turn again unto dust.—Job 34:14-15.
Similarly, the Baha’i teachings reveal that the spiritual reality within man signifies God’s divine attributes. By identifying with this reality, the human self can sanctify itself of worldly attachments and return to God:
Thou hast asked Me concerning the nature of the soul (nafs). Know, verily, that the soul is a sign of God, a heavenly gem whose reality the most learned of men hath failed to grasp, and whose mystery no mind, however acute, can ever hope to unravel… If it be faithful to God, it will reflect His light, and will, eventually, return unto Him. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 158-159.
The nafs or human self stands at a crossroads—it can be assimilated to its spiritual source, or succumb to the pull of materialism and become a mere egoistic shell, an insubstantial wisp like the shades dwelling in the mythological underworld,
The Psalms, the devotional literature of ancient Israel, reveal an earnest faith that for the lovers of God, death was neither the end of existence nor merely the point of entry into ‘Sheol’ the netherworld:
Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall dwell in safety;
For Thou wilt not leave my soul to Sheol; neither wilt Thou suffer Thy beloved ones to see the pit.
Thou wilt show me the path of life: in Thy presence is fulness of joy; in Thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.—Psalm 16:9-11.
The New Testament applied these verses to Jesus Christ, whose many appearances to his disciples after his crucifixion gave them the conviction to travel the known world, preaching Christ’s message in the face of brutal persecution:
As for me, I will behold Thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with Thy likeness. – Psalm 17:15
But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol; for He shall receive me. Selah. – Psalm 49:15 (verse 16, Jewish text).
But I was brutish, and ignorant; I was as a beast before Thee.
Nevertheless I am continually with Thee; Thou holdest my right hand.
Thou wilt guide me with Thy counsel, and afterward receive me with glory.
Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And beside Thee I desire none upon earth.
My flesh and my heart faileth (kālâ, ‘is consumed’); but God is the rock of my heart and my portion for ever.
For, lo, they that go far from Thee shall perish; Thou dost destroy all them that go astray from Thee.
But as for me, the nearness of God is my good;
I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all Thy works.—Psalm 73:22-28.
The love of God so filled the Psalmist’s heart that to him heaven meant reunion with God—the exact same truth that Baha’u’llah expresses in The Hidden Words:
O Son of Being! Thy Paradise is My love; thy heavenly home, reunion with Me. Enter therein and tarry not. This is that which hath been destined for thee in Our kingdom above and Our exalted dominion. – p. 5.
The prophets’ teaching, that the human spirit represents a facet of the divine Almighty Spirit, grounds this profound understanding that the real heaven is nearness and reunion with God, both in this world and the next. Not even death, or the all-demanding Sheol, can come between God and those dear to Him.
In the next essay in this series, we will consider some of the texts in the Hebrew Bible thought to deny a spiritual soul to man. The most challenging of these are found in the Book of Ecclesiastes, traditionally attributed to King Solomon. With the background above, we should be able to understand these passages in a new light.
Next: The Destiny of Dust and the Spirit