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In my local Presbyterian church as a youth in San Jose, California, I usually sat in the very first row in church, with my younger brother, Carter, sitting next to me.
Gazing up at the pulpit, my pastor looked down on me, and across the watchful gaze of the faithful congregation. We sat wrapt in wonderment and were transfixed by the masterful oratorical and rhetorical skills of the pastor, in the Sunday morning sermon, delivered before the closing hymn, guided by the church choir and pipe organ, each and every week.
From my front-row vantage in the stained-glass sanctuary, I heard many of my pastor’s sermons describing, in vivid and frightening discourse, various signs and portents—warning of the coming Day of Judgment. Some of these sermons were downright scary—as they were surely meant to be. The pastor told us that the “good news” was that Jesus was coming “soon.” But Jesus did not come so soon—or not at all—so far as I could tell. Later on, I would discover that Jesus did indeed return—but not in the way that I expected.
Truth be told, such sermons brought me more questions than answers. My biggest concern—since God was “wroth,” as I was told, and Satan wrought evil—was that there was no way out, except to believe in Jesus. So, in sundry ways on serial Sundays, I was told that Christ died “for” me—meaning “instead” of me.
Something did not seem quite right about that. Somehow, God accepted Christ’s death in place of my own—thereby averting my impending eternal damnation—as if there was no other way to deal with the problem of sin. That left me with the impression that God, as preached from the pulpit, was intolerant, could not abide human imperfections, was inexorable by nature, and obviously was not a great problem-solver when it came to the fundamental human predicament—the problem of sin.
To make matters worse, there was also the dilemma of a sinful world at large. Sermons on the coming “apocalypse” switched from individual judgment at death to collective judgment at the end of time, according to my pastor’s enlightened interpretations of the Bible’s dark and forbidding prophecies.
It seemed to be that there were two Judgment Days. Both were of grave concern to me as an impressionable youth—but questioning—rather than accepting—what I was told eventually saved me.
So my current understanding of salvation—individual and social—is quite different now. How did this transformation in my understanding come about? The answer: through my introduction to the Baha’i worldview, and through my subsequent intellectual and spiritual odyssey—inspired and stimulated by my own discovery of the Baha’i Faith. That wonderful discovery impelled—one might even say “compelled” me—to read what scholars had to say.
That’s how a new and remarkable word suddenly entered my vocabulary: eschatology.
Eschatology is a term that scholars use to describe “the doctrine of last things.” One such “last thing” is death. Death is final, as far as this earthly life is concerned. Whether or not there is life after death is a matter of faith.
Another such “last thing” is the end of an era, age, or even the world. Such scenarios are the sum and substance of apocalypses—prophecies that dramatically describe the end of the world as a whole.
Thus there are two “last things” orders or scenarios that “eschatology” describes: individual death and historical death, to put things bluntly. In other words, “last things” involve the end of life and the end of the world.
So, along with those other last things, let’s examine the idea of resurrection. In postexilic Judaism and later in Christianity, there are various accounts of individual (i.e. end-of-life, “otherworldly”) and collective (i.e. end-of-history, “end-times”) scenarios. The problem is that these two eschatological doctrines are somewhat incongruous—even conflicting.
The immortality of the soul was viewed by certain Church Fathers as the “poison of the Greeks” because it was antithetical to the idea of physical resurrection. So it’s hard to reconcile the two.
One solution was the idea of the “sleep of the soul” where the souls of the dead were somehow kept in suspended animation until the entire world could be resurrected at once, at which time Christ would return as a Warrior Messiah before becoming a Peace Messiah.
Needless to say, this confused me in church—but confusion was the mother of curiosity, and curiosity was the father of discovery. So I kept searching.
I was taught that the Christ’s Millennium was “paradise on Earth,” whereas the afterlife (if my soul was saved) was “paradise In heaven.” I would think about this often when I would pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10, KJV.) So, I wondered, are “paradise on Earth” and “paradise in heaven” two different “paradises”?
The Baha’i answer: paradise is abiding by the will of God, both on Earth and in heaven. So, from that perspective, “paradise on Earth” and “paradise in heaven” are interrelated, even interconnected. A spiritual dynamic exists between the two.
Although I did not put it so bluntly, this question was more or less the theme of my doctoral dissertation, completed at the University of Toronto in 1996, and later published by the State University of New York Press in 1999 under the title: Paradise and Paradigm: Key Symbols In Persian Christianity and the Baha’i Faith.
In my own limited understanding, salvation means progress—spiritually and practically, individually and socially—starting from the first, often sudden, realization that spirit exists, in addition to the existence of physical matter. So spirit matters, just as matter matters. Both matter together, in this earthly realm, as Baha’u’llah explained:
O Son of Bounty! Out of the wastes of nothingness, with the clay of My command I made thee to appear, and have ordained for thy training every atom in existence and the essence of all created things. Thus, ere thou didst issue from thy mother’s womb, I destined for thee two founts of gleaming milk, eyes to watch over thee, and hearts to love thee. Out of My loving-kindness, ’neath the shade of My mercy I nurtured thee, and guarded thee by the essence of My grace and favor. And My purpose in all this was that thou mightest attain My everlasting dominion and become worthy of My invisible bestowals. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, p. 32.
That’s the sum and substance of spirit and matter—of life itself. But what about “paradise on Earth”—in this life? Baha’u’llah writes about paradise on Earth, in the here-and-now:
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. – Ibid., p. 5.
So what about “paradise in heaven”—in the afterlife? The Baha’i teachings say:
As to Paradise: It is a reality and there can be no doubt about it, and now in this world it is realized through love of Me [God] and My good-pleasure. Whosoever attaineth unto it God will aid him in this world below, and after death He will enable him to gain admittance into Paradise whose vastness is as that of heaven and earth. Therein … the day-star of the unfading beauty of his Lord will at all times shed its radiance upon him and he will shine so brightly that no one shall bear to gaze at him. Such is the dispensation of Providence, yet the people are shut out by a grievous veil. Likewise apprehend thou the nature of hell-fire and be of them that truly believe. For every act performed there shall be a recompense according to the estimate of God, and unto this the very ordinances and prohibitions prescribed by the Almighty amply bear witness. For surely if deeds were not rewarded and yielded no fruit, then the Cause of God—exalted is He—would prove futile. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 189.
What about “paradise in heaven and on Earth”—when Earth becomes heaven?
Knowledge and understanding have ever affirmed and will continue to affirm the reality of Paradise and Hell, for reward and punishment require their existence. Paradise signifieth first and foremost the good-pleasure of God. Whosoever attaineth His good-pleasure is reckoned and recorded among the inhabitants of the most exalted paradise and will attain, after the ascension of his soul, that which pen and ink are powerless to describe. For them that are endued with insight and have fixed their gaze upon the Most Sublime Vision, the Bridge, the Balance, Paradise, Hellfire, and all that hath been mentioned and recorded in the Sacred Scriptures are clear and manifest. At the time of the appearance and manifestation of the rays of the Daystar of Truth, all occupy the same station. God then proclaimeth that which He willeth, and whoso heareth His call and acknowledgeth His truth is accounted among the inhabitants of Paradise. Such a soul hath traversed the Bridge, the Balance, and all that hath been recorded regarding the Day of Resurrection, and hath reached his destination. The Day of God’s Revelation is the Day of the most great Resurrection. – Baha’u’llah, The Tabernacle of Unity, pp. 61–63.
Here, Baha’u’llah speaks of “the time of the appearance and manifestation of the rays of the Daystar of Truth” in which “God then proclaimeth that which He willeth.” Today, the Daystar of Truth is Baha’u’llah, Baha’is believe.
“Paradise” is a key concept in eschatology—as will be demonstrated in the next few articles in this “Figuring Out Prophecy” series. Please join us as we explore the real meaning of paradise.