What do the Baha’is teachings say about heaven and hell?
The Baha’i scriptures state that the next world is real, but it is not a physical place. We cannot perceive its existence through our physical senses because it is a different reality. It exists on a different plane than the physical universe, but the two are connected and affect each other in certain ways.
The human soul is part of that spiritual world. The soul comes into existence at the moment of conception. It is ultimately dependent for its progress and happiness upon its relationship with God. Heaven, then, is a spiritual state of nearness to God. Hell is remoteness from God.
For Baha’is, then, heaven and hell are metaphors for the relative spiritual condition of the soul. The Baha’i scriptures state that the soul is never static. It progresses in this world and continues to progress in the life beyond, attaining ever greater perfections and closer communion with God. In this physical world progress is dependent on our own volition. If we choose to turn to God, we can progress. If not, we become the victim of our lesser nature and fail to attain true happiness. Baha’u’llah writes, “‘Where is Paradise, and where is Hell?’ Say: ‘The one is reunion with Me; the other thine own self. . . .’” – Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 118.
The Path of Spiritual Progress
Baha’u’llah taught that spiritual progress is dependent upon certain conditions. The most important is our own conscious effort to attain it. In this respect the human being in this world is quite different from the unborn child, who has no choice in the matter of its physical development. Spiritual growth is open to all who sincerely strive. He wrote to one individual:
And now, concerning thy question regarding the creation of man. Know thou that all men have been created in the nature made by God, the Guardian, the Self-Subsisting. . . . All that which ye potentially possess can, however, be manifested only as a result of your own volition. Your own acts testify to this truth. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 149.
Yet as important as volition and striving are, no matter how much they try, human beings cannot attain spiritual progress or eternal life alone and unaided. The prophets of God appear so that they may teach us how to achieve our purpose and thereby attain eternal happiness:
The Prophets and Messengers of God have been sent down for the sole purpose of guiding mankind to the straight Path of Truth. The purpose underlying Their revelation hath been to educate all men, that they may, at the hour of death, ascend, in the utmost purity and sanctity and with absolute detachment, to the throne of the Most High. The light which these souls radiate is responsible for the progress of the world and the advancement of its peoples. – Ibid., pp. 156-157.
The first duty prescribed by God for His servants is the recognition of Him Who is the Dayspring of His Revelation and the Fountain of His laws, Who representeth the Godhead in both the Kingdom of His Cause and the world of creation. Whoso achieveth this duty hath attained unto all good; and whoso is deprived thereof hath gone astray, though he be the author of every righteous deed. It behooveth everyone who reacheth this most sublime station, this summit of transcendent glory, to observe every ordinance of Him Who is the Desire of the world. These twin duties are inseparable. Neither is acceptable without the other. Thus hath it been decreed by Him Who is the Source of Divine inspiration. – p. 19.
The prophets of God reveal teachings conducive not only to individual spiritual progress but also to the advancement of human society:
O ye peoples of the world! Know assuredly that My commandments are the lamps of My loving providence among My servants, and the keys of My mercy for My creatures. Thus hath it been sent down from the heaven of the Will of your Lord, the Lord of Revelation. Were any man to taste the sweetness of the words which the lips of the All-Merciful have willed to utter, he would, though the treasures of the earth be in his possession, renounce them one and all, that he might vindicate the truth of even one of His commandments, shining above the Dayspring of His bountiful care and loving-kindness. – Ibid., pp. 19-20.
All human societies provide in some way for the education of their children. In this way they ensure that their young ones will acquire the knowledge, skills, and moral development necessary for prosperous and happy lives. Likewise, God provides for His children—that is, humanity—through the appearance of divine Teachers, Who lay the groundwork for our spiritual education and eternal happiness.
But children differ in their inclinations. Although all may have access to education, not all have the same capacity. And there are always those who, due to immaturity or other defects of character, either do not apply themselves or completely refuse to avail themselves of the opportunity. Our relationship to the divine Teachers is the same. We have the power to choose whether we will benefit from their teachings.
Many of the teachings are, in fact, laws that God expects us to observe. We might not always understand the full significance or meaning of such laws, but that does not excuse us. We must have faith that they are intended for our benefit, and we must strive to apply them and better understand them over the course of time.
Once again, children provide an example of this principle. Parents must set rules for their offspring, although the children themselves may not understand the reasons for the rules until much later in life. The disciplines that might appear harsh and restrictive to a child are in reality the basis of prosperity and lifelong happiness. It is only in the fullness of time that they are able to appreciate the wisdom of this parental guidance.
The same principle holds true in our relationship with the prophets of God. Like loving parents, they teach us what we need to do to achieve our own prosperity and happiness. Out of faith, we accept and follow their guidance, and thereby attain true happiness.
Next: Knowing Yourself and Attaining True Freedom