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The Human Soul and the Afterlife
According to Bahá'í teachings, human nature is fundamentally spiritual. Although human beings exist on earth in physical bodies, the essential identity of each person is defined by an invisible, rational, and everlasting soul. The soul animates the body and distinguishes human beings from animals. It grows and develops through the individual's relationship with God, as mediated by His Messengers.
Cultivation of one's spiritual side has several benefits. First, the individual increasingly develops those innate qualities that lie at the foundation of human happiness and social progress. Such qualities include faith, courage, love, compassion, trustworthiness, and humility. As these qualities develop, society as a whole advances.
Another effect of spiritual development is alignment with God's will. This growing closer to God prepares the individual for the afterlife. The soul lives on after the body's death, embarking on a spiritual journey towards God through many "worlds," or planes, of existence. Progress on this journey, in traditional terms, is likened to "heaven." If the soul fails to develop, one remains distant from God. This condition of remoteness from God can in some sense be understood as "hell." Thus, heaven and hell are regarded not as literal places but descriptions of one's spiritual progress toward the light of God.
The soul does not die; it endures everlastingly. When the human body dies, the soul is freed from ties with the physical body and the surrounding physical world and begins its progress through the spiritual world. Bahá'ís understand the spiritual world to be a timeless and placeless extension of our own universe--not some physically remote or removed place.
Entry into the next life has the potential to bring great joy. Bahá'u'lláh likened death to the process of birth. He explains: "The world beyond is as different from this world as this world is different from that of the child while still in the womb of its mother."1
The analogy to the womb in many ways summarizes the Bahá'í view of earthly existence. Just as the womb constitutes an important place for a person's initial physical development, the physical world provides the matrix for the development of the individual soul. Accordingly, Bahá'ís view life as a sort of workshop, where one can develop and perfect those qualities which will be needed in the next life.
"Know thou, of a truth, that if the soul of man hath walked in the ways of God, it will, assuredly return and be gathered to the glory of the Beloved," Bahá'u'lláh wrote. "By the righteousness of God! It shall attain a station such as no pen can depict, or tongue can describe."2
Beyond this, the exact nature of the afterlife remains a mystery. "The nature of the soul after death can never be described,"3 Bahá'u'lláh writes.
- Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976), p. 157.
- Ibid., p. 161.
- Ibid., p. 156.
* Adapted from Bahá'í Topics, an information resource produced by the Bahá'í International Community.