Universalism in Various Religions: The Abrahamic Faiths

This series on universalism has looked at the topic from the perspective of Christianity.  This is because, first of all, I myself am a Christian, of the Catholic variety.  Second, despite universalist themes that go back to the very beginning of the faith, Christianity has by and large been construed as non-universalist; thus, the necessity of making arguments in favor of universalism.  I thought, however, that it would be interesting–and perhaps instructive–to look at the other great religions and their teachings on the afterlife, especially as regards the notion of universalism.  In order to avoid an inordinately long post, I’m going to break this up by category.  This post will deal with the Abrahamic religions.

The Abrahamic faiths are, obviously, those closest to Christianity in worldview in general, and in views of the afterlife in particular.  Thus, we will look at them first.  Judaism and Islam are obvious candidates, of course.  However, I will also give a brief consideration to Gnosticism, Mormonism, and also to the Bahá’í Faith, for reasons I’ll elaborate below.  We will look at them in historical order, beginning with Judaism.

Judaism

Judaism, the oldest of the Abrahamic religions, has, over the thousands of years of its existence, held changing attitudes towards the afterlife.  The Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament, and the source of Jewish religious law) has nothing to say about life after death at all.  All rewards and punishments are described as this-worldly.  Because of this, the Sadducees, who rejected all of the Old Testament except for the Torah, rejected the idea of the resurrection of the dead (cf. Mark 18:27).

The rest of the Old Testament is more ambiguous.  The finality of death seems to be asserted in places such as Isaiah 38:18, Psalm 30:9, and Psalm 115:17; but some vague notion of an afterlife is implied in places such as Ezekiel 37:11-14 and Daniel 12:2-3.  By the time of Christ, there was a variety of opinions among the Jewish people.  Some, such as the Sadducees, as mentioned above, rejected the notion of an afterlife.  Most–particularly the Pharisees–believed in some sort of afterlife.  It is important to note that this afterlife was almost always phrased in terms of a resurrection of the dead.  The Greeks–at least the philosophers–tended toward the view that the soul is imprisoned in the body (hence the saying, “Soma sema“–“The body is a prison”) and that the ultimate destination of the soul was reunification (henosis) of the soul with To Hen–“The One”, i.e. God.  The Jews took a resolutely corporeal view of the afterlife–the soul was not trapped in the body, but the two were an integral, inseparable combination–and therefore always viewed life beyond the grave as a rising to new life of body and soul, not a leaving behind of the material world by the soul.

After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD and the dispersion of the Jews from the Holy Land, the only sect of Judaism to survive was that of the Pharisees, which developed into Rabbinical Judaism–i.e. the Judaism we know now.  With the Sanhedrin no more, there was no longer a central doctrinal authority in Judaism.  However, there was overall agreement on the basics of Jewish faith.  The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides drew up what has come to be a semi-official list of the Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith.  The thirteenth specifies the resurrection of the dead.

In general, Judaism has taught the existence of the World to Come (‘Ôlām ha-Bā’).  Sometimes this has been thought of as a perfected Earth, and at other times it has been seen as more metaphysical, more like the concept of Heaven as being in God’s presence.  The World to Come is for the righteous.  The unrighteous go to Gehenna (Gê’ Hinnōm, literally, “Valley of Hinnom”), but not forever.  Unlike the Christian notion of Hell (which is the word commonly used to translate “Gehenna” from its occurrences in the New Testament), Jewish Gehenna is more like Purgatory–those who go there are said to stay no longer than twelve months.  There is a variety of opinions as to what happens at this point:  Generally, it is said that the soul is purified and can now enter the ‘Ôlām ha-Bā’.  Other opinions have it that most are purified, but the irremediably wicked are either destroyed utterly or remain in Hell.

This applies, please note, to Jews.  There is no completely consistent and clear teaching on non-Jews; but in general, it is assumed that righteous Gentiles–those who follow the Laws of Noah–will also have a place in the World to Come.

The above description of Jewish eschatology would apply to Orthodox Jews in modern times, and for the most part to Conservative Jews, as well.  Other denominations, such as Reform, Reconstructionist, and so on, have a wide variety of views, ranging from more or less traditional to a rejection of a literal afterlife altogether.

Thus, in summation, Judaism comes closer to universalism than traditional Christianity does, but still does not quite assume that everyone can at least potentially be saved.

Islam

Islam has a view of the afterlife very much similar to what has traditionally been held in Christianity.  The dead are judged on the basis of their actions during life.  If the balance tips towards the good, the souls of the dead are admitted to Paradise (sometimes known as “the Garden of Allah“).  If the balance of deeds tips towards the evil, the soul must enter Hell (“Jahannam“, derived from “Gehanna”), which is pretty much visualized as the eternal pit of fire and brimstone of Western imagination.  This judgement is given by God alone, as it is generally understood that no one, not even Muhammad, can intercede on behalf of another.  The heaven or hell experienced will be personal until the Resurrection of the Dead at the end of time, at which time the re-embodied souls will be permanently assigned to Heaven or Hell.  This is similar to the Catholic notion of the Particular and General Judgements.  Those whose good and evil deeds are evenly balanced are sometimes said to go to the limbo-like realm of aʿrāf,  whence, depending on interpretations of various theologians, they might ultimately enter Heaven.

The general interpretation of the Islamic teaching on the afterlife is that not even all Muslims will go to Heaven.  Some, perhaps many, will go to Hell.  As to non-Muslims, there is ambiguity.  Some verses clearly state that at least some non-Muslims can be saved, if they are righteous:  “Indeed, those who believed and those who were Jews or Christians or Sabeans [before Prophet Muhammad] – those [among them] who believed in God and the Last Day and did righteousness – will have their reward with their Lord, and no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve.” (Surah 2:62–quoted here)  On the other hand, some scholars believe those verses to be abrogated, and thus argue that only Muslims can be saved, from the Islamic perspective.  As far as I can tell from what I’ve read, there is no uniform teaching on this across all schools of Islam, or even within schools.  Thus, there would appear to be no basis for universalism in Islamic thought.

A partial exception is Ahmadiyya Islam.  Ahmadiyya branched off from mainstream Islam in the 19th Century.  While Ahmadis consider themselves Muslims, the other branches of Islam consider them heretics who are outside the Islamic fold . In any case, Ahmadis view hell as purgative, part of a process by which the human soul may ultimately progress towards God.  Jahannam, in the Ahmadi view, is thus more like Purgatory than Hell; and implicit in this is a form of universalism.

Gnosticism

On the one hand, there have been long (and inconclusive) arguments as to whether Gnosticism originated in Judaism, or Christianity, or in the pagan matrix of late antiquity, later being assimilated into Judaism and/or Christianity.  Thus, whether it even counts as Abrahamic is debatable.  On the other hand, most systems of Gnosticism of which we  have records are more or less Christian or Christian-tinged; and I have discussed Gnosticism and Gnostic themes at length on this blog.  Thus, I think I ought to touch on it, at least; and it makes as much sense to categorize it here as anywhere.

Gnosticism covers a bewildering variety of beliefs and scriptures, many of which are contradictory.  The usefulness of the very term “Gnostic” has been questioned in fact.  Still, for the purposes here, we can define Gnosticism very broadly as that system of Christian or quasi-Christian thought that

  1. Dualistically views the cosmos as composed of matter, which is irredeemably evil, and spirit, which is good,
  2. Attributes creation of the material world to the Demiurge, who is ignorant and incompetent at best, evil at worst,
  3. Considers humans to be sparks of light from the Pleroma which have become trapped in material bodies, and thus
  4. Considers the goal of spirituality to be the escape of our spirits from imprisonment in the material world, so that we may return to the true God, who is purely spirit and far beyond this material cosmos.

Generally, Gnostic systems tend towards a belief in reincarnation–souls that have not advanced sufficiently to escape the cosmos return to birth in human form–but it’s not clear that this is held by all schools of Gnosticism.  Likewise, it’s unclear that Gnosticism is or is not universalistic.

It is certainly true that the Gnostic scripture The Tripartite Tractate (likely of the Valentinian school of Gnosticism) is most definitely not universalist.  It describes three classes of humans, the pneumatic, the psychic, and the hylic.  The pneumatic–“spiritual”–contain pure sparks of the Divine light, and will with no doubt return to the Pleroma, whence they came.  The psychic–“pertaining to the soul” or “pertaining to natural life”–are intermediate.  They may choose for God, and ultimately enter the Pleroma, or they may fall away, and be either doomed to destruction, or relegated to an intermediate, limbo-like state, depending on the interpretation.

The last category of humans is the hylic, or purely material.  The hylic have no spark of the Divine at all, nor even the “soul” of the psychic humans.  In a sense, they aren’t even “real” humans.  They have no true inner life, no soul, no spark of Divine life.  They are in effect philosophical zombies, or mere animals that appear to be human.  Thus, when they die, there is no part of them that can be redeemed.  It’s not that they’re evil, as such; they merely lack any eternal aspect of being.  Thus, like animals, they perish utterly and their bodies return to the elements.

Some modern Gnostics, I need to point out, view these three divisions not as categories of people but as psychological states.  In short, they argue, everyone is pneumatic in some aspects of their personality, psychic in others, and hylic in yet others.  Each person will tip more towards one of these than the others–a person might be predominantly pneumatic or psychic or hylic–but no individual is solely describable by any one category.  This more optimistic view would imply that everyone can eventually overcome the hylic and psychic parts of his personality, and thus ultimately be saved.  Modern Gnosticism, then, tends more towards universalism.  Whether this is an accurate interpretation of the ancient documents is another matter.  I’m inclined to think it’s an attempt to put a more forgiving, modern gloss over what the ancient scriptures actually say; but there’s no conclusive way to tell for sure.

Thus, while one cannot make a blanket statement for all forms of Gnosticism, it is clear that Gnostic systems are not necessarily universalist.

Mormonism

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints–the Mormon Church–is definitely Abrahamic.  However, whether it should be considered properly Christian, or as a different religion altogether, which merely uses Christian-sounding terminology, is a much-debated question.  For the purposes here, I don’t intend to walk into that minefield.  Suffice it to say that, Christian or not, Mormonism has an eschatology sufficiently different from standard Christian teaching as to deserve a brief discussion of its own.

Mormonism describes the afterlife in terms of different “Degrees of Glory“.  The highest degree, the Celestial Kingdom, is reserved for practicing Mormons (or those who accepted Mormonism after death) who have followed all ordinances and commands, and have become deified, worthy to be in the presence of the Father.  The next degree, the Terrestrial Kingdom, is inhabited by non-Mormon Christians and basically good people who otherwise fell short of the standards of the Celestial Kingdom.  They receive the presence of the Son.  Finally, the Telestial Kingdom is inhabited by non-Christians and general sinners, who, after being purged, inhabit the lowest Degree of Glory, in which they can receive the presence of the Holy Spirit.

There is also the Outer Darkness, inhabited by the Devil and his angels, and by the souls of humans who were truly wicked or who committed unpardonable sins.  This is the equivalent of Hell, but even it may not be eternal–the inhabitants thereof may perhaps be ultimately purified.  There is no settled dogma on this, however.  In any case, it is implied that very few humans actually go here, most being accepted into one of the Degrees of Glory.

Thus, while Mormonism is not universalist, properly so-called, it does have, as one Mormon writer I read once put it, the “biggest heaven and the smallest hell” of any major church.

Bahá’í Faith

The Bahá’í Faith is a religion founded in the mid-19th Century and claiming to be the culmination of all previous world religions.  Its founder, Bahá’u’lláh, claimed to be the Manifestation of God, whose mission was to unite all mankind in a new world religion.  In Bahá’í thought, there really was only ever one religion, the one revealed by the one God through various Manifestations (loosely, “prophets”).  Different religions contained different teachings merely because each one was a specific dispensation intended for a particular time, place, people, and culture.  With time, each dispensation ended, and in some cases, the original message became garbled and corrupted.  The Bahá’í Faith is said to be the final dispensation, doing away with the time-bound aspects of the previous dispensation so that all mankind may be united in one single religion.

Since the Bahá’í Faith claims to be the continuation of religions–such as Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism–which predate Abraham, it could be argued that it is not an Abrahamic faith, properly so-called.  Still, from a historical and cultural perspective, Bahá’ísm grew out of 19th Century Iranian Shīʿite Islam; so in this respect, it can be considered to be functionally Abrahamic.

Bahá’ísm teaches that the soul is immortal–hence it takes “resurrection” as a metaphor.  “Heaven” and “Hell” are relative degrees of being oriented towards or away from God.  In the afterlife, souls will realize their status, and will gradually continue on their journey towards God.  Thus, though its teachings on the afterlife are not as explicitly detailed as with some other religions, Bahá’ísm is essentially  universalistic.

Conclusion

By and large, universalism is not well-represented among the Abrahamic faiths.  Ahmadiyya Islam and Bahá’ísm seem to be the only Abrahamic faiths that are unequivocally universalist.  Judaism and Christianity have some universalist tendencies, but it would be incorrect to describe either, as traditionally understood, as universalist.  Islam seems the least universalist of all.

Having covered the Abrahamic religions, we will next look at the Dharmic faiths.

Part of the series “Universalism (What the Hell?!)

 

 

 

Posted on 02/02/2018, in Christianity, Gnosticism, Islam, Judaism, religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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