On Good and Evil1
In contrast to a number of other religious doctrines and philosophies, the Bahá'í Faith does not teach that the physical desires of human beings are "evil" or "bad." Everything in God's creation is regarded as essentially and fundamentally good. In fact, the very purpose of the human body and its physical faculties is to serve as a proper vehicle for the development of the soul . As the energies of the body are gradually brought under the conscious control of the soul, they become instruments for the expression of spiritual qualities. It is only undisciplined physical passions that become causes of harm, and hinder spiritual progress.
For example, the human sexual urge is considered to be a gift from God. Its disciplined expression within the legitimate bonds of marriage can be a powerful expression of the spiritual quality of love. However, the same sexual urge, if misused, can lead one into perverse, wasteful, and even destructive actions.
Since the body is the vehicle of the rational soul in this life on earth, it is important to maintain and care for it. Bahá'u'lláh strongly discouraged any form of asceticism or extreme self-denial. His emphasis was on healthy discipline. Therefore the Bahá'í writings contain a number of practical laws relating to the care of the human body: proper nutrition, regular bathing, and so forth. Underlying these, as with many other aspects of Bahá'í belief, is the principle of moderation: things that are beneficial when kept within the limits of moderation become harmful when taken to extremes.
The Bahá'í writings acknowledge explicitly that certain physical factors beyond the control of the individual, such as genetic weaknesses, or inadequate childhood nutrition, can have a significant effect on one's development during his earthly life. But such material influences are not permanent, and they have no power in themselves to harm or damage the soul. At most, they can only retard temporarily the spiritual growth process , and even this effect can be counterbalanced by a subsequent burst of more rapid development. Indeed, the Bahá'í writings explain that it is often in the individual's determined and courageous struggle against physical, emotional, and mental handicaps that the greatest spiritual growth occurs, and the individual may come to view his handicaps as blessings in disguise that have, ultimately, helped him grow spiritually. Thus, admitting that physical conditions can affect, temporarily but significantly, the spiritual growth process is far from believing, as many philosophical materialists do, that we are totally determined by some combination of genetic and environmental physical factors:
...movement is essential to all existence. All material things progress to a certain point, then begin to decline. This is the law which governs the whole physical creation.... But with the human soul, there is no decline. Its only movement is toward perfection; growth and progress alone constitute the motion of the soul....
The world of mortality is a world of contradictions, of opposites; motion being compulsory everything must either go forward or retreat. In the realm of spirit there is no retreat possible, all movement is bound to be towards a perfect state.2
The theme of growth through struggle and suffering occurs at several places in the Bahá'í writings. Although many of our sufferings result from careless living and are therefore potentially avoidable, a certain amount of suffering is necessary in any growth process. Indeed, we understand and accept that suffering and self-sacrifice are essential components of achieving material or intellectual success. Thus, we should not be surprised that the even more important endeavor of achieving spiritual growth might also involve those same elements:
Everything of importance in this world demands the close attention of its seeker. The one in pursuit of anything must undergo difficulties and hardships until the object in view is attained and the great success is obtained. This is the case of things pertaining to the world. How much higher is that which concerns the Supreme Concourse!3
This brings us to the Bahá'í concept of the relationship between good and evil in man. `Abdu'l-Bahá describes it thus:
In creation there is no evil, all is good. Certain qualities and natures innate in some men and apparently blameworthy are not so in reality. For example, from the beginning of his life you can see in a nursing child the signs of greed, of anger, and of temper. Then, it may be said, good and evil are innate in the reality of man, and this is contrary to the pure goodness of nature and creation. The answer to this is that greed, which is to ask for something more, is a praiseworthy quality provided that it is used suitably. So, if a man is greedy to acquire science and knowledge, or to become compassionate, generous, and just, it is most praiseworthy. If he exercises his anger and wrath against the bloodthirsty tyrants who are like ferocious beasts, it is very praiseworthy; but if he does not use these qualities in a right way, they are blameworthy.... It is the same with all the natural qualities of man, which constitute the capital of life; if they be used and displayed in an unlawful way, they become blameworthy. Therefore, it is clear that creation is purely good.4
The Bahá'í Faith does not therefore accept the concept of "original sin" or any related doctrine which considers that people are basically evil or have intrinsically evil elements in their nature. All the forces and faculties within us are God-given and thus potentially beneficial to our spiritual development. In the same way, the Bahá'í teachings deny the existence of Satan, a devil, or an "evil force." Evil, it is explained, is the absence of good; darkness is the absence of light; cold is the absence of heat.5 Just as the sun is the unique source of all life in a solar system, so ultimately is there only one force or power in the universe, the force we call God.
However, if a person, through his own God-given free will, turns away from this force or fails to make the necessary effort to develop his spiritual capacities, the result is imperfection. Both within the individual and in society, there will be what one might term "dark spots." These dark spots are imperfections, and `Abdu'l-Bahá has said that "evil is imperfection."
If a tiger kills and eats another animal, this is not evil, because it is an expression of the tiger's natural instinct for survival. But if a person kills and eats a fellow human being, this same act may be considered evil because man is capable of doing otherwise. Such an act is not an expression of his true nature.
As relatively undeveloped creatures, we have certain intrinsic needs that demand satisfaction. These needs are partly physical and tangible and partly spiritual and intangible. It is God who has created us in this manner and placed us in this situation. Because God truly loves us, he has provided for the legitimate satisfaction of all our needs. But if, whether through simple ignorance or willful rebellion, we try to satisfy some of our needs in an illegitimate or unhealthy way, then we may distort our true nature and generate within ourselves new appetites incapable of genuine satisfaction:
... capacity is of two kinds: natural capacity and acquired capacity. The first, which is the creation of God, is purely good--in the creation of God there is no evil; but the acquired capacity has become the cause of the appearance of evil. For example, God has created all men in such a manner and has given them such a constitution and such capacities that they are benefited by sugar and honey and harmed and destroyed by poison. This nature and constitution is innate, and God has given it equally to all mankind. But man begins little by little to accustom himself to poison by taking a small quantity each day, and gradually increasing it, until he reaches such a point that he cannot live without a gram of opium every day. The natural capacities are thus completely perverted. Observe how much the natural capacity and constitution can be changed, until by different habits and training they become entirely perverted. One does not criticize vicious people because of their innate capacities and nature, but rather for their acquired capacities and nature.6
Bahá'u'lláh said that pride, or self-centeredness, is one of the greatest hindrances to spiritual progress. Pride represents an exaggerated sense of one's own importance in the universe and leads to an attitude of superiority over others. The prideful person feels as though he is or ought to be in absolute control of his life and the circumstances surrounding it, and he seeks power and dominance over others because such power helps him maintain this illusion of superiority. Thus, pride is such a hindrance to spiritual growth because it impels the prideful individual on an endless quest to fulfill the expectations of his vainly-conceived and illusory self-concept.
In other words, the key to understanding Bahá'í morality and ethics is to be found in the Bahá'í notion of spiritual progress: that which is conducive to spiritual progress is good, and whatever tends to hinder spiritual progress is bad. Thus, from the Bahá'í viewpoint, learning "good" from "bad" (or "right" from "wrong") means attaining a degree of self-knowledge that permits us to know when something is helpful to our spiritual growth and when it is not. 7 And this knowledge can only be obtained through the teachings of the Manifestations .
Bahá'u'lláh repeatedly stressed that only revealed religion can save us from our imperfections. It is because God has sent his Manifestations to show us the path to spiritual development and to touch our hearts with the spirit of God's love that we are able to realize our true potential and make the effort to be united with God. This is the "salvation" that religion brings. It does not save us from the stain of some "original sin," nor does it protect us from some external evil force or devil. Rather, it delivers us from captivity to our own lower nature, a captivity that breeds private despair and threatens social destruction, and it shows us the path to a deep and satisfying happiness.
Indeed, the essential reason for such widespread unhappiness and terrible social conflict and crises in the world today is that humankind has turned away from true religion and spiritual principles. The only salvation in any age, Bahá'ís believe, is to turn again towards God, to accept his Manifestation for that day, and to follow his teachings. Bahá'u'lláh pointed out that, if we reflect deeply on the conditions of our existence, we must eventually realize and admit to ourselves that, in absolute terms, we possess nothing. Everything we are or have--our physical body and our rational soul--all comes from our Creator. Since God has freely given us so much, we have, in turn, an obligation to God. Bahá'u'lláh stated that human beings have two basic duties towards God:
The first duty prescribed by God for His servants is the recognition of Him Who is the Day Spring 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 [i.e. the Manifestation].... It behoveth every one 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. 8
In another passage, Bahá'u'lláh reminded his followers that the duties which God has given to us are only for our benefit: God Himself has no need of our worship or allegiance, for God is entirely self-sufficient and independent of all His creation. We can therefore be certain that everything God does is motivated uniquely by His pure love for us. There is no "self-interest" on the part of God:
Whatever duty Thou [God] hast prescribed unto Thy servants of extolling to the utmost Thy majesty and glory is but a token of Thy grace unto them, that they may be enabled to ascend unto the station conferred upon their own inmost being, the station of the knowledge of their own selves.9
- Adapted from William S. Hatcher and J. Douglas Martin, The Bahá'í Faith: The Emerging Global Religion (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), pp. 108-114.
- `Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks (London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1969), pp. 89-90. However, there are inherent limits to human spiritual development, whether in this world or the next. The Bahá'í writings affirm that human beings can approach but never attain a state of absolute perfection. `Abdu'l-Bahá states: "If it were possible to reach a limit of perfection, then one of the realities of the beings might reach the condition of being independent of God, and the contingent might attain to the condition of the absolute. But for every being there is a point which it cannot overpass...he who is in the condition of servitude, however far he may progress in gaining limitless perfections, will never reach the condition of Deity...All that he can do is, in the condition of servitude, to attain endless perfections. . ." `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions(Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1981) pp. 230-31.
- `Abdu'l-Bahá, Divine Art of Living (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1944), p. 92.
- `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 215 (1981 ed.).
- Bahá'u'lláh explained that references to Satan in the Scriptures of earlier religions are symbolic and should not be taken literally. Satan is the personification of man's lower nature which can destroy him if it is not brought into harmony with his spiritual nature. There is, in fact, a well-known philosophical problem concerning God's goodness and omnipotence and the possible existence of a Satan. This problem is discussed in some detail in both the writings of Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá. In the same way, heaven and hell are, Bahá'u'lláh taught, not literal places. Rather, they symbolize the psychological and spiritual states of being close to God or far from him. Heaven is the natural consequence of spiritual progress while Hell represents the results of failure to progress spiritually.
- `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, pp. 214-215 (1981 ed.).
- In this connection, Bahá'u'lláh has said: "...man should know his own self and know those things which lead to loftiness or to baseness, to shame or to honor." Bahá'u'lláh in Bahá'í World Faith (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976), p. 167.
- Bahá'u'lláh, Kitab-i-Aqdas (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1993), par. 1.
- Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, 2d rev. ed. (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976), pp. 4-5.