Sin and Atonement – The Baha’i Perspective

Thank you to  Paula A. Drewek

First of all, let me say that sin and atonement are not center-stage issues for Baha’is.  In the ethical realm, we focus on acquiring spiritual virtues such as wisdom, compassion, humility, purity, courtesy, truthfulness, and so many others. The process of personal spiritual growth is guided initially by parents, and teachers, but must be the result of volition in a mature person.  “It is for this reason that, in this New Cycle, education and training are recorded in the Book of God as obligatory and not voluntary. That is, it is enjoined upon the father and mother, as a duty, to strive with all effort to train the daughter and the son, to nurse them from the breast of knowledge and to rear them in the bosom of sciences and arts. Should they neglect this matter, they shall be held responsible and worthy of reproach in the presence of the stern Lord. This is a sin unpardonable, for they have made that poor babe a wanderer in the Sahara of ignorance, unfortunate and tormented; to remain during a lifetime a captive of ignorance and pride, negligent and without discernment.”  (Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith, p. 398)  Parents are accountable to God for the training and education of their children, both spiritually and materially.

The process of acquiring spiritual maturity is a life-long process until the moment of death.  It is certainly aided by prayer, training, reflection and service, but there is no ceremonial marker for one being “saved.”   The human is born pure and only later acquires sin through personal choice.  One does not carry another’s sin.  It is seen as something which stands between an individual and love of and obedience to God.  It distances you from the beauties of God’s bounty and grace.  Abdul-‘Baha, the founder’s son, closely echoes the Bhagavad-Gita in its proclamation that “whenever there is a decay of righteousness in the world, then I, Myself, come forth to destroy the sin of the sinner, to firmly establish righteousness, I am born from age to age.”

“If the edifice of religion shakes and totters, commotion and chaos will ensue and the order of things will be utterly upset, for in the world of mankind there are two safeguards that protect man from wrongdoing. One is the law which punishes the criminal; but the law prevents only the manifest crime and not the concealed sin; whereas the ideal safeguard, namely, the religion of God, prevents both the manifest and the concealed crime, trains man, educates morals, compels the adoption of virtues and is the all-inclusive power which guarantees the felicity of the world of mankind. But by religion is meant that which is ascertained by investigation and not that which is based on mere imitation, the foundation of Divine Religions and not human imitations.     (Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith p. 289)

As an example of spirituality and the acquisition of virtues, take the teaching of cleanliness described here by Abdul-‘Baha:

“External cleanliness, although it is but a physical thing, hath a great influence upon spirituality. For example, although sound is but the vibrations of the air which affect the tympanum of the ear…, consider how much marvelous notes or a charming song influence the spirits! A wonderful song giveth wings to the spirit and filleth the heart with exaltation. To return to the subject, the fact of having a pure and spotless body likewise exerciseth an influence upon the spirit of man.”

“The meaning is, in all conditions, cleanliness and sanctity, purity and delicacy exalt humanity and make the contingent beings progress. Even when applied to physical things, delicacy causeth the attainment of spirituality, as it is established in the Holy Scriptures.” (Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith, p. 333)

“Certain prohibitions are absolute and imperative for all: he who commits that which is forbidden is detested by God and excluded from the number of the elect. This applieth to the things forbidden by an absolute prohibition and of which the perpetration is a grave sin; they are so vile that even to mention them is shameful. There are other forbidden things which do not cause an immediate evil and of which the pernicious effect is only gradually produced. They are also abhorred, blamed and rejected by God, but their prohibition is not recorded in an absolute way. One of these last prohibitions is the smoking of tobacco, which is unclean, malodorous, disagreeable and vulgar and of which the gradual harmfulness is universally recognized” (Abdu’l-Baha, Baha World Faith, p. 333)

Enough talk of sin; we move now to atonement. If sin is a distancing from God, then atonement certainly is drawing close once again.  Therefore, atonement must be a continual process of using one’s volition to draw near to God through prayer, following the laws and proscriptions of religion and virtuous conduct.  More generally, it may be described as putting oneself right with the world, with the divine order established by the laws and teachings of religion.

“Should anyone be afflicted by a sin, it behoveth him to repent thereof and return unto his Lord. He, verily, granteth forgiveness unto whomsoever He willeth, and none may question that which it pleaseth Him to ordain. He is, in truth, the Ever-Forgiving, the Almighty, the All-Praised. (Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 37)  So, Baha’is have prayers for forgiveness which may be used daily, weekly, whenever needed.  We do not confess to another, but in privacy to God only.  To confess to another is shameful and abases one before another.

“Praise be unto thee, O Lord.  Forgive us our sins, have mercy upon us and enable us to return unto Thee.  Suffer us not to rely on aught else besides Thee, and vouchsafe unto us, through Thy bounty, that which Thou lovest and desirest and well beseemth Thee……”  the Bab

“Repentance is the return from disobedience to obedience. Man, after remoteness and deprivation from God, repents and undergoes purification: and this is a symbol signifying “O God! make my heart good and pure, freed and sanctified from all save Thy love.”(Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 91)