When you mention Middle Eastern monotheistic religions virtually everyone knows of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But there is a fourth religion—with an estimated 200,000 adherents—that fits that same category, yet few people know much about it at all.
Allow me to briefly begin exploring this lesser-known religion by starting with a thought experiment about what might await human beings in the immediate wake of death. This thought experiment about the afterlife does not reflect a Christian perspective but rather what I call the common man-on-the-street perspective. Interestingly, this man-on-the-street view is virtually the same as the view held by this lesser-known religion.
Anticipating Future Events
So, let’s say that you amazingly survive the death of your body and awake to a conscious existence in the next life. You now anticipate having a face-to-face meeting with the Almighty. Filled with trepidation and incredible inner angst, you wonder how your personal tête-à-tête with God will go. Questions naturally arise in your mind: How will God evaluate the life you’ve lived? Will you be relegated to heaven or hell? And what is God’s basis for granting people eternal life or eternal damnation in the hereafter? In other words, is there any hope of a good outcome?
One of the most intriguing religious views of the afterlife comes from the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism.1 Known also as the Parsi faith, Zoroastrianism was the religion of Iran prior to the coming of Islam. The prophet Zoroaster (c. 628–551 BC) preached a monotheistic faith that identified Ahura Mazda as the creator God. An ancient religion that reflects a moral dualism, the Parsi faith places a strong emphasis upon individual human choice and responsibility. Zoroastrianism affirms the principle of retribution regarding one’s actions in life. This idea parallels the Eastern principle of karma. According to the sacred text known as the Yasna (part of the larger body of Parsi writings called the Avesta), all actions have direct repercussions—“evil to evil, good to good.”1 This law of retribution and humankind’s free agency is vividly illustrated in Zoroastrianism’s gripping story of eschatological finality (the last or end-time events of humankind).
Zoroastrianism’s View of the End
Zoroastrianism proclaims that upon a person’s death, the soul remains with the body for three days and engages in deep reflection upon the deeds performed in life. On the fateful fourth day, the soul travels to the destination of final judgment before Mithra—the judge of the dead. Mithra evaluates a person’s actions in life, both good and bad (including thought, word, and deed), by placing their deeds on a scale. Then the record of the soul is read and the merits and demerits are cast. This careful weighing and balancing of life’s actions produces two possible final outcomes.
The Good Soul
If the preponderance of one’s deeds done over a lifetime are benevolent in nature, then that person’s soul will be allowed to enter into paradise. The soul on its way to heaven crosses the Chinvat Bridge, which spans the abyss of hell and at its farther end opens up into paradise. Because of the person’s overall moral goodness reflected in life, the bridge becomes wide and easy to navigate and the person walks without difficulty into the place of blessing. Beautiful maidens even escort the good person across the threshold of paradise. Then the prophet Zoroaster greets the noble one in heaven. Thus the benevolent souls dwell in “The House of Song.” World religions scholar Lewis Hopfe describes the Zoroastrian heaven as “a place of great beauty, light, pleasant scents, and noble souls who have lived life according to Zoroastrian ethics.”2
The Bad Soul
But if the preponderance of one’s deeds over the entire span of life weighs more heavily in the direction of evil, then the scenario changes drastically. The person whose life has been dominated by malevolence is sentenced to hell. Thus the evil person is condemned and forced to navigate the Chinvat Bridge. But for the damned the bridge becomes impossible to cross, for it is as treacherous as walking on the edge of a sword. Furthermore, an “old hag” (a Zoroastrian description) relentlessly torments the evil person so that they inevitably fall off the bridge into hell. The wicked soul inhabits “The House of the Lie.” The Zoroastrian hell is an exceptionally terrible place where the condemned suffer dreadfully and where time passes incredibly slowly. World religions author John Noss describes this place of condemnation as “an ill-smelling region . . . in its lightless depths sad voices cry out, but each sufferer is forever ‘alone.’”3
In the Zoroastrian religion, individuals decide their own destiny through choice and action. Thus on judgment day the greater the accumulated moral goodness measured in one’s life is justly rewarded with paradise. Likewise, the greater the accumulated moral evil in one’s life is punished with banishment to hell. Paradise then stands as an earned reward and hell as a just punishment. The religion of Zoroastrianism knows no concept of grace or redemption as is revealed in the Bible.4 In the final consummation, the Parsi faith appears to affirm a grand purification of all souls including the condemned (resulting in a type of universalism).
Zoroastrian theology has some intriguing parallels with Islamic theology, and both Middle Eastern religions have a view of the afterlife that is similar with what I call the common man-on-the-street view.
In a forthcoming article, I will draw some conclusions about why this common view of the afterlife is held by certain religions like Zoroastrianism and Islam and will contrast it with a historic Christian perspective. Stay connected at Reflections on WordPress to learn even more about this little-known Middle Eastern monotheistic religion.