Deification of Prophets After Death:
A Common Theme Across All Religions
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In the span of 4 days, two entirely separate religions will celebrate holidays marking very similar occasions.
On May 26, Christians celebrated Ascension Day, the day — 40 days after his resurrection on Easter — that Jesus ascended to heaven in bodily form. Meanwhile, the Baha’i faith holds May 29 to be a holy day in their calendar, as it is the anniversary of the bodily death of the founding prophet Baha’u’llah.
Both religions believe in an afterlife, so death for all people is seen as just the start of a new journey; indeed, the same can be said about all religions. But there is obviously more special significance to the death of prophets across religions.
Most religious traditions have come to deify their prophets in one form or another, viewing them as something more than human, especially after their deaths.
Deification of prophets after their death is one main avenue whereby these individuals are elevated to a status that is fundamentally beyond humanity. And as with mysterious birth narratives, these stories are up to interpretation: we can accept the literal meaning that there are gods who appear on Earth and walk among us in human form, or we can understand them more as expressions of deep reverence for prophets, who should be seen as exemplars of moral behavior and wisdom.
I used to believe, for instance, that Lord Krishna was an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, and literally incarnated and walked around on Earth as a human being. And though I have come to interpret this more metaphorically later in life, many Hindus — including my mother — do indeed continue to believe this literal version, just as most Christians believe that Jesus was and is a living incarnation of the Abrahamic God.
It is no wonder why religious communities would think of their prophets as such special beings: they give birth to new worldviews and community practices and structures that transcend vast geographical and generational expanses. Stories of their deification keep religions alive even after their founders have passed away.
The followers of prophets across religions have also always had a vested interest in deifying their leader — by pronouncing them as gods, the teachings attributed to them became absolute and unquestionable. This is the way followers are recruited, and unfortunately it also opens the door to abuses of power as religious leaders seek to gain control over their followers by appealing to authoritative scriptures that cannot be argued against or by claiming to be in direct contact with these prophets or with God.
One example of a prophet deified after death is Confucius, but Confucius was never thought of as a prophet during his life — indeed, though he was much beloved by his students, he along with his teachings did not achieve much fame during his life. Nevertheless, his teachings have been gospel in China for thousands of years, having an overwhelming influence on the cultural and educational direction of the nation matched by none. In this sense, it is perhaps his teachings more so than him as an individual which have been deified.
Two examples of prophets that faced, and thwarted, attempts at deification during their lifetime were the Buddha and Muhammad. Muhammad was quick to insist that there was nothing divine or miraculous about him, that he was simply God’s messenger, and that people should direct all their reverence toward Allah rather than toward himself. This is why it is still highly taboo to depict Muhammad directly in any form — he expressly forbade this, as he did not want his followers to deify him for fear that they would worship him rather than God.
Finally, in Judaism and Daoism there are examples of describing prophets as immortal. In the Hebrew Bible, Enoch and Elijah are the only two human beings to have never died, entering into the kingdom of Heaven while still fully alive. And in Taoism, prophets such as Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu are said to dwell in a heavenly realm among the gods and other “Immortals,” individuals who were so skilled at cultivating the Tao in their lifetime that they essentially achieved superpowers and immortality, with the ability to walk through fire, walk on clouds, and so forth. Sometimes, too, these prophets are said to be mythical creatures like dragons.
Although many prophets explicitly denied that they were anything more than human during their lifetime, their followers elevated their status to rally the religious community around such individuals by collectively recognizing them as special and superior. However, this sometimes has the unfortunate side-effect of emboldening followers to take an exclusivist attitude toward religion, seeing the doctrines and prophets of other traditions as inferior imposters.
“These are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”
— The New Testament (John 20:31), Christian text
“The double nature of incarnation — simultaneously human and not human — can be traced back to the Upanishadic belief that our souls are all incarnations of the immortal brahman though our bodies are subject to the cycle of reincarnation.”
— Wendy Doniger, Indologist and historian of religion
“Notwithstanding [the Buddha’s] own objectivity toward himself, there was constant pressure during his lifetime to turn him into a god. This he rebuffed categorically, insisting that he was a human in every respect. He made no attempt to conceal his temptations and weaknesses — how difficult it had been to attain enlightenment, how narrow the margin by which he had won through, how fallible he still remained.”
— Huston Smith, scholar of religion
“The Prophets, unlike us, are pre-existent. The Soul of Christ existed in the spiritual world before His birth in this world. We cannot imagine what that world is like, so words are inadequate to picture His state of being.”
— Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i leader
“It can be said that [Chang Tzu] is in accord with the Author of the Tao, and soars to the highest heights. Indeed this is so, but he still continues to explore with us the changes and transformations that arise within all, and come from him. His teachings have never been fully appreciated, as they are difficult and subtle.”
— The Book of Chuang Tzu, Daoist text
“With [Confucius’] death began his glorification. Among his disciples the move was immediate, and from them it spread steadily. What would have pleased him more was the attention given to his ideas. Until this century, every Chinese school child for two thousand years raised his clasped hands each morning toward a table in the schoolroom that bore a plaque bearing Confucius’ name.”
— Huston Smith, scholar of religion
“In an age charged with supernaturalism, when miracles were accepted as the stock-in-trade of the most ordinary saint, Muhammad refused to pander to human credulity. Allah, he insisted, had not sent him to work wonders. If signs be sought, let them not be of Muhammad’s greatness but of God’s, and for these one need only open one’s eyes to the wonders of nature. The only miracle that Muhammad claimed was that of the Koran itself. That he with his own resources could have produced such truth — this was the one naturalistic hypothesis he could not accept.”
— Huston Smith, scholar of religion
“[One] common way of connecting religion and morality is that some supernatural agents provide a model to follow. This is the paragon model in which saints or holy people are both different enough from common folk that they approach an ideal and close enough so their behavior can serve as a model. This is the way people conceive of individuals with supernatural qualities such as Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad or the many Christian and Muslim saints as well as the miracle-working rabbis of Judaism.”
— Pascal Boyer, cognitive anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist
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