The eschatology of the Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions each greatly influenced all of the others, though Zoroastrianism had a particularly significant impact on all of the rest. Each faith evolved over time, and people of each religion exchanged beliefs and ideas. Eventually, they evolved into the four religions we know today and each has sects of its own which have differing views on their own eschatology, with Judaism and Zoroastrianism generally being the most flexible faiths.
Eschatology concerns itself with the views held by a person (or a group) regarding the end of the world and the final destination or fate of living creatures. Many different concepts have arisen over the millennia as people discussed what our fate might be. For these four particular religious traditions, the primary concepts are those of resurrection, immortality of the soul, judgment for actions in this life, salvation, heaven, hell, and the fate of the physical world. Resurrection and immortality of the soul are similar in that they both deal with what remains of an individual after a physical death. Resurrection can be either of the body or of the spirit. In Christianity, debate still goes on about precisely what this involves. Paul taught that it is not something we can grasp with our limited understanding, and used the metaphor of a seed growing into a tree; if one didn’t already know where trees came from, it would not seem possible for a tree to grow from such a small thing. Judaism and Zoroastrianism have doctrines regarding the resurrection of the body. And while it isn’t completely clear in Islam, Muslims definitely think of pain after death as a very physical phenomenon (Johnson, p. 138).
Conversely, the immortality of the soul simply suggests that there is some part of a person that persists after death, it need not consist of one’s personality. Judgment is simply the act of God determining to what realm of the afterlife individuals are assigned, while salvation is generally gaining access to heaven. Heaven and hell are often described in very extreme physical terms with the caveat that we don’t actually know what they will be like, or that our minds and our senses can’t grasp the true nature of what the descriptions attempt to convey.
Alternatively, heaven and hell can be thought of as some form of existence with God or apart from God, respectively. Some Jewish thinkers believe that heaven is to be made on earth by performing God’s laws. In some faiths the world is remade at the end of time, in others it is destroyed and replaced with a new heaven.
All four of these religions have evolved greatly from the time they “originated”, and this often resulted from cultural exchanges of the practitioners of each faith, though sometimes it is difficult to determine which faith influenced which in regard to particular ideas. For example, Zoroastrian tradition holds that a beam of light impregnated a woman, which appears to be a clear adoption of the Christian idea of the Immaculate Conception. This would seem to fit in with what is currently a generally belief that the biography of Zoroaster was somewhat embellished posthumously in order to appear more in line with what was seen as the typical life of a religious prophet in the Near East. Similarly, the assembly in the book of Revelations is very similar to the assembly of Isat-Vastar in the Zoroastrian tradition which occurs at the end of time, when The Lord of Wisdom provides universal salvation (Zoroastrian text handout): “Then the assembly of Isat-Vastar will meet, where all mankind will stand at this time. In that assembly, everyone sees his own good deeds and his own evil deeds. A wicked man becomes as conspicuous as a white sheep among those which are black… Afterwards, they separate the righteous from the wicked.”
The Zoroastrian faith also refers to the Saoshyant, who is a messiah figure who returns to announce the end of the world. This is very similar to, and perhaps an adoption of, the Christian and Muslim ideas of the way in which Jesus and the 12th Imam (respectively) will return to earth and usher in the final judgment. Zoroastrianism greatly influenced the eschatology of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. While it is obvious that no one knows with certainty what takes place after death, Jewish biblical thought was relatively quiet on the matter for a long time. Early biblical thought held that was no afterlife (Johnson, p. 150). But it was true that they believed some rational essence within each person went down to Sheol, which was perceived as a dark place where there was no work or activity, no judgment, no knowledge of what occurred on earth, and no worship of God. This last part could be considered consistent with the teaching that God was the God of the living, not God of the dead. But as Ma’súmián discussed on page 39 of his text, the Zoroastrian conceptions of heaven (a realm of infinite suffering and torment where spirits of the wicked go after death to await the final Judgment) and hell (a realm of infinite pleasure for the spirits of those who were good and ethical to await the final Judgment) had an enormous influence on Jewish thought. As centuries passed, Jewish texts were written that incorporated ideas borrowed from Zoroastrianism regarding general and personal eschatologies (Ma’súmián, p. 30-31).
During the second century B.C.E. the book of Ecclesiasticus was written, which simply reaffirmed the Old Testament’s notion of a messianic kingdom on earth (also mentioned in Tobit and Psalms). Additionally, it included the same traditional ideas about Sheol but added that personal punishment for evil deeds would be paid on earth. If no punishment were received, then the evil-doer’s children would become destitute during their lifetime (Ma’súmián, p. 32-35).
The books of Enoch also made several sweeping changes to Jewish beliefs about life after death. Initially, the first book of Enoch did away with the notion that Sheol is a place devoid of judgment and made it the location where souls go after death to await God’s Day of Judgment. The wicked who died after receiving punishment on earth remained in Sheol forever, as they needed no more judgment, but the righteous souls as well as the wicked souls who died without receiving judgment on earth must wait to be resurrected in order to be judged by God at the Day of Judgment. Later, Enoch described the righteous as awaiting God’s judgment in paradise, and it described Sheol as a hellish place with flames and chains in which to hold the wicked while they are tormented. Finally, Ma’súmián wrote that Enoch described the earthly kingdom which the righteous will enjoy before the Day of Judgment, after which the earth will be annihilated and replaced with a new heaven. (Ma’súmián, p. 33-38). While modern Jews for the most part don’t subscribe to ideas of heaven as bliss or hell with any form of painful, fiery punishment, they do believe in God’s judgment (Johnson, p. 150).
Similar to how Jewish notions of heaven and hell can be seen as evolving over time, as a result of the adoption of Zoroastrian doctrines, so can their sense of resurrection. Judaism adopted the idea of resurrecting the body in order to be with God in heaven after the Day of Judgment, just as the Zoroastrian faith holds that the bodies will be resurrected. And as Zoroastrianism directly influenced Judaism in this way, it also indirectly influenced Christianity and Islam, as they were each derived from the previous faith(s). In addition to having Zoroastrian contributions inherited through Judaism, smaller doctrines and details were also passed down directly from Zoroastrianism. Roman Catholicism’s idea of purgatory (Johnson, p. 201), for example, is extremely similar to Zoroastrian’s concept of Limbo (Johnson, p.259). Some suggested this realm was also part of the Muslim worldview because of the reference to “the heights” within the Qur’an. There is also a reference in the Qur’an to a bridge that one walks across during the Day of Judgment in order to reach the heaven. (Johnson, p. 141).
Over long periods of time, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all grew into the traditions we know today. While they have doctrines that can be seen as very similar, each is unique and has within it two or more sects that hold views which contrast in ways that are small but often very significant. Depending on the criteria used, Christianity, Judaism, or Zoroastrianism could be declared as the most flexible, or as offering the widest range of possible personal persuasions while still allowing for salvation.
If one is only using the criterion of salvation immediately after death, then Judaism is likely to be considered the most flexible faith, as it allows non-Jews access to salvation as long as they live ethical lives. (Johnson, p. 150): “Because Judainsm is not a creedal religions, adherence to each specific doctrine, such as heaven and hell, is not entirely obligatory… Entrance is gained [to heaven] by righteous deeds and an ethical living pattern. Behavioral performance and helpfulness to others are regarded as the true test of character… Anyone who fulfills the basic commandments for proper relationships with others is still regarded as worthy of salvation, although he or she may not have chosen the Jewish pathway… Fervent Jews deplore atheists and agnostics especially, but none would disagree that proper conduct and behavior is the one standard that can be applied to all humankind, Jews and Gentiles, believers and unbelievers, alike.” But, as it has been taught in the past, Judaism is a bloodline tradition.
If one is only using the criterion of eventual salvation, then Zoroastrianism would probably be viewed as the most flexible faith, as all humans are said to be saved at the end of time when evil is vanquished and even hell is transformed into part of the perfected world which humans will inherit (Zoroastrian text handout): “Afterwards, and with the greatest affection, all men come together, father and son and brother…All men become of one voice and administer loud praise to Ahura Mazda and the archangels… and all men become immortal forever and everlasting. Whoever had been an adult, they restore him then with an age of forty years. They who had been little when not dead, they restore him with an age of fifteen years.” Of course, Zoroastrianism has a prohibition on accepting converts (Johnson, p. 246).
However, if one is judging the flexibility of these religions on both the ability to join the faith as well as the range of intellectual persuasions, then Christianity would most likely be on top. Depending on the denomination, in order to call oneself a Christian, it is necessary to, at a minimum, believe that Jesus was the son of God and that he died to forgive the sins of humanity. Although it is not an official doctrine, many believers within some of the more liberal Protestant Christian traditions believe in the possibility of universal salvation through God’s grace.
What grants us salvation is slightly, but very significantly, different in each religion. As alluded to above, Christian tradition dictates that only faith can grant someone access to heaven because nothing we do in this life could be considered enough to atone for original sin of humankind. No other religions hold the belief that we are inherently flawed. Zoroastrianism grants ethical followers of its faith access to heaven immediately after death and gives access to everyone else after evil has been purged from the world, at which time it will be trapped within matter. Judaism, on the other hand, requires adherence to ethical codes of conduct. Finally, Islam requires obedience to Allah and the laws contained within the Qur’an (which came directly from Allah), and adherence to the Five Pillars of Faith which include vocal declaration that there is no God but God and Muhammad is His prophet (dissenting to this is certain to lead to hell), praying five times a day in the direction of Mecca, fasting during Ramadan, paying the tax to help the needy, and traveling to Mecca and Medina once during the individual’s lifetime(Johnson, p. 134). Surah 37 gives some insight into the conversation between Muhammad and those he was attempting to convert. It appears to show a dialogue in which others question the teachings and are told they will be punished horribly, but justly (Surah 37 of Qur’anic text handout): 35. For they, when they were told that there is no God except Alla, would puff themselves up with pride 36. and say: “What! Shall we give up our gods for the sake of a poet possessed?” 37. Nay! He has come with the (very) truth and he confirms (the message) 38. Ye shall taste of the grievous penalty 39. but it will be no more then retribution of (the evil) that ye have wrought.”
Islam holds that Jews and Christians should be respected because their faiths came first, but also that they perverted the teachings and should convert to Islam. The Muslim tradition is unique in the sense that it actually proclaims to be the successor, and the correct version, of Judaism and Christianity. And while Moses, Abraham, Noah, and Jesus were prophets, Islam dictated that Muhammad was the final prophet who would correct the teachings of god which had been twisted for centuries. Cultural exchanges, often occurring during periods of conquest, were the causes of much of the symmetry that is seen between Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The influences Zoroastrianism and Judaism had on each other were particularly profound, as some adherents of the Jewish faith broke off to form Christianity. Then, Judaism and Christianity were both well-known to the founder of and the early adherents of Islam, allowing Zoroastrian influences to work up to Islam both directly and indirectly.
Johnson, Christopher Jay and Marsha G. McGee, eds. How Different Religions View Death and the Afterlife. Second edition. Philadelphia, PA: The Charles Press, Publishers, 1998.
Ma’súmián, Farnáz. Life After Death. Los Angeles, CA: Kalimát Press, 1995.
Quar’anic Text handout (from class)
Zoroastrian Text Handout (from class)