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.
“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
“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