Zoroastrianism and the Cosmic Conflict between Good and Evil

Symbolism of Zarathustra | Courtesy by Jacktrick

Zoroastrianism was a dualist faith that originated in Persia, and over the years it has influenced a number of other faiths. Even though we may not recognize it today, it has been an influence on a number of world religions, especially on Christianity and Islam. Zoroastrianism is a belief system that stresses how we as human beings were meant to strive for our full potential. A primary tenet of the faith is that righteous and upstanding people will participate in the rewards of paradise, while the evil-doers will undergo punishments in hell.1

The prophet and founder of Zoroastrianism was Zarathustra, a man from an aristocratic family in Rhages, Media. Most scholars believe that Zarathustra was born around the late seventh and early sixth centuries B.C.E. He was a priest who became disillusioned with Persian ancestral religion, so instead he decided to search for inspiration and wisdom, and for a deeper meaning to life. After ten years of traveling, he finally realized that he had been called to be a prophet of Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Light. “He received a revelation in the form of the Avesta, the holy book of his religion, and commissioned to preach to humankind.”2 He would preach the Gathas; these were known as the hymns to the gods.

The central claim of Zoroastrianism is that there are two coequal and co-eternal gods: Ahura Mazda, the All-knowing Lord of Light, and Angra Mainyu or Ahriman, the Lord of Darkness. These gods represent an extreme dualism, where followers were given the option of choosing whom to worship. Ahura Mazda would save or condemn individuals based on whichever choice they decided to make.3 The people would experience rewards and punishments based on how they chose to behave. If they followed “Good words, Good thoughts, Good deeds,” they would be able to appreciate all the pleasures Ahura Mazda had in store for them in the afterlife.4

Faravahar, the visual aspect of Ahuramazda. Relief from Persepolis. | Courtesy Marco Prins
Faravahar, the visual aspect of Ahuramazda | Relief from Persepolis | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Devotees of Zoroastrianism believed that Ahura Mazda first produced the World of Thought and then gave birth to the World of the Living; but there was not yet life. Angra Mainyu challenged this pre-creation with his own counter-creation in order to destroy what Ahura Mazda was establishing. The Lord of Darkness wanted to demolish it with darkness, sickness, and death. Before Angra Mainyu was able to attack, Ahura Mazda forced him to recoil to the darkness. He was stunned into unconsciousness for three thousand years.5

Ahura Mazda then prepared for the Mixture of war, or battles against evil. This war was going to last six thousand years. For the first three thousand years, Ahura Mazda would unite with other lesser gods so that they could form a broad alliance. Angra Mainyu’s evil queen helped awaken the evil-doer and stirred all evil beings to attack Ahura Mazda. The battle then began, and Ahura Mazda’s creation came to life. Unfortunately, the very first beings killed were good, Gayomard and the Lone Bull; but from their semen they were able to manifest all humankind and bring into being all animals. Ahura Mazda’s right-hand man was Karsasp, a beautiful and innocent man, who helped fight off Angra Mainyu and his servants. Ahura Mazda then put Karsasp into a deep sleep so he would be well-rested for the very Last Battle.6 “At death, according to the tenets of Zoroastrianism, the souls of all persons ascend to the summit of Mount Hara where the good and bad of each soul are weighed in balances.”7 If one has made exceptional choices, ones soul will cross the cosmic bridge and continue an existence in heaven. In the case that many of one’s decisions were unacceptable, the bridge will disrupt and one’s soul will perish in hell. Scholar Charles David Isbell summarizes the eschatology of Zoroastrianism this way: “Since evil will have become extinct, history will come to an end, good souls will receive immortal bodies and will live forever in the re-perfected earth ruled over by Ahura-mazda.”8

This religion has continued to be practiced for as much as three thousand years. There are still a few thousand devotees that continue to carry on the traditions of Zoroastrianism in Iran and in India today. This religion has faced many difficulties in its long history, especially during the seventh century C.E. when invading Arab Muslims conquered the land of Persia, the homeland of Zoroastrianism. The conquerors chose not to take away this religion altogether, but they did choose to put a financial burden on the Zoroastrian temples.9 Many fled to India, which is home today to many of their descendants, known as Parsis. Many of those who stayed in Persia ended up converting to Islam. Although it may not be practiced as widely today, it has made a considerable impact on other religions.

Christianity was one of those religions that may have been influenced by elements within Zoroastrianism. Scholar John R. Hinnells writes,

It is generally held that the form of the later Jewish and Christian concept of the devil or Satan was influenced by Iranian tradition. If this be accepted then it has serious implications for the understanding of the saviour or Messianic figure…. When [the devil] becomes truly demonic … then the savior is given a new task.10

That task, Hinnells believes, was to defeat a supernatural and evil being, which taps into Zoroastrian dualism. In fact, the beliefs in a Satan of evil pitted against a God of good, the belief in angels and demons fighting a cosmic war, and the belief in a savior figure who would save all of humanity from evil and sin are all elements deriving from Zoroastrianism.11 Zoroastrianism in its original form may be an obscure faith in today’s society, but its impact on the fundamental principles of many religions is evident and deserves our appreciation and acknowledgement.

  1. Jerry Bentley, Herbert Ziegler, Heather Streets Salter, Traditions & Encounters: A Brief Global History Volume 1 (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Publishers, 2016), 95-99.
  2. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2015, s.v. “Zoroaster,” by J. Steward Alverson.
  3.  Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, 2016, s.v. “Ahura Mazda.”
  4. Bentley, Ziegler, and Street Salter, Traditions & Encounters, 96-97.
  5. P. Oktor Skjærvø, “Good vs. Evil,” Calliope 15, no. 5 (January 2005): 8.
  6. P. Oktor Skjærvø, “Good vs. Evil,” Calliope 15, no. 5 (January 2005): 8.
  7. Charles David Isbell, “Zoroastrianism and Biblical Religion,” Jewish Bible Quarterly (2006).
  8. Charles David Isbell, “Zoroastrianism and Biblical Religion,” Jewish Bible Quarterly (2006).
  9. Bentley, Ziegler, and Street Salter, Traditions & Encounters, 97-98.
  10. John R. Hinnells, Zoroastrian and Parsi Studies: Selected Works of Johr R. Hinnells (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2000), 46.
  11.  Bryan Rennie, “Zoroastrianism: The Iranian Roots of Christianity,”  The Council of Societies for the Study of Religion vol. 36 no. 1 (2007): 3-5.

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59 Responses

  1. Hi Jezel, this article really shows how people are able to pass down culture to other people and influence other cultures. This article also displays the long-lasting impact of religion on people and how their beliefs can permeate throughout time. I love that this article about Zoroastrianism is able to make connections to other/modern world religions like Christianity. I was surprised to also learn that there are still people today who are devoted to Zoroastrianism.

  2. I can see where the author got the impacts of Zoroastrianism upon other faiths Indeed Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Christianity all three adhere to the struggle between a creator God, and an evil intended usurper of his power
    There is also the promise of the coming messiah who is to deliver mankind. Though both Jews and Parsis still await the coming of their respective messiahs

  3. When you think about it, Zoroastrianism differed greatly from other what we would call “pagan” religions of nomadic or steppe peoples, in the case that it could trace its origins back to one human practitioner. There seemed to be many lesser gods, but the focus was a duality of the gods of good and evil. I can definitely see the parallels between Zoroastrianism and the Christian understanding of God and Satan.

    Before reading thought Zoroastrianism was an extinct religion, so I’m surprised that there are still pockets of Zoroastrians out there today that are continuing to practice the religion of their ancestors thousands of years later.

  4. I think it is really interesting to find out that religions can influence each other to this extent. When I was younger I don’t think I ever thought of there being religions before Christianity, except for Judaism (because it’s mentioned in the bible) before christ. Now that I have learned more and read this article, I can see how Zoroastrianism influenced religions that are more popular today including Christianity and Judaism. This article was well-written and I enjoyed learning from it.

  5. It would be incredibly incorrect for someone to say that Zoroastrianism had no influence on many of the modern religions today, its importance really cannot be understated. The dualism between good and evil as well as light and dark in Zoroastrianism is very telling on where religions like Christianity may have gotten their conflicts between light and dark. I enjoy when we can see an ancient belief or ideologies influence on a modern one.

  6. This article was really well written and did a good job of explaining this religion, and how some religions we see today may have strong influences from Zoroastrianism. After reading it is clear that there are many aspects as covered in the article that correlates to modern-day Christianity. This article was really well done and can be an easy read for anyone who is interested in learning more about Zoroastrianism.

  7. I have always been very open to learning about different religions. Throughout my educational career, I have definitely expanded my knowledge about the different religions and beliefs that there are around the world. Despite whatever religion one decides to categorize themselves under, or not, everyone has one goal: live the best life in the most fair and good doing possible. I can see this be highly incorporated into Christianity and was pretty mind blown that Zoroastrianism influenced the Christian religion and beliefs.

  8. I always really enjoy learning about different religions, it is always interesting to see how other perceive the world or how to live the right way. It is especially interesting to see when religions share a particular idea or teaching in common. In the end it is good to know that no matter what religion you are a part of (if you are a part of one) all of the religions usually have a reward for living a good life. It just kind of shows you that in the end, people want to be good and they recognize the bad temptations that can be out there in the world as being bad. Overall a short, but very informative article.

  9. I found this article to be very enlightening. I can see why Zoroastrianism may have influenced Christianity. Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Light, sounds a lot like God. On the other hand, Angra Mainyu, the Lord of Darkness, sounds a lot like the devil. It is interesting to me to see how the religions of the world influence one another.

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