I am very confused about the concept of eternal Hell. Suffering in an eternal Hell creates a confusion about divine justice, since eternity does not seem to be equal to evil committed during a limited life span of a human (lets say an average of 60-70 years). While reading the Quran I came across two verses which seem to go in favor of those who think Gods mercy would eventually prevail and Hell would cease to exist after its inhabitants have been given the punishment they deserve. The specific verses are Surah Hud 107 and 108. Firstly it does have the words illa Mash’aa rabbuk which leaves it up to Allah to decide. But more importantly, in verse 108 it has added the words ataa’an ghaira majzooz (a gift never ending). In 107 we dont have these additional words.
Can you please shed some light on this.
- Whether eternal punishment is unjust
- Whether the Qur’an informs us of a temporary punishment in the hereafter
- Whether it is possible that the punishment of Hell will be temporary for some
- Whether eternal punishment is unjust
A student sits in an exam for two hours and fails it. As a result, he is not allowed to get the degree for the rest of his life if he is judged based on those two hours. One may ask, he only sat the exam for two hours, why then he is punished by not being allowed to get the degree for more than two hours?
A logical answer to the above is that the two hour exam is aimed to assess whether the student deserved to get the degree or not. The same answer applies to your question on permanent punishment and the fact that human life is about 70 years. As the Qur’an says, we are living in this world only to be challenged and tested so that it becomes evident who does better (67:2). Another point to keep in mind, is that we are given the opportunity to repent, which is similar to giving the individual the chance to repeat the exam a number of times.
People are punished not only for what they have done but also because of what they have become. The Qur’an relates the punishment to “what they have earned” with the word “Kasabu”, e.g. (9:95, 10:8, 41:17, 45:14). It is because of “what they have earned” that as the Qur’an says if they are returned to the world they will keep doing the same evil things that they used to do. Thus, they not only acquire sin but the sin itself becomes them and they are defined by it. It becomes an integral part of their character (2:81) and that trait begins to drive them.
Another point is that if we believe and appreciate that the punishment of hell is permanent this does not necessarily mean that we are providing a less merciful picture of the hereafter. What this really means is that those who do not deserve to stay in Hell permanently will be insha’Allah forgiven at their moment of judgment and will be go directly to Heaven as a result, rather than going to Hell first and then going to Heaven.
Please also note a technical point, that is, we are not sure exactly what “eternal punishment’ means in the hereafter as we are not sure what exactly the dimension of ‘time’ means in the hereafter. Therefore comparing times in this world and the hereafter is not really possible.
- Whether the Qur’an informs us of temporary punishment in the hereafter
We do not have any verses in the Qur’an that inform us of a temporary punishment explicitly. In fact, the verses of the Qur’an make it very clear that the punishment is permanent. On the other hand, the events of the hereafter are among the main subjects of the Qur’an. If there are people who are going to transfer to Heaven from Hell then the question is why the Qur’an is silent about this important event. There might be an explanation for this, which I will refer to in addressing the third point.
According to my understanding, the expression Illa Masha’Allah (except those who God wills) in verses 11:107, 108 does not tell us that the punishment is not permanent for some people. In my understanding, the expression simply denotes the concept that God, the Almighty, is above everything and decides everything. The same expression is given for staying in Heaven and we know for sure that no one is taken out from Heaven to go to Hell. As you correctly pointed out, the verse 11:108 says “Ata’an Ghayra Majzooz” (a gift that shall never be cut off) which makes the point clear that Illa Masha’Allah (except those who God wills) does not have a literal meaning here but simply refers to a concept about the Almighty and His ultimate power and dominance.
- Whether it is possible that punishment of Hell be temporary for some
Regardless of whether the Qur’an refers to the possibility of ending the punishment for those who go to Hell, we know that the Almighty is the most merciful and we also know that the theme of the Qur’an is warning (Inzaar). When it comes to warning, the promises of punishment for those who do not pay heed to the warning does not necessarily need to be met. If the Almighty does not put good people in heaven then we may say He did not follow His promise, however if He decides not to punish some of those who were supposed to be punished or if He decides not to punish them permanently then we cannot say that He did not follow His promise because his promises of permanent punishment were within the context of a warning.
The Qur’an only informs us of a permanent punishment and does not give us any news about people transferring to Heaven from Hell. We, therefore, cannot consider this (being transferred to Heaven from Hell) to be a belief based on the Qur’an. This however does not rule out the fact that the Almighty may forgive some people after being punished for a while. In any case, the concept of eternal punishment is not against the justice of the Almighty. The punishment is primarily for what the criminals who will be punished have earned, and thereby become, regardless of how long they managed to carry out the evil acts based on their evil personality.