Eternal Hell and Merciful God?

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Edip Yuksel

As a monotheist, I have compelling scientific, philosophic and spiritual reasons to believe in the Quran, yet I have to admit that I have not digested all the verses of the Quran. Some verses challenge my cultural norms or the mainstream ideology, and a few also appear to contradict other clear verses of the scripture and/or the laws of nature. Knowing that my culture is relative, I usually handle well the first category, but those that create contradiction among God’s signs (ayaat) of the scripture or of nature act like viruses infecting my faith. Those who have no intellectual problem with any verses of the Quran are, in my opinion, either gullible people who happened to inherit/acquire their faith because of peer pressure, geographic proximity, or any other extraneous reason; or they are hiding their intellectual problems from others and perhaps from even their own cognition. Neither type, however, can set a good example.

My doubt is not about the veracity of the Quran, but about the veracity of my understanding of some verses of the Quran. Since I rejected Sunni precepts that require blindly following the opinion of orthodox scholars and clerics, and since I accepted the Quran as the only source of my religion, whenever I encounter a problem with my understanding of a verse that puts it at cross with 4:82, I follow the divine advice to act patiently in seeking knowledge (20:114), ask the experts (21:7) without following them blindly (17:36), avoid wishful thinking and hearsay (53:28), and know that God is the one who will ultimately provide explanation (75:16-19). Sometimes, I attain a coherent understanding within months, but sometimes it takes years and even decades. Each of my intellectual and spiritual experience is a testimony to the following facts:

“We have brought them a book that we have detailed with knowledge to be a guidance and mercy for the people who believe.” (7:52)

“The Gracious. Teaches the Quran.” (55:1-2)

Before sharing with you my observation about the duration of Hell, I would like to share with you several examples of my intellectual struggle and their results. (If you do not have patience with this lengthy preparatory introduction, please jump to the subtitle Is Hell Eternal.)

For instance, my inquiry on 5:38 evolving about fifteen years resulted in three understanding,: (a) cutting or marking a thief’s hand as a means of public humiliation and identification, (b) physically cutting off a thief’s hand, or (c) cutting off a thief’s means to steal and burglarize (presumably through rehabilitation or imprisonment). Depending on the economic and social circumstances, frequency of theft, its risk to the society, and the economic, social and psychological cost of punishment, a society may pick any of the suggested punishments. In other words, I am now convinced that the deliberate use of a semantically flexible key word, QaTTa’A is to accommodate time, mood, culture, and circumstances of diverse populations. Freezing the message of the Quran with the understanding and practice of the first generation (including Prophet Muhammad and his companions) is stripping the Quran from its prophetic divine nature that makes its message universal.

My inquiry on the apparent contradiction between 2:233 and 46:15, within several months led me to a conclusion that I never wished to reach: taking the normal length of pregnancy as 266 days (or 38 weeks), within 86 days of pregnancy abortion would not be considered murder. In the first trimester, fetus was not considered as a person. Becoming a person is with the emergence of consciousness (that is, Nafs, which is usually wrongly translated as Soul because of Plato’s influence on later Muslim scholars). Personhood is described as the stage of “new creation” that follows the stages of being a sperm, embryo, bite-size fetus forming bones and flesh, and finally a new creature (23:14; 22:5). My problem with the traditional understanding of 4:34 and reconciling it with 30:21 was solved within a year through research and “accidental” events. I learned that men were not rulers over women, but providers for them; women were described not as devotees of their husbands, but of their Creator; the issue was not disobedience to husband but disloyalty to the marriage contract; and husbands were not advised to beat their wives, but were advised to separate from them before deciding on divorce.

Similarly, my problem with reconciling traditional understanding of 4:3 and 4:129 was solved decades later when I noticed a universal mistranslation of a phrase in 4:127. Though the Quran permits polygamy (4:3), it discourages and restricts its actual practice by requiring significant preconditions: men may marry more than one wife only if the later ones are widows with orphans, and they should treat each wife equally and fairly. (See 4:19-20, 127-129.) Unfortunately, verse 4:127 has been traditionally misinterpreted and mistranslated in such a way as to suggest that God permits marriage with juvenile orphans. This was clearly not the case.

Let me give you one more example. I had problem with the traditional mistranslation of a key word in verse 2:106, since it implied contradiction in the Quran and made any verse in the Quran a vulnerable subject to the claim of abrogation. The word “ayaat”, the plural of “ayah,” is used in the Quran to mean both (a) signs/miracles, and (b) verses/revelations of the Quran itself. Since verses of the Quran are considered to be miracles/signs, the plural form occasionally conveys both meanings simultaneously. A single verse of the Quran is not deemed to be miracle since some short verses of the Quran (for instance: 55:3; 69:1; 74:4; 75:8; 80:28; 81:26) are not unique and can be found in daily conversation of Arabic-speaking people. In fact, the Quran determines the minimum unit of miraculous nature as a chapter (10:38), and the shortest chapters consist of 3 verses (103; 108; 110). Therefore, only the plural form of “ayah”, that is “ayaat”, can be used as reference to the verses/revelation of the Quran. However the singular form, AYAH, in all its 84 occurrences in the Quran is always used to mean sign or miracle. Therefore, I choose to translate the singular form “ayah” in verse 2:106 as “sign.”

In my articles and books, I have discussed these and many other unorthodox theses in detail. Inshallah, this and many other verses will be discussed in the margins of our English translation of the Quran. (I will inshallah inform you in detail when we start the project). Now, let’s turn to my most recent inquiry.

Is Hell Eternal?

God, as demonstration of ultimate creation, chose to test the results of creating a being with the ability to freely choose its own destiny (18:29; 6:110; 13:11). God downloaded His revelation/commands/logic (rooh) to the prototype human that would provide him with innate rules of reasoning to distinguish falsehood from truth, bad from good (15:29; 32:9; 38:72;). Messengers and books containing Rooh were only a bonus mercy, mere reminders of the facts that could be discovered by reason (2:37-38; 10:57; 11:17; 16:89; 21:107; 29:51; 16:2; 36:69; 37:87; 39:21; 42:52; 58:22). Though believing that we humans have freedom of will is one of the paradoxes most difficult to digest, I accept it on faith (18:29; 57:22). God, created life and death on this planet to test His ultimate creature (67:2). After certain age, an individual is deemed accountable by God (46:15). God decided to punish those who freely choose a path contradictory to its original program since they corrupt it through false ideas and actions (2:57; 4:107; 6:12,20,26; 7:9,53177; 59:19).  The programs that are infected with viruses will experience a regretful stage called Hell (Hell and Paradise are allegories: 13:35; 17:60; 37:62-64; 7:44-50). In this stage the corrupt programs and their chief infector (Satan) will be penalized (7:11-27; 38:71-88), and then altogether they will be annihilated. The only virus that will not be healed in the day of Judgment is the virus that creates a schizophrenic personality, a personality that submits itself to others besides God, a personality that do not free itself from false gods thereby alienating itself from its origin, that is God (4:48,116).

The popular belief that Hell will burn eternally bothered me for decades, but I suppressed my problem by saying “God is Merciful and Just; He knows something that I do not know.”  Of course, God knows numerous things that we do not know. But, what if we are protecting our superstitions and false beliefs through such an excuse? What if we are stopping ourselves from using God’s greatest gift: reason, which distinguishes a believer from a disbeliever, a human from an animal? (2:73, 170, 171, 242, 269; 3:118, 190; 7:169; 8:22; 10:42, 100; 11:51; 12:2, 111; 13:4, 19; 16:67; 21:10, 67; 23:80; 24:61; 29:63; 30:28; 38:29; 39:9, 18, 21; 40:54; 59:14). Sure, there was a danger in confusing “reason” with my personal wishes, ignorance and cultural biases. I could distort the meaning of God’s Word to appease my wishes or conform to my limited knowledge. There was a fine line. Should I use my reason to question an understanding that I inherited from a particular sect, or should I follow everything I am thought without using my mind? Knowing that the Quran strongly admonishes us from following the crowd, the footsteps of our parents, or religious scholars blindly, (6:116; 2:170; 9:31; etc.).  I rejected blind faith and chose faith based on knowledge and reason. To prefer an unorthodox understanding, I have adopted a two-pronged rule: I should be able to support it by the original language of the scripture AND the unorthodox understanding should not create contradiction either among the divine laws and precepts in the scripture or between scripture and divine laws in nature.

About five years ago, I read a Turkish translation of a booklet, The Universal Salvation, written by Musa Jarullah,Bigiyev (1874-1949). In that booklet, Bigiyev argued that according to the Quran and Hadith, Hell was not eternal. When I finished the booklet my excitement and hope faded; the author had not dealt with many pertinent verses that led hundreds of millions of Muslims to believe that hell was eternal. He was making a radical assertion but he had little persuasive argument to support it. He was utilizing more emotional appeal than scholarly evaluation of related verses. Disappointed, I continued in my belief in eternal Hell, albeit as a contradictory concept continuously irritating my faith and intellect lurking in the background. I could not ignore numerous Quranic verses/signs that were threatening disbelievers or mushriks with suffering in hell for eternity. But I also could not ignore the other fact that God’s most repeated attribute in the Quran was God’s mercy (RaHYM 114 times, RaHMaN 57 times, etc).  God had decreed mercy as His attribute (6:12,54) and His mercy was immense (6:147; 40:7). I frequently enjoyed the implication of the following dialogue between Jesus and God that will take place on the day of judgment:

“‘If you punish them, they are your creatures. If you forgive them, you are almighty, wise.’ God will say: ‘This is a day when their truth will benefit the truthful ones.’ They have deserved gardens with flowing streams. They abide there forever. God is pleased with them and they are pleased with Him. This is the greatest achievement.” (5:118-119)

His justice was also reminded frequently (3:182; 4:40; 8:51; 11:101; 16:33,118; 22:10; 41:46; 43:76; 50:29; 99:7-8). How can a merciful and just God torture his creatures in eternal hell for their crimes committed in a very short time, a period that is almost zero compared to eternity?! How could divine mercy and justice be challenged by my limited mercy and justice? If I had a part of God’s revelation/knowledge/logic (rooh) in my genetic program, then I should be able to find a way to embrace, not necessarily comprehend, God’s mercy and justice without reservation.

Mushriks And Ardent Disbelievers Are Condemned To Stay In Hell Eternally!

Please note that the subtitle does not assert that “Mushriks and Ardent Disbelievers Are Condemned To Stay In Eternal Hell!” And, according to the language used in the Quran there is a difference. Let me explain:

All forms derived from the root of KHaLaDa (to be eternal, live forever, to remain for ever in place, or to stay for long time, or life time) occur 87 times in the Quran. If my preliminary count is correct, in 40 occurrences it describes the duration of reward in Paradise (2:25; 2:82; 3:15; 3:107; 3:136; 3:198; 4:13; 4:57; 4:122; 5:85; 5:119; 8:42; 9:22; 9:82; 9:89; 9:100; 10:26; 11; 23; 11:108; 14:23; 18:108; 20:86; 21:102; 23:11; 25:15; 25:16; 25:76; 29:58; 31:9; 39:73; 43:71; 46:14; 48:5; 50:34; 57:12; 58:22; 64:9; 65:11; 98:8; 50:34 ), and in 40 occurrences it describes the duration of punishment in Hell-fire (2:39; 2:81; 2:162; 2:217; 2:257; 2:285; 3:88; 3:116; 4:14; 4:93; 4:169; 5:80; 6:128; 7:36; 9:17; 9:63; 9:68; 10:26; 10:27; 10:52; 11:107; 13:5; 16:29; 20:101; 21:99; 25:29; 25:69; 32:14; 33:65; 33:103; 39:72; 40:76; 41:28; 43:74; 47:15; 59:17; 64:10; 72:23; 85:17; 98:6).

The word KHaLaDa also conveys the meaning of long duration. For instance, the classic Arabic dictionary Lisanul Arab lists the plural form KHawaLiD to mean mountains and rocks since they last very long. The Quran, at least in one instance, uses the past tense of the word to describe an act lasting lifetime (7:176). The verse describes a fanatic disbeliever and tells us that he “Akhlada ilal ardi.” that is, stuck to the ground, stuck to lowly ideas! In this article I do not argue that the meaning of the word KHaLaDa and all its derivatives convey only the idea of a very long time or a period of a particular life time. Though there might be some evidence for such an argument, and the lack of usage of this word for God might be considered supportive evidence, presently I am not convinced.

As for the adverb ABaDa (eternally, ever, forever), it occurs 28 times in the Quran, and out of these, in nine occurrences it is used to describe the duration spent in paradise (4:57; 4:122; 5:119; 9:22; 9:100; 18:3; 64:9; 65:11; 98:8) and in three verses this word is used for the duration spent in hell (4:169; 33:65; 82:23). Verses 5:37; 22:22; 32:20 state that the disbelievers will want to exit Hell, but they will never be able to do so. The arguments of those who reject eternal punishment is rejected (3:24).

ABaDa is used in 9:84; 9:108; 24:4; 33:53; 59:11; 62:7 to mean eternity contingent with the life of the subject:

  • “You shall never (La…. ABaDa) pray for any of them when he dies… ” (9:84)
  • “You shall never (La … ABaDa) pray in such a masjid…” (9:108)
  • “… and never (La … ABaDa) accept t any testimony from them…”  (24:4)
  • “… You shall never (La … ABaDa) marry his wives after him.” (33:53)
  • “… We will never (La … ABaDa) obey anyone who against you…”  (59:11)
  • “… They will never (La … ABaDa) long for it… ” (62:7)

All these negative statements use ABaDa to express a prohibition that will last forever. More accurately, as long as conditions exist. For instance, when the person prohibited from funeral prayer himself dies, the prohibition too ends naturally. A dead person cannot pray at the grave of another dead person and therefore, this prohibition does not practically last for eternity. Similarly, when the wives of the Prophet all died, the prohibition to marry them ceased to exist. Therefore, the eternity of prohibition was in fact limited by the condition or life-time of the subject. In other words, in the above examples, the word ABaDa indicates the entirety of a particular period.

Eternal Punishment In Hell Does Not Necessarily Mean That the Hell or its Inhabitants Are Eternal

Remember Jonah. When he escaped from his duty he was swallowed by a whale.

“But had he not been of those who glorify,  he would have stayed in its belly to the day of resurrection.” (37: 143-144)

It is a fact that neither Jonah nor the whale was immortals that could live to the day of resurrection.  God knows this. Thus, this Quranic expression simply informs us that Jonah would die or end up in the belly of the whale. Although both would perish in a short time, whale would be the ultimate destiny of Jonah until the day of resurrection. Had Jonah was not going to be resurrected (together with the whale, 6:38), using the same logic, the verse would state: “he would have stayed in its belly eternally.”‘

Similarly, verses informing us about disbelievers or idol worshipers staying in Hell eternally does not necessarily mean that the Hell is eternal, unless we are informed that Hell itself is eternal. It simply means that disbelievers and idol worshipers would end up in Hell and nothing else. If Hell together with its inhabitants one day ceased its existence, then the disbelievers or idol worshipers would have stayed in Hell eternally. Their punishment would be the entire life of Hell.

In fact, the Quran informs us that both the eternal punishment in Hell and reward in Paradise is conditioned with their life span:

“Eternally they abide therein (Hell), for as long as the heavens and the earth endure, in accordance with the will of your Lord. Your Lord is doer of whatever He wills. As for fortunate ones, they will be in Paradise. Eternally they abide therein, for as long as the heavens and the earth endure, in accordance with the will of your Lord-an everlasting reward.” (11:107)

The Quran informs us that the Earth and Heavens will be changed by different Earth and Heavens (14:48). If the re-creation referred in this verse is the one before the Day of Judgment then there is possibility of another re-creation. There are indications that Paradise will be preserved or created again. For instance, the word KHuLD (eternal, everlasting) is not used for Hell, but it is used as an adjective to describe Paradise (25:15).  On the other hand the same adjective is not used to describe Hell, but to describe the punishment IN HELL (10:52; 41:28).

Hell, Together With Its Inhabitants, Will Be Annihilated

Our language contains synonyms, antonyms, compliments, counterparts, etc. The Quran frequently uses pairs of words/concepts to contrast, compare, or compliment each other. Usually, the frequencies of semantically related words also demonstrate mathematical harmony, which is another subject I extensively demonstrated in my books.  For instance, Akhirah (Hereafter) and Dunya (Lowly World) , Malak (Angel) and Shaytaan (Satan), Rahmah (Mercy)  and Huda (Guidance), Qul (Say) and Qalu (they said), Khalq (Creation) and Helaak (Annihilation), Hayat (Life) and Mawt (Death) are semantically and mathematically related words.

Let’s reflect on verse 40:11 and 67:2. The first verse refers to two creations and two deaths and the second refers to creation of death and life. These two verses can be understood better if we know that in the Quranic language death cannot exist without life and vise versa. They exist together, since Death is permanent halt of brain’s conscious activity (39:42; 16:21) but a temporal stage to be followed by resurrection (29:57; 10:56; 22:6). Death is a process leading to life. A living creature will die and a dead creature will get a new life (22:66). Vegetation experiences successive lives and deaths through seasons (2:64; 3:27; 6:95; 16:65; 22:5-6; 30:19-50; 35:9). After t he first creation there was no death nor life; we just existed. But, God decided to create death and life (67:2). Creation, death, life (current), death, life (resurrection). In other words, two deaths and two lives (40:11). The word HaLaKa, on the other hand, is occasionally used to describe death of an individual (40:34), but usually irreversible destruction and annihilation, or total existential extinction of an entity (5:17; 6:6; 6:47; 8:42; 20:128; 21:95; 22:45; 28:59; 36:31; 69:5; 77:16).

“. . . whereby those destined to be perished/annihilated were perished/annihilated for an obvious reason, and those destined to be saved/revived were saved/revived for an obvious reason (or clear argument)” (8:42)

The above verse not only refers to the loss of lives and surviving in a particular battle, but also to a higher cosmic event: disbelievers will perish forever since they relied on falsehood; while believers will last forever since they relied on a clear argument No wonder life and death is used as metaphors for attaining truth or falsehood (6:122). In fact, witnessing and acknowledging the truth leads to life, metaphorically and literally:

“O you who believe, respond  to God and the messenger when he calls you to that which grants you life. You should know that God in between a man and his heart, and that before Him you will be gathered” (8:24).

From the above verse, it is fair to infer that those who reject the divine message will lose eternal life. Will they die in Hell? The answer is No:

“Anyone who comes to His Lord guilty will deserve Hell, wherein he never dies, nor stays alive.” (20:74).

Then, the alternative is obvious: total annihilation, ontological extinction together with Hell. Those programs with free choice that chose to corrupt themselves with the worst diabolic viruses (such as associating partners with God or killing an innocent program) will be sentenced to an eternal punishment: after resurrection they will experience a period of diagnosis, justice, regret and then with the creation of a new earth and heaven, they will be hurled to non existence together with Hell. Perhaps, their memories too will be erased from the minds of their relatives who chose eternal life by dedicating their religion to God alone and by leading a righteous life with the day of judgment in the mind.

God is Just and Merciful

The Quran repeatedly comfort us by reminding us God’s perfect justice. The following verse provides us with a precise idea of God’s justice and mercy:

“For those who did good work there will be the best and more. .  . As for those who earned evil, they will receive equivalent evil (10:27).

Suffering in an eternal Hell creates a contradiction between this divine justice, since eternity can not be equal to an evil committed in during a limited life span of a human. However, eternal punishment in life time of a non eternal Hell avoids such a contradiction.  After receiving an equivalent punishment the chief evil-doers like those referred in verse 4:48, will be eliminated from existence. They will end up in Hell and Hell will end up in nothingness.

No wonder the first and the most repeated verse of the Quran reminds us over and over that:

God is Gracious, Merciful (1:1).