By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah
08 Feb 2019
Is there any possibility for exit for all and any hope for those who are condemned to it?
Hell is obviously a bad place or state to find oneself in. But the story doesn’t end here. There arise many questions regarding it, that cry for answers. One such important question is about God’s mercy if so many people end up in hell. And is there any possibility for exit for all and any consolation/hope/remedy for those who are condemned to it? How do we live lives if such terrible future awaits most of us/fellow humans? How come we can sleep well if it is the case that anytime anyone amongst us is going to be picked up for ultimate concentration camp? I think most of these questions hinge on understanding the nature of hell. Today we ponder on a few points to help us approach these questions.
Peter Kreeft, an influential religious figure, has this to say in his Three Philosophies of Life, on the nature of hell:
“The essence of Hell is not suffering but vanity, not pain but purposelessness, not physical suffering but spiritual suffering. .. Suffering is not the essence of Hell, because suffering can be hopeful. It was for Job.”
"Does hell not contradict a loving and omnipotent God? No, for hell is the consequence of free will. We freely choose hell for ourselves; God does not cast anyone into hell against his will. If a creature is really free to say yes or no to the Creator's offer of love and spiritual marriage, then it must be possible for the creature to say no. And that is what hell is, essentially. Free will, in turn, was created out of God's love. Therefore hell is a result of God's love. Everything is.”
The point that we are punished by sins and not for sins if pondered over resolves all the key difficulties many encounter in comprehending the doctrine regarding hell and especially the fear that we might be punished for this or that transgression/minor sin. Just keep in mind that any action that alienates us from ourselves, that blocks sunshine of love, that puts ego before God and neighbour has to be punished. If you are told that you will be punished for this or that “sin” or failure to abide by particular fatwa ask yourself if it leads to decrease in love of God and love of neighbour and apply the golden test of the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) “Consult your heart. Righteousness is that about which the soul feels at ease and the heart feels tranquil. And ithm (sin) is that which wavers in the soul and causes unease in the breast, even though people have repeatedly given you their legal opinion.”
The simple point to be noted is if heart feels disease, it constitutes a punishment and if we wish to hide this disease it doesn’t work. In posthumous life one has to encounter or own it and can’t but feel sorry or torture that constitutes hell.
If we fail to reciprocate love from a lover who is all the more adorable and lovable and imagine we are not loved or we can’t submit to the rules of the game of love, we can’t but be deprived of the joy of love or playing well the game and when we realize we have missed a great joy, we taste hell. “The pain of loss—the loss of God, who is the source of all joy—is infinitely more horrible than any torture could ever be. All who know God and his joy understand that. Saints do not need to be threatened with fire, only with loss.”
C. S. Lewis said, "All your life an unattainable ecstasy has hovered just beyond the grasp of your consciousness. The day is coming when you will wake to find, beyond all hope, that you have attained it—or else that it was within your grasp and you have lost it forever" (C. S. Lewis).
God wants to help us but can’t help the proud as He can’t drag them against their will – God is a shy guest who has to be welcomed or He leaves – though He has devised humiliations and suffering of all kinds from diseases to old age to ingratitude and badmouthing critics to make us yield to his advances. Earlier or later all are granted entry to heaven except those who don’t enter it thanks to pride as heaven is a space where ego or resistance to love, to other, to being open can’t be.
What goes to hell, said C. S. Lewis, is "not a man, but remains." A proud man is not a man but a deformed creature who has chosen to hide in a crevice when there is an open sky and the sun is shining. As Kreeft explains: “In reality, the damned are in the same place as the saved—in reality! But they hate it; it is their Hell. The saved love it, and it is their Heaven. It is like two people sitting side by side at an opera or a rock concert: the very thing that is Heaven to one is Hell to the other.
Dostoyevsky says, 'We are all in paradise, but we won’t see it'…Hell is not literally the 'wrath of God.' The love of God is an objective fact; the 'wrath of God' is a human projection of our own wrath upon God, as the Lady Julian saw—a disastrous misinterpretation of God’s love as wrath. God really says to all His creatures, 'I know you and I love you' but they hear Him saying, 'I never knew you; depart from me.' It is like angry children misinterpreting their loving parents’ affectionate advances as threats. They project their own hate onto their parents’ love and experience love as an enemy—which it is: an enemy to their egotistic defences against joy…Since God is love, since love is the essence of the divine life, the consequence of loss of this life is loss of love...Though the damned do not love God, God loves them, and this is their torture. The very fires of Hell are made of the love of God!”
“The fires of hell may be made of the very love of God, experienced as torture by those who hate him: the very light of God's truth, hated and fled from in vain by those who love darkness. Imagine a man in hell—no, a ghost—endlessly chasing his own shadow, as the light of God shines endlessly behind him. If he would only turn and face the light, he would be saved. But he refuses to—forever.”
Hell can’t be understood except in reference to paradise. Sheikh ‘Īsā Nūr ad-Dīn Ahmad writes in this regard: “What is paradise? It is the inward nature of pure Existence; to be in conformity with that nature is to be carried by the wave of becoming toward beatitude. To be in conformity with Existence is to submit; to submit ourselves to the celestial law, to conform to our own essence, the essence by which we exist and which is the innermost nature of things. Without Existence we would not be; how can we reasonably revolt against it and set ourselves against that by which we are, that, which makes us to be ourselves? The essence of Existence is blissful; opposition to that essence – the idolatry of contents or of accidents-leads us away from Beatitude and encloses us in the blind alley of our own contingency and in the measureless hell of our own absurdity.”
Auden’s following remarks illuminate another dimension of the question: “The gates of Hell are always standing wide open. The lost are perfectly free to leave whenever they like, but to do so would mean admitting that the gates were open, that is to say that there was another life outside. This they are afraid to admit, not because they get any pleasure from their present existence, but simply because the life outside would be different, and if they admitted its existence they would have to lead it. They know all this. They know that they could leave and they know why they don’t. Their knowledge is the flame of Hell”.
This recalls Ibn Arabi’s emphasis on the point that denizens of hell will be hooked or attracted to hell for its compensatory graces and will not part with blocks of fire they are living with. From Milton to Ghalib to Auden we find clear recognition of the point that we can preview hell just by looking around or within and are all the time facing judgment or negotiating the “straight bridge.” “For the Divine Law, whatever its nature, operates here and now. As Kafka says: “Only our concept of Time makes it possible for us to speak of the Day of Judgement by that name; in reality it is a summary court in perpetual session.’”
Hell’s connection with mercy becomes evident if we understand its purifying function of which the scriptures inform us. Muhammad Ali has noted in this connection that hell is described in the Qur’an as being the ‘friend’ (Mawla) of the sinners (Q. 57:15), as well as their ‘mother’ (umm) (Q. 101:9). Furthermore, he notes, that “the term Fitnah is used in the Qur’an to refer to the ‘trials’ experienced by both Believers in this life and ‘evil-doers’ in Hell. After all, the term Fitnah in its original usage denoted the casting of gold into fire for the purpose of purifying it."
Ibn Qayyim has argued that “…As for those who remain in Hell, if we consider the natural disposition (fitrah) established in humans by God, and the likelihood that punishment in Hell would eventually rectify all, once Hell’s purification is complete, there will be no need for further punishment. Accordingly, the punishment in Hell and the pain accompanying it is actually a mercy from God – as is the case with the pain experienced in the punishments of this life (such as the Hudūd).”
Indeed we are told in a hadith that “God created Mercy as one hundred units of mercy, and the Unbeliever who comes to learn of the extent of God’s mercy, will never lose hope of one day entering Heaven.”
Despite disagreements with Ibn Arabī’s vision of Hell becoming a place of felicity, Ibn Qayyim’s conclusion is almost Akbarian in effect as all – Pharaoh, the people of Thamūd, and Abū Lahab – will eventually go to Heaven after becoming purified.
Ashraf Ali Thanwi has remarked that for believers hell is like a bath in rather hot water that helps to remove tightly adhered dirt. Isn’t it remarkable that the root word for Azab means a sweet thing?
All forbidden things are sweet and this sweetness is not lasting but nevertheless lures us. Al-Jili has recounted certain ways in which people in hell would be comforted. For instance, he notes that scratching a clot on a wound gives a pleasure. Ibn Arabi’s central thesis regarding the presence of mercy in hell that ultimately cools it or makes it a place if felicity is closely argued from the Quran and traditions which insist both on unending stay in hell for disbelievers and omnipresence/privileging of mercy.
Manazir Ahsan Gilani, that formidable scholar of Deoband and illustrious student of Allama Kashmiri, has in his much ignored classic Maqalat-i Ihsani discussed the thesis maintained by some Muslim scholars that believers (Mu’mineen) will not stay in hell but just presented to it or have a brush with it. The Quran is clear that hell has been prepared for disbelievers. And if we think more closely who is the disbeliever we would readily appreciate why it should be so. It is not believers in other religions who are threatened by hell; it is those who reject faith as such and are characterized by morally reprehensible things like ingratitude, haughtiness and refusal to acknowledge the truth.