Isn’t eternity in Hell too severe a punishment?

This question involves two separate issues:

o   The existence of God

o   His Attributes/Actions.

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Let’s agree on the first issue : Disagreement on how God should treat the corrupters on earth is not a reason to deny His existence.

Now, to address the second issue:

First, God created us to worship Him.

And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me.  (Quran 51:56)

He also created us to be motivated by seeking pleasure and by avoiding pain. To motivate us to follow the purpose for our creation: worshiping Him, God tied it to the maximum possible pleasure (eternity in Heaven) and the maximum possible pain (eternity in Hell). (Ahmad Al-Shuqairi, Arba’oon, Arab Scientific Publishers, eighth edition 2019, p. 21)

It is out of His Mercy and His Compassion that the Creator wants us to follow the operation manual He sent us—for an optimal life on Earth and in Heaven. He promised us great rewards if we follow the manual and severe punishment if we turn our backs on His path and instead follow the path of the Devil. This is especially so if we actively seek to turn other people away from His path and/or we harm His creatures. Humanity is designed to respond to the carrot and stick approach: Each person responds to some form of incentive.
Here is my personal interpretation: If you have children and you don’t want them to experiment with drugs, you threaten them with severe punishment as a deterrent. You do this out of love and concern for their welfare, even though they might think your punishment is cruel.

We display a high level of arrogance when we accuse God of harshness in His Justice and Wisdom. The only suitable relationship between the All-Powerful Creator of this universe and His weak, completely dependent creation is submission and trust, not demands for answers and accusations about His judgment. Even towards a weak human boss with temporary control over our income, we offer respect and follow orders—even those we don’t understand. Don’t we owe such respect, at a minimum, to our Creator— on whose Earth we live, whose water we drink, whose air we breathe?

Submission and acceptance is the only acceptable expression of a relationship based on total and absolute dependence.

Our ignorance of something is not proof of its non-existence. Our ignorance of the Wisdom and Mercy of God in promising eternity in Hell for evildoers is no reason to conclude that such a punishment is unjust. Just because we wouldn’t do things a certain way does not mean that “our way” is the standard against which we judge God. We cannot deny that we are weak, limited, powerless and do not have the complete picture. God has absolute Wisdom, All-encompassing Mercy, and is the Most Just.

God does not punish every disbeliever. Only those who receive His undistorted message and then deny it after recognizing it as truth. The Arabic term, Kâfir (unbeliever) means, literally, one who hides the truth.

Also, who says that the duration of the punishment should be proportional to the duration of the crime? Even in this life, you can steal in one second and get life in prison. Officer Derick Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes; would it be fair if he got only nine minutes of jail time as a sentence?

What should be the punishment of someone who kills millions of people? How long should his punishment be?

Punishment should be proportional to the severity of the crime.  Denying our Creator, after we recognize the truth, is a huge crime because we are going against the mind He gave us and denying the purpose of our life. God’s Commandment, for us to worship Him, does not come from His need for our worship, but from our need to worship Him in order to live an optimal life. If we refuse, we commit the worst possible crime against ourselves and, accordingly, deserve the highest form of punishment.

The crime of disbelief is not the limited crime of a limited human being towards another limited human being; it is the crime of a limited needy being towards an Unlimited Perfect Almighty God on Whom we depend for everything, including life itself, . Thus disbelief in God for one second is an infinite crime, an ultimate wrongdoing. Yet, through His Mercy He gives us time to reconcile and repent.

Indeed, Allah does not do injustice, [even] as much as an atom’s weight. (Quran 4:40)

God is infinitely Just, Most Forgiving and Most Merciful. We should think well of God and trust that He would never wrong anybody. If we think well of Him, our expectations will be fulfilled.

The Prophet Muhammad, said: “God the Highest said, “I am as My servant thinks (expects) I am.” (Forty Hadith Qudsi, Hadith 15; related by Sahih Al-Buhkarii;  Sahih Muslim, Jamî‘ Al-Tirmidhi and Sunan Ibn-Majah)

The Quranic verses and Prophetic sayings give hope in God’s mercy and forgiveness for each of us.

Indeed, Allah does not forgive associating others with Him ˹in worship˺, but forgives anything else of whomever He wills… (Quran 4:48)
“. . . despair not of the mercy of Allah, surely Allah forgives all sins. Verily He is Most Forgiving, Merciful.” (Quran 39:54)
As recorded in Bukhari, God says, “When God completed creation He wrote in His Book which is with Him on His Throne, ‘My Mercy overpowers My Anger.’” (Sahih Al-Bukhari 4:54:16)
Prophet Muhammad also said, “God will bring out people from the Fire and admit them into Paradise.” (Sahih Muslim 1:368)

Let us not forget that God has complete knowledge, including knowledge of all outcomes that will result from all choices. For example, He knows that some people will never correct their ways. The Quran talks about the people of Hell as so adamant in their wrong ways: that even if they were brought back from the brink of Hell for a second chance, they would still deny God out of arrogance.

If you could but see when they are made to stand before the Fire and will say, “Oh, would that we could be returned [to life on Earth] so as not to deny the signs of our Lord and be among the believers.” But what they concealed before has [now] appeared to them. And even if they were returned, they would return to that which they were forbidden; indeed, they are liars. (Quran 6:28-2)

But I didn’t ask to be born!

God does not need our permission or our approval to create us or to subject us to His justice system. As our Creator, He owns us. You don’t ask your robot permission to create him, smash him,  or take his battery away.

If we think about it, eternity in Heaven is also infinitely disproportionate to anything a believer/do-gooder might do, yet we would be perfectly happy to accept it, if—God willing—we attain it.

In summary, our concern should not be about God’s fairness in sending transgressors and criminals to Hell but rather with ensuring that we never end up there ourselves. What’s really shocking is not that God has eternal punishments, but that some ignore His warnings, risk His punishment and choose eternity in Hell over God’s Mercy.

Do we really have the option of ignoring God?

If someone moved into your house, ate your food and used your furniture, then decided to ignore you in your own home, how would you feel?

This is what we do with God.

We live on His Earth, breathe His air, eat His food, etc., yet many of us ignore Him.

If we can find anywhere else to live other than God’s Earth, sustain ourselves without the water and food He created, live without breathing His air, pump our own hearts and control the production of our own enzymes, then we may have the option to ignore Him.

So where, then, will you go [to escape the Day of Accounting] ? (Quran 81:26)

Even if we reject this need-based argument, we have to admit that a Creator has rights over His creation. When we bring home a pet animal, we want its obedience for its own good and protection, so we train it and expect obedience. We expect submission from the pet even though we did not create it, we just bought it.

How about the rights of the One who created us and everything we have?

Doesn’t He have any rights over us?

Don’t we owe Him anything for our existence, our sight, our loved ones, our life, etc.? Isn’t it the pinnacle of ingratitude and arrogance to ignore Him?!

In most of life’s aspects, we already submit to God: We do not choose our parents or our genes. We do not control our breathing or pump our own hearts. Our Creator wants us to willingly submit in the other spheres where He has given us free choice, i.e. in mind and heart.

But God does not demand a submission based solely on our dependency.  His requirement for us to worship Him is not because He needs worship —He is totally independent and He has no needs— rather, the requirement is for our own good. As our Creator, He knows what’s best for us.

…To be continued in Part 25

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Dr. Raida Jarrar

Dr. Raida Jarrar is a Palestinian American who holds a Doctorate of Engineering from Cleveland State University. Following a career of over twenty-five years in the fields of engineering and aviation IT, she worked as a volunteer at one of the largest Islamic centers in the Middle East, where she interacted with visitors of different religious backgrounds and diverse cultures. The series she writes for Al-Jumuah analyzes and encapsulates her discussions with the atheist visitors, presented in a question and answer format for clarity and ease of reference. The answers are sourced from research, discussions with colleagues and mentors, and personal thoughts. Dr. Jarrar also volunteers as a translator for Islamic content and hosts the Aslamt youtube channel, which is dedicated to answering common questions about faith.

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