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IslamQA: Why is Hell eternal? Who deserves eternal burning punishment?

Why is Hell eternal? Does anyone really deserve eternal fiery punishment in Hell, or is the view of Ibn al-Qayyim correct that by "eternity" the Quran means a very long time, not time without end?

About the eternity of Hell, unfortunately I do not have anything new to offer. But I feel that most ordinary people (especially in the West), at least those who grow up with middle class values, due to being wholesome people, have a hard time imagining what the deservers of Hell are really like. We have so much empathy for others, and we see them as like ourselves even if slightly worse, that we cannot imagine what it is like to be so deprived of all goodness to deserve Hell.

But look at what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians. They are filled with so much arrogance and pride and bloodthirst that they consider the Palestinians animals that have to be butchered so that they can enjoy the lands they have stolen.

Or think of the bankers in the West who probably orchestrated the war on Iraq knowingly, knowing that millions of innocent people could die. Look at the US knowingly arming the Afghans in the 1980’s, knowing it would cause millions of innocent deaths, just so that they could force the Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan and in this way weaken the Soviet Union by making it lose money and men.

What do such people deserve? I used to have difficulty accepting eternity in Hell until I started thinking of such people, not of individual sinners. I feel that such people deserve eternity in Hell. They have knowingly given up their ticket to Paradise, they have rejected all goodness, they have rejected God and insulted Him and killed His innocent creatures.

It would be the greatest injustice to let such people into Paradise, because they have changed their own nature, they have utterly corrupted their own souls.

I still have difficulty accepting the horrible punishments mentioned in the Quran for sinners. They seem extreme, I cannot imagine an eternity burning as equal to any sin on earth.

There is also the fact, mentioned in the Quran, that when people believe their punishment has a restricted period, that it will come to an end, they stop taking it seriously and give up on goodness. This is what the Quran mentions about some of the Jews believing and being corrupted by it (The Quran 2:80). So the only way to have truly good people may be to threaten them with a horrible eternal punishment.

But what God ends up doing in the afterlife is another matter. Perhaps things are very different there.

The great philosopher Tabataba’i (he is Shia, but his views on this matter are based on Quranic arguments, not on any Shia sources) says that entering Hell is not God’s action, but a natural consequence of human action. That is, the way the soul is made, when it becomes utterly evil and unworthy of forgiveness, its nature changes to a different thing, a creature of fire (perhaps like the Balrogs in the Lord of the Rings) that burns and suffers torment by his/her own nature. It is like if someone is told “If you do that and persist in it, you will become permanently a creature of fire and will suffer torment”, and they do it anyway. They take the choice, and the laws of nature or reality causes that change in them.

This also seems to be C. S. Lewis’s view, although he does not mention burning, he mentions Hell as simply utter distance from God, which in his view is as bad as any fiery punishment.

So if a person chooses to permanently a creature of fire, who is to blame? And such a choice is not taken in one go. They get a million chances to repent, they get endless signs from God that shows them that they are going in the wrong direction, that threaten them with punishment, and yet they persist in doing evil. And one day they change permanently. The Quran calls this “surrounded by his evil deeds” (The Quran 2:81). They have crossed a line from which there is no return. God “seals their hearts” and even if they see “every sign” (The Quran 6:25) they will not believe, because they have become creatures of fire, they have changed their own species, they have chosen to enter into a different category of creature.

These are theories that I have come up with, over time, to explain why Hell exists and why it is eternal, but I cannot say that it is the correct view.

And God knows best.
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