The Quran mentions hell a lot – as unbearable fire, a terrible place where one neither dies nor lives, a painful destination/abode for the wrongdoers and so on. It is a place that is, par excellence, the place a human being like me, one who is averse to pain and suffering and who loves pleasure and enjoyment, would never want to go. Heaven is mentioned a lot in the Quran as well – lush green gardens with flowing rivers, a lasting abode of togetherness with companions, with the divine, a lasting life of bliss without death, a place with recognizable pleasures, an abode that the heart, the Quran claims, will be content with. It is a place presented as the place that a human being like myself, one made to love companionship, one who delights in being close to and immersed in everlasting beauty and love and provision, would love to be in and never want to leave. It is presented as a place I should want to go.
Crucially, hell is associated with my refusal to be secure with my sustainer (refusal to believe) and heaven is associated with choosing to be secure with God and being certain about the meeting with Him while I am here. The Quran gives news of existence beyond death, an existence that is, it claims, a lasting and unending existence in one of two conditions: in hell or in heaven. The two, hell and heave, cannot be made to contrast more than the Quran paints them to be.
As far as Quran’s descriptions of hell and heaven go, it is clear that I am being made afraid of hell and covet heaven. Hell is described as something bad for me, a terrible recompense for what I do here. Heaven is described in ways that seem aimed at making me desire it and promised as reward for what I do here.
The real issue then is this: how can I be sure about the truth and existence of these unseen realms i.e. hell and heaven? How is it that I am averse to pain and hell and I find gardens and bliss agreeable to me? Who did this? So two matters (at least) are important: i) can I be sure that hell and heaven exist? And ii) why does my maker threaten with hell and entice/tempt me with heaven? Briefly , let me consider these two in turn
i) The tragedy is that people repeat what the Quran says and rarely bother to approach it in order to check the truth of its claims. So then, are there signs of the existence of hell and heaven, so that I may be sure they exist? So I look at myself and the world and find that this is a world where there are “consequences”. I experience good and bad consequences. If i cut myself with a knife, I feel pain. If I drink water when I am thirsty, I feel good. If I see a lack of justice or wisdom, I feel mad and indignant. If I see goodness and justice, I feel joyful. In short, If i don’t take my own self and its states/feelings to be random, natural facts about me but “signs” to be read, I can witness the existence of torment and bliss. In this world, I am shown samples and signs that whoever has created this world is one who has made it in a way that actions and choices yield fruits: either bitter or sweet but there are fruits.
ii) The One who makes me dislike pain is He, not me. Its not me that dislikes hell and punishment. He dislikes it for me. His informing me about hell is a guidance about what he has already made. Now I may say: why did you make it like this? Why not make only heaven and no hell at all? There are two considerations here for the discerning and who ask this question in earnest.
First, Indeed! This question is wonderful and it is itself a sign that the human soul is such that it wants perfect bliss and goodness without any contrasting ugliness or lack. I did not make my soul this way. I found it this way. The soul witnesses that it can only be at ultimate ease and peace when there is perfect bliss and no contrasting lack or hell. This I take as a sign that confirms the truth of Quran’s claim that human being needs an everlasting heaven that has nothing that makes him sad or sorry or worried. It is a sign that whoever made me, has made me for eternal bliss. So the question about the purpose in the existence of hell is, if asked bi-ismillah, itself a sign that the soul is indeed made for perfect bliss, as the giver of may soul claims in the Quran. I witness then that the one who speaks in the Quran knows the soul I have and is the giver, owner and Lord of this soul. And he speaks to me to make me realize what kind of creature I am and so that I get a good news of eternal life of bliss starting now. All I do is to choose to confirm this news, surrender to this truth and not reject it. It is consistent with my soul’s reality here and now to affirm that it is in need of eternal life of perfect beauty and love. When I believe in the hereafter, this is all I am doing – being consistent with my reality.
Second, I have never YET experienced a world without contrasts. I feel the need for it but thats all I can say. I can read the sign here and confirm that such an unseen as I am made to need must exist. While I am here, I only experience things in pair: joy and sorry, pain and pleasure etc. Here, because absence or lack is possible, I get to appreciate and notice the presence as valuable and noteworthy. The lack is made disliked to me but I am allowed to freely choose to either self-harm or to surrender to the One who desires perfect bliss for me. I have not experienced a reality in which human beings find meaning and joy in something which has no opposite or contrast. I have never experienced a reality where, for instance, health was valuable and desirable to me without the possibility of sickness or illness. I have never appreciated food in a setting where hunger was not possible. All i can say is that something in my soul wants or desires, without having experienced such a thing here, only bliss without lack. It must be that the soul is from a realm beyond the present one. How else could it find itself aware of the need for perfection without lack, for there is no such reality here on earth?
Returning to the point about evidence for the existence of hell and heaven. There are lots of noteworthy claims in the Quran about evidences and signs of resurrection. Here I want to end by noting that I often think about hell and heaven in this way: when I think that my beloved mom and dad have lived away their life, that all those years are gone forever and that when they die, they will be gone forever, I feel a terrible and unbearable pain in my heart. It is so unbearable that I can;’t stay with it and turn to their memories and distract myself with some notion that there is some continuance for them in some form, even if in the memories they have left behind. It is unbearable to think that all that has passed has passed into nothingness. This pain at the thought of permanent annihilation of what existed and what exists is a sign of the existence of hell, a permanent despair and deprivation of all that is good and beautiful and it is a deprivation that human beings bring unto themselves by turning to other than the One eternally existent source and sustainer of all needs.
The Quran speaks of human beings choosing hell through disbelief and covering up the truth. They imagine non-existence, cut themselves off from the source of life by imagining created things are the sources of what they need and enjoy and suffer when these blind and dead “sources” leave them and betray them. Whoever thinks they have life or things have life on their own or because of life and not on account of a giver of life who must be ever-Living as demonstrated by His bringing life out of dead things [more on this later], life betrays them and they can’t find a way to preserve it for themselves or for those they love.
It is interesting that when I only imagine (dogmatically and even without reflecting on signs of resurrection around me and without any certainty that there will be life after death) that the one who has died is “somewhere” “resting in peace” and their life and deeds are preserved somehow and not gone forever, my heart is somewhat consoled. Of course reason raises objections and says: “come on! be brave! don’t lie to yourself. Its all over. be brave an accept that its all gone! you have no evidence that what dies is somewhere else and will be brought back to eternal life etc.” These are quite valid and serious and sacred objections that need to be answered. Not here and not for now.
Here I just want to say that even this imagination/feeling that there is a place of “peace” that I assume/imagine exists (and whose existence I can come to confirm if I choose to reflect on the signs in creation that the Quran asks me to reflect about) and where the dead and their lives have gone and where they remain in peace (I can only apologetically and dogmatically “wish” if I have not bothered to cultivate certainty about it or gotten to learn from my maker what the “I” and its wishes mean or indicate) is a faint sign of heaven for me. If I then take my soul’s “wishes” not to be its own whimsical wishes but instead signs and messages from its maker and read them (as the Quran asks me and helps me to), I can be increasingly and rationally comfortable and sure that all who pass have actually not been lost at all and have returned to their source. From death as non-existence (hell), I move to death as a return to the source (heaven). So in myself there are signs of hell and heaven which I taste here, if only I pay attention. More on hell and heaven later.