Modern man has been in hell without knowing it and has gloriously misunderstood traditional religious view of it. Bertrand Russell, one of the most respected modern thinkers, rejected theological conception of hell in very strong terms. James Joyce, one of the most important writers of the twentieth century parodied theological conception of eternal hell in his famous autobiographical novel Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. There is a moving scene in the novel in which Joyce listens to a sermon on hell in which are described hell’s tortures extending to eternity and what this perpetual hell really implies and all this for what appeared to him sins that didn’t merit such a punishment. He is disturbed and morally repulsed from the religion in which such a doctrine of hell has a place. Most modern writers, philosophers and even theologians, not to speak of ordinary mortals, have faced great difficulties in comprehending religious notion of hell. Josh Meleh Aabadi wondering about why his misadventures should earn for him an eternal hell observed that if he were sent to hell he will write on its walls that there is no justice here as there was no justice there (in our world). I think we need to approach the conception of hell from mystical perspective to understand it. In Islam it was Ibn Arabi who provided very comprehensive Sufi view of hell.
We have a choice – to surrender our self will to God or love unconditionally (have we ever loved unconditionally? If yes, for those moments we have tasted something of heaven) or to be in hell. Most people, unfortunately, choose the latter option. Surely mankind is in manifest loss and most people drive themselves to hell as the Quran says. Drugs, gossip, most modern day entertainments are means to forget our serious business of knowing God. We are in hell and continuously seek one or the other distraction to relax so that the realization of pain subsides.
Imagine that you were living in a certain place for years and then decided to move to some other place. The new occupant of your house suddenly discovered a huge treasure buried in your compound and you lost the huge fortune. The pain of loss and regret you will feel on coming to know this is akin to the pain of hell which is realization that one has missed the greatest treasure God. God was ours and the greatest joy that we could get in life. But due to our heedlessness (gafala in the Quranic terminology) we don’t care to know God. This is the essence of mystical and Sufi conception of hell. Hell is the fire on our breasts as the Quran says. (aallati tatalli al af-ida). What is burnt in hell? Nothing but self-will according to mystics. This is what the Prophet (SAW) meant when he said that as long as there is the smallest grain of pride in one’s heart one can’t enter heaven. Pride is assertion of self- will and Islam is submission of self will. Hell is simply separation from God, the Beloved.
Hell is posthumous as well as in this life. The Prophet (SAW) said that the scorching midday heat is from hell. Whenever we are lost in daydreams, in past regrets and are not in the present we are virtually in hell. Whenever we feel anxious, wish fate to have been more kind, advise God to manage things in such a way that our vain desires get fulfilled we are in hell. Those who are not content, who have grudges against neighbours or even enemies and wish to take revenge are not in heaven. In heaven are only peaceful souls admitted. Those who have yet to clear their accounts with other people, who are not yet satisfied for lack of this and that thing, who are worried about their ego and its illusory empire – status, power, possessions are still living in hell. Hell is not a joke. It describes our existential situation. The thunderous descriptions of hell in the Quran can’t be allegorized away into nothing. Pain is terribly real though it need not be physical pain or the fire from firewood or gas stove that God employs to draw us nearer him or chastise us for our transgressions.
Do we deserve heaven or hell? Ask yourself, say the Sufis and mystics of other traditions. Are we still desiring this and that, still madly accumulating possessions, still full of resentment and complaints, still wishing to live and avoid encounter with the blinding reality of death and God, still evaluating things from the perspective of our gain and loss and seeking name, fame and other ego boosting things, still resisting love and talking of only our child, our family, our nation and not of the whole universe as our own self, as object of our love, we prevent our entry to heaven. Illusions and desires are still dragging us back into the dungeon of hell.
But there is no reason for despair. God’s mercy extends even into the heart of hell. The troubles in the world purify us as does hell. Hell has been called as mother according to one interpretation of the word umm used in connection with hell (ummuhu hawiya).
Ibn ‘Arabî ’s views on hell have been widely criticized by his theological critics but it is seldom noted that he is perhaps the most literalist amongst Quranic commentators in matters eschatological. In fact he is best known for respect or adab vis-à-vis revelation. His only distinction lies in applying his notion of mundus imaginalis and suggesting that the traditional descriptions of the hereafter should be understood as comparable to dream imagery. He denies eternity of suffering in hell. He argues, quite ingeniously, that fire will be cooled and hell will become a place of bliss as God’s mercy encompasses all things. It is not everlasting and it is not completely impenetrable to divine mercy. Hell is painful renting asunder of the veil of passions and forgetfulness that keep one away from the vision of the Beloved. It is unveiling of the truth of our deceptions and failures and this lesson in self knowledge can’t but be painful. He interprets hell as separation from the Beloved, from the Reality which is of the substance of Joy. Heaven is the joy of finding oneself or perfection of self and hell failure to be oneself. In his Kitâb al-fâna' fi-l mushâhadah he interprets hell as lack of submission, be it to the explanations of His friends or as an imagined distance between the seeker and God, and so all are in that condition until they follow Him who says "I am your Lord." For him it is the exclusive choice made out of ignorance or short sightedness of certain limited “enjoyments” that veil men from the full awareness of God which ultimately constitute each particular “dwelling” among the many levels of Hell. After lifting of the veil he sees what he considered as his happiness to have been really suffering and potentially purifying punishment (Fusūs). There is no such thing as a sadistic revengeful God. Hell is realization that one has not been true to the theomorphic image in which one is in reality made by God. Reality can’t be subject to sentimental criteria of a humanist who thinks he owes nothing to reality and should be spared the encounter with his own veiled reality. But from Ibn ‘Arabî ’s perspective no such critique is warranted. Modern man who vetoes transcendence is living in a sort of hell or purgatory because he doesn’t know what a heaven is like and that it is accessible. Self love is hell and “nothing burns in hell except self will” from the mystical perspective.
There is a difference between perpetuity and eternity. When critics see eternal hell they mean perpetual hell. Perpetuity means extension of serial time to infinity. But in the other world there is no serial time that we ordinarily understand. Eternity is timelessness, not perpetuity of time. So the use of the term eternity in relation to hell needs to be differentiated from perpetuity. This is one answer to critics of hell. Denying sin is denying our theomorphic nature. We can’t say we don’t own our human state and can’t consent to be beasts. If this is so hell understood as permanent effect of moral actions in Ramsay’s terms is better understood.