Heaven and Hell in the Qur'an and Gospel
by Salam Falaki
Introduction to Qur'an
The Qur'an is a very small book, only about half as big as the New Testament and one twelfth as big as the whole Bible. In general, the 114 books of the Qur'an are arranged with the longest ones in the beginning and the shortest ones at the end. The first 10 books have a minimum of 100 verses each and the last books between 10 and 15 short verses. There are no chapters in the books, only verses.
Qur'an Descriptions of Hell
In the Qur'an, the situation in Sura 14:15-17 is before the judgment seat of God and the following scene is described: "But they sought victory and decision (there and then), and frustration was the lot of every powerful obstinate transgressor. In front of such a one is Hell [Arabic: Jahannam], and he is given, for drink, boiling foul water. In gulps will he sip it, but never will he be near swallowing it down his throat: death will come to him from every quarter, yet will he not die: and in front of him will be a chastisement unrelenting." This is a short description of what the Qur'an says violent people can expect when they go to hell.
Sura 22:19-21 provides another narrative, "These two antagonists dispute with each other about their Lord: But those who deny (their Lord), for them will be cut out a garment of fire; over their heads will be poured out boiling water. With it will be scalded what is within their bodies, as well as (their) skins. In addition there will be clubs of iron (to punish) them. Every time they wish to get away therefrom, from anguish, they will be forced back therein, and (it will be said), 'Taste ye the penalty of burning!'" This is another horrific picture of clothes of fire, constant blows and constant pain with boiling hot water poured over the unbeliever. This is an attempt to infuse fear of the pain.
Allah himself is speaking in Sura 78:17-30: "Verily the day of sorting out is a thing appointed, the day that the trumpet shall be sounded, and ye shall come forth in crowds; and the heavens shall be opened as if there were doors, and the mountains shall vanish, as if they were a mirage. Truly hell is as a place of ambush, for the transgressors a place of destination: They will dwell therein for ages. Nothing cool shall they taste therein, nor any drink, save a boiling fluid and a fluid, dark, murky, intensely cold, a fitting recompense (for them). For that they used not to fear any account (for their deeds), but they (impudently) treated our signs as false. And all things have We preserved on record. So taste ye (the fruits of your deeds); for no increase shall We grant you, except in Punishment." We see that the only thing that will be increased in hell for the non-Muslim is punishment.
We will look at one more text describing hell in the Qur'an – Sura 56:41-56. "The companions of the left hand – what will be the companions of the left hand? (They will be) in the midst of a fierce blast of fire and in boiling water, and in the shades of black smoke: nothing (will there be) to refresh, nor to please. For that they were wont to be indulged, before that, in wealth (and luxury), and persisted obstinately in supreme wickedness! And they used to say, 'What! when we die and become dust and bones, shall we then indeed be raised up again? (We) and our fathers of old?' Say: 'Yea, those of old and those of later times, all will certainly be gathered together for the meeting appointed for a day well-known. Then will ye truly – O ye that go wrong, and treat (truth) as falsehood! Ye will surely taste of the tree of zaqqum. Then will ye fill your insides therewith, And drink boiling water on top of it: Indeed ye shall drink like diseased camels raging with thirst!' Such will be their entertainment on the Day of Recompense!" According to another passage in the Qur'an, the zakumm tree grows in the lowest place of hell. Fed by a stinking spring, the Qur'an literally states that its fruits resemble the heads of demons and are black and unpleasant to eat. The fruit of the zakumm is the main food of those who go to hell. The Qur'an describes a scene of horror, which was designed to frighten men so they will do nothing but obey Allah. The word “Islam” does not mean “service”, it does not mean “faith”, it does not mean “discipleship”; the word “Islam”, when translated literally, means nothing but “absolute submission”. Islam is like standing before a mighty sultan who orders you to obey him and if you don't, you will be thrown into the deepest dungeon. But if you do obey, you will receive the most beautiful houses and treasures he has to offer. Allah is described as an almighty dictator who threatens with a dreadful hell those who do not totally submit to him.
Islam recognizes other religious books besides the Qur'an. There are the so-called “Collections of Traditions,” which are sayings of Muhammad that are not found in the Qur'an, but have been traced back to him through middlemen. A general overview of the Traditions provides a description of hell as two pictures. On the one side, hell is described as a giant monster with four legs, which can only be controlled by masses of demons. One of the best known theologians in Islam writes that seventy iron shackles are attached to the four legs and that each shackle is held by seventy thousand demons. On the Day of Judgment this giant monster breaks free (hell with its mass of demons) and throws itself on the people who are on the left side and have done evil and are condemned. The giant monster is one picture. The picture that we know best is from the Middle Ages, which the writer Dante uses to describe hell. Hell is a round place, like a crater that is divided into many levels – the bottom of the pit is the worst, further up is not as evil. It is full of smoke and heat and boiling water and embers. At the bottom is the zakkum tree, whose fruits are the heads of demons. Over the crater is a gigantic bridge that is as wide as the blade of a knife and is the only way to paradise. The Muslim saints pass over in an instant with no problem. Others, who have done well in the world, take more time to cross, but they eventually reach the other side. The unrighteous never reach the other side but fall into the crater.
These two pictures summarize the scene of horror which hell is to a Muslim. Every Muslim, whether he is Arab, African or Indian, sees this picture of horror when he does something bad. It is the whip that drives him to desire to do good deeds and to be a good Muslim.
If this is what hell is like, what is heaven like in Islam? First of all, the word heaven does not occur in the Qur'an. There is no heaven in the sense that we know heaven from the Bible. Instead Islam acknowledges a word that means paradise – janne. Janne is really no more than a garden. The hope laid up for Muslims when they have been good is a garden. This garden is described in the smallest detail. The word janne appears relatively often, about 140 tines, which is much more often than the word heaven occurs in the Bible. The Qur'an uses much more text to describe this garden, their hoped for future paradise, than the Bible uses to describe heaven. On the contrary, the Bible uses much more text to describe God and his relationship with men.
Let us look at a few texts that describes Islam's garden. "But for such as fear the time when they will stand before (the Judgement Seat of) their Lord, there will be two Gardens – [so there are 2 paradises] Then which of the favors of your Lord will ye deny? Containing all kinds (of trees and delights); Then which of the favors of your Lord will ye deny? In them (each) will be two Springs flowing (free); Then which of the favors of your Lord will ye deny? In them will be Fruits of every kind, two and two. Then which of the favors of your Lord will ye deny? They will recline on Carpets, whose inner linings will be of rich brocade: the Fruit of the Gardens will be near (and easy of reach). Then which of the favors of your Lord will ye deny? In them will be (Maidens), chaste, restraining their glances, whom no man or Jinn [these are the spirits between angels and men] before them has touched; Then which of the favors of your Lord will ye deny? Like unto Rubies and coral. Then which of the favors of your Lord will ye deny? Is there any Reward for Good – other than Good? Then which of the favors of your Lord will ye deny?" (Sura 55:46-61) A beautiful garden is described here with beautiful chambers where all of man's desires will be satisfied there.
Sura 56:4-26 describes a situation shortly before the last judgement. "When the earth shall be shaken to its depths, and the mountains shall be crumbled to atoms, becoming dust scattered abroad, and ye shall be sorted out into three classes. [Now men are divided into groups to God's right, in front of him and to his left.] Then (there will be) the companions of the right hand; what will be the companions of the right hand? And the companions of the left hand, what will be the companions of the left hand? And those foremost (in faith) will be foremost (in the hereafter). These will be those nearest to God: In gardens of bliss: A number of people from those of old, and a few from those of later times. (They will be) on thrones encrusted (with gold and precious stones), reclining on them, facing each other. Round about them will (serve) youths of perpetual (freshness), with goblets, (shining) beakers, and cups (filled) out of clear-flowing fountains: no after-ache will they receive therefrom, nor will they suffer intoxication: and with fruits, any that they may select: and the flesh of fowls, any that they may desire. And (there will be) companions with beautiful, big, and lustrous eyes [that is, attractive girls], like unto pearls well-guarded. A reward for the deeds of their past (life). Not frivolity will they hear therein, nor any taint of ill, only the saying, 'Peace! Peace'." Again, this is a sensual description of paradise. There are not only beautiful rooms to lay and rest in, but also everything good to eat and drink. It has the best of everything – the best meat, the best fruit, the best drinks, and they neither give headaches nor intoxicate.
Another passage is in Sura 78:31-36: "Verily for the righteous there will be a fulfillment of (the heart's) desires; gardens enclosed, and grapevines; companions of equal age; and a cup full (to the brim). No vanity shall they hear therein, nor untruth: recompense from thy Lord, a gift, (amply) sufficient..."
The last text we will look at is from Sura 76:5-22: "As to the righteous, they shall drink of a cup (of wine) mixed with kafur, a fountain where the devotees of God do drink, making it flow in unstinted abundance. They perform (their) vows, and they fear a day whose evil flies far and wide. And they feed, for the love of God, the indigent, the orphan, and the captive, (saying), 'We feed you for the sake of God alone: no reward do we desire from you, nor thanks. We only fear a day of distressful wrath from the side of our Lord.' But God will deliver them from the evil of that day, and will shed over them a light of beauty and (blissful) joy. And because they were patient and constant, He will reward them with a garden and (garments of) silk. Reclining in the (garden) on raised thrones, they will see there neither the sun's (excessive heat) nor (the moon's) excessive cold. And the shades of the (garden) will come low over them, and the bunches (of fruit), there, will hang low in humility. And amongst them will be passed round vessels of silver and goblets of crystal – crystal-clear, made of silver: they will determine the measure thereof (according to their wishes). And they will be given to drink there of a cup (of wine) mixed with zanjabil – a fountain there, called salsabil. And round about them will (serve) youths of perpetual (freshness): If thou seest them, thou wouldst think them scattered pearls. And when thou lookest, it is there thou wilt see a bliss and a realm magnificent. Upon them will be green garments of fine silk and heavy brocade, and they will be adorned with bracelets of silver; and their Lord will give to them to drink of a wine pure and holy. 'Verily this is a reward for you, and your endeavor is accepted and recognized'."
While hell is a picture of horror, paradise satisfies all the sensual desires we can imagine. The best food and drink, the most comfortable rooms and houses, the most beautiful gardens, and radiant girls who are eternal virgins created especially by Allah. For a person who has lived all his life in the desert under the burning sun, walking many kilometers every day for water, and squeezing sustenance out of a harsh terrain, this is all the paradise that he can imagine.
If we look at what Islamic theologians later thought about paradise, beyond what is written in the Qur'an, we see that paradise is built like a pyramid, pointed at the top and wide at the base. It has eight levels, in contrast to the seven levels in the crater of hell. There is one more level because it is expected that there will be more people in paradise than in hell. The levels have different qualities. The simplest is on the bottom and the luxury class is on the top. Allah is not in paradise.
This pyramid resides above the stars and is beyond view from the earth. Above the pyramid are two more areas. One area is called the area of the powers of might and the other area is the area of the royal rulers. After this is the area of Allah, who is unapproachable; even the archangel cannot approach him. So for Muhammad and the righteous Muslims, Allah is unapproachable in eternity – he is infinitely far away.
Along with the righteous Muslims in paradise are all sorts of other interesting things. There is a book there that contains all the deeds of men. This book will be opened at the last judgment and people will have to justify themselves for their deeds. There is also a so-called prototype of the Qur'an and other books that were sent to earth. These are called "lauh" in Islam, which means a plate. It is the original written revelations of Allah. According to Islam, Allah sent down various parts of this plate in the course of history. One part is the Torah, another part is the Gospel, a third part is the Psalms and other religious texts. The instrument used to write on this plate is also there. In addition, paradise contains a prototype of the Kaaba in Mecca, which is the black cube that all Muslims should make a pilgrimage to at least once in their lives. Scales, on which the good and bad deeds of every person will be weighed to see if he can go to paradise or not, are there. Finally there are seats for all the apostles and prophets who ever lived and standards around which each one can gather his followers.
Paradise seems to fit the description of a courtroom; it has everything that is needed for a trial. The decisive point is that the most important part, namely God, is missing from this paradise. In summary, the teaching of Islam and the Qur'an about heaven and hell is materialistic and sensory. For some Muslims, especially for theologians who lived hundreds of years later, this was understandably a great problem. Many tried to allegorize these descriptions – saying that they were not meant literally – that they were meant to be descriptions of things that cannot be described – something that will happen to us that we can only explain figuratively. But we must conclude, when we read the Qur'an, that the descriptions are very materialistic and sensual. The greatest thing it has to offer is the fulfillment of lust. Every lust imaginable will be satisfied in paradise and - just the opposite - will be a torment in hell. It is interesting that one of the most common words in the Qur'an is tormenting or torment. Along with trial, it is among the 20 most common words in the Qur'an. Every committed Muslim constantly has the picture of torment and trial before his eyes. Paradise is only to be had for an effort.
But what message does the Bible tell us? The worst thing that could happen to a person, according to the Bible, is losing fellowship with God. This basic tone generally accompanies the descriptions of hell. "The Lord Jesus shall be revealed…in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power" (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9). The Bible often shows directly or indirectly that the worst aspect of hell is that fellowship with God has been broken forever. However, like in Islam, there are various passages that describe the horror of hell. "For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgement, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries" (Hebrews 10:26-27).
The Bible is realistic, showing that things will not be very favorable in hell, but that a greedy fire is awaiting those who are not found righteous. "Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire" (Revelations 20:11-15).
This passage and similar ones show that the Bible differentiates between two different places. One is a place that some translate as hell, but actually is not a fiery hell but is the place for the dead. It is the place where the dead go to await the judgment. This death is not beyond God's power, rather Christ won the control over this place on the cross and the best proof of this is that he rose from the dead and could escape this place of the dead, and will take everyone he wants with him. So this is one place, a place where the dead are awaiting judgment. But there is a second place, which is described in the above text in Revelations – the lake of fire. This is the actual hell, comparable to hell of the Qur'an.
The single most important aspect of heaven and eternal life there is that God will be among us. "Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is" (1 John 3:1-2). A monumental statement! For a Muslim to agree with something like this is the greatest blasphemy in light of the Qur'an. That is why Christians are rejected as apostates, as those who fell away and as people who have committed the unforgivable sin. Christians will have fellowship with God in heaven.
In the Bible, there are beautiful promises regarding heaven. For instance 2 Corinthians 4:17 mentions an eternal weight of glory in heaven, which the people who are there will experience. Most of the detailed descriptions of the place where God is can be found in Revelations. For example, Revelations 21:1-7. "Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, 'Behold, the tabernacle of God [is] with men, [That is the first and foremost: God with mankind!] and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them [and] [be] their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.' Then He who sat on the throne said, 'Behold, I make all things new.' And He said to me, 'Write, for these words are true and faithful.' And He said to me, 'It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts. He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son'." That is heaven, the most wonderful thing we can imagine. Our God is not a distant God, who is removed from us by two worlds, rather he is a God who lives with us, our Father, who loves us, who has given up everything for us. Heaven is where God is, where, according to the Bible, the fellowship with God is unbroken.
In summary, paradise and hell in the Qur'an are described very materialistically, very sensually. The greatest goal, the greatest value is lust and the satisfying of it. Heaven and hell in the Bible are related to God. Their value and their depths depend on the question, "How does man relate to God in this place?" In hell, there is an eternal separation from God. In heaven, the New Jerusalem, there is eternal fellowship with God – an eternal oneness, an eternal sonship. What a great difference!
May Muslims hear about and be open to the true Heaven and the true God that loves them and desires to spend eternity with them. May these things become clear to many of them so they will not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.