God doesn’t punish us because He is evil or wants revenge. Though punishment may seem harsh, there are individualistic and societal benefits to it. In Islam, every action – whether large or small – is accounted for in the Hereafter. Punishment exists in order to promote good behaviour in this world, and to hold individuals accountable for their actions. At the same time, God is also merciful alongside being just, which can be demonstrated in the way God amplifies a person’s good deeds, but not their bad deeds. While bad deeds are accounted for at a 1:1 value, good deeds are rewarded tenfold. All in all, divine punishment is not given out lightly, but when it is given, it befits the individual that faces it.
God is good, and part of being good entails being just. Each person should be held accountable for their actions, whether they be positive or negative. Every action in this world has a consequence, both in this world and in the next. The fact that one might receive punishment is not because God is evil or intends harm. Rather, it is part of His justice. Without this justice, an oppressor would not be held accountable for their misdeeds, which could suggest that God is not good because He does not hold people accountable for how they use their free will. Some punishment is necessary for God to be a ‘good’ God. At the same time, God is also merciful alongside being just, which can be demonstrated in the way God amplifies a person’s good deeds, but not their bad deeds. While bad deeds are accounted for at a 1:1 value, good deeds are rewarded tenfold, as God tells humans, “He that doeth good shall have ten times as much to his credit: He that doeth evil shall only be recompensed according to his evil…” (The Quran 6:160). It is important to discuss the purposes and benefits of punishment, explain punishment in this world versus in the hereafter, and touch on how some philosophers argue that eternal punishment could be considered a mercy in itself.
Both Muslim (Mutahhari, 2020/1970) and non-Muslim (Miethe et al., 2005) writings agree that punishments have healing effects for the victims and benefits for the perpetrator. The most prominent reasons for using punishment are for retribution of the oppressed, future crime deterrence, rehabilitation of the perpetrator, and restoration for all parties involved (Miethe et al., 2005). Punishments in this world are important because crime has an immediate negative impact on society, and punishment helps prevent crime from reoccurring while paving the way for the growth and rehabilitation of society. For this reason, Islam dictates certain punishments for crimes like adultery, slander, and murder, that are to be applied in this world. In addition to worldly punishments, however, there is also a dimension of punishment described in Islam that is meant specifically for the hereafter. In the Quran, Allah (s) describes the Day of Judgement as: “The day when every soul will find present whatever good it has done; and as for the evil, it has done, it will wish there were a far distance between it and itself” (The Quran 3:30). He also says, “On that day, mankind will issue forth in various groups to be shown their deeds. So, whoever does an atom’s weight of good will see it, and whoever does an atom’s weight of evil will see it” (The Quran 99:6-8).
Ayatullah Mutahhari explains this by saying that every deed has an earthly and a spiritual dimension, such that when one performs a deed in this world, it has a spiritual representation that will present itself back to oneself in the Hereafter (Mutahhari, 2020/1970). The spiritual representation is part of the essence of the deed itself.
One might ask, what is the point of punishment in the Hereafter? In this world, it makes sense to incarcerate someone dangerous to protect society and deter individuals from committing a crime in the future. But the Hereafter is not a realm for performing further deeds, nor does society need protecting, nor does God have a need for revenge. So, what is the point of Hell other than eternal pain for someone with no power to change their situation?
First of all, Islam teaches that on the day of judgement, God’s mercy will be present as well as His justice: there will be chances for people to forgive each other and have reconciliations, and chances for intercession by Prophets, Imams and others (Rizvi, 1994). At the same time, a person’s deeds do not end with one’s death – while one cannot perform further deeds themselves, their deeds’ repercussions can continue to have an effect on the record, whether positive or negative. Thus the records continue to be written even after death (think of those who started schools for the impoverished, creating a positive ripple effect for generations after their passing; or alternatively, those who initiated massacres, impacting victims negatively even after their own demise). It is only fair that final judgements cannot be made until the records of all humans across time have concluded (Rizvi, 1994).
Most Islamic scholars and philosophers believe that Hell and its punishment are eternal. This viewpoint of eternal punishment stems from the Quranic verse, “Indeed, the criminals will be in the punishment of Hell, abiding eternally” (The Quran 43:74). It is commonly accepted that not all who go to Hell will remain in it for eternity: however, some sinners will abide in Hell forever, as proven by verses in the Quran.
When considering the Hereafter though, the first point to consider is that eternity would feel ‘normal’. Everything in the Hereafter is eternal – souls, the environment, and experiences. The laws of physics and ephemerality experienced in this world do not apply there. So although it may be unfathomable to endure something eternal right now, one may find some comfort in the fact that one is not supposed to fully understand it until one makes it there.
A viewpoint of Mulla Sadra and Ibn Sina was that the punishment in the Hereafter is for those who are not yet psychologically or spiritually ready to enjoy the fruits of Heaven. For example, a jealous person in heaven would see others with plenty of rewards and would not enjoy his or her own reward, but would find pain in that situation. If the punishment of Hell is a manifestation of the soul being distanced from God, as is the view held by Sadra, then the punishment would not be eternal because the soul must eventually reach proximity to God, making the experience a part of God’s mercy (Rustom, 2017).
It is worth noting that punishment in the Hereafter is not given out lightly. It is only for those who have deliberately done sins of great magnitude, and do not repent for them. There are many opportunities in this life to turn back to God and seek repentance for one’s deeds, as well as to make amends with anyone one has hurt. Indeed many times in the Quran God reminds humans to take advantage and seek repentance before it is too late, and that He is always with them, ready to forgive those that ask for it. A supporting verse from the Quran:
Say [that Allah declares,] ‘O My servant who have committed excesses against their own souls, do not despair of the mercy of Allah. Indeed Allah will forgive all sins…. Turn Penitently to Him and submit to Him before the punishment overtakes you…’ (The Quran 39:53-54)
From these points, one sees that (1) there is justice behind punishment, (2) there are benefits to punishment in this world for the perpetrator and for society, (3) the inhabitants of Hell are meant to dwell there, and may in fact find it suitable and appropriate, (4) there are many opportunities to seek forgiveness in this world to avoid the punishment of the Hereafter.
Miethe, T. D., Miethe, of C. J. T., & Lu, H. (2005). Punishment: A Comparative Historical Perspective. Cambridge University Press. https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=o2ovr4ZzIXsC
Mutahhari, M. (2020, June 10). Divine Justice (S. H. Abidi, M. Alidina, S. A. Mirza, Trans.). Al-Islam.org. https://www.al-islam.org/divine-justice-murtadha-mutahhari. (Original work published 1970).
Rizvi, S. S. A. (1994). Day of Judgement (4th ed.). Bilal Muslim Mission of Tanzania.Rustom, M. (2017). A Philosopher’s Itinerary for the Afterlife: Mullā Ṣadrā on Paths to Felicity. In Roads to Paradise: Eschatology and Concepts of the Hereafter in Islam (2 vols.) (pp. 534–551). Brill. https://brill.com/downloadpdf/book/edcoll/9789004333154/B9789004333154_024.pdf