Intermezzo – Interpreting hell

Interpreting hell in an interfaith context
Intermezzo by Mehmet Pacaci

In 2009 I gave a course on eschatology in Bible and Qur’an at a Christian seminary in America. Of course we couldn’t avoid the concept of hell, which occurs both in the Bible and in the Qur’an. Suddenly I felt that the immensity of the topic fell upon the classroom and smothered us all. My students, from a wide variety of ages, sat shrouded in a sad silence. They apparently could not admit this perception of terrible punishment by God. I understood from their later responses that they followed a figurative interpretation of the lake of fire in the New Testament, as is common in Christian circles in modern times. They understood ‘hell’ to mean ‘eternal separation from God’, as described in the Hebrew Bible.

“But your iniquities have separated you from your God;” Isaiah, 59:2

The sense of being forsaken by God is expressed in the psalms and by Jesus in the depth of despair. In the Qur’an, God’s ceasing His relation to the “hypocrites, both men and women”, and to “those who barter away their bond with God and their own pledges for a trifling gain” is manifested that “He has forgotten them” and “will not speak unto them ” on the day of Resurrection.9:67;2:174;3:77

Later, when I was alone, I pondered on the subject. I think that a Muslim Sufi would simply prefer being in God’s Hell with its punishments rather than to be eternally separated from God. That for a Sufi would mean eternal nothingness. Sufis consider it a joy when Allah is present even in the midst of ‘Hell’, and a loss when Allah is absent even in the bosom of ‘Paradise’. The ultimate bliss for a Sufi, recognizable perhaps for Christian mystics is expressed as follows:

“By the Glorious Morning Light, And by the Night when it is still, – YourGuardian-Lord has not forsaken you, nor is He displeased” 93: The Glorious Morning Light, 1-3

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