The majority of Muslim scholars believe that the Hellfire will exist eternally and that unbelievers will reside within it forever. A minority of scholars, however, believe that the Hellfire will exist eternally, but that eventually it will be emptied of any inhabitants. Both of these views are valid theological opinions that are supported by the Quran, the Sunnah, and views of the Prophet’s companions and early Muslims.
A number of verses speak of the inhabitants of Hellfire “remaining therein” (khālidīin fīha) and sometimes describe it as “forever” (abada). On the surface, these verses seem to describe an eternal punishment.
Islam teaches that Hell is a real place prepared by God for those who do not believe in Him, rebel against His laws, and reject His messengers. Hell is an actual place, not a mere state of mind or a spiritual entity. The horrors, pain, anguish, and punishment are all real, but different in nature than their earthly counterparts. Allah says:
إِلَّا بَلَاغًا مِّنَ اللَّهِ وَرِسَالَاتِهِ وَمَن يَعْصِ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ فَإِنَّ لَهُ نَارَ جَهَنَّمَ خَالِدِينَ فِيهَا أَبَدًا
“But (the) notification from Allah and His Messages.” And whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger, then indeed, for him (is the) Fire (of) Hell, (they will) abide therein forever.” (Surah Al-Jinn 72:23)
We can understand from this tradition that the purpose of Hellfire is to cleanse people of their sins and prepare them for a life of purity in Paradise. It is not simply a punishment for the sake of punishment. If there is such hope that even the worst of the worst will eventually enter Paradise, then how about those who have done at least some good deeds in their lives? Allah says:
إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَعَنَ الْكَافِرِينَ وَأَعَدَّ لَهُمْ سَعِيرًا خَالِدِينَ فِيهَا أَبَدًا
“Verily, Allah has cursed the unbelievers and prepared for them ablaze, abiding therein forever.” (Surah Al-Ahzab 33:64-65)
The Prophet informed us that there will be no death in the Hereafter. The existence of death, coming in the symbolic form of a ram, will be slaughtered on the Day of Resurrection so that everyone will know that the Hereafter will never end. Abu Sa’eed reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace, and blessings be upon him, said:
يُجَاءُ بِالْمَوْتِ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ كَأَنَّهُ كَبْشٌ أَمْلَحُ زَادَ أَبُو كُرَيْبٍ فَيُوقَفُ بَيْنَ الْجَنَّةِ وَالنَّارِ وَاتَّفَقَا فِي بَاقِي الْحَدِيثِ فَيُقَالُ يَا أَهْلَ الْجَنَّةِ هَلْ تَعْرِفُونَ هَذَا فَيَشْرَئِبُّونَ وَيَنْظُرُونَ وَيَقُولُونَ نَعَمْ هَذَا الْمَوْتُ قَالَ وَيُقَالُ يَا أَهْلَ النَّارِ هَلْ تَعْرِفُونَ هَذَا قَالَ فَيَشْرَئِبُّونَ وَيَنْظُرُونَ وَيَقُولُونَ نَعَمْ هَذَا الْمَوْتُ قَالَ فَيُؤْمَرُ بِهِ فَيُذْبَحُ قَالَ ثُمَّ يُقَالُ يَا أَهْلَ الْجَنَّةِ خُلُودٌ فَلَا مَوْتَ وَيَا أَهْلَ النَّارِ خُلُودٌ فَلَا مَوْتَ
“Death will be brought on the Day of Resurrection in the form of a white ram, and it will be made to stand between Paradise and Hellfire. It will be said to the people of Paradise: Do you recognize this? They will raise their heads looking towards it and they will say: Yes, it is death. Then it will be said to the people of Hellfire: Do you recognize this? They will raise their heads looking towards it and they will say: Yes, it is death. Then the command will be given to slaughter the ram and it will be said: O people of Paradise, there is everlasting life for you and no death! And it will be said: O people of Hellfire, there is everlasting life for you and no death!” (Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhari 4453)
Hell is the ultimate humiliation and loss, and nothing is worse than it:
- “Our Lord! Surely, whom You admit to the Fire, indeed You have disgraced him, and never will the wrongdoers find any helpers.” (Quran 3:192)
- “Know they not that whoever opposes God and His Messenger (Muhammad), certainly for him will be the Fire of Hell to abide therein? That is the extreme disgrace.” (Quran 9:63)
Even so, the absence of death does not necessarily mean that people will remain in Hellfire forever. Scholars who believe in the eternity of punishment in Hellfire also acknowledge evidence that Muslims and monotheists who committed major sins will be punished in Hellfire for a very long time as a means of purification and atonement. They will eventually be taken out of Hellfire and admitted into Paradise.
The Names of Hell
Hell Fire has different names in Islamic texts. Each name gives a separate description. Some of its names are:
Jaheem – fire – because of its blazing fire.
Jahannam – Hell – because of the depth of its pit.
Ladthaa – blazing fire – because of its flames.
Sa’eer – blazing flame – because it is kindled and ignited.
Saqar – because of the intensity of its heat.
Hatamah – broken pieces or debris – because it breaks and crushes everything that is thrown into it.
Haawiyah – chasm or abyss – because the one who is thrown into it is thrown from top to bottom
أَتَانِي جِبْرِيلُ عَلَيْهِ السَّلَام فَبَشَّرَنِي أَنَّهُ مَنْ مَاتَ مِنْ أُمَّتِكَ لَا يُشْرِكُ بِاللَّهِ شَيْئًا دَخَلَ الْجَنَّةَ
Gabriel, upon him be peace, came to me to give the good news that anyone from my nation who dies without associating partners with Allah will enter Paradise.” (Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 1180)
This is an indication of the mercy of Allah and his great wisdom, yet it is a concession that we should not take for granted. Some of the Jews and Christians used this as an excuse to continue committing their sins, saying that they would only have to endure Hellfire for a short while. Allah says:
وَقَالُوا لَن تَمَسَّنَا النَّارُ إِلَّا أَيَّامًا مَّعْدُودَةً ۚ قُلْ أَتَّخَذْتُمْ عِندَ اللَّهِ عَهْدًا فَلَن يُخْلِفَ اللَّهُ عَهْدَهُ ۖ أَمْ تَقُولُونَ عَلَى اللَّهِ مَا لَا تَعْلَمُونَ
Never will the Hellfire touch us, except for a number of days. Say: Have you taken a covenant with Allah? Allah will never break His covenant. Or do you say about Allah that which you do not know?” (Surah Al-Baqarah 2:80)
Indeed, some of the Muslims say the same to themselves to rationalize their sins. But we should know that a single moment in the Hellfire is worse than any amount of pleasure we can get out of the world. A person will be dipped in Hellfire only once and due to that pain will forget every good thing he or she ever experienced. Allah says:
ذَٰلِكَ بِأَنَّهُمْ قَالُوا لَن تَمَسَّنَا النَّارُ إِلَّا أَيَّامًا مَّعْدُودَاتٍ ۖ وَغَرَّهُمْ فِي دِينِهِم مَّا كَانُوا يَفْتَرُونَ
That is because they say: Never will the Hellfire touch us, except for a number of days. They became deluded in their religion because of what they fabricated.” (Surah Ali Imran 3:24)
Scholars who believe in the eternity of punishment in Hellfire are understandably cautious about overemphasizing the mercy of Allah since some people will abuse this mercy to commit evil. However, other scholars cite evidence that indicates all people will eventually come out of the Hellfire. A number of verses appear to limit the length of Hellfire, leaving it up to the judgment of Allah. Allah says:
قَالَ النَّارُ مَثْوَاكُمْ خَالِدِينَ فِيهَا إِلَّا مَا شَاءَ اللَّهُ ۗ إِنَّ رَبَّكَ حَكِيمٌ عَلِيمٌ
The Hellfire is your residence, wherein you will remain except as Allah wills. Verily, your Lord is wise and knowing.” (Surah Al-Anam 6:128)
Those who accepted this view also observed that Allah frequently mentioned the uninterrupted reward of the people of Paradise, but he did not use similar phrases to describe the punishment of Hellfire. In other words, it is confirmed that Paradise is eternal and will last forever, while the same question about Hellfire is left unanswered. Allah says:
فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ شَقُوا فَفِي النَّارِ لَهُمْ فِيهَا زَفِيرٌ وَشَهِيقٌ خَالِدِينَ فِيهَا مَا دَامَتِ السَّمَاوَاتُ وَالْأَرْضُ إِلَّا مَا شَاءَ رَبُّكَ ۚ إِنَّ رَبَّكَ فَعَّالٌ لِّمَا يُرِيدُ
As for those who were wretched, they will be in the Hellfire. For them therein is violent exhaling and inhaling, abiding therein as long as the heavens and the earth endure, except as your Lord wills.” (Surah Hud 11:106-107)
The Hellfire was created to intimidate the believers and to purify the sinners and criminals. It is a means of purity from filth earned by souls in this world. It is purified in this world by means of repentance, sincerity, good deeds, atonement, calamities, and expiations. Allah says:
إِنَّ جَهَنَّمَ كَانَتْ مِرْصَادًا لِّلطَّاغِينَ مَآبًا لَّابِثِينَ فِيهَا أَحْقَابًا
Verily, Hell has been lying in wait for the transgressors, a place of return, in which they will remain for ages.” (Surah Al-Naba 78:21-23)
In the end, only Allah knows what will really happen on the Day of Resurrection and how he will deal with the sinners among his creation. We can only interpret the evidence of revelation in the best way we can, as the true extent of the reality of the Hereafter is unknown to us. What we do know for sure is that Allah is just, wise, and merciful. His justice, wisdom, and mercy will be fulfilled in the Hereafter in ways we cannot even imagine.