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IslamQA: What kind of person deserves Hell in Islam?

Salam! If someone died a disbeliever (after hearing the message of Islam), is there any chance for them to be in heaven?

Alaikumassalam wa rahmatullah,

You cannot randomly stroll into Hell. It has to be a very conscious and knowing rejection of God that is repeated over and over again, day after day and year after year. Here is how C. S. Lewis explains it:

Evil begins, in a universe where all was good, from free will, which was permitted because it makes possible the greatest good of all. The corruption of the first sinner consists not in choosing some evil thing (there are no evil things for him to choose) but in preferring a lesser good (himself) before a greater (God). The Fall is, in fact, Pride. The possibility of this wrong preference is inherent in the very fact of having, or being, a self at all. But though freedom is real it is not infinite. Every choice reduces a little one’s freedom to choose the next time. There therefore comes a time when the creature is fully built, irrevocably attached either to God or to itself. This irrevocableness is what we call Heaven or Hell. Every conscious agent is finally committed in the long run: i.e. it rises above freedom into willed, but henceforth unalterable, union with God, or else sinks below freedom into the black fire of self-imprisonment. That is why the universe (as even the physicists now admit) has a real history, a fifth act with a finale in which the good characters ‘live happily ever after’ and the bad ones are cast out. At least that is how I see it.

While Lewis appears to believe the Paradise or Hell might just be metaphors, I of course believe in their literal reality. But the important point here is that entering Hell is a conscious choice. People have to work hard for years to build themselves sufficiently into the kind of person who deserves Hell.

So regarding someone who receives the message of Islam but does not become believer, whether they will deserve Hell or not depends on their conscious experience. The only case where a person seems to undeniably be the kind of person who might enter Hell is if they fully accept Islam as true in their minds, and with full knowledge and consciousness decide to reject it day after day and year after year. The kind of person who deserves Hell is one who lives a lie. They know the truth and they know how they should be acting, but they choose to act against their knowledge. This is why the Quran uses the word “kufr” to refer to the kind of disbelief that causes a person to deserve Hell. Kufr literally means “to cover”, as in covering a seed with soil. A person chooses again and again to cover the truth and to live a lie until they die.

So when a person dies in a state of disbelief after receiving the message of Islam, we can never be sure if they deserve Hell or not. The only way to be sure would be to find out if they were living a lie or not, and only God knows that.

Follow-up question:

I don't understand, if someone fully knows that Islam is the truth, why would they reject it in the first place? To me, it seems that all disbelievers are simply not convinced or are too blinded by their own faith or lack of thereof.

Thankfully those of us who are a pious and conscientious (like many non-Muslim Westerners also are) cannot imagine knowing the truth and acting against it for the rest of our lives. But that’s exactly what kufr/”disbelief” means. It means to knowingly live a lie. The biggest example of a disbeliever is Satan, who knew perfectly well that God exists and stood in God’s presence yet disobeyed Him. A human disbeliever is the same. They know in their hearts that God exists but they act against this knowledge.

As for someone who is not convinced that a religion is true, then their fate depends on what’s exactly in their hearts. A person can always have a feeling that God exists and that a religion might be true, but they may turn away from it in fear of what that might entail. This poem by Francis Thompson beautifully illustrates the mindset of that kind of person:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;

I fled Him, down the arches of the years;

I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways

Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears

I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

Up vistaed hopes I sped;

And shot, precipitated,

Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,

From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.

But with unhurrying chase,

And unperturbèd pace,

Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,

They beat—and a Voice beat

More instant than the Feet—

‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’

I pleaded, outlaw-wise,

By many a hearted casement, curtained red,

Trellised with intertwining charities;

(For, though I knew His love Who followèd,

Yet was I sore adread

Lest having Him, I must have naught beside).

C. S. Lewis also had a similar experience. He always felt a calling toward God, but rejected it using all kinds of clever arguments, until one day he finally decided to submit:

You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?

And God knows best.
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