Tuesday, March 17, 2009

(3) Understanding hell, demons, and sin

Part III

Here I will direct your attention and comment upon mentions and descriptions of hell in the Qur’an. Paperback versions of the Qur’an, one of which I am using, number around 420 pages of text, a fraction of the length of the Bible. Yet the Qur’an has about eighty mentions of hell. This ought to tell you something.

To put this into context, let’s address the most common argument, which is that religious authorities “make up the idea of hell” in order to “scare” and “control the people.” Um, OK, but here is the problem. There were no religious authorities and indeed there were no Muslims at all, since Islam did not exist, when the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) was given and transcribed the Qur’an! What “people” would he have been trying to “scare” and “control” into “good behavior?”

Likewise, remember the Psalm citation by King David regarding the risk of people and cities going to hell. King David was “already in charge” and he was penning the Psalms as his own adoration to God put to music. He was not ranting about hell in order to “scare” or “control” people who were already the most pious and God-fearing people on earth, under his rulership! I mean, if you use a little common sense when you hear these things and look at the FACTS, you will not be so easily mislead into fatal error. It is also easier to deal with idiots who attack the faith with such accusations by calmly making note of the facts and that their facts are wrong. The MOST mentions of hell are in the Qur’an, which will be the scripture for a religion that does not even yet exist, the second most mentions of hell are by Jesus and the Apostles, who seek no rulership or control whatsoever, and the fewest mentions of hell are in the Old Testament, where it’s presence is simply understood, feared, taken for granted and not a fundamental decision point in either individual or the collective faith of the Israelites. People believed because God was there, working among them, through the prophets, in person, not because leaders “scared” the poor peasants with “made up” tales of hell. You don’t have to be a PhD or a research genius. Simply take the scriptures, look at the index, mark down the number of mentions, then correspond the number of mentions to the time in history, and you can see for yourself what I have just done here.

It is therefore logical to wonder why would there be so many mentions of hell in the Qur’an. First of all you must read the references to understand what categories they fall into. Like the Bible, the Qur’an is a mixture of explanation of how things are, and admonishments and exhortations for good behavior. In other words, not every mention of hell is done so in order to be menacing but, rather, is the way that the configuration of the God created universe and how it works is explained to the faithful. So many of the mentions of hell are not so much to scare the listener or the reader, but to be somewhat “tour guide” in describing what it is like.

Remember too that the Qur’an is not like the Gospel, which is an evangelizing type of scripture that seeks to convert the reader. The Qur’an assumes that the reader IS a believer and a Muslim. So the Qur’an has even less reason than the Biblical authors to “scare” people into believing since the Qur’an assumes the believers are the readers and studiers of the Qur’an! In fact, much of the Qur’an descriptions of hell (as you will see when I cite and comment on them) are of a “tsk, tsk, look what happens to those unbelievers who are in hell,” rather than being used to “scare” believers into good behavior. You have to use some common sense and discernment to place these simple but misunderstood theological concepts in place in your minds.

Another thing to recall, which a lot of Christians do not understand about Islam, is that the Qur’an is revelation that is given by God to the Prophet (PBUH) through the archangel Gabriel, the very same angel who in the Annunciation appears to Mary to proclaim that she will be the mother of Jesus Christ. So not to oversimplify but you need to understand that basically the Qur’an is God’s revelation spoken through an angel and thus has an “angel’s perspective.” God sends angels, instead of appearing him self, when he wants the perspective of the angel to predominate. This does not mean that angels modify God’s messages at all; in fact they are the most reliable of messengers, of course, since God speaks through them. When I say God speaks through them I do not mean angels are an amplifier of God’s voice. What I mean is that each angel is in individual but totally harmonious accord with what God wants to say and how he wants to say it: that is why a particular angel is selected by God and sent in the first place!

Thus, think about what it might mean that the gentle and joyful archangel Gabriel, who announces the coming of the Messiah to the Blessed Virgin Mary and her subsequent pregnancy, is six hundred years later the deliverer of extremely robust, even militant, revelation to the Prophet, giving birth to Islam. Of all the angels that God could have selected, why would God have selected Gabriel to be the one to reveal to Mohammad? One cannot always, or even often, understand God’s will, but it is essential to notice these facts or one misses entirely a profound piece of understanding God.

This also puts lie to those who would accuse the Prophet of just making up scriptures and that it is not divine revelation. If the Prophet were seeking to start a religious empire and “impress” potential followers, he would have fictionalized a visit by a more militant angel, such as Michael, who provides revelation or, more likely, he’d make up a new angel, an Islam angel, new to the scene, just for Islam. Instead, can we not wonder and marvel how honored the Prophet was to have the same angel who Annunciated to Mary be the one to reveal to him, but how he must have been a bit surprised by that selection too, in the very beginning?

The reason is that Islam was not a new or “made up” religion but the reuniting of the branch of the family of Abraham with knowledge of the one true God and their own shared past in the faith history documented in the Old Testament. Much of the Qur’an is explaining to these Arabic people how they are descended in biological and faith lineage from Abraham too. So one can be safe to surmise that God selected Gabriel because as the one who Announced to Mary the coming of Jesus, titling her “full of grace” and awaiting her “fiat,” her agreement to bear the Messiah, that Gabriel is the angel most harmonious with the voice God wished to use in reuniting these children of Abraham back into knowledge of him.

Thus the Qur’an, and specifically the mentions of hell, is a very robust scripture, in places quite militant, that at first blush worries some Christians. However, Christians need to understand two things. One is that Jesus himself was quite militant, as we have seen in the previous posts on this subject of hell, demons and sin. It is a myth that Jesus just tiptoed through the tulips throwing daisies around and preaching “love” and “let it all hang out.” Jesus delivered the first Biblical descriptions of hell and stark dire warnings of the consequences of sin and damnation regularly and consistently throughout his preaching and teaching. As we saw in the previous posts the Apostles learned about hell and the reality of the many ways that sin results in people being damned to hell directly from Jesus himself. Likewise, it is a mistake to think that Gabriel, because of the joy of the Annunciation, is somehow the “fluffy” angel, all sweetness and light. Just as Jesus was not sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, neither is Gabriel, the one who Announced God’s selection and preparation of Mary to be the mother of Jesus.

So now that you see this it is very logical that the archangel Gabriel, being an angel who has great power and first hand knowledge of all things of heaven, earth, and hell, should provide a great deal of information regarding hell in the course of revealing the Qur’an. Gabriel can be thought of as the faith family’s historian, who “was there” at all the big events. He’s the angel who is selected by God when God needs to “tell it like it is.” And so, far from being a “scary” scripture, the Qur’an has what modern journalists would call a great deal of “color commentary.” Gabriel, in expression of God’s will, takes the time to provide further, more detailed information about hell. The Qur’an is adorned with “additional” information provided by Gabriel on a number of topics, including even Jesus himself. One particularly fascinating “extra” that Gabriel reveals in the Qur’an, just through one casual mention, is the existence of atoms.

This helps you to see that when God selects an angel to represent him, one that is not God himself in angel form, he is selecting someone who is in total harmony with what God wants said, of course, but he is also selecting a particular voice and a particular perspective for the benefit of the listener. Imagine what the Qur’an would read like if God had sent Michael to do the dictating and the revelation. People would be shaking in their boots, a hundred times more than they would in reading the Qur’an as it is delivered by Gabriel, as robust as THAT is. Either would represent perfection of information and God’s will, but it is God’s will to select the angel who provides the tone and the relationship, and the areas of emphasis that God understands is the best for the hearer and the faith.

Can you see now why the Qur’an is so poetic and punctuated by frequent short phrases of praise of God? That is a hallmark of how angels really “speak.” Angels rarely speak without punctuating all that they say with praise of God. Angels are like the person who loves another person so much that they punctuate every sentence they say to the other person with “by the way, I love you” tacked on to the end, except angels continually shout the praise and glory of God, since that is their fundamental nature. This is why the Qur’an is so obviously written in the vocal intonation of an angel, and most specifically Gabriel.

I’m going to be a little tongue in cheek but very serious here. Imagine if it were the archangel Michael who was selected by God to deliver the revelation of the Qur’an to the Prophet. There would be that punctuation of praise for God just as with Gabriel, but Mohammad would probably have had to duck for cover as the walls shake every time that Michael would shout praise of God into Mohammad’s head! I also can easily imagine that every other sentence of scripture would contain “Get down on your knees NOW!” Ha. And if Michael dictated the Qur’an to the Prophet there would be much less of the tender moments describing baby Jesus and the virtue of Mary. No, one could imagine that Michael would be much more emphasizing of the suffering of both Jesus and Mary and punctuated with “get down on your knees NOW,” in his Christian color commentary sections of the Qur’an. Both a Qur’an delivered by Michael and a Qur’an delivered by Gabriel would be the word of God, effective and true for the faith, but they would have different intonations representing the different aspects of God’s will that each represent. If you think the Qur’an is short in length and somewhat terse now, imagine what the version delivered by the Michael archangel would be if God had willed it!

Understanding this, then, one must have very sober consideration of how the archangel Gabriel would be the one to reveal a Qur’an that has more than eighty mentions of hell. There ought to be a thoughtful silence right around now in each reader’s mind, as he or she absorbs that if the angel of the Annunciation delivers over eighty mentions of hell, how dire and vital that information about the reality of hell is for everyone. The Qur’an is delivered six hundred years after Jesus Christ and hell is mentioned even more than by Jesus himself, not less. Clearly the need to understand the reality of hell only grows with time and so called “human progress,” not less.

2:24 But if you do (it) not and never shall you do (it), then be on your guard against the fire of which men and stones are the fuel; it is prepared for the unbelievers.

This is the first mention of hell in the Qur’an, already on the second page of scripture. Can you not hear Gabriel’s voice when you read this? The “it” refers to serving God and believing his prophets. Is it not crystal clear that this first mention of hell is phrased by someone who has seen it with his own eyes? The very first mention of hell contains the stark visual that in hell a fire burns that has as its fuel both the bodies of the unbelievers who are damned there, but also the melting stone around it. This is not just an admonishment phrase; this is an eyewitness descriptive phrase. If you ever wondered what real “angel speak” is like, that is one of the best examples. Gabriel in one short terse sentence says that if one does not believe and serve God and, further, one will never change one’s ways to do so in the future, then be warned of going to the place that is prepared for those types of people, where the people and the stones burn as fuel to the fire. Gabriel is describing a both a progression of human choice of believing and describing the visuals of a place where one ends up if the wrong choice is made.

If that is not stark and chilling enough in its factual eyewitness simplicity for you, read the second mention of hell:

2:206 And when it is said to him, guard against (the punishment) of Allah; pride carries him off to sin; therefore hell is sufficient for him; and certainly it is an evil resting place.

Here Gabriel once again describes first a progression of human behavior, and then the consequence in an “eyewitness” way. In this citation it is described that the person in this example, when told to beware of being punished by God, ignores the warning because of his own pride and certainty that he can do whatever he wants, including to commence or continue to sin. So Gabriel observes that a typical person who ends up in hell first hears the warning, is filled with pride, and therefore through his pride ignores the warning and pride then leads him to sin. Notice the coolness of the phrasing “hell is sufficient for him.” Angels like Gabriel do not rant because they are detached, having seen millions of souls be saved, and millions of souls be damned. Gabriel is very cool and dry, stating what he has seen many times, and thus you can easily hear his voice as he calmly gives to the Prophet the assessment that “hell is sufficient” and “certainly it is an evil resting place.”

3:12 Say to those who disbelieve: You shall be vanquished, and driven together to hell; and evil is the resting-place.

3:103 And hold fast by the covenant of Allah all together and be not disunited, and remember the favor of Allah on you when you were enemies, then He united your hearts so by His favor you became brethren; and you were on the brink of a pit of fire, then He saved you from it; thus does Allah make clear to you His communications that you may follow the right way.

3:131 And guard yourselves against the fire which has been prepared for the unbelievers.

3:151 We will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve, because they set up with Allah that for which He has sent down no authority, and their abode is the fire; and evil is the abode of the unjust.

This warning about hell is directed toward those who establish false religions and speak as false prophets in supposedly God’s name, but do not in fact have any legitimacy or authority from God. An unbeliever is either someone who does not believe in God at all or who believes in false gods.

3:191 Those who remember Allah standing and sitting and lying on their sides and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth: Our Lord! Thou hast not created this in vain! Glory be to Thee; save us then from the chastisement of the fire.

Again, this is a marvelous, complex example of hearing God’s instruction through the voice of an angel. First Gabriel paints the image of how humans through all times, while standing, sitting, or lying in repose, spend time thinking about how the heavens and earth are created. Again you cannot miss the sense of seeing generations of humans pondering creation as seen firsthand by Gabriel. Gabriel then exclaims glory to God (since that’s what angels do since they understand and are immersed in the glory and grandeur of full knowledge of God’s greatest and goodness.) Gabriel then takes on the voice of what a human should say to God when he or she ponders creation, which is to offer glory and plead for salvation from the punishment of hell. What a richness of verse that one could have extended meditation upon, tutored directly by the angel Gabriel through his eyes.

3:192 Our Lord! Surely whomsoever Thou makest enter the fire, him Thou hast indeed brought to disgrace, and three shall be no helpers for the unjust.

3:197 A brief enjoyment! Then their abode is hell, and evil is the resting-place.

This is a pithy observation indeed; the sinner and unbeliever may have a grand life, but it is enjoyed in a hurry and then gone when one finds one’s self in hell for eternity.

4:56 (As for) those who disbelieve in Our communications, We shall make them enter fire; so oft as their skins are thoroughly burned. We will change them for other skins, that they may taste the chastisement; surely Allah is Mighty, Wise.

Here Gabriel is clearly articulating God’s own words. How do we know this? We know because there is the use of what is called the “imperial we.” When the “imperial we” is used it does not mean multiple people, but it means that the divinity or the king speaks with authority for all. When a human king says “We” he means himself, but he has a multitude of authority. When God is speaking his own precise words in the Qur’an, he often uses the imperial we. Notice that this is a grimmer description of the crispy fried reality of those in hell. It is not Gabriel’s dry and detached perspective; it is a hint of the wrath of God in his own words. This is also factual information that is confirmed in the Bible that the bodies of those in hell are not destroyed, but are tormented and burned over and over unceasingly.

4:121 These are they whose abode is hell, and they shall not find any refuge from it.

The “these” in this citation are those who listen to the temptations sent by Satan and his minions.

7:18 He said: Get out of this (state), despised, driven away; whoever of them will follow you, I will certainly fill hell with you all.

This is part of the telling of the story of the fall of the disobedient angels and the disobedience of Adam and Eve.

7:38 He will say: Enter into fire among the nations that have passed away before you among jinn and men; whenever a nation shall enter, it shall curse its sister, until when they have all come up with one another into it; the last of them shall say with regard to the foremost of them: Our Lord! These led us astray, therefore give them a double chastisement of the fire. He will say: Every one shall have double but you do not know.

There are two important points to be made here, both of which are confirmed in the Bible. The first is that entire nations can and do go to hell, as King David states in Psalms, discussed in previous blogging here. Nations that structure themselves to be unbelievers and sinners drag themselves and all who follow them in a slide into hell as a group. So that is the first important point to understand. The second is that there are no friends and allies in hell. Each sinner nation will blame other nations that they used as the role model and thus they both end up in hell. Even in the dreadful punishment of hell the damned do not pray for mercy but haggle over demanding that those who “got them there” get “double” extra punishment. God observes that they already are all receiving the most severe punishment without discrimination. Hell: the equal opportunity and egalitarian pit of eternal suffering and fire.

7:179 And certainly We have created for hell many of the jinn and the men; they have hearts with which they do not understand, and they have eyes with which they do not see, and they have ears with which they do not hear; they are as cattle, nay, they are in worse errors; thee are the heedless ones.

Jinn is the Islamic expression for demonic influences. This passage requires careful understanding and we know this is God speaking using very precise words. When God says that he (imperial we) created hell for many of the jinn and men, God does not mean that specific people are created predestined to hell. It means that God in his all knowing of course realizes from birth and in advance all that a person will decide, and thus that many people, despite being offered chances to be saved, will turn them down and end up in hell. Just because God “knows” in advance who will do what and will be saved or not does not mean that he creates them predestined nor does he cease to offer them opportunities to be saved. By listing those people’s hearts, eyes and ears, God is using an imagery of the specific ways that he sends spiritual help to try to appeal to their hearts, to open their eyes, or to hear what they need to hear to be saved, but they are too heedless and persist in error to recognize the help or to accept and believe it. So if you read this passage too fast you might think this is a “predestined to be damned” statement while the opposite is true. It is a statement that even when God knows what people will do he continues to send messages to those people’s hearts, eyes and ears, but they do not accept those messages.

9:81 Those who were left behind were glad on account of their sitting behind Allah’s Apostle and they were averse from striving in Allah’s way with their property and their persons, and said: Do not go forth in the heat. Say: The fire of hell is much severe in heat. Would that they understand (it).

This is actually an example of hell being mentioned kind of in a rueful joking way among the Prophet’s travelers. They are speaking of the actual heat of battle and travel, and then make kind of a rueful joke about hell being a really hot place, so stop complaining about the daytime heat and get on with the Prophet’s work.

10:52 Then it shall be said to those who were unjust: Taste abiding chastisement; you are not requited except for what you have earned.

Like the Bible it is emphasized that those who are unjust in general, not just breaking a specific law of God or being an unbeliever per se, will earn hell in return (requited) for their unjustness.

14:16-17 Hell is before him and he shall be given to drink of festering water. He will drink it little by little and will not be able to swallow it agreeably, and death will come to him from every quarter, but he shall not die; and there shall be vehement chastisement before him.

There is no water per se in hell but only the festering fluid of the burning fire and brimstone, which people in hell will actually try to drink to quench their thirst. If only all of you truly realized how horrifying hell is.

14:28-30 Have you not seen those who have changed Allah’s favor for ungratefulness and made their people to alight into the abode of perdition; (Into) hell? They shall enter into it and an evil place it is to settle in. And they set up equals with Allah that they may lead (people) astray from His path. Say: Enjoy yourselves, for surely your return is to the fire.

This passage asks if the reader has not noticed people who receive great favor from God, only to return ingratitude back to God instead of thanks. These people will end up in hell. To give an example this passage describes those who receive blessings from God but who then ascribe those blessings to idols, false gods or their own power, and persuade others to likewise believe that blessings come not from God but from idols or themselves. That dry voice of Gabriel returns here with pithy and somewhat sardonic “Enjoy yourselves, for surely your return is to the fire.” By return he means that everyone born comes from God, since he creates the soul, but the good return to God in heaven, while the bad “return” not to God but to hell. “Return” means the dispensation of the soul, not that the soul was in hell previously and is “going back there.”

15:43-44 And surely Hell is the promised place of them all. It has seven gates; for each gate there shall be a separate party of them.

This is part of the dialogue between God and Satan after Satan tempted Adam and Eve into sin, and Satan refused to bow and honor the sacredness of God’s creation of man. So God tells Satan that even though he, Satan, refuses to honor humans, that he, Satan, does not have rulership over humans except for those who he, Satan, persuades to follow him. God then states that those who follow Satan will end up in hell as that is the “promised” place of those who deviate from God and follow Satan.

God then mentions that there are seven gates to hell. Notice that the fact that hell has gates is confirmed in the Bible as Jesus Christ also states that when he promises Peter that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. Why are there multiple gates? They represent the different ways that people find their way to hell through different patterns of sin and wickedness. For example some enter hell through their lack of belief and their work to destroy the faith of others, while others enter hell due to performing evil deeds such as murder. So the fact there are multiple gates to hell is just a way to understand that there are well understood patterns of behavior that differ among people but bring them to the same place.

The Qur’an quotes God as saying there are specifically seven gates. Notice too that this same passage uses a familiar Biblical phrase “promised” as in the Promised Land but in this sense the “promised land” is hell for those who follow Satan. Likewise the fact that there are seven gates to hell indicates that hell uses what is considered a divine number, seven, in its obverse. In other words, we see in both the Bible and the Qur’an that Satan and his minions imitate earthly and heavenly concepts. The number seven in both Judeo-Christian and Arabic culture tends to represent divine goodness. Thus God points out that hell has seven gates, in oppositional counterpoint to the goodness of the gates of heaven.

16:29 Therefore enter the gates of hell, to abide therein; so certainly evil is the dwelling place of the proud.

Once again the point that excessive pride is a most certain way to find one’s home in hell.

There is much more very useful information and very “meaty” perspective regarding hell in the remaining chapters, which we can look at in future postings on this subject.