بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
وصلى الله على نبيه الامين
وعلى آله واصحابه اجمعين
Rationally it is quite a challenge to justify the idea that everlasting, eternal damnation and punishment awaits people in Hell for sins and rebellion against Allah that are finite. Such a belief also appears to be contrary to the idea of Allah ارحم الراحمين being gracious, merciful and compassionate.
Once the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم came across a woman nursing her child and asked his companions whether they thought she could ever throw her child into the fire, to which they replied “by no means, if she could help it”, to which the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم said:
اللَّهُ أَرْحَمُ بِعِبَادِهِ مِنْ هَذِهِ بِوَلَدِهَا
“Allah is more merciful to His servant than this woman is to her child”
وَ رَحۡمَتِیۡ وَسِعَتۡ کُلَّ شَیۡءٍ
My mercy encompasses all things
There are some more specific indications in the Quran that the punishment of Hellfire is not eternal:
فَاَمَّا الَّذِیۡنَ شَقُوۡا فَفِی النَّارِ لَہُمۡ فِیۡہَا زَفِیۡرٌ وَّ شَہِیۡقٌ
As for those who will prove unfortunate, they shall be in the Fire, wherein there shall be for them sighing and sobbing,
خٰلِدِیۡنَ فِیۡہَا مَا دَامَتِ السَّمٰوٰتُ وَ الۡاَرۡضُ اِلَّا مَا شَآءَ رَبُّکَ ؕ اِنَّ رَبَّکَ فَعَّالٌ لِّمَا یُرِیۡدُ
Abiding therein so long as the heavens and the earth endure, excepting what thy Lord may will. Surely, thy Lord does bring about what He pleases
In this Ayah there is a strong hint that the punishment of the Hellfire is not eternal, but shall perhaps come to an end at some point as per Allah’s will. Interestingly, the same description of duration is mentioned concerning Paradise with one critical caveat:
وَ اَمَّا الَّذِیۡنَ سُعِدُوۡا فَفِی الۡجَنَّۃِ خٰلِدِیۡنَ فِیۡہَا مَا دَامَتِ السَّمٰوٰتُ وَ الۡاَرۡضُ اِلَّا مَا شَآءَ رَبُّکَ ؕ عَطَآءً غَیۡرَ مَجۡذُوۡذٍ
But as for those who will prove fortunate, they shall be in Heaven; abiding therein so long as the heavens and the earth endure, excepting what thy Lord may will — a gift that shall not be cut off
Note that the description of Paradise as “a gift that shall not be cut off” is unique to Paradise and not mentioned at all regarding the Hellfire. This too is an indication that unlike Paradise, the punishment of Hellfire is not permanent or everlasting. Whether the Quran describes the punishment of Hell as eternal or not, it certainly cannot be denied that Hellfire is described as a lengthy sentence:
لّٰبِثِیۡنَ فِیۡہَاۤ اَحۡقَابًا
Who will tarry therein for ages
Ahqāb is the plural of huqb which is a finite period of time, usually translated to mean: “long period of time, years, eighty years” (Arabic-English Dictionary of Quranic Usage p.223)
It seems counter-intuitive to describe perpetuity as “ages” or a multiple of measurements of a fixed period of time. Granted, infinite fixed periods is still infinite, but that is a strange way to describe infinity.
The Prophet صلى الله عليه و آله وسلم said:
يَخْرُجُ مِنَ النَّارِ مَنْ قَالَ لاَ إِلَهَ إِلاَّ اللَّهُ، وَفِي قَلْبِهِ وَزْنُ شَعِيرَةٍ مِنْ خَيْرٍ، وَيَخْرُجُ مِنَ النَّارِ مَنْ قَالَ لاَ إِلَهَ إِلاَّ اللَّهُ، وَفِي قَلْبِهِ وَزْنُ بُرَّةٍ مِنْ خَيْرٍ، وَيَخْرُجُ مِنَ النَّارِ مَنْ قَالَ لاَ إِلَهَ إِلاَّ اللَّهُ، وَفِي قَلْبِهِ وَزْنُ ذَرَّةٍ مِنْ خَيْرٍ
“Whoever said ‘none has the right to be worshipped but Allah’ and has in his heart good equal to the weight of a barley grain will be taken out of Hell. And whoever said ‘none has the right to be worshipped but Allah’ and has in his heart good (faith) equal to the weight of a wheat grain will be taken out of Hell. And whoever said, ‘none has the right to be worshipped but Allah’ and has in his heart good equal to the weight of an atom will be taken out of Hell.”
Interestingly, confessing to the Prophesy of sayyidina Muhammad صلوات الله وسلام عليه is not mentioned as the criterion for Allah taking out souls from the Hellfire, but only belief in the oneness of Allah, that He alone is worthy of worship and the only God.
According to a Hadith whose authenticity is not established:
يأتي على جهنم يوم ما فيها من بني آدم واحد تخفق أبوابها كأنها أبواب الموحدين
That is, a day or time shall dawn upon Gehinnom in which none from the children of Adam will be found in it, and it’s doors shall rattle to the blowing wind.
In conclusion, I say that the traditional belief in the eternality of Hellfire held by most Muslims is not strongly established in Islam. It is indeed rationally difficult to justify, but Allah knows best.