19. ETERNITY IN ISLAM AND IN THE BIBLE
“Mother, how long is eternity?” asked a little girl. Mum drew her darling close to her side and pointed to a nearby mountain. “Do you see that rock? A tiny bird comes there once every day to sharpen its bill by rubbing it against the rock. How long will it take before the whole mountain is gone? – That is like one second of eternity has passed.”
Eternity is never ending. Does that cause joy or anxiety in your mind? It all depends where you will spend that never ending reality! This is the message Scripture brings across clearly in numerous places (Matt 18:8; 19:16; Mark 9:43.45; John 3:15; 5:24; 6;40.47.54; 1 John 5:13; Rev 14:6).
Well over 200 references in Scripture urge us to consider the eternal consequences of our present life. We choose NOW whether we will spend eternity in everlasting punishment, pain and damnation or in eternal joy in the presence of the God whom we have come to know as our heavenly Father. The prophet Daniel contrasts the two destinies: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” And he reinforces his message: “Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” (12:2-3)
Yes, for the Christian who has received full forgiveness of his sins the thought of eternity ought not be a frightening one. He looks forward to “be at home” and “be with Christ” (Phil 1:23), “to see his face” and reign with him for ever and ever” (Rev 22:4-5). But what about the Muslim?
While the Qur’an describes a carnal, men-pleasing paradise in most vivid pictures (see # 17 for details), the horrors of the grave and the pending doom at judgment day are ever kept before the eyes of the weak, easy-going believer. Hell is portrayed as a place where the unfortunate inhabitants will be forced to drink boiling, foul water in small sips without ever succeeding in swallowing it down and where men will long to die yet not succeed, but experience an unrelenting chastisement (Sura 14:17). There will be no getting away from it (Sura 32:20). Death is pictured like an enormous monster with an unlimited capacity of swallowing its victims (Sura 50:30).
Years ago I obtained a poem entitled “Operation Death” from an Islamic bookstore which paints a gloomy picture of a man confronted by the Angel of Death about his many sins and shortcomings. After pleading in vain for another year or two to make up through ritual prayer, fasting and pilgrimage he eventually turns mad and kills himself. The poem concludes:
“O Reader, take a moral from here.
Never know, your end may be near.
Change your living and make amends,
for heaven, on your deeds, depends.”
To ease this terrible pressure some Muslim writers have introduced an Islamic version of purgatory, the cleansing fire. Muhammad Fazl-ur-Rahman Ansari in his booklet, “Beyond Death”, redefines hell as a “spiritual hospital” and muses that “hell will be one of the stages in the process of evolution for the soul that has not utilized the opportunities provided to it in its earthly sojourn”. (Ibid.,page 6) He builds his hope on a tradition of Muhammad as recorded by al-Bukhari: “When the sinners shall have attained tahzib and tanqiyah (= the cutting off of unproductive branches or the separating of the corrupt or corruptible parts from a thing), they will be allowed to enter heaven.”
Such theories are nothing more than a drowning man clutching to a straw, too weak to provide any assurance about one’s personal destiny. Moreover they completely point to the wrong direction for gaining eternal life. In Mark 10:17 the rich young man provides a crucial clue about the true nature of the matter when he asks Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer is that it is impossible to perform our religious exercises in a way that would gain a man access to the holy Creator. Only a restored relationship will ever grant us the rights of inheritance. It’s through Jesus who is the Life, that we can obtain the right to receive eternal life, that we are granted “the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). This is where the Qur’an falls far short of meeting man’s desire for eternal joy in the presence of God and the best which an Islamic writer can offer is to grab a biblical promise and claim it to be an Islamic Hadith. Thus we can find in Ansari’s booklet the quotation “God has provided for the righteous that which no eye has seen, no ear has heard, nor has it ever occurred to the mind of man” which is a direct quotation of 1 Cor. 2:9, but credited to al-Bukhari instead.