This surah ends with its raison d’etre: to strengthen Muhammad for the task before him of confronting the idolatrous people of his own hometown Mecca (11:120).  Muhammad is to see himself as part of something much bigger than this moment.  As a prophet, his calling is to join the long stream of God’s servants who call out salvation and destruction as options to their people.  He is not coming down the mountain to Mecca alone.  He is not the only one who has experienced the assortment of emotions and experiences he will.

There is strength in knowing you are a part of something bigger.  That is very counter-cultural today.  America is the land of the great “I.”  We are individuals through and through.  Maybe on Memorial Day or the Fourth of July we are reminded we are a part of a larger group with bigger, nobler purposes.  But most of the time, right along with Toby Keith, we just “wanna talk about me.”

But individualism is only as strong as the individual, and most of us aren’t that strong for long.  God has called his people to a group, a heritage, a “great cloud of witnesses.”  There is strength in numbers, they say.

Are the punishments of Hell eternal?  Can a loving God punish people forever?  Is there an end and an escape?  Or is there an annihilation of the soul and thus an end to the punishment?

These questions have been around for a long time, and they are now being resurrected — at least in part — by Rob Bell in his newest book, Love Wins.  This is not the place for a review of that book (in short, I loved the first two chapters, have some significant issues with some of his last points, marvel at his ability to communicate, but was driven crazy by his lack of support for many of his points . . . oh, and a note to the blogosphere, you ought to read the book before you criticize it!), but I found it interesting that two lines in today’s reading bring up similar questions:

The wretched ones will be in the Fire, sighing and groaning, there to remain for as long as the heavens and earth endure, unless your Lord wills otherwise: your Lord carries out whatever he wills.  As for those who have been blessed, they will be in Paradise, there to remain as long as the heavens and earth endure, unless your Lord wills otherwise — an unceasing gift. (11:106-108)

Is this saying that Allah might will to remove people from the Fire?  If so, would it not also mean that Allah could will to remove people from Paradise too?  And what does it mean that people will be in the Fire/Paradise “as long as the heavens and earth endure?”  Is that this “heavens and earth?”  Is that implying there will be an end to spiritual punishment, say at some future point of recreation?  If so, will there also be an end to reward?  But isn’t Paradise “an unceasing gift?”  Or are these lines little more than rhetorical devices emphasizing that Allah does whatever he wishes, because he is Allah?

Muslim commentator Abdullah Yusuf Ali says this about this passage:

Here it [the word translated “remain as long as” or “dwell therein”] is definitely connected with two conditions, viz: (1) as long as the heavens and the earth endure, and (2) except as God wills. Some Muslim theologians deduce from this the conclusion that the penalties referred to are not eternal, because the heavens and the earth as we see them are not eternal, and the punishments for the deeds of a life that will end should not be such as will never end. The majority of Muslim theologians reject this view. They hold that the heavens and the earth here referred to are not those we see now, but others that will be eternal. They agree that God’s Will is unlimited in scope and power, but that it has willed that the rewards and punishments of the Day of Judgment will be eternal.

Juan E. Campo states in the Encyclopedia of Islam that some Muslim theologians developed the view well after the Qur’an was written that souls would escape the Fire after a set time of punishment.  Passages like today’s help us see why they might conclude this.

If nothing else, what we see today is that Christians are not the only ones who wonder and even argue about the afterlife.