Answered by Shaykh Faraz A. Khan
I was having a discussion with an atheist, and he brought up an issue that had me stumped.
A good unbeliever who does a good action will end up in hell, and a bad believer will get the same fate.
Is this an accurate understanding?
I pray this finds you in the best of health and states.
The quick answer is that, like heaven, hell also has degrees, and those who embody more vice and oppression will be placed in lower depths therein, commensurate to their transgression.
For example, Allah Most High states about hypocrites in belief, i.e., those who in their hearts disbelieve yet who appear in the community as Muslims, “Verily the hypocrites are in the lowest depths of the Inferno” [Quran, 4:145]
Also, the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) once described the least punishment in Hell as a smoldering ember placed under the arch of the foot, due to which the brains will boil [Sahih Bukhari]. May Allah protect us from the Fire.
So disparity in general morality and ethics will be considered among the disbelievers in Hell, as it will be in Heaven for those who never disbelieved.
It is worth mentioning though, that the Ashar‘i position is that one is not punished for disbelief if one never received the message of Islam, and according to Imam Ghazali, people who receive a distorted version of the message are in that same category. [Faysal al-Tafriqa]
Accountability is predicated upon receiving a clear undistorted presentation of Islam. From the perspective of punishment, Allah is the only judge to who is a disbeliever.
And Allah knows best.
[Shaykh] Faraz A. Khan
Checked and Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani
Shaykh Faraz A. Khan has lived in Amman, Jordan, for several years studying and teaching traditional Islamic sciences, with a focus on Hanafi jurisprudence, hadith studies, theology, logic, and Arabic grammar. He translated and annotated the classical Hanafi primer “Ascent to Felicity” (Maraqi ‘l-Sa`adat) by Imam Shurunbulali, recently published by White Thread Press.