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Are There Different Degrees of Punishment in Hell?

Degrees of PunishmentAren’t All Sins the Same?
As we get ready to examine whether or not there are differing degrees of punishment in Hell, we really need to start with a question about sin, because Christians across the globe often base what they believe about Heaven on what they believe about sin. Let me explain.

Many Christians believe that all sin is the same. They believe that lying is just as bad as murder when it comes to the perfection that is required to be in the presence of God. While this is certainly true, this does NOT mean that all sins are equally repulsive to God. Yes, even our relatively minor sins keep us out of Heaven. Yes, even the slightest sin will demonstrate our imperfection and our need for a Savior. But make no mistake about it; some sins are clearly more heinous than others in the eyes of God. Don’t believe me? Then let’s see what Jesus had to say as He was standing in front of Pontius Pilate:

John 19:11-12
Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me up to you has the greater sin.”

Even Jesus would acknowledge that some sins are greater than others. And this is consistent with the way in which God has always dealt with sin from the earliest of times…

Are There Degrees of Punishment on Earth?
When God gave the Mosaic Law to Moses, He demonstrated the fact that some sins are more disgusting to God than others. If this were not so, God would have prescribed the SAME penalty for all the different kinds of sins. But, of course, that is NOT what He did. God assigned different penalties to different sins, based on the offensive or heinous nature of the sin itself. The Mosaic Law is filled with measured responses to sin. God’s Word prescribes punishments that precisely match the crime in question:

Exodus 21:23-25
But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

In fact, the Mosaic Law was very careful to make sure that each offender be punished “according to his guilt” and no more:

Deuteronomy 25:2-3
…then it shall be if the wicked man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall then make him lie down and be beaten in his presence with the number of stripes according to his guilt. He may beat him forty times but no more, lest he beat him with many more stripes than these, and your brother be degraded in your eyes.

The Mosaic Law is evidence of two things. First, it is clear that while any sin may separate you from the perfection of God, some sins are clearly more offensive than others. Second, it is also clear that God prescribes different punishments for different crimes based on the severity of each crime.

Are There Degrees of Punishment in Hell?
So, it should come as no surprise then, that God would carry over this principle into the next life. If this is true, God would then prescribe a variety of punishments in the next life that correspond to the crimes that are committed in this one. The Bible seems to make this case:

Revelation 20:12-13
And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds.

And perhaps the most convincing argument for the idea that differing degrees of punishment are applied in Hell is made from the Parable of the Wicked Servant:

Luke 12:42-48
And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and sensible steward, whom his master will put in charge of his servants, to give them their rations at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes. Truly I say to you, that he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But if that slave says in his heart, ‘My master will be a long time in coming,’ and begins to beat the slaves, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk; the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him, and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and assign him a place with the unbelievers. And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, shall receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. And from everyone who has been given much shall much be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.

This parable ends with a truth about the Kingdom of God that is hard to escape. The wicked will be punished, that is certain. But did you notice that some are punished more than others? There are clearly DEGREES of punishment. In a straight forward interpretation of this parable, it is clear that those who reject the teaching and calling of God will be harshly punished, but those who have less clarity on what can be known about God (“the one who did not know it”) while punished, will be punished with less severity. The Bible is clear about this reality.

What is perhaps more interesting than the fact that there are degrees of punishment in Hell, is this reality that KNOWLEDGE OF THE TRUTH is the pivotal condition for these levels of punishment.

Are Those Who Should Know Better Judged More Harshly?
Those who know more are held in a higher degree of accountability and responsibility. If you know the truth about God and reject it, you will be punished more than someone who doesn’t yet know better. This is clear from the scripture. Look at these three statements made by Jesus, all in the Gospel of John:

John 9:41
Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

John 15:22
“If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin.”

John 15:24
“If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have both seen and hated Me and My Father as well.”

Over and over again, Jesus tells us that KNOWLEDGE OF THE TRUTH is important, and it is upon this knowledge that sin is, in fact, judged. The more you know, the more you should know better! Jesus said that those with greater knowledge of God’s moral nature and plan for Salvation (based on their exposure to the teaching of Jesus and his followers) will be held more accountable and, as a result, their rejection of this truth will receive a greater punishment than those who simply don’t know better.

Jesus affirmed this in many other places in the Gospels. Let’s look at another example in the Gospel of Matthew. Let’s see what Jesus had to say to his disciples as he overlooked Bethsaida, Capernaum and Chorazin and bemoaned the fact that they had rejected the truth that Jesus and his followers had shared with them:

Matthew 11:20-24
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless I say to you, it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment, than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You shall descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.”

Jesus affirms two realities here. Once again he affirms the fact that there are different degrees of punishment in the next life. But even more importantly, it is one’s level of knowledge and understanding that is the basis for this punishment! These Jewish cities had been exposed to Jesus’ teaching and they had seen the miracles. They had more chances than nearly anyone else to comprehend and accept the truth. Yet they failed to do so. As a result, they were to be punished MORE than others. Once again, the more you know, the more you should know better. Even the writer of Hebrews makes this observation:

Hebrews 10:28-29
How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?

Once again, those who have heard the TRUTH about Jesus yet reject this truth (trampling “the Son of God under foot”) have placed themselves in a position of even MORE judgment and punishment than those who have never heard this truth. Look at how Peter phrases it:

2 Peter 2:20-22
For if after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment delivered to them.

The punishment for those who never knew the truth in the first place is only ‘better’ because it is somehow ‘lesser’. Once again, Peter is describing degrees of punishment based on one’s KNOWLEDGE OF THE TRUTH. Finally, let’s see what James has to say on a very similar topic:

James 3:1-2
Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment.

James agrees with Jesus, the writer of Hebrews and with Peter. James understands that there are degrees of punishment in the next life and that these degrees will be applied based on KNOWLEDGE. And who, after all, should have more knowledge than those who claim to be teachers?

Now, just because we have Biblical examples of punishment being dispersed based on degrees of understanding and knowledge of the truth, we shouldn’t therefore make the case that this is the ONLY factor that God considers when determining how, and to what degree, and individual will be punished. Just as the Mosaic Law punishes evildoers based on the heinous nature of their crimes, there is no reason to believe that God’s Law in eternity won’t apply the same principle. After all, no one on earth is completely without excuse, like someone who doesn’t know better when it comes to the existence of God and the moral truth of His nature:

Romans 1:18-20
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.

Romans 2:14-15
For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them…

Even those who have never heard the Gospel have enough knowledge to know better. They should know from the world around them that God does exist, and they should know from their own consciences that God’s moral law prevails. Given this reality, how innocent are any of us, really? So while knowledge is definitely a factor that God considers, he does not consider ANY of us to be without SOME level of knowledge. For this reason, it is fair for Him to also look at the heinous and offensive level of each sin, just as He does in the Mosaic Law. One thing we do know for certain, however, is that God’s nature will prevail when He decides what to do with us, and that is good news…

The Good News
Yes, in the midst of all this talk about punishment in Hell, there is some good news. First, we can have the confidence of knowing that God is LOVING and JUST, exactly as He is described elsewhere in the Bible:

Psalm 25:8
Good and upright is the LORD; Therefore He instructs sinners in the way.

Psalm 100:5
For the LORD is good; His lovingkindness is everlasting, and His faithfulness to all generations.

Psalm 89:14
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Thy throne; lovingkindness and truth go before Thee

We would expect that a God who is both LOVING and JUST would demand justice but do it in a way that is equitable. And this is exactly what the Bible teaches about the nature of Hell. It is a place where justice is served but also a place where justice is measured out fairly. So, be ready when someone says, “Hey, it’s not fair that my Grandma who doesn’t know much about Jesus and has ‘minor’ sin in her life should be punished the same as a guy like Hitler (who rejected the truth of Christianity and had ‘major’ sin in his life)!” Be prepared to tell them that this is NOT the claim of Christianity in the first place. These two people will both be separated from God, but Hitler will face an experience in Hell that is very different than someone like grandma.

But there is even better news than any of what we have already described. Here’s the TRUTH of the Christian Worldview; are you ready? NO ONE HAS TO CHOOSE HELL IN THE FIRST PLACE. The “good news” of Christianity, (also known as the “Gospel”) is that God’s offer of Salvation is a free gift that can be claimed by ANYONE who is willing to accept Jesus as Lord. No one has to go to Hell. Jesus paid the price for our sin and made it possible for us to be forgiven and righteous in the eyes of God, not because of anything ‘good’ that we may have done, but based on what Jesus DID on the cross.

The truth about Hell should wake us up to the reality that without the free gift of God; the gift of His Son, all of us would find ourselves in a place of judgment. But today, as Christians freed from the grip of sin by Jesus’ work on the cross, we can anticipate the rewards of Heaven rather than the punishments of Hell.

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