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Definition

Although the suffering will be severe and everlasting for all those in hell, the specific degrees of punishment and suffering will differ in accordance with the measure of sin in one’s life, the extent of one’s sinful influence on others, and the amount of gospel-light that was rejected.

Summary

The biblical authors are clear that hell is a place of divine judgment on sinners. Furthermore, many authors speak of more and less severe degrees of punishment, dependent on a number of factors in one’s life. These factors include the extent to which a person has abandoned himself to sin, the extent of one’s influence on other people towards sin, and the amount of knowledge of the truth that one had and rejected. This is not to say that hell will be less than perfect torment for some, but Scripture indicates that some will have a greater capacity for suffering or that some will bear a fiercer measure of the wrath of God upon them.

The biblical writers and our Lord himself frequently describe hell as a place of divine judgment on sinners. In multiple passages the ideas of punishment, wrath, retribution, and vengeance are prominent (Matt. 5:22; 8:12; 10:28; 13:42; 24:51; 23:33; 25:30; Mark 9:43–48; Luke 13:28; 2 Thess. 1:5–10; Rev. 20:10–15). The purpose of hell is not that of rehabilitation of the sinner or even the obliteration of evil. The purpose is retributive justice—the punishment of God on sinners.

The biblical writers are not content, however, to speak of hell broadly in terms of divine justice and retribution. They go further and insist that the divine justice in hell will be specifically fitted to the guilt of each individual offender. We will explore this teaching here in four steps:

  1. Biblical Evidence for the Concept of Degrees of Punishment in Hell
  2. Clarification: What is Meant by Degrees of Punishment
  3. The Reason for Degrees of Punishment
  4. The Basis for Determining Degrees of Punishment

Biblical Evidence for the Concept of Degrees of Punishment

Below are some passages of Scripture that speak directly of degrees of punishment in hell. Here we will just cite the verses to establish the teaching in principle; then we will draw on them for specific exposition and application.

“Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Matt. 10:15).

“But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you … But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” (Matt. 11:22, 24).

“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36–37).

“And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:47–48).

“But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:5).

“How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?” (Heb. 10:29)

Clarification: What is Meant by Degrees of Punishment

These statements of degrees of punishment in hell are not meant to suggest that there shall be anything less than perfect misery for every soul in hell. For every person in hell, it will be a place of “weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12), and this suffering will be forever (Rev. 14:11). No one in hell will have it easy. Hell will be a place of torment and misery for all who are there. Precisely how the degrees of punishment will be given out is not told us, but Scripture indicates plainly enough that some will have a greater capacity for suffering or that some will actually bear a fiercer measure of the positive infliction of the wrath of God upon them. All the lost will suffer for their sin; for some that suffering that will be worse than for others.

The Reasons for Degrees of Punishment

The infliction of punishment proportionately in degrees is an outworking of divine justice. Scripture repeatedly affirms that God will judge “in righteousness” (Acts 17:31) and that it is a function of God’s justice and glory to avenge every wrong (Rev. 16:1–7; 19:1–6). It is in the interests of divine justice that punishment will be given out according to the nature of the offence. We see a reflection of this, for example, in the Old Testament law which prescribed more severe punishment for premeditated murder than for accidental homicide. So also Moses’s law prescribed measures for restitution for various offenses. The nature of the crime, the attending motivations, and the varying circumstances all determine the measure of punishment.

This explains why Scripture repeatedly insists that judgment will be “according to works” (Rom. 2:6) and that in judgment “the books”—record books—will be opened (Rev. 20:12). There seems to be no point to this other than that of determining the measure of accumulated guilt, and that for the assigning the appropriate measure of punishment. This is why God the Judge will take into consideration the works, the words (Matt. 12:37), and even the thoughts and motives (Rom. 2:16) of sinners. Judgment is not merely for determining who is in and who is out; it is for measuring guilt and assigning punishment that is measured exactly what every individual sinner deserves.

The Basis for Determining Degrees of Punishment

What, then, will be the basis on which degrees of punishment will be determined? Scripture sets forth at least three considerations.

1) The Extent to which a Person has Abandoned Himself to Sin

The first consideration is the extent of abandonment to sin. This concept is entailed in Matthew 5:21 and other passages that indicate degrees of sin—worse sins result in worse punishment. This seems clearly to be the point in Romans 2:5—“Because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” What can this mean but that every sin committed is like making a deposit in the bank and that in the day of judgment it will all be withdrawn in judgment? In judgment, every last sin will be taken into consideration in fitting each sinner for the exact degree of punishment deserved (Rev. 18:6–7).

It is the fool who reasons, “Well, if I’m going to hell, I might as well have my (sinful) fun in the meantime!” Every day given to sin, every venting of lust, every untruthful word, every next sin committed only adds to the punishment that will be assigned. It would be better for that man to die young than to live only to accumulate a lifetime of sin that will return to him in divine wrath.

2) The Extent to which a Person by Example and Influence has Led Others to Sin

The second consideration in measuring judgment is the extent to which a person who by example and/or influence has led others to sin. This is what our Lord affirms in Matthew 18:5–7:

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!” (See also Mark 9:38–47.)

Here Jesus pronounces a woe on those who become an occasion for others to sin. The degree to which a person influences others to sin will in turn serve, in part, to establish the degree of his own punishment.

This appears to be at least one reason why there must be a day of judgment at the end of time. Final judgment is not fixed upon the death of every individual sinner: it is not until the end of time that the full effect of the influence of any one life can be measured. The omniscient God will take every individual life and assess every aspect of its influence—sometimes an influence that extends for centuries. And on the basis of the accumulated influence of evil, God will mete out punishment upon the wicked.

Jesus warns of this again in Matthew 23:13: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.” This “woe” is pronounced on those who by their actions and teaching block the way to heaven for others.

The thought is stunning and deeply sobering. That father and mother who refuse Christ and, in turn, influence their children away from the things of God thereby increase their guilt and the punishment they will receive for it. That older brother or sister or that friend or work associate who stands above his or her peers and who use their position to influence others to sin and to ignore the gospel—all of this will be brought to bear in the day of judgment to measure the degree of punishment deserved.

The extent of abandonment to sin and the degree of sinful influence on others will serve to determine the extent of punishment received.

3) The Extent to which Light and Privilege were Abused

The third consideration in measuring judgment is the extent to which light and privilege were abused. Jesus speaks to this directly in Luke 12:47–48:

“And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.”

The contrasting expressions—“severe beating” and “light beating”—indicate contrasting degrees of punishment. Both of the men in view here were servants accountable to their master. Both did things that were worthy of punishment. And both in fact receive punishment. But the one had more understanding than the other and as a consequence received greater punishment. Differing degrees of light resulted in differing degrees of punishment. Both received lashes, but for the one it was “many”; for the other it was “few.” And lest we miss the point, our Lord interprets the parable for us: “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” That is to say, the extent of light and privilege abused will determine, in part, the measure of punishment. (See also Rom. 2:12.)

Jesus speaks to this consideration elsewhere:

“Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Matt. 10:15).

“But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you … But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” (Matt. 11:22, 24).

As wicked and as guilty and as deserving of punishment as Sodom was, the greater sin belonged to Chorazin and Bethsaida, for they had seen and heard our Lord himself and had refused him. And for their abuse of such great light and privilege, their judgment will be the more severe.

Again, this is deeply disturbing. The person who grows up in a society in which the gospel is readily available and the person who grows up in a Christian home have great light and privilege. The person who attends a gospel-preaching church has great light and privilege. The person who has a Christian friend who witnesses to him of Christ has great light and privilege. And for this light and privilege God will hold them accountable—if such privilege is refused, judgment will be unspeakably great. For those who have heard the gospel only finally to refuse it, that gospel preached to them will in the end have served only to increase their guilt and enhance the punishment they will receive.

Concluding Thoughts

The punishment of hell will be in keeping with divine justice. The all-knowing God will assess each individual life, counting exactly the extent of abandonment to sin, the influence of others to sin, and the light and privilege abused, and he will assign punishment accordingly—exactly fitted to each person.

Surely this thought ought to capture the conscience of sinners such that they would restrain their sinning! Furthermore, this thought ought to drive any sinner to run to Christ and be saved! And surely this thought must drive every believer to humble yet glad praise for our Redeemer who took all of our sin to himself and paid its price in full, absorbing the full wrath of God in our place in order to make us his.

Further Reading