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Are there Degrees of Punishment in Hell?

Humans clearly consider certain crimes to be more severe than others. Some crimes deserve greater punishment than others. For example, a murderer spends longer in prison than a petty thief, and a rapist or sex-offender is considered to be worse than a tax-evader. They’re all crimes, but the murder, rape and molestation are considered far worse acts of evil. 

Not only do we see severities of crimes, but we also consider certain acts of ‘wrong-doings’ worse than others. White lies are apparently not intended to harm an individual, it’s often intended to benefit the person (example: “Do I look fat in this”, asks the wife. “No dear”, replies the husband even though he thinks she does), so they don’t seem as bad as lies which are intended to hurt someone. 

If humans consider some sins and crimes to be more severe than others, how much more does God! I have wrongly heard Christians say that all sins are the same. They’re not. The Bible is clear that some sins are worse than others. But before I explain, let me say that all sins are condemnable—big or small—and the sinner will be condemned to utter damnation in Hell where the presence of God’s wrath is for all eternity! The contrast between the holiness of God and the fallenness of humanity as the result of one ‘small’ sin is enormous. If a white shirt which is readily washed and ironed on a Sunday morning gets a drop of red grape juice on it, no matter how big or small the spot, it’s stained. I might be able to hide it behind a jacket, jumper or blazer, but I can’t get rid of it – it has to be rewashed. Likewise, no matter how big or small our sins, they are severe enough to merit an eternity of anger and wrath away from the loving presence of God.

This might seem harsh to some because they do not consider themselves very bad at all. One might argue that there is more good than bad in them. Surely, Hitler certainly deserves Hell, not the average Joe. What qualifies someone for Hell, however, is not the murder of 6 million Jews (although that certainly does), but the speck of sin which corrupts us. The standard for anyone to be able to enter into the presence of God, is perfection, which doesn’t exist in humans. We would be happy to learn that Hitler, Stalin, Ted Bundy and Jack the Ripper are burning in Hell, but we would be less comfortable to know that our unrepentant neighbours or family members are there too. The Bible is clear that everyone who does not accept the truth of the Gospel by turning to God through Christ by repenting of their sins and receiving salvation by faith by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit will be condemned for the sins that they have committed. And some will be judged worse than others.

Those who reject Christ are literally storing up an inheritance of judgement by sinning. They continue to add to a list of sins which grows and grows. Paul says, “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” (Romans 2:5). Judas’ sin was so great that he is said to be in “his own place” (Acts 1:25) which some theologians interpret it to mean that he is now in a reserved spot in Hell.

In Matthew 11:23-24, Jesus says that the day of judgement will be more bearable for Sodom than for Capernaum. Sodom was a place of exceedingly great and severe sin. Capernaum, on the surface, was civilised and would not have been considered in the same manner. So, why does Jesus condemn Capernaum in such a way? It seems that the severest of sins is to hear the Gospel, understand it and to reject it. This seems to be far worse than murder, adultery, sexual sin, theft and any other. The degree of punishment seems to be worse for those who have heard the truth and rejected it than for those who’ve committed the most abominable sins but have never heard the truth. The severity of punishment is apparently measured by how much truth has been revealed to the individual.

Peter tells the church that for those who once claimed to know Christ but have now turned away, their last state is far worse than the first: “For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them” (2 Peter 2:20-21). Therefore, for those who have heard the message of the Gospel and have ignored it, greater punishment will be upon them than for those who have never heard it.

Frightening are the words of the author to the Hebrews: “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). One of the worst sins is to reject, ignore and condemn Christ by not repenting when an understanding of the truth has been gained, or to turn from once professing Christ to now rejecting Christ.

Above all else, the very worst sin is the work of false prophets and teachers. These are people who have understood, and in some cases accepted the truth, but have profaned it and are now actually teaching others to turn to a different Gospel and a different Jesus than the one presented in the Gospels (2 Cor. 11:4; 2 Pet. 2:1-11; Jude 3-16).

The act of turning from Christ, after having once understood and followed Christ, is not a falling away from salvation, or ‘falling from grace’, as some term it. Once someone has been saved, they cannot be unsaved (John 10:27-29; Rom. 8:1, 28-39; Phil. 1:6). It’s simply that they were never truly regenerated in the first place and have made a mockery of the Gospel by lessening it to appear as just some other worldview.

To summarise, there are most certainly degrees of punishment in Hell that are likely compartmentalised based on one’s response to the gospel:

Compartment 1: Sinners who’ve never heard the gospel but are aware of their sins.
Compartment 2: Sinners who’ve heard the gospel but have never repented by faith.
Compartment 3: Sinners who’ve made a profession of faith and then discarded it at a later stage.
Compartment 4: Sinners who’ve made a profession, taught the gospel and then have turned away by teaching a false gospel and a different Jesus and thereby leading others astray.

 

How should we respond to this?

1. Understand and repent

Be sure of your own salvation. Concern yourselves with who you are before a holy God. Ask yourself whether you have understood the gospel—that salvation cannot be obtained through your own good works—it can only be received by faith alone through the atoning work of Christ. Repent of your sins and turn to the ways of Christ. Love him, serve him and serve his church.

 

2. Don’t live in paranoia

If what you’ve read so far worries you, then you need to be assured of your salvation. At the very least you fit into Compartment 2. But if you have repented of your sins and profess to know Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, then “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12b). In other words, put your faith to practice. But remember, through your obedience it is God who is at work in you: “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).

If it is a particular sin that’s causing you to doubt your salvation, then you might want to consider whether you have been saved in the first place. A person who continues a pattern of sinning and refuses to change or does not have a desire to put that sin to death has never truly repented in the first place. However, you will continue to sin (as we all do), but if every time you sin causes you to doubt your salvation, I would encourage you to understand that you cannot lose your salvation (Rom. 8:1). Christ’s atonement was enough to cover all our iniquities.

There’s no room for paranoia in God’s kingdom. Be assured of your salvation based on the promises of God that those who call upon his name shall be saved (Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; Rom. 10:13). Being confident of your salvation does not depend on you, but on God.

 

3. Christ has been judged once, for all his people

Remember, people who were once destined to be judged to any one of the 4 compartments have been saved before. Jesus’ atoning sacrifice is enough to cover the worst of sins. As long as a man/woman has breath in his/her lungs, there is still time for him/her to be saved. Jesus paid the ultimate price for our sins. The stack of sins that we carry and continue to contribute towards has all been laid on the shoulders of our Lord and has been judged in him instead. Therefore, our response to all of this is twofold: firstly, we respond in worship and praise. Secondly, we warn others of the devastation that is before them and the way of escape our Creator has supplied through his own suffering.

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Written by: Pastor Gwydion

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