Around 1300 AD, an Italian poet named Dante Alighieri composed his most famous work “The Divine Comedy”. In this epic story, Dante describes his fictional journey to Heaven. The poem is regarded as a classic piece of world literature. The story is divided into 3 parts that tell of his adventures through Hell, then Purgatory, and finally Paradise. The most widely read portion of his trilogy is the first part which is called “Inferno”. This focuses on Dante’s travels through Hell.
In his poem, Dante imagines hell in the center of the earth and divided into 9 concentric circles or spheres. Each of these are set aside for particular types of sinners, and each has a different type of punishment. As Dante journeys through each circle starting at the outermost ring and moving toward the center, he describes sufferings that become more and more intense and severe. Dante finds Satan in the last circle at the core of the earth, in the deepest hell, which has been reserved for the most awful of sinners.
Though Dante’s work is one of fiction and is not based squarely on Scripture, and though it is a comedy and not intended to be taken seriously, “The Inferno” does present an interesting idea. The thought that there are different levels of Hell or varying degrees of punishment for sinners based upon the particular nature of their sins is somewhat intriguing. But is there actual Biblical support for the widespread acceptance of this belief, or is simply derived from fictional works and fanciful imaginations such as those of Dante?
In today’s message, the fourth in our series on “Heaven and Hell”, we will investigate the premise that there are different degrees of punishment in Hell. We will see what the Bible says about this notion. As such, I’ve titled this message “Degrees of Punishment?”. Let’s begin...
I. GREATER SIN
Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin. - John 19:11
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. - Revelation 20:12
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. - James 2:10
Obviously there are many different types of sin. The Old Testament law lists many of these and assigns various types of sacrifices to atone for each. The diverse punishments for these transgressions further indicates that some sins are more severe or consequential than others. For example, a child shoplifting a piece of bubblegum would not rise to the same level as a criminal violently murdering someone. In other words, some sins appear to be greater than others. As such, it seems reasonable that their punishment would change accordingly.
While speaking to Pilate just prior to His crucifixion, Jesus stated that Judas Iscariot had committed a “greater sin” by betraying Him than Pilate had committed by condemning Him. With these words, the Lord compared the sins of these two men and concluded that one was more significant than the other. In another passage, John describes the judgment of the dead as being rendered “according to their deeds”. In keeping with Jesus’ statement to Pilate, surely some of these sinners have committed more serious offenses than others.
Though the Bible acknowledges that some sins are greater than others - particularly in terms of their temporal effects - it also teaches that all sin leads to separation from God. Those who are guilty of only one sin, as small as it might be, are considered to be spiritually guilty of all. This means that all unrepentant sinners, no matter how heinous or vile, stand guilty before our holy God and are thereby condemned to Hell.
Since all levels of unforgiven sin result in the same judgment, yet some sins are considered greater than others, the possibility that there are different degrees of punishment in this equitable judgment seems reasonable. While all unsaved sinners who die apart from Christ go to Hell, could it be that some receive harsher punishment than others?
II. GREATER TOLERANCE
Truly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city. - Matthew 10:15
23 And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. 24 Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.” - Matthew 11:23-24
13 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had been performed in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14 But it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the judgment than for you. - Luke 10:13-15
As Jesus travelled about preaching and teaching about the kingdom of God, some cities received the gospel message more readily than others. In certain places where He was welcomed and treated hospitably, Jesus performed many miracles and wonders. But in other locations, He was outright rejected and shunned. Citing the contrast between His reception in these differing towns, the Lord declared that the punishment for some would be “more tolerable” than others.
When Jesus sent the apostles out to proclaim to gospel throughout Israel, he told them to depart from any place that did not receive them or heed their words. If shunned, the apostles were instructed to “shake the dust off of their feet” and move right along to the next location. Jesus further stated that it would be “more tolerable” for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than those cities who’d rejected them.
Jesus’ repeated declaration that some punishments would be “more tolerable” than others seems to suggest that there could be varying degrees of suffering in Hell. As we have already learned in this series, Hell is described as an unimaginably terrible place for all who are there, but could it be even worse for some than others?
III. GREATER PUNISHMENT
38 In His teaching He was saying: “Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, and like respectful greetings in the market places, 39 and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets, 40 who devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers; these will receive greater condemnation.” - Mark 12:38-40
46 “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets, 47 who devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation.” - Luke 20:46-47
47 And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes, 48 but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more. - Luke 12:47-48
In both Mark and Luke we read of an occasion when Jesus described the pious behavior of the scribes. He cited their hypocrisy and self righteousness, declaring that their religious behavior was often practiced for appearance’s sake only. He warned His followers not to be like these men, and went on to say that these scribes would receive “greater condemnation”. This leads me to wonder - greater than who?
Jesus told a parable of servants who were responsible for keeping the master’s house in order while he was away. He stated that if the master returned and found his servants not doing as they’d been instructed, they would receive a harsh punishment of “many lashes”. Then He added that if there were servants who were uninformed of the master’s wishes, they would receive a lesser punishment of “flogging”. While both were punished, this parable distinguishes a greater punishment for some than others.
Yet again the implication is that some sins carry a more severe punishment. While all sin leads to judgment and condemnation, the Bible seems to hint at that belief that there are varying degrees of punishment in Hell.
Jesus stated that some sins are greater than others. He repeatedly said that it would be more tolerable in the day of judgment for some cities than others. He also stressed that the scribes would suffer greater condemnation for practicing a self serving religion than others would. In each of these instances, the Lord suggested that there are indeed different levels in or at least various degrees of punishment in Hell. That said, the Bible never explicitly says this or offers any explanation of how these differences are manifested from one another. If there are degrees of punishment in Hell, we are not told how they are divided or applied to those imprisoned there.
I am always hesitant to mention the possibility of differing degrees of punishment in Hell for fear that someone might think that parts of it would be pleasant and perhaps even desirable. If there are increasing degrees of punishment in Hell, and I believe there may be, even the fairest or least severe of these is still horrific. As such, we need not get hung up on this. All of Hell is “eternal conscious punishment” where the damned will experience the terrible wrath of God. It is a place where even the most decent unsaved sinner will suffer tremendously and without end.
Next week we will conclude the first half of this series and our discussion of Hell. We will talk about the three different hells that are described in Scripture. After that, we will turn our attention to Heaven as we continue through the remaining sermons of this series.