Are there degrees of punishment in hell? Considering the arguments in 3 parts. Part 2 – Leviticus 20 and different punishments for different sins

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 10.09.05 PM

In the David Fincher film “Seven” (a troublingly brilliant film I would recommend cautiously, and never pastorally) we see detectives seeking to find a psychopathic killer who is carrying out ghastly murders on people he sees to be guilty of the seven deadly sins.  One such unfortunate victim – a man he deems guilty of the sin of sloth – is kept in a room and tortured every day for an entire year, all the while still being kept alive.  When the two detectives find him, still alive, and get him to the hospital, the doctor says these words to the detectives,

He’s experienced about as much pain and suffering as anyone I’ve encountered, give or take; and he still has Hell to look forward to.”

-

In the last post I considered the argument from Matthew 11 that Jesus was teaching degrees of punishment in hell by describing hell as more “tolerable” for some than for others.  I laid out the case there that, perhaps, the tolerable-ness of hell had to do with one’s experience of hell based on their level of opportunity/revelation beforehand, and not on any differing degree of punishment.

Here now in the second post, I want to consider a second argument:

Argument #2: The different punishments for different sins in the Mosaic law,  demonstrate that there will be degrees of punishment in hell.

Screen shot 2014-03-13 at 10.25.05 PM

A cursory read of Leviticus shows God laying out his laws for life, holiness and priestly service (among other things) in Ch. 1-19, with Ch. 20 making a decided shift to describing some of the punishments God requires Israel to carry out for breaking those laws.  The point that those who see degrees of punishment in hell draw out from here is that God deals with different sins differently.  It’s not simply death for every offence of the law.  One receives death, while one receive a sentence of childlessness; one is burned by fire and one is cut off from the people.  This is also not, it should be noted, by any means the only place where we see God laying out different punishments for different sins in the OT law.  The implication, it is said, we can clearly draw from these, and other passages, is that God does not punish all sins equally.  On this point I would actually agree up and to the point of conceding that God certainly does command His people to punish the differing sins present among them differently.  The question needs to be asked immediately though, “Is it reasonable and necessary to extrapolate from these different punishments God commands His people to carry out, a corresponding truth statement that would say God Himself punishes people differently in hell?”

The answer, I believe, is found in answering the corresponding question:

What is the purpose of the law?

Paul tells us in Romans 7:7 that the law is what reveals sin to us. He says earlier in Romans 5:20 that the law also came to “increase the trespass” (and by that statement, and in that context, I take that to mean the trespass of Adam).  So the law was meant to reveal sin to us (just as Adam broke the first “law” of God in the garden of Eden) as well as to increase or magnify the trespass, which I take to mean to show us more and more of both how very opposite we are from the holy perfection of God, as well as, increasingly, how much in we are in need of a Saviour.  The point is, the law – and its corresponding punishments – has a very specific purpose.

And yet, right after simplifying the whole discussion of rewards and punishments, and stating simply that continuing in sin gives you death but that receiving the free gift of God gives you eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord in Romans 6:23 (the chapter divisions are not inspired BTW) Paul says, “Or do you not know brothers - for I am speaking to those who know the law - that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives?

Now, there are clear spiritual implications for the Christian and the non-Christian here – yes – but I think it is reasonable to conclude that God may also be saying here that the pattern of the law, and its corresponding punishments – this way of operating towards Him and others that He handed down to Moses – was intended for our own temporal existence/history alone.  This would make extrapolations from this text, beyond this life, about the way God punishes sin Himself, spurious and moot.  Of course, this does’t mean for a moment that God doesn’t punish sin.  But if the way God commands His people to operate before Him and with others is said to only be in effect, lit. “binding”, as long as we are living, it stands to reason that the way He operates towards sinners once they’ve died, i.e are not living, cannot be deduced from the way He commands us to operate towards sin while we are still living.

The simplest illustration I can think of is as it relates to sexuality and my kids.  Right now, as children (and unmarried all the more) I have a very clear way I command and expect them to operate towards sexuality, viz. they are to have zero, none, zip, nada sexual relations with anyone, and I will also lay out various consequences for them (beyond the natural) should my children disobey that command.  Yet I would state, even now, that this command/law is intended for as long as they remain unmarried, and that once they are married, the way I operate towards them as it relates to that command/law will look very different (ala. Romans 7:1).  Given all that information, you would look foolish to say that, based on my former command/law, I would continue to operate in the same way toward my daughters and sexuality as I do now, once they are married, and that I would also seek to punish them in the same way.  When they marry, the command/law no longer defines the way I operate towards them.  I think this is also how Romans 7:1 gives reasonable doubt to the premise that the way God commands His people to punish different sins differently in the OT law, defines a pattern for us to see how God will punish some people more in hell than others.

-

Which leads us back to my opening illustration.  In no way do I take my theological cues from films, and yet the principle displayed in the film is sound: the punishments handed down to this unfortunate man for his “sins” are clearly distinct from the imminent punishment of hell that this man is about to – in the mind of this doctor anyways – experience.  I’ll explain more of what I think that means in subsequent posts, but suffice it to say for now, I see hell itself as the supreme and final display of God’s justice on all the unrighteous, unqualified or quantified, and in and of itself.

There will, actually, be a post 2.5 before my conclusion in post 3, as some have enquired how this all relates to the parable of the servants in Luke 12:35-48.  This is what I will seek to deal with in the next post.

About these ads

12 thoughts on “Are there degrees of punishment in hell? Considering the arguments in 3 parts. Part 2 – Leviticus 20 and different punishments for different sins

  1. I like how you are striving to think this through and are clearly engaging in the text. I would have liked to hear a bit more of your motivation behind why you are taking so many posts to engage this issue. I think we all agree that it is a very minor point in Christian doctrine and so would like to hear why are taking the time on it. Just a thought.

    I find it strange that you seem to pit God’s people carrying out punishment against God Himself carrying out punishment, as if these two are different from each other. Do we not believe that the people are carrying out the very commands of God? And then do we not also believe that the law of God is a reflection of his eternal character so that when people carry out his punishments they are reflecting who he is? So the people are carrying out a reflection of the character of God, which in this case is true justice for God does not treat all sins the same. I would fully admit that this is not an airtight case for degrees of punishment in hell but the logic goes more like this 1) the law is a reflection of God’s character 2) in the law God’s character is revealed to be just for he does not treat all sins the same 3) therefore, it is not strange to think that a just God would treat the sins of an unbelieving 17 year old in hell differently than he would treat the sins of an unbelieving mass murderer in hell. Do we not all sense that justice requires degrees of punishment and that to treat everyone exactly the same would be unjust?

    Your clincher argument seems to be your view of the purpose of the law. Some questions: why do you think the only purpose of the law is to lead us to Christ? There is no question that this is one of the purposes but Christians, particularly, those in the reformed camp, have also argued that it has other purpose such as to provide a standard for life. By reducing it to just leading us to Christ you make your point but I am afraid it is a bit too reductionistic.

    Likewise, do you think the law of God only applies to God’s people? You keep pointing this out but do you not think the law is also reflection of the character of God and therefore applicable to all?
    Regarding the Rom 7 argument I find the whole argument a little odd. Paul’s point is not to talk about how the law applies pre and post death. The analogy of death is not meant to be used for when believers literally die but is rather an image of dying to the law in this life as we are alive to Christ in this life. I think therefore that it is a huge leap to say that we can apply this illustration apply to how God will judge people after death. Indeed, you are right to say that it is for our history and time but judgement day and the destinies of heaven and hell are based not on some other unknown standard but on the standards God gave us in this age.

    The one other thing to say is that I feel like you have already argued for degrees of punishment in hell in your summary of your first post. If some will have greater regret because they had greater revelation and did not heed it, is this not a higher degree of punishment? Although I do not know what degrees of punishment look like, I think you have made a great case that some people will have greater regret because they did not heed the greater revelation.

    Anyways, there are some thoughts for your consideration. Thanks for being so clear on your posts. I may not agree but you are clearly state your position. Well done.

    • Appreciate your detailed interaction. As to the motivation behind so many posts, i think i simply want to give a thorough dealing of the subject and one post would simply be too long to adequately do that.
      1. “I find it strange that you seem to pit God’s people carrying out punishment against God Himself carrying out punishment, as if these two are different from each other.
      An unintentional pitting if that’s what I achieved. I’m simply stating that there is, in fact a difference between the judgment that God asks His people to carry out and the judgement He Himself carries out within the same context. They are certainly inextricably linked by both being about God’s justice being carried out, but the agent of justice is different.
      2. “do we not also believe that the law of God is a reflection of his eternal character so that when people carry out his punishments they are reflecting who he is?
      The law certainly is a reflection of of God’s eternal character which is – in one aspect – Justice. So while I do see God laying out the law as a reflection of His Just character, I see the parallels ending there and the specific punishments He lays out for Israel to enact as dealing with more of the civil use of the law. That requires much more explanation but I will write a whole new post here if I try to flesh that out now.
      3. “So the people are carrying out a reflection of the character of God, which in this case is true justice for God does not treat all sins the same.
      You make a logical leap here to include your own understanding of justice. I also raise my proverbial eyebrow to your addition of “true” as an adjective to describe God’s justice – I see no such distinction in a holy God. He is either Just or not. I’m probably making more of that than is necessary ;)
      4. “the logic goes more like this 1) the law is a reflection of God’s character 2) in the law God’s character is revealed to be just for he does not treat all sins the same …
      Point two make the same logical leap to include your definition of what justice should (does?) look like. Also, “Do we not all sense that justice requires degrees of punishment and that to treat everyone exactly the same would be unjust?” is a heavily loaded question. In a human court and civil society? Sure. But in a divine economy where even original sin which we did not commit is enough to damn us? No, I do not sense that.
      5. “why do you think the only purpose of the law is to lead us to Christ? There is no question that this is one of the purposes but … by reducing it to just leading us to Christ you make your point but I am afraid it is a bit too reductionistic.
      Granted. I don’t think it is the only use of the law, but – as we said tonight – this is becoming a book length discussion and I cannot deal with the 3-fold use of the law in the same post. It is a weakness of the argument I make here for sure, but, I felt acceptable in still making my point.
      6. “Likewise, do you think the law of God only applies to God’s people?
      No, but we need to define our terms here. I am making specific reference to the Mosaic law, given directly to God’s people (Deut. 4,5, Leviticus, Ex. 20, and particularly Rom. 9:4 where Paul states that to Israel belongs “the giving of the law” as one of the things that makes them distinct from the Gentiles) over against the law of God which is said to be written on our hearts (Rom. 2:15). This first Mosaic law is the same one by which the Pharisees judged those around them and which became the judge of them (Matt. 5:19,20). There is obviously some crossover between the two, but I am referring here specifically to the Mosaic law, and particularly the punishments laid out in that law, for the people of Israel.
      7. “The analogy of death is not meant to be used for when believers literally die but is rather an image of dying to the law in this life as we are alive to Christ in this life.
      Agreed. But I would ask you: why does the analogy make sense? Isn’t it because he is putting it in the context of actual death? This is why he goes on to give the example of the woman whose husband actually dies. The literal, physical death of her husband is what unbinds her (and her husband) from the Mosaic law which would otherwise cause her to be guilty of adultery. Beyond that, I would ask you: in what way would the law continue to be carried out once one has physically died? There is a very real sense that the law does come to an end when one physically dies b/c there is no longer any opportunity to obey or offend it. Of course, the analogy Paul is making here is meant to illustrate how we can be free from the condemnation of the law while still in this physical life. But I hope you would also see this other very real sense in which the purpose of the law does come to an end when we physically die, which may well also be Paul’s point.
      8. “judgement day and the destinies of heaven and hell are based not on some other unknown standard but on the standards God gave us in this age.
      Also agreed. But that judgement based on the standard God gives us in this life is, in my view, eternal life or eternal death. This will be fleshed out more in my final post (the real one).
      9. “I feel like you have already argued for degrees of punishment in hell in your summary of your first post. If some will have greater regret because they had greater revelation and did not heed it, is this not a higher degree of punishment?
      This is the point i conceded in our comments on the last post to be sure. And to speak of degrees of punishment in hell, in this sense, I am actually quite comfortable. What I am responding to – which perhaps I have not yet stated clearly – is the presumption that the punishment itself will be more severe/hotter/tortuous/etc. for some than for others based on their degree of sin in this life. To make that kind of statement, and include the emotional argument that God is not just if he punishes the nice, law-abiding, husband who rejects Christ the same way He punishes Hitler, is the corollary to saying God is less gracious in forgiving a 10 year old girl who repents than if He forgives a murdering, Christian hating apostle Paul who repents. The one, as Jesus states clearly in His parable in Luke 7:41-43, clearly experiences a greater degree of thankfulness based on their sins in life (the greater debt forgiven) but the grace of eternal life is the same for both. This may also, to some degree, give insight into rewards in heaven?

      Appreciate your patience and interaction as always my friend as I wrestle through this.

  2. As was already pointed out, the application of Rom 7:1 dying is dying to the sinful nature/flesh (Rom 7:4-6). Also, what do you think of Jesus’ own insinuation that there are different degrees of punishment due to guilt both on earth and the afterlife in Matt 5:21-22? “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.”

    • Dave -
      appreciate your reading and interaction as well my friend. As to your point about Rom. 7:1, it is granted, but I will refer you to my response to Barton on point #7 of my response. As to the correlation between Matt 5:21-22 I’m not sure I see it relating to degrees of punishment, at least not how I’m seeing it. Can you flesh out a bit more what you mean and what connection you see?

      • I would see the logic running similar to what was espoused as God being a just judge (Genesis 18:25, Job) reflected in how he his character is reflected in how he has commanded people to judge on earth, with varying degrees of judgment (implied by the differing degrees of guilt). In this case, it is irrespective of the Mosaic law. It would seem also that the two earthly courts referred to would give out different sentences (minor vs major), which would signify that the court for the afterlife would hand out a different punishment that is more severe (I’ll grant it doesn’t explicitly state that in this passage that there are different levels of punishment). At the least the passage shows that Jesus affirms there are different levels of sin. One question that surely arises is if there are different levels of sin, what is God’s response to the different levels of sin? Likewise, God gives different punishments for different sins even before the Mosaic law is given, and which applies to all peoples because it was given to Noah and his family. In Gen 9:5-6 God prescribes capital punishment for murder, for which he doesn’t for any other sin at that time.

      • Appreciate this interaction Dave. Lots to think about there. I guess my answer at this point is that the civil use of the law is in mind/focus when God commands different punishments for different sins. He is trying to set out guidelines in such a way that will restrain evil and increase flourishing. Much of the description that I can think of off hand regarding the afterlife includes the separation of mankind into two categories and two categories alone, viz. sheep and goats or death and life. Some of those things just lead me to see less of a distinction within those punishments or rewards.

  3. Thanks for the feedback. Too much to go back and forth on so I will stick with the main point of your post. I really struggle to understand your accusation that I am making a huge leap and giving my own definition of true justice. If God is perfectly just (which I know you believe), and his law is a reflection of his character (which you admit) then does it not follow that his law and its differing degrees of punishment are just? If these differing degrees of punishment are not a representation of true justice, then what else are they? Unjust? Help me out…how is this a leap, or worse, my own idea of justice?

    • I think I see where we may be missing each other.
      1. I think I react instinctively to your insertion of the word “true” to God’s justice. Of course, it is true, but I don’t think it needs the help from the adjective and so I think it felt manipulative when I first read it. I may have been responding to some degree to that.
      2. I follow you on all your points (God is perfectly just, the law is a reflection of His character, even that the differing punishments for different sins is just). Where we diverge I think is in how much we can draw from those things in regard to degrees of punishment in hell. So when I say it is “your” definition of justice, I’m not saying “you made it up yourself”, I’m simply saying that you draw from what we see in the Mosaic law a corresponding understanding of how God deals with people differently in hell, viz. you see the information through that lens. Conversely, I see the giving of the Mosaic law and its differing punishments with particular emphasis to how God wants Israel to carry out justice on earth, and thus, I see a more civil sense to His justice laid out and not a corresponding understanding of how He Himself carries out justice after we die.
      It must be said, either one of us could be wrong as it is not a provable hypothesis. And, as you rightly pointed out, I am also seeing a kind of degrees of punishment in hell; I’m just not seeing different punishments in hell but rather differing experiences of that one punishment which makes it more or less tolerable.
      Does make the difference more clear? I’m certainly not meaning to accuse you of making up your own idea of God’s justice.

      • Good clarifications. Appreciate them. I am not sure anyone is saying that the law requires or proves there to be differing degrees of punishment in hell. The argument here is simply that the law reveals that God’s justice does not treat all sin the same. It is not, therefore, strange to think that this may be the case in the afterlife, particularly when compared with other texts.

        I have yet to see how you make a distinction between differing experiences and differing punishments? Experience is based on what God wills or permits so that in my view they are one and the same. To put it another way, experience is the result of the prescribed conditions that God puts the person in. To have an experience of greater regret is to me like the passive wrath of God in Romans 1 – God gives them over to it. The passive wrath of God however is no less a punishment than the active wrath of God.

        To argue then that there are no differing degrees of punishment in hell, you have to argue that everyone’s experience will be exactly the same. Otherwise, God willed (either actively or passively) something different which means there are degrees. To quote a good friend…”selah.”

        Kidding, let the debate continue.

      • I am not sure anyone is saying that the law requires or proves there to be differing degrees of punishment in hell.
        This is precisely what you have been arguing over our interaction. Your argument, as I’ve understood it, is that one reason we assume there are different degrees of punishment in hell is that God commands different punishments for different sins in the Mosaic law, ergo, God will punish sinners differently in hell. In fact, the very next sentence you write, “The argument here is simply that the law reveals that God’s justice does not treat all sin the same. It is not, therefore, strange to think that this may be the case in the afterlife, particularly when compared with other texts” makes the very argument you just said no one is making ;)

        I have yet to see how you make a distinction between differing experiences and differing punishments?
        If I truly have not achieved this, then shame on me. That said, I don’t see that as even being a point that needs demonstrating! Your experience of the Canucks game the other night was very different from your daughter’s experience. The game (we could truly call it a punishment in some ways) was exactly the same for both of you. And yet how you experienced it was very different from her’s based out previous factors before you went to the game. YOu could, of course argue, that differing experiences of hell are different punishments, but that is what I have already been saying. I have already laboured to explain that what I am arguing against is a hell that is hotter for Hitler than it is for the average sinner who just reject Jesus in this life, lit. a different punishment. Help me see what I’m missing in that presentation of the distinction.

        Experience is based on what God wills or permits
        That statement makes no sense. Did God send 10 different plagues on Pharaoh and Egypt, or was their “experience” of everyday events just different than for the Israelites? No, the plagues were different signs/punishments and all of Egypt’s experience of them was pretty much the same = crappy! Experience of punishment and punishment itself are, related, but also very different things. You mentioned something similar the other night, even, in how one child experiences a simple look of disappointment as a devastating punishment while the other might not even blink at the very same punishment. It is incoherent to say that experience of punishment and punishment itself are not separate things.

        To argue then that there are no differing degrees of punishment in hell, you have to argue that everyone’s experience will be exactly the same.
        I have been saying, and am saying now, that there may in fact be differing degrees of punishment in hell, if we say that those degrees are based on one’s experience of the punishment of hell. I am not saying, in this post or the last, that everyone’s experience will be the same (that is what I laboured to prove in the last post). I am simply arguing that I see the punishment of hell as the same for all and that the degree (if we want to call it that) is based on one’s experience of that same punishment (hockey game) in reference to revelation received in life.

      • Um, maybe you need to re-read the very sentence you quote from me to say that this is what I have been arguing for. Note carefully the word “may.” I have never said that this is proof of differing degrees. I have only said that the law of God, which reveals the just character of God, makes clear that in God’s justice there are differing degrees of punishment and therefore it is not strange to think that this MAY be the case in the afterlife. I think this conversation is starting to unravel so will let others jump in.

      • I’m cool with “may” – truly, a detail I sailed past. As I said, this is not a provable hypothesis in the end. You may indeed be correct. Either one is a terrible thought to consider and one we should work with all the strength God gives us to see that people avoid. Like the other sermon illustration I will one day steal from you about the guy on the bridge trying to warn oncoming cars about the bridge being out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s