Are there degrees of punishment in hell?
Ok, maybe I should qualify that with a, “No, i don’t think so” because, according to some folks (*ahem* “Love Wins” promo video), unless I’ve been to hell myself I can’t say anything authoritatively about what happens there.
So the real question then is, “Does the bible teach that there are degrees of punishment in hell?”
There are three main [here summarized] arguments I’ve heard that would say, “Yes, the bible does teach this” that I want to interact with over the next few posts, They are as follows:
1. In Matt. 11:20-24 Jesus talks about people in the unrepentant cities of Chorazin and Capernaum finding hell less “tolerable” on the day of judgment than the cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom. Therefore hell will be more severe for some than for others.
2. The punishments laid out for sin in Leviticus clearly reveal that different sins are to be punished with greater or lesser consequences, so this clearly reinforces the idea that there are differing levels of punishment in hell.
3. The bible speaks about greater and lesser rewards in heaven (2 Cor. 5:10, 1 Cor. 3:12-14, Matt. 16:27), and so, conversely, there must be greater and lesser degrees of punishment in hell.
*Note: The third argument is, in my view, a bit of a non sequitur and does not have the logical strength (on the level of saying, “Well, hell is a lake of fire and very hot so obviously we know that heaven is very cold.”) nor the biblical support to stand on its own without factoring in the other two, so I’ll spend my effort responding to the first two arguments in the next few posts.
Argument #1: Jesus’ teaching in Matt. 11 teaches degrees of punishment in hell
The first reason I disagree with this interpretation of Matthew 11:20-24 is because the plain reading of the text actually says nothing about greater or lesser punishments in hell (this is assuming we can infer that “Judgement Day” is meant to be metonymy for the great white throne judgement), but refers only to subjective experience, viz. how “tolerable” it will be for them.
The second reason I disagree with this interpretation is because of the reason Jesus says that it will be more tolerable for Tyre, Sidon and Sodom than for these unrepentant cities of Chrorazin and Capernaum. Jesus says to these last two cities, “For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (vs.21) and later, “For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.” (vs.23).
So the reason, according to Jesus, that the day of judgement will be less tolerable for Chorazin and Capernaum is that, based on the amount of revelation they had (as compared to Tyre, Sidon and Sodom) they are then more responsible for their un-repentant, un-believing attitudes toward God. But it must be stated, in light of the first point, that one’s experience of something does not, in any way, mean that the thing being experienced is different in any discernible way.
The way I see that working itself out is this:
Let’s say there are earthquake/tsunami warnings being posted all over – news paper, radio, television, etc. – and people are being told to evacuate Vancouver. But b/c I live on higher ground in Kerrisdale, I feel like my family and I will be ok regardless, and so I don’t pack up and leave. Consequently, the earthquake comes and flattens my building and, tragically, one of my children is killed. But, let’s say at the same time, there is another family in my apartment building that is brand new to Vancouver and doesn’t speak a lick of English. And so, they also don’t respond in time to the information being given to them (though, of course, for a very different reason) and their family also loses a child in the disaster.
The question we need to ask is, “Is the result of not heeding the warnings and evacuating Vancouver any different for either family?” Answer: No. We both lost a child and it is, by itself, equally tragic for both of us. And yet, the experience of it for me is devastatingly less tolerable because I heard and understood the warnings and didn’t take the needed action to protect my family. I had a greater responsibility to act based on what I saw and heard, and though the result is identical for both families, my experience of that is understandably less tolerable.
This is, i believe, what Jesus is describing for the unrepentant cities of Chorazin and Capernaum, viz. the judgement you receive on that last Day is going to be monumentally less tolerable for you. And it will be that way, not b/c your punishment is going to be more severe than it will be for those other cities that didn’t repent either, but b/c the signs performed in your cities testified to Who it was that was in your presence (the promised Messiah) and so you therefore had a greater responsibility to act based on what you saw and heard.
Jesus is basically saying it will be like that moment in the film The Usual Suspects when the US customs agent, Dave Kujan, discovers that he just let the most notorious criminal in the United States (Keyser Söze) walk out the front door of the police station after holding him and interrogating him for hours, never to be found again. The result is the same – you didn’t have him in custody before and you don’t have him in custody now – and yet the experience of not having him in custody now is all the less tolerable b/c he didn’t respond accordingly to what was staring him in the face and now it’s too late to respond.
Jesus is not describing degrees of punishment in hell – at least not in Matt. 11:20-24 – but rather, the different experiences individuals will have in response to their judgement based on their responsibility to act in light of the information they had in front of them.
In the next post, I will seek to deal with the second argument for degrees of punishment in hell based on the legal code laid out in Leviticus.