Are there degrees of punishment in hell? Considering the arguments in 3 parts. Part 1 – Matthew 11 and the “tolerable-ness” of hell


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.


9 thoughts on “Are there degrees of punishment in hell? Considering the arguments in 3 parts. Part 1 – Matthew 11 and the “tolerable-ness” of hell

  1. Hey bro! Well written and logically laid out. I’m pondering this post and so will give some comments later on.

    I was surprised that you chose to go to Leviticus rather than to the other key texts on this like Lk 12:42-48 where the unfaithful servant is beaten with “many blows” in contrast to “few blows.” This is based on the amount of knowledge that they possessed of the master’s will. Craig Blomberg, one of the leading scholars on Jesus’ parables, writes, “These verses rank among the clearest in all the Bible in support of degrees of punishment in hell.” (Blomberg, “Interpreting the Parables”, 192).

    Paul, likewise, seems to suggest degrees of punishment when he says in Rom 2:5, “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.” The idea of storing up seems to suggest there can be greater or lesser degrees of storing up so that one person will be judged more strictly than another. Of this verse Anthony Hoekema writes, “Not every lost person will undergo the sufferings of a Judas! God will be perfectly just, and each person will suffer precisely what he deserves.” (Hoekema, “The Bible and the Future”, 273).

    It seems then that although hell is terrible for all, it is more terrible for some. It seems from these other passages as well that it is based on what people do with the amount of revelation they have received and the result is not simply that they say, “Oh man, we should have known better because we knew more” but that because of greater revelation they will be judged more strictly.

    Look forward to your next post.

    • Looking to your next comment already but suffice it to say here, my point is much more than one simply saying, “Oh man, we should have known better” but that, suffering alongside those who did not have as much revelation as they did – knowing that they had that greater opportunity to escape this – is what makes their judgement all the more severe for them.

  2. Wasn’t sure if I should wait for your other posts on this topic, but in addition to Barton’s comments, and you didn’t mention you would treat other passages that come to mind, what came to my mind immediately is also how Jesus will end up judging based on what we’ve actually done. Cf 14.2 Corinthians 5:10:
    “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”
    Looking forward to your other posts.

    • Thanks for reading and interacting Dave. My own take off the top of my head at 2 Cor. 5:10 is that Paul is speaking to Christians here and paralleling what he says elsewhere (1 Cor. 3:13,14) which would role into the idea of greater or lesser rewards in heaven, to which i am presently also in agreement; though i think it must be said that we have very little idea what those rewards are.

  3. OK, so here are my initial thoughts on the Mt 11 passage. If I follow your argument I believe you are saying:
    1. The passage is referring to their subjective experience of judgement day.
    2. It will be less tolerable because of the revelation that they received.
    3. This subjective experience of being less tolerable does not necessarily have any discernable objective difference between the two contrasting groups Jesus mentions. In other words, less tolerable has to do with one’s feelings about what was missed, not on something happening to the person that makes it less tolerable.

    I am with you on #1 and #2 but I don’t know if #3 goes far enough. The question is, “what about their experience of judgement day will make it more or less tolerable?” Although I think you are likely right that people will weep and say, “I should have known better because I had greater revelation” it seems to me that this does not go far enough.

    The tolerableness of Judgement Day is not just about regret over what could have been but also about what sentence one receives from the Judge. I don’t think Jesus’ point is that Sodom will have less regrets on that day because they had less light. It seems from other passages that what is given on that day, for both believer and unbeliever, is given in degrees according to how one has lived. “We must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (II Cor 5:10). Here we see an example of degrees of judgement for “each one” is judged and receives “what is due.”

    So what makes it less tolerable is not just regret but that greater light requires great responsibility and to neglect this light results in greater punishment. This seems to be the principle that Jesus is making in Luke 12 as well: “But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” This idea of rejecting greater light equaling greater punishment also seems to be exactly what the author of Hebrews is getting at when he writes, “How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God. (Heb 10:29). Here there is no question that the issue is not regret but “worse punishment.”

    On this basis I am surprised that you dismissed the link between heaven and hell so quickly. I’m pretty sure no one is saying that since heaven is one way, hell must always be its opposite. I think what is being said is that what happens on Judgement Day is in some ways analogous for believer and unbeliever. Teachers for instance will be judged more strictly (James 3:1) and I Cor 3 points to a believer’s life work coming through the fire with differing results and some “will suffer loss” though still ultimately be saved.

    As I brief some of the major evangelical commentaries on Matthew they all seem to be in agreement that the Mt 11 passage is indeed referring to degrees of punishment. In fact, I could not find one preacher or commentator who takes your position – not that they are infallible but seems to be a consensus on this.

    “There are degrees of felicity in paradise and degrees of torment in hell (12:41; 23:13; cf. Luke 12:47–48), a point Paul well understood (Rom. 1:20–2:16).” D.A. Carson, “Matthew”, 159.

    “He says that on Judgment Day those who have had greater opportunities (e.g., the people of Chorazin and Bethsaida) will be judged more severely than those who have had less.” Leon Morris, “Gospel According to Matthew” 290.

    “But God will deal with Korazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum more severely because they have received more immediate, dramatic, and straightforward revelation.” Craig Blomberg, “Matthew”, 192.

    Look forward to your thoughts.

    • Appreciate your interaction as well my friend. Here are my quick thoughts in response.
      1. You say, “The tolerableness of Judgement Day is not just about regret over what could have been but also about what sentence one receives from the Judge” You would have to concede from the outset that this is stated nowhere in this passage. All that is described is the experience of judgement day, not the punishment. I think that has great significance actually by *not* saying anything about the punishment.

      2. While I see where you’re going with some of the other passages you mention:
      a) I will deal with some of those in future posts
      b) We have to be careful of proof texting an issue like this which is not explicit in the Scriptures; pulling verses out of their context and applying them. I’m not saying that they don’t have bearing on the subject, but the Luke reference in particular has, for instance, serious questions as to who Jesus’ intended audience is, viz. everyone or the disciples in particular. If you read that parable as speaking to the disciples in particular, it takes on a very different feel which i will draw out in a later post.

      3. You say, “So what makes it less tolerable is not just regret but that greater light requires great responsibility and to neglect this light results in greater punishment.

      While you may very well be right, you must also concede that you are making an inferential judgement that is not made explicit.

      The sum of it all is that I think we ought to be much less dogmatic about degrees of punishment in hell, and rather state plainly what we do know for certain according to the Scriptures, viz. that those who put their faith in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection get Jesus and eternal life (among many other things) and those who reject Jesus get no Jesus (removal from God’s presence and eternal death/judgement (among many other things).

      More to come. Appreciate your charity and patience with me.

      • Hmmm…I thought this whole discussion was under the umbrella of “we are all agreed about the eternal state of the unrepentant and we are exploring a sub theme that, while admittedly not explicit, seems fairly clear in Scripture.” It is no less dogmatic to say you are certain that there are no degrees of punishment, particularly when so much of the church thinks there is.

        The one reply is that I think you are making far too much of a distinction between judgement day and the eternal state when you say, “All that is described is the experience of judgement day, not the punishment.” Not sure how you divide that so much for judgement day is when all are sentenced. It is the result of this sentencing that makes the day more or less tolerable. A criminal’s experience of his court day is more or less tolerable depending on the outcome of what the judge hands down so that in a very real sense the punishment begins on that day.

        I’ll await your other posts though…good interaction.

      • I think what I meant to emphasize is that the punishment is not described and that I think that this is intentional. Surely there is a correlation between judgement day and the judgement – totally with you there. Where I am not yet with you is when you make a, surely, unintentional, paradigm shift from a “one size fits all” hell/punishment that I am seeing to your understanding of differing levels of punishment which would absolutely also cause the day to be more or less tolerable. What I must not be making clear enough is that at this point in time, I start with seeing hell itself as the right, just, and total punishment for all who continue in rebellion to Christ until their death. It is from that level playing field, then, that I say that what makes the same experience of hell more or less tolerable is the degree of responsibility and understanding one carries into it. At one level then, this is also saying there are levels of punishment in hello just not in the way you are describing it, viz. hotter sections or more burning or however you envision it.
        In fact, as I think about it more, I think another reason that the bible does’t teach hell with different levels is to avoid the “hell-lite” idea which might say to those who reject Christ but aren’t, say, as bad as Hitler or Robert Pickton, that – while it isn’t heaven – hell really isn’t going to be so bad for you, and plus, you still didn’t have to submit your life to that Jesus dude. See the problem?

  4. Sorry, my first paragraph is not clear. I meant to say in regard to your last paragraph that I thought we were all agreed on the final destinies and that this is the main thing we already emphasize. I am not sure why or where you think people are being so dogmatic and you need to correct this. Perhaps I am missing something here.

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