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.
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.