Ok, so I’m not going to do a post 2.5. I feel I’ve already given more time to this subject than I have to give presently and, as has been been mentioned, this is certainly not a pressing, closed-handed issue worth much more time anyways. So, in the interests of closure and summary, I will finish out the topic for now with this last post from the series.
For interest’s sake, I would say in brief as it relates to the parable of the the unfaithful servant in Luke 12:35-48, there is a strong case, both from a plain reading of the text as well as a number of the commentaries I’ve read, that Jesus does not answer Peter’s query in Luke 12:41 b/c He is, in fact, speaking to Peter and the disciples particularly, yet with implications for all. Judas Iscariot could be seen in vss. 45-46; perhaps Peter’s anguish at his betrayal is in view in vs. 47 while Thomas’ doubt and rebuke could be seen in vs. 48. Beyond this, neither Jesus’ hearers nor the original readers of this would have likely understood a meaning of degrees of punishment in the afterlife from Jesus’ words.
The first thing to say in summary is that the whole discussion of degrees of punishment in hell has the very real danger of actually promising some degree of hope to the “average sinner” who doesn’t sin/rebel against the God of the universe “too much.” To such as these, even presenting the idea of degrees of punishment in hell could, in reality, offer out some unrealistic (and unbiblical) hope for some kind of a “hell lite” which – although it surely isn’t nice – is more like having to eat eternally at Denny’s instead of the Ritz Carlton, than it is a lake of eternal fire and eternal separation from God and all His common grace currently bestowed upon us. The latter is as unthinkable as the bible presents it; the former may not actually be seen as that bad as long as I get to thumb my nose to God in this life and do what I please while I’m here now.
The levelling effect of Matthew 20:1-16
The last thing to say in summary of my argument can be found in the very familiar parable of the labourers in the vineyard in Matthew 20. Here we see those who begin very early, and labour much for the Master throughout the day receiving the very same wage/payment as those who accomplish only a little (comparatively) and for only the last hour of the day. Jesus says very plainly that this is what the kingdom of heaven is like.
Now, surely, one thing being highlighted here is the generosity of God to all, but it must also be stated that – though the labourers who began first clearly believed they would receive a greater reward/payment/benefit than those who had accomplished much less and worked for a much shorter time – they are all given the very same, previously stated/agreed upon payment. If we understand this in an eschatological sense, this may indeed be saying that there are not, in fact, degrees of reward in heaven, but that we all receive the One, true Reward which is Christ Himself (and truly, what more could be given or desired to possess than Him?). This would also be consistent with Jesus teaching in Luke 17:7-10.
The corollary, then, as it relates to our subject at hand, would simply be that – irregardless of one’s “labours” in defiance and rebellion of their Creator and Lord, the “payment/reward” for their labour is also one and the same for all. This would be consistent with Paul’s teaching in Rom. 6:23,
“For the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
He does not say that the wages/payment for a few sins is death but that the wages for a lot of sin, or really bad sins, is extra death; nor does he state that the reward for obedient trust in Christ is anything more, or less, than eternal life with Him.
Now, believe me, I’m with you totally in saying that, even writing those last few paragraphs pushes BIG buttons inside my head and my heart as well as activating my inner-lawyer (as Paul Tripp call him). “Objection! That’s not fair!” I complain. “How can someone who’s lived a basically good life but just rejected Christ, get the same punishment as a Hitler or a Stalin or some serial killer?! That is not just!”
Well, the first thing we have to admit is … Seriously?! You wanna say that “all” someone did was “just” reject Christ? Secondly, while applying verses like Rom. Romans 9:20-21 to our understanding of justice in this life, we need to be finally brought to reverent silence before passages like Rom. 11:33-36:
“Oh, the depth and the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways!
For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counsellor? Or who has given Him a gift that He might be repaid?
For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen.” [emphasis mine]
The parable in Matthew 20 gives the same sobering answer to the cries for justice, as we see it a least, in both the positive and the negative sense:
“Jesus, how can you offer the same payment/reward to those who are more deserving of punishment or more deserving of extra reward?” The gavel He swings down in Matthew 20 to both questions is,
“Am I not allowed to do what I chose with what belongs to Me? Or do you begrudge My generosity?”