Hell: Are there degrees of punishment?
Will there be suffering after death in literal fire for unbelievers? That’s a question that is asked, but there’s another one that is also asked. Will some people experience greater suffering than others? Of course, some people don’t think something like this will ever happen to anyone. They don’t believe anyone will suffer forever in such a place as Hell or the Lake of Fire. Is that true? If it is, Jesus of Nazareth was a liar. Note what He said to His apostles about this punishment when He was first commissioning them.
Matthew 10:14-16, 28
14 And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet.
15 Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city.
16 Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. [Emphasis added]
Then notice His warning only a few verses down.
28 And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy [APOLLUMI = loss of well-being] both soul and body in hell. [Emphasis added]
In case you don’t know, God completely destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah with fire. Their ruins are at the bottom of the Dead Sea in Israel. Then not long after the previous verses were spoken, Jesus said more on this subject.
21 Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
22 But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you.
Some might argue that He was speaking of a temporal judgment of these cities. But we have much more given about God’s judgment of unbelievers than what’s right here or in other passages related to this. But we’ll address that later in this article. Here He’s also speaking of the people of those cities. God wasn’t just judging the cities, but the evil unbelieving people who lived in those cities. And He wasn’t talking about the loss of being, but of well-being.
23 And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell [HADES = a place of torment] : for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.
24 But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee. [Emphasis added]
Was He lying in these instances? Apparently, some people seem to think so. Then the writer of Mark tells us more on all this.
10 And he said unto them, In what place soever ye enter into an house, there abide till ye depart from that place.
11 And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear you, when ye depart thence, shake off the dust under your feet for a testimony against them. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city.
12 And they went out, and preached that men should repent [METANOEO = come to a change of mind]. [Emphasis added]
This repentance is always necessary for salvation, but the word itself has nothing to do with feeling sorry for sins, as it is so commonly believed. Instead, it is about a change of mind and that alone. In this case, they needed to change their mind and accept the God of Israel. During the time of the life of Jesus on Earth it had to do with accepting Him as their promised Messiah. That’s what believing in His name is all about. This is speaking of His identity as the promised Messiah. In our time, it would be going from unbelief to accepting Jesus Christ and His death for our sins, His burial, and His resurrection as the sole basis for one’s salvation.
Their message to the people of Israel in the days of our Lord’s earthly ministry was what is called the Gospel of The Kingdom [Matthew 24:14] and the Gospel of the Circumcision [Galatians 2:7]. Even Luke writes about all this. Again, the call to repentance was a call for them to change their mind and accept Jesus as their long-promised and prophesied Messiah.
9 And heal the sick that are therein, and say unto them, The kingdom of God is come nigh unto you.
10 But into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you not, go your ways out into the streets of the same, and say,
11 Even the very dust of your city, which cleaveth on us, we do wipe off against you: notwithstanding be ye sure of this, that the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you.
12 But I say unto you, that it shall be more tolerable in that day for Sodom, than for that city.
13 Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon, which have been done in you, they had a great while ago repented, sitting in sackcloth and ashes.
14 But it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment, than for you. [Emphasis added]
All this looks like a stern and serious warning to me. It also indicates degrees of punishment. It is a reference to the time of judgment set forth in the book of Revelation where all unbelievers will be judged and cast into the Lake of Fire. If you’re a believer today, you won’t be at this judgment. You’ll be at another one called the Judgment Seat of Christ where the lives of believers are evaluated and given whatever rewards they are due to enjoy in Heaven. This last judgment mentioned in Revelation is for unbelievers alone of all times.
11 And I saw a great white throne, and him [Jesus Christ] that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them.
12 And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.
14 And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.
15 And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire. [Emphasis added]
You’ll notice that judgment for “sins” is not mentioned. That’s because sins, for both believers and unbelievers, were all judged at the cross of Christ.
1 John 2:2
2 And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world. [Emphasis added]
18 Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. [Emphasis added]
I’ve written an article on Christ’s death entitled Jesus Christ: For whom did He die? I’ve also written one about the forgiveness of sins this provided for all mankind entitled Forgiveness: How complete is it? Please go there on our website for a more complete study about all this.
At the Great White Throne Judgment unbelievers will be shown that their works were inadequate for salvation. People often foolishly assume their works of righteousness can somehow help them with salvation. Such is not the case! Salvation comes strictly by grace through faith in what God has done to provide it.
8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
9 Not of works, lest any man should boast. [Emphasis added]
Man’s works have nothing to do with it! Again, only faith in Christ’s work secures salvation. There again, please go to my article that is dedicated to this subject. It is called, Salvation: Does it have to be earned by works? Please never be so foolish as to think you could ever earn your way to Heaven by your own works. The Scriptures given to us couldn’t be any clearer on this.
4 Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.
5 But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. [Emphasis added]
The most important thing for any unbeliever to do is secure a place in Heaven. The torment of Hell and the Lake of Fire to any degree is something you want to avoid. You never want to let anything keep you from Heaven.
29 And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
30 And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. [Emphasis added]
Please notice that He repeats Himself here. This certainly speaks of the importance of what He’s saying. There are things in this chapter of Scripture that were strictly addressed to Israel and not us today. But what Christ says about Hell and the Lake of Fire relates to people of every generation.
What is said in Revelation 20 about these unbelievers being judged according to their works has to do with the opportunities they had to be saved. God wants all to be saved, but most people reject Him and the provision He has made for them.
2 Peter 3:9
9 The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing [BOULOMAI = willing or purposed] that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. [Emphasis added]
This fact is expressed in numerous passages in multiple ways.
46 I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness.
47 And if any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.
It will be at His second advent that He will come to judge. In His first advent He came to provide the way of salvation.
48 He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day. [Emphasis added]
One thing this is telling us is that people will be judged in accordance with the opportunities they had for salvation. Many have Bibles they’ve never even bothered to read, even a small portion of it. Furthermore, and most important of all, God loved these people enough to provide them all with a way of salvation, and what a dear price that was. This tells us clearly of His love for them. That need not ever be questioned, as it sometimes is.
8 But God commendeth [SUNISTEMI = proved] his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. [Emphasis added]
We even have the completed Scriptures today, 66 books with all kinds of evidence for God and the proof of His love for all mankind. All that He demands of us is faith in what He has provided. How much simpler could He make it?
1 Corinthians 15:3-4
3 For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;
4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: [Emphasis added]
It is this and what He accomplished there that is our message to our world.
2 Corinthians 5:18-21
18 And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation;
19 To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.
We then read that as believers and as recipients of this salvation, we all have a ministry to be His representatives in proclaiming this vital message.
20 Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.
Then He’s given us a complete description of what happened on the cross where He provided this one means for our salvation.
21 For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. [Emphasis added]
The people who end up in Hell and the Lake of Fire will have all eternity to think about how they foolishly rejected God and the gracious provision He made for their salvation. And in case you’re wondering about those who never heard the gospel message, please go to my article entitled, Gospel: What about those who have never heard the gospel?
If you’ve not ever personally accepted the means of salvation God offers you, this is the most urgent thing in your life that you need to address. Regardless of what you may have heard about Him, Jesus Christ loves you and came into the world to provide you with this that is such a wonderful opportunity. He “saves” people every day from the misery and torment that’s coming to all those who ignore or reject what He has provided.
From what is clearly given in Scripture, it does appear that there are levels of punishment for the unbelieving. Exactly how God administers that is not stated in Scripture. It is true that everyone who is in Hell or the Lake of Fire will be there for the same reason, that being their rejection of God and His provision for their salvation. However, degrees of punishment for that rejection appear to be real and based on the opportunity they had to be saved. Again, exactly how that’s played out does not appear to be given. But we do need to believe the principle. God would not have put it as He did in Scripture if there were not degrees of punishment.
The everlasting future of Satan, the leader of the rebellion against God, is clearly stated.
10 And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever. [Emphasis added]
Satan’s punishment will never end. Those who follow his leadership are promised a similar everlasting future. Examples of that are this “beast” [a political leader] and “false prophet” [a “religious” leader] mentioned here. These two men are yet to come. They will reside on Earth after our departure at the Rapture and in the coming seven-year period of Tribulation that precedes the return of Jesus Christ to the Earth to establish an earthly kingdom. But all those who reject God’s authority over their lives have a similar future. Although they manifest this rejection in a variety of ways, their future is by no means glorious as ours is.
8 But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. [Emphasis added]
All these unbelieving people who could have enjoyed God’s everlasting blessing will have their just reward. I sincerely hope you’ll not be one of them.