Does Hell Have Various Degrees of Punishment?

Josh Buice

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The doctrine of hell is one that is often neglected or avoided simply because of the weightiness and darkness of the subject. However, it’s critically important that Christians speak about hell in the way that the biblical text speaks about hell. Our doctrinal positions should be formed on the basis of Scripture rather than our feelings about a specific subject. Is your doctrine of hell different than Jesus’ doctrine of hell?

What Did Jesus Teach About Hell?

In Jesus’ earthly ministry, he preached many sermons and taught on various subjects which are visibly evident in his most famous sermon known as “The Sermon on the Mount.” The preaching of Jesus was not exactly light. As the Prophet greater than Moses, Jesus thundered the truth of the Kingdom of God including heaven and the judgment of God in “the hell of fire” (Matt 5:22). Jesus pointed to the certainty of both heaven and hell. Jesus likewise spoke of the eternality of both heaven and hell (Matt 25:46).

Is your doctrine of hell different than Jesus’ doctrine of hell?

The Lord Jesus himself frequently described hell as a place of righteous judgment upon rebels and lawbreakers. We see evidence of Jesus’ doctrine of hell in multiple passages (Matt 5:22; 8:12; 10:28; 13:42; 24:51; 23:33; 25:30; Mark 9:43–48; Luke 13:28). In these texts, we see weighty language of wrath, retribution, and punishment that point to the holy vengeance of a sovereign God who must judge sinners.

In Jesus’ parable in Luke 16 regarding the rich man and Lazarus, the doctrine of divine judgment in hell is illustrated vividly as the rich man immediately drops into the abyss of hell after his death. In the flames of hell, the rich man requests a drop of water to cool his tongue, because he states that he was in “anguish” in the flames of judgment (Luke 16:24). In contrast, Jesus points to the fact that the poor man (Lazarus) was in complete comfort in the presence of Abraham (Luke 16:25). The presence of Abraham was a means of illustrating a place of blessing since the Jews idolized Abraham as their Jewish hero. The parable points to the severity of the divine vengeance of God.

When we examine Jesus’ parables and his preaching on the doctrine of hell, it’s clear that he intentionally employed key words to underscore the severity of hell.

Fire: Jesus often used the imagery of fire to illustrate the punishment awaiting the unrepentant. In Matthew 25:41 we find these words by Jesus, “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels'” (ESV).

Outer Darkness: This term highlights the separation from God’s presence and the despair associated with eternal punishment. In Matthew 8:12, Jesus said, “while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (ESV).

Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth: This is descriptive language indicating the anguish and regret of those facing judgment. In Matthew 13:42, Jesus  warned that those who experience the final judgment of God will be thrown “into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (ESV).

Degrees of Punishment

The Bible teaches that hell will be more severe for some people than for others. While all unbelievers who die outside of the grace of God will experience the wrath of God for eternity in hell, we must recognize the clear teachings of Scripture that point to varying degrees of punishment in hell.

In Luke 10 and Matthew 11, a parallel passage is found in both Gospels that points to the reality of different degrees of punishment in hell. It may come as a surprise to some people, but Jesus actually taught that hell would be more severe for those who lived in cities like Capernaum than for those who lived in the wicked city of Sodom. Notice the words of Jesus from Matthew 11:

“Woe to you Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! 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. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”1 Matthew 11:21–24 – English Standard Version

Jesus issues a woe to the people living in three specific cities and contrasted them against three additional cities. The cities near the Sea of Galilee (Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum) had been at the center of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The people there had seen a great light. They had witnessed his miracles, signs, and wonders—and heard his powerful preaching and teaching. They had filled up synagogues and houses as Jesus preached the Scriptures. Yet, most of those people had walked away and rejected Christ.

The other cities mentioned by Jesus (Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom) were all cities to the north—near the Mediterranean Sea. They were Phoenician cities. William Hendriksen explains:

Yet, from Isa. 23 and Ezek. 26–28 one receives the definite impression that the commercial seafarers and colonizers who inhabited these cities were proud, money-mad, and cruel. 2William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Gospel According to Luke, vol. 11, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 577.

Amos speaks of the people of Tyre selling Israelites as slaves to the Edomites. According to Joel 3:6, the Phoenicians sold the children of Judah and Jerusalem into the hands of the Greeks. We know the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The city of Sodom was filled with homosexuality and vile sin. It’s from this city that we derived a word “sodomite” to describe sexual deviancy and rebellion against God in grotesque sexual sin. Yet, Jesus provided a warning to the cities that had the most access to his preaching ministry that their judgment would be more severe. As Matthew 11:20 states, because they had most access to Jesus’ ministry and yet they did not repent.

In a modern day example, a morally acceptable grandmother who attends church every Sunday morning and has never committed any vile crimes against children, embezzled money from her employer, or committed murder can die and go to hell as an unconverted church member. In contrast, the savage who grows up in a dark jungle and is taught to worship his ancestors and never one time hears the name of Jesus dies and goes immediately to hell too. However, the grandmother’s hell will be more severe. Why will it be more severe? According to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 11 and Luke 10, it will be more severe on the basis of her access to the gospel and being responsible for her ongoing rejection of Christ.

Hell will be far more severe than for others because our Lord is a righteous and perfect judge who judges with perfect justice and divine judgment.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, we find other passages that illustrate the various degrees of eternal punishment. In Matthew 12:36-37, Jesus makes the following statement:

I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.

According to Christ, every word will be judged, which reveals that there will be a greater condemnation for some people than for others. In Luke 12:47-48, Jesus contrasts two servants who were given a command to follow, and one received a “severe beating” while another received a “light beating.” This too illustrates a difference in punishment that will be issued at the return of Christ.

And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.

In Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, he writes the following in Romans 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.

In the verse that immediately follows, Paul writes, “He will render to each one according to his works.” The records of our lives will be opened according to Revelation 20:12. We will be judged by the deeds we have done and the words we have spoken. The books that chronicle our lives will be opened and every action, word, thought, and deed will be exposed, examined, and judged accordingly. Since every word and deed will be different for every person, it’s clear that different degrees of punishment will be issued.

In another passage in the New Testament, a clear warning is issued by the author to the Hebrews that points to the vengeance of God being directed toward those who commit sin. In Hebrews 10:29-31, we find the following words:

How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

The key language “worse punishment” and “vengeance is mine, I will repay” points to the fact that those who deserve worse punishment will receive worse punishment by the Lord himself. Hell will be far more severe for some than for others because our Lord is a righteous and perfect judge who judges with perfect justice and divine judgment.

While the doctrine of hell may have fallen out of popularity among many within evangelicalism, we must adopt the same doctrine of hell that Jesus taught and the same doctrine of hell that the New Testament apostles preached. The teachings of the New Testament point to hell’s severity, but also of the different degrees of punishment that will be measured out by the sovereign judge of all mankind.

Do you know someone who has delayed in coming to Christ? Remind that person that every day given to sin stores up more wrath. Every word spoken, careless thought, and lustful action will be judged accordingly.

Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is the most famous sermon preached in the history of America. Consider the words of a faithful servant of our Lord who preached this sermon powerfully and God used it to awaken many people to their need to repent:

The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood. Thus all you that never passed under a great change of heart, by the mighty power of the Spirit of God upon your souls; all you that were never born again, and made new creatures, and raised from being dead in sin, to a state of new, and before altogether unexperienced light and life, are in the hands of an angry God.”3Jonathan Edwards, Sermon: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”

Matthew 10:28 – And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

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1 Matthew 11:21–24 – English Standard Version
2 William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Gospel According to Luke, vol. 11, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 577.
3 Jonathan Edwards, Sermon: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”
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Josh Buice

Pastor Pray's Mill Baptist Church

Josh Buice is the founder and president of G3 Ministries and serves as the pastor of Pray's Mill Baptist Church on the westside of Atlanta. He is married to Kari and they have four children, Karis, John Mark, Kalli, and Judson. Additionally, he serves as Assistant Professor of Preaching at Grace Bible Theological Seminary. He enjoys theology, preaching, church history, and has a firm commitment to the local church. He also enjoys many sports and the outdoors, including long distance running and high country hunting. He has been writing on Delivered by Grace since he was in seminary and it has expanded with a large readership through the years.