Degrees of Punishment in Hell
By Thomas Theodore Martin (1862 - 1939)
From The Berea Baptist Banner
“All have sinned” (Romans 3:23).
“Every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward” (Hebrews 2:2).
“A just God” (Isaiah 45:21).
“It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee” (Matthew 11:24).
Reader, what you and I need to know concerning God’s plan with the sinner, the lost, is not what some people think, nor what some teach, nor what some desire; but what God teaches. God is just. Fasten that in your mind; never lose sight of it. Over and over again is this fact impressed in the Scriptures. Yet lurking in the minds of multitudes is a vague suspicion or dread that God will be unjust in sending some to Hell, and that He will be unjust in the way He will punish. Many who are thus disturbed lose sight of the fact that God is just; that whatever God does in regard to the lost, one thing is certain, —-He will do no injustice. With my loved ones, with your loved ones, with the most
obscure, worthless creature, with the most refined, delicate nature, with the most cruel, debased creature that ever lived, God will do no wrong. Many have turned away to infidelity, not on account of the Bible’s complete teaching as to future punishment, but because they have taken some one passage of Scripture and warped it or gotten from it a distorted idea of the Bible’s teachings as to Hell; or they have taken some preacher’s views as to the Bible’s teachings on the subject. For example, here is a boy fifteen years of age, whose mother died when he was an infant, whose father is a drunkard and gambler and infidel, who has given the boy but little moral training; and here is a man seventy years of age who had a noble father and mother, who gave their boy every advantage, the best of training, under the best of influences; yet he when a boy turned away from all these influences and spent his life in sin and debauchery, and in leading others into sin. These two, the unfortunate boy and the old hardened sinner, die. With many the idea is that God consigns them to a common punishment in Hell. But, reader, remember that God is just; and if that is justice, what would injustice be? They were different in light and in opportunity and in sins, and yet punished alike? The Bible does not teach it.
But let us go back and consider this question of sin. “All have sinned.” That includes you, reader, “To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (James 4:17). All have done this, have failed to live up to the light they have had; hence, “All have sinned.” Two questions arise: first, ought sin to be punished? Second, ought all sin to be punished, or only the coarser, grosser, more offensive sins? As to the first, ought sin to be punished? There is a strong drift toward the teaching that sin ought to be punished only for the purpose of reforming the sinner. Intelligent men endorse this teaching without realizing that it is spiritual anarchy and absolutely horrible and detestable. A woman and four little children are murdered in cold blood by three robbers for the purpose of robbing the home. When the three are arrested, the first is found to be thoroughly penitent, thoroughly reformed, broken-hearted, over his horrible crime. If sin should be punished only to reform the sinner, this man should not be punished at all, though he murdered five people in cold blood; for he is already reformed. The second is such a hardened criminal that he never can be reformed, and the more he is punished the more hardened he will become. Then if sin is punished only to reform the sinner, he should not be punished at all, though guilty of the murder of five people in cold blood. The third is tender-hearted and easily influenced, and by sending him to prison for thirty days, he will be thoroughly reformed, though guilty of five cold-blooded murders. On this principle of punishing sin only to reform the sinner, all a sinner would have to do to make sure of Heaven would be to become such a hardened sinner that he could never be reformed, and then he would go to Heaven without any punishment at all.
People need to call a halt and realize that sin ought to be punished because it is right to punish it, because it is just. But this means the punishment of all sins, the sins of the refined as surely as the sins of the debased, the smaller sins as surely as the greater sins. Hence the teaching of God’s Word, Romans 1:18, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” But we need to keep in mind that it is discriminating wrath, and God’s Word makes this plain, Hebrews 2:2, “Every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward.” “A just God.” - Isaiah 45:21.
Notice how clearly the Saviour teaches this same great truth, Matthew 11:20-24, “Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not. 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. But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment, than for you. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say unto you, that is shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.” Notice, “more tolerable,” difference in punishment.
The same teaching Jesus gives in Mark 12:40, “These shall receive greater damnation.” Jesus revealed to Pilate God’s judgment of a difference in sin, John 19:11, “He that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.”
And Paul teaches the same, Galatians 6:7, “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap,” the reaping according to the sowing.
Let the reader notice the clear teaching: the punishment of sin will be graded, first, according to light and opportunity. A writer, a great scientist, held that heredity and environment largely determine one’s destiny. That is what Jesus taught. The people of Sodom were more wicked than those of Capernaum; but heredity and environment were against them. The people of Capernaum had no sinned so terribly as the people of Sodom, but they had more light and opportunity; they had better heredity, better environment; Jesus says that therefore the people of Capernaum shall be punished more severely than the people of Sodom. And that is right; that is just.
Those to whom Jesus spoke were born under better conditions than those of Sodom; they grew up under more favorable surroundings; hence, they were more responsible; hence, they are to receive greater punishment at the judgment. Apply to your own case, reader: for every added ray of light, for every added opportunity, there will be that much added punishment for your sins. And that is just; that is right. The opportunities that wealth brings, the light that education and culture bring, will but add to the punishment at the judgment. The most highly educated, the most refined, the most wealthy, those who have lived under the most favorable influences, will suffer most at the judgment.
But punishment will be further graded by the number of sins, - “Every transgression received a just
recompense.” Hence, the more one sins, the greater the punishment. If one knew that he was going to Hell, corrupt human nature would say, “Sin and enjoy while you live,” but reason and Scripture would say, “Stop! add no more to the degree of Hell.”
Punishment for sin will be further graded by the character of the sin. “He that betrayed me to thee hath the greater sin.” While a small sin is just as surely sin as a great sin, yet God recognizes degrees in sin, and as a consequence, there are degrees in the punishment of sin. Following from degrees in the punishment of sin comes inevitably the fact that no wrong will be done any one at the judgment; that no one will be treated wrong in Hell. He who fears only injustice and wrong, has nothing to fear from the judgment or in Hell.
Two reflections for the reader: - If you have heretofore rebelled against the idea of future punishment, what can you say when now you see that God will make all just allowance for surroundings and conditions, and will take into consideration the number and kinds of sins? God has a right to have laws; His laws are right; a law without a penalty amounts to no law; the penalty, God assures us, will be absolutely just. What can you say when you stand before such a judge and receive such a sentence?
The other reflection for the reader; Let not this teaching of the Bible lead you into thinking that Hell, then, will not be so terrible after all, and that you need not fear it. Instead of letting it allay all dread of the future, it is enough to make the blood run cold through your veins; for those who will have the most terrible suffering will be the most enlightened, the most cultured. Another thought: not some far distant, cold, harsh, unsympathetic God will be the judge at the Judgment Day, but the Lord Jesus, “touched with the feeling of our infirmities,” will be the one who will judge you and condemn you and give you your just degree of punishment in Hell. Hear Him: John 5:22, “For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son.” Peter reveals the same fact, Acts 10:42, “He commanded us to preach unto the people, and to testify that it is he which was ordained of God to be the judge of quick and dead.” Remember, that he whom the world praises as so good, so just, so discriminating, so loving, so tender, will be the judge at the Great Day, who will pronounce each sentence. Oh, reader, the very fact that the Lord Jesus will be the judge is absolute proof that no one will be treated wrong, that no one will be punished unjustly in Hell; and the bare possibility that He may pronounce your eternal doom is enough to cause you to turn today. “Turn ye, turn ye, for why will ye die?”
FOR FURTHER STUDY: The fear of Abraham is the fear of the human race, Gen. 18:25, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” As soon as God revealed to Abraham that He was going to deal with Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sin, Abraham at once suspects that God may do wrong in punishing sin. It has been so down the ages, that we suspect that God will do wrong in punishing sin. Great denominations have been formed to keep God from doing wrong in punishing sin. Men have proven untrue to their denominations and turned traitors to God’s Word, because they have, Abraham-like, suspected God of wrong-doing in the punishment of sin. It is not that the proof is not ample that the Bible is God’s Word, but the hatred of the human heart for the Bible teaching about Hell, that has brought in so much of modern religious vagaries and new Theology and Higher Criticism. As Abraham presses his plea for God to do right, God by degrees reveals Himself as a God who will do right. It must have been a marvelous revelation to Abraham. And so God’s plan for the punishment of sin will be to the honest seeker for truth when he perceives the real teaching of God’s Word. As God’s doing right with Sodom and Gomorrah went far beyond where Abraham’s sense of right halted; so God’s doing right with sinners in Hell will go far beyond what we would ask. But there are other objectors to Hell. They began by pressing the teaching of God’s mercy without any reference to His justice; and in order to get rid of the teaching as to Hell, which they thought unjust, they rejected the Scriptures as God’s Word; and finally ended in rejecting the teaching that “Christ died for our sins” (I Corinthians 15:3); that He “his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree” (I Peter 2:24). As a result of their fighting against God’s punishing sin, they have become so blinded as to right principle, and so morally corrupt, as to be supported in pulpits, college professorships and seminary professorships by the hard-earned money of earnest believers in God’s Word, while they are undermining the faith of the children of their supporters.
The Heaven that such men teach is the Hell of the Bible. Rejecting complete redemption through Christ dying for our sins as our substitute, they teach salvation by character, or that one’s destiny beyond the grave will be according to the way he has lived here. That is their Heaven, but that is the Bible’s Hell, exactly, absolutely. Infidelity, Judaism, Christian Science, Universalism, Unitarianism, Higher Criticism, New Theology and all who reject Christ dying for our sins, as our substitute, as our complete Redeemer, because of their hatred of God’s punishing sinners in Hell, have made their Heaven to be the result of their life here on earth; and as a consequence, have made their Heaven the Bible’s Hell; for Hell will be exactly the result of the life here on earth; and, as a result, they have in theory, and, alas! will have in fact, the Bible’s Hell which they label Heaven, without any real Heaven at all. As an example, consider Mr. R. G. Ingersoll’s words, “I believe in the gospel of justice, that we must reap what we sow (Bible’s Hell without any Heaven). I do not believe in forgiveness (Bible’s Hell without any Heaven). If I rob Smith and God forgives me, how does that help Smith? If I cover some poor girl with the leprosy of some imputed crime and she withers away like a blighted flower and afterward I get forgiveness, how does that help her? If there is another world, we have got to settle (admitting that we do not settle in this life), and for every crime you commit here (hence, the more the crimes, the more you must suffer, exactly the Bible’s teaching), you must answer to yourself and to the one you injure. And if you have ever clothed another as with a garment of pain, you will never be quite as happy as though you had not done that thing.” “No forgiveness; eternal, inexorable, everlasting justice, that is what I believe in.” Any Christian would be willing to take Mr. Ingersoll’s place, or the place of any one else, in Hell, if God varies one pang from what Mr. Ingersoll himself calls for. But it is the Bible’s Hell, pure and simple, without any Heaven.
But the objector who rejects the teaching of Hell, and also Christ dying for our sins as our substitute, may say that he does not agree with Mr. Ingersoll, as to no forgiveness; that he believes in forgiveness. To reject Christ’s dying for our sins as our substitute, as our Redeemer from all iniquity, and yet, in order to avoid believing in Hell, to profess to believe in the forgiveness of sins, makes one far worse than Mr. Ingersoll, a spiritual anarchist. Mr. Ingersoll at least believed in law, but to believe in forgiveness, without substitution, without redemption through Christ, means to down with law and to become an anarchist in principle.
Concerning the objection to the Bible’s teaching of eternal punishment in Hell, a mistranslation has misled many, and before the correct translation, as given by the Revised Version, all objections fall to the ground. The old version of Revelation 22:11 reads, “He that is unjust let him be unjust still”; but the Revised Version gives what the Greek says, “He that is unrighteous let him do unrighteousness still.” And that inevitably means eternal punishment. It is God’s last sentence on the sinner. The objector may say that it is horrible to let men sin beyond the grave, in Hell. Not one particle more horrible is it than to let them sin in this life and continue in sin in this life. A reflection for the unsaved reader: what will your moral character be one thousand years after you die, with no Holy Spirit, no Bible, no Christians, no churches, to restrain you?
Again, this passage, Revelation 22:11 (R. V.), can have no meaning if the wicked are to be blotted out, cease to exist.
Another objection that is pressed, is that the Bible teaches a Hell of literal fire, and is therefore wrong. The denominations that reject the Bible’s teachings as to Hell, without exception, try to force on the Bible language the meaning of literal fire. Yet they do not try to force on the language of the Bible concerning Hell, that it means literal worm when it says “to be cast into Hell where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.” They do not try to force the literal meaning on language when Jesus said, “I am the door”; “I am the vine”; or the Scriptures state, “That rock was Christ.” One thing is true, that, the language being figurative, the reality must be terrible.
Men sneer at the thought of becoming Christians from fear of Hell. Such men are not honest with God, and are simply trying to browbeat God on the subject of Hell. Proof: the same men will flee to safety from fear of smallpox, from fear of yellow fever, etc. Shall men be looked upon as sensible when they flee to safety for their bodies, and be scorned for fleeing to safety for their souls?
People are ever asking, “Will the heathen be lost without the gospel?” Let God’s Word answer, Romans 2:12, 14, “For as many as have sinned without the law shall also perish without the law”; “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing
or else excusing one another.” But the objector says, “Will God condemn a man when he has no light?” There never lived such a man. Listen to God: John 1:19, “That was the true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” Again, Romans 1:20, “The invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; so that they are without excuse.” But the objection is raised that they have never heard of Christ, and that it is wrong for people to be lost, condemned, who never heard of Christ. They are not condemned for not believing in Christ when they have never heard of Him; they are condemned for their sins, for doing what, from their light, they knew was wrong. It is not the lack of the remedy that kills, but the disease. They have not as much light as others, and their punishment will be accordingly. The man who dies in his sins in a Christian land will be punished far, far more than the one who dies a heathen. Their punishments will be almost as far apart as the east is from the west.
The Scripture, “There is no difference,” Romans 3:22, has often been pressed to mean that all sinners are alike before God, or will suffer alike in Hell. By close attention to the passage the reader will see that the expression “there is no difference” has reference to what goes before, for it is connected by the word “for,” pointing back to what had just been said, that there is a “righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ unto all that have faith, for there is no difference,” that all that have faith are equally certain of salvation, “for there is no difference.” To join the expression, “there is no difference,” with what follows makes it clearly contradict our Saviour, who said plainly that there is a difference, - “He that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin,” - there is a difference in sin, says the Saviour.
The teaching of James 2:10, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one, is guilty of all,” must not be made to contradict the plain teaching of the Saviour that there is a difference in sinners, and different degrees in their punishment. The meaning is that the law is a unit, and that he that offends in one point has broken the law as a whole. A chain of ten links is as surely broken when one link is broken as when all ten links are broken.
In accord with this are the words of the great American scholar, theologian, teacher, preacher, John. A. Broadus: “Especially notice Luke 12:47f. (R. V.), ‘And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and made not ready, nor did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes; but he that knew not, and did things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few strips.’ This teaching has been in many cases grievously overlooked. Taking images literally, men have found that the ‘Gehenna of fire’ (Matthew 5:22) will be the same place and the same degree of punishment for all. But the above passage and many others show that there will be differences. The degrees of punishment must be as remote as the east is from the west. All inherited proclivities, ‘taints of blood,’ all differences of environment, every privilege and every disadvantage, will be taken into account. It is the Divine Judge that will apportion punishment, with perfect knowledge and perfect justice and perfect goodness. This great fact, that there will be degrees in future punishment - as well as future rewards - ought to be more prominent in religious instruction. It gives some relief in contemplating the awful fate of those who perish. It might save many from going away into Universalism; and others from dreaming of a ‘second probation’ in eternity (comp. on 12:32); and yet others from unjustly assailing and rejecting, to their own ruin, the gospel of salvation.”
On the other hand, many a sermon on Hell (and there are too few on the subject), it could possibly be said the average sermon on the subject, is a slander on a just and holy God. The sermon is drawn largely from Dante’s Inferno or the distorted imagination of the preacher, with no reference to the fact that God will punish sinners differently according to their light and their sins, but only justly. The trouble is not with the Bible teaching as to Hell, but with modern inadequate conceptions of the evil and guilt of sin, and with many, the almost lost sense of justice, and of “stern moral indignation against wrong.” (Broadus.)
[From Milburn Cockrell, editor, The Berea Baptist Banner, September 5, 1999, pp. 161, 164-166. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
More on Baptists: Various Subjects
Baptist History Homepage