By John McKinley

Following on my earlier post on the metaphorical language used for naming and describing the punishment of hell, this post explores the doctrine of degrees of punishment. The basic idea is that the Bible seems to say that all evildoers will suffer the same hell for their sins, but God's perfect justice means that worse criminals will suffer worse punishments for their crimes. This is not torture or exacting pain as somehow accomplishing something for God, as if God were a fiendish tormentor. But then what is it?

II. The Doctrine of Degrees of Punishment

All evildoers go to hell, without exception. God’s perfect justice is that hell will be worse for some than others. (There is a parallel to the doctrine of rewards in heaven.) This idea may be surprising. We are not to imagine that God is a torturer who somehow gets something out of punishing evildoers. But we are to take seriously the parable in Luke 12:42-48 in which Jesus compares the punishments of two servants who both deserve “a beating” for their misdeeds. Jesus distinguishes between the servant who knew the master’s will, and the other servant who did not. Knowing more brings “a severe beating” while knowing less brings “a lesser beating.”

This distinction of punishments according to differences of what people did and of their knowledge and opportunities corresponds to the teaching that there are differences in the rewards in heaven. All believers will receive the same inheritance of everlasting life and joy to live with God forever. Some distinction will be rewarded according to faithfulness during this life, as in the parable of the talents, and the command to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven. Most likely, the experience of reward will subjective, not as the basis for comparison, sadness, envy, or pride. The doctrine of degrees of rewards is a motivator: how people make choices here, on earth, have long-term positive consequences for living in the new earth, beyond just getting there and avoiding hell.

Similarly, the doctrine of differing degrees of punishments corresponds to God’s perfect justice so that, for example, Adolf Hitler and his servants will suffer differently according to their deeds. Oliver Crisp has compared this to the punishments of two prisoners, both with life sentences (“Divine Retribution: A Defence,” Sophia 42: 2 [2003], 35–52). One is a forger, and he has a life sentence. Part of his punishment is to do hard labor of busting up rocks for one day each month, as fits his nonviolent crime. The other prisoner, a murderer, also has a life sentence, but, as suits his crime, he must do hard labor every other day. Both are in prison, but it is worse for the worse criminal. All evildoers will be incarcerated in hell, but it will be worse for some than others, according to their deeds.

I doubt that the punishments are some form of active torture from God’s side. I think they suffer because of their guilt; the guilt is what causes them pain in the presence of a righteous God. The Bible uses terms such as “torment” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Of course the picture is of a horrible experience. I think that the punishments are at least partly the direct pain due to knowing one’s specific guilt for sins. At final judgment, all things are exposed (Henri Blocher, “Everlasting Punishment and the Problem of Evil,” in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, ed. N. M. de S. Cameron [Carlisle: Paternoster, 1992]). For evildoers, this means a stripping away of all the illusions about God and their sin. The truth they long suppressed will overturn them. Their crimes will be exposed in fullness. They will acknowledge God’s rightness, and their own wretchedness. All evildoers, the devil included, will bow to Jesus and admit that he is the Lord.

Going out from the final judgment, the burden upon them is their full knowledge of guilt for all their sins. I imagine that they will have no way to avoid this truth or to pretend that they have not actually been so wrong as to hate God and his ways as much as they have. This is a constant and inescapable burden of knowing, “I am guilty of horrible things! God has been good to me in innumerable ways, but I have repaid him with only evil! I have caused incalculable pain to all the people in my life. I am ashamed. I have only contempt for myself. I know I will find no comfort ever.”

This final and everlasting self-knowledge may correspond to the differences of degrees in punishments. Hitler must live with the full knowledge of what he has done. This is an exact repayment of justice against him for his deeds, as God promises (Col 3:25). Being guilty, and knowing it fully, causes an internal burn and suffering in the presence of God (cf. Rev 14:10, they suffer in the presence of the holy angels and the Lamb). God is not the problem; the evildoer’s guilt is the problem. This may be a bit like what Professor Quirrell suffers in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry, who is imbued with his mother’s self-sacrificial love like a protective spell, lays a hand on Quirrell, who is carrying the spirit of Voldemort. Voldemort and his host cannot stand love; they are bent on malice. Harry’s mother’s love causes great pain to Quirrell. Love is not the problem; hatred of love is.

Similarly, C.S. Lewis suggested in The Great Divorce that the realities of heaven are unappealing to people who are not fit to be there because of their selfishness. The values of self-surrender, empathy, humility, and self-sacrifice as love for others are abhorrent to the unconverted evildoer. God’s goodness is not appreciated, but felt as pain to the one who hates God and his goods. In this way, the punishment of hell is both the separation from God’s goods, and the immersion into one’s own guilt and selfishness. Sanity is preserved (being crazy is no escape from punishment). Clarity of vision about one’s guilt and God’s righteousness are constantly in view. The presence of an omnipresent God in hell is felt horribly as pain for the one who has only guilt. This is pain commensurate with one’s deeds, and it causes great weeping and gnashing of teeth in self-contempt. Forever.


For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.