Is hell the same for everyone? A student of mine essentially asked this question after a Bible study a number of weeks ago. Here’s his exact question, and my response:
“Hey Patrick, there’s been a question on my mind for a while. It’s when you rescinded a statement that you made earlier when you said “sin is sin.” You said God would be harsher on a murderer than someone who lied, even if they’re both sin. Could you explain that to me? I’m not trying to call you out; I am genuinely curious.”
Good question. First let me clarify: I don’t think I rescinded my statement “sin is sin.” If I did, or I made it sound like I did, that was not my intent. I meant to qualify it, not rescind it. In what sense is all sin the same? In the categorical sense. Lying and murder are both against the will and law of God. Sin is a fundamentally vertical phenomenon. By that, I mean that all sin is against God first and foremost; sin is between God and man. As David confesses in Psalm 51:4, he sins “against You [God] only” (emphasis mine). One who is guilty of lying to their friend is just as deserving of God’s wrath as one who murders their brother because both are treason against Him. The liar and murderer both declare “Not Thy, but my will be done.” They are equal in the sense that they both warrant—indeed, demand—punishment. That’s what I mean when I say they are categorically the same.
Now, they are far from equal when we talk about degree. Obviously, one of those sins has far worse consequences than the other. The verticality of sin doesn’t deny the horizontal effects; sin still has consequences here and now. When a student lies to a friend (lets say in the context of “embellishing” a story about a prank they supposedly pulled on someone in high school), that might result in disappointment and a slight loss of trust when the truth comes out. Even after amends have been made, the friend who was lied to might be hesitant to fully believe the next story his friend tells. Outside of that, there’s no real consequence. However, when a brother murders his sibling in cold blood, that results in the loss of a life, the fracturing of a family, the disruption of civil order, and the deep disturbance of friends and family. Even if the murderer comes to repent and seek reconciliation, no amount of apologizing brings his brother back to life.
Herman Bavinck, an early twentieth-century theologian and author of one of the best systematic theologies in history, wrote this:
“The law of retribution does not demand the same thing from all but demands that to each be given his or her due; it does not demand a precise payment in kind but punishment proportionate to the seriousness of the offense. To the degree that a person is guilty, to that degree he or she deserves punishment.” (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3, 166)
Can we see this in Scripture? Certainly. In the Old Testament, punishments widely vary for different trespasses. Consider Deuteronomy 17:2-3. Notice the incredible practicality of the law: God recognizes that it is impossible for one book to speak to every possible circumstance and intricacy of real life. The people must depend on God and trust those who pursue His will to conduct justice. Here’s a more clear cut example: God differentiates between premeditated murder and manslaughter. First, God declares in the Ten Commandments that “You shall not murder.” Brilliant, but what does that mean? Exodus 21:12 says simply enough “He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death.” Murder warrants the death penalty. What if someone unintentionally kills another person? Deuteronomy 19:1-7 addresses this nuance. Check it out…
“When the Lord your God cuts off the nations, whose land the Lord your God gives you, and you dispossess them and settle in their cities and in their houses, you shall set aside three cities for yourself in the midst of your land, which the Lord your God gives you to possess. You shall prepare the roads for yourself, and divide into three parts the territory of your land which the Lord your God will give you as a possession, so that any manslayer may flee there.
“Now this is the case of the manslayer who may flee there and live: when he kills his friend unintentionally, not hating him previously— as when a man goes into the forest with his friend to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down the tree, and the iron head slips off the handle and strikes his friend so that he dies—he may flee to one of these cities and live; otherwise the avenger of blood might pursue the manslayer in the heat of his anger, and overtake him, because the way is long, and take his life, though he was not deserving of death, since he had not hated him previously. Therefore, I command you, saying, ‘You shall set aside three cities for yourself.’”
There’s a lot of other nuances and complexities that can be drawn out with just this one example, but hopefully you can see the main point. While sin is sin, the punishment must fit the crime.
What about the New Testament? Well, there are fewer examples as obvious as the ones I cited above, but there are a few we can look to. First, consider Luke 12:41-48. All of Luke 12, and especially its second half, focuses on the end of days. Christ will return at an unexpected hour; His servants must be ever vigilant. The slave who does this will be rewarded. The one who takes advantage of the Master’s slow return and lives immorally will be caught in his wickedness and damned. Then, Jesus distinguishes between two types of damned slaves. Jesus states that “that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few” (Luke 12:47-48).
At face value, this makes sense. Even when the behavior is the same, the posture of the heart matters and actually results in a different degree of punishment. At a deeper level, this seems to distinguish between reprobate gentiles and apostate Israelites/Jews/Christians. Those who understand the Gospel and still refuse, deny, and/or attack it will face worse judgement than those who never heard the Gospel message. The implications this has for evangelism and mercy are too numerous and complex to address here, but that’s another topic I’d love to explore with you.
We can also look to John 19:9-11. Jesus declares that those who handed Him over to Pilate are guilty of “the greater sin” compared to Pilate. Though this does not explicitly say the Jews who plotted to kill Jesus will face a fiercer punishment in hell, the implication is obvious.
Admittedly, there is no one passage in the New Testament clearly stating that hell “has different levels” and that while all sins are categorically the same, they differ in degree and therefore earn varying punishments. Luke 12 provides the strongest single passage to this argument in the New Testament, but when the whole of Scripture is taken into consideration, the conclusion seems necessary and unavoidable. All sinners not redeemed by Christ will be sent to hell. The destination is the same. Hell is not the same for everyone, though. God does not show mercy to sinners in hell by punishing them less for a lesser sin. He deals precisely what is due. The experience is comprehensively miserable for all, void of mercy, and totally just. That’s the real key here: hell is totally just. Integral to justice is that every sin will be paid for exactly. One reaps what one sows—no more, and no less.
“The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul;
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
The judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether.”