|Vol. 13 No. 6 June 2011||
I always appreciate it when someone has the trust in me to write me asking a question of a biblical nature. I take that as a great compliment. A beloved brother, wrote me with the question that is the title of this article, and I believe that he will not mind me answering in the form of the article. I am not the authority, but God’s Word is. I hope that this answer is sufficient.
To begin with, on the surface of the question, the answer would be yes. There are several passages, a sampling of which we will note, that indicate that to be the case. The true question, however, is the definition of what the “degrees of punishment/reward” really are. First, let us note some passages, then some comments from different commentaries, and finally draw our own conclusions.
Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city. (Matthew 10:15)
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 at 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 it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee. (Matthew 11:20-24)
But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves. (Matthew 23:13-15)
And he said unto them in his doctrine, Beware of the scribes, which love to go in long clothing, and love salutations in the marketplaces, And the chief seats in the synagogues, and the uppermost rooms at feasts: Which devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers: these shall receive greater damnation. (Mark 12:38-40)
My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation. (James 3:1)
Notes from Various Commentators
Concerning Matthew 10:15.
Christ said that their punishment will be more tolerable-that is, more easily borne-than that of the people who reject his gospel, The reason is, that they were not favoured with so much light and instruction. See Matthew 11:23, 24, Luke 12:47, 48. (Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament)
More tolerable for the land of Sodom, etc. The cities of the Jordan valley destroyed for their sins in the time of Abraham (Gen 19:1-28). These cities did not have the opportunity, and hence, not the responsibility, of those to which Christ or his apostles preached. (People’s New Testament)
Concerning Matthew 11:20-24.
For the reasons mentioned above, “it shall be more tolerable” for these cities “in the day of judgment” than for Chorazin and Bethsaida; Tyre and Sidon had fewer opportunities for knowing the truth; some see in this different degrees of retribution for guilt. The clearness of the light against which sin is committed aggravates the guilt. (Gospel Advocate Commentaries)
Concerning James 3:1.
…knowing that we shall receive heavier judgment. This is the reason why one should not rashly assume the work of a teacher. He is to know that his judgment will be heavier if he fails in the proper discharge thereof. “Heavier judgment” (meizon krima) is, literally, greater judgment (condemnation). The word translated judgment here almost always means condemnation. The word thus translated (krima) is from krino, to separate, distinguish. Thus, at the great judgment day, the Lord will separate those who have been teachers of his word from those who have not, and will then pass on them by far stricter standards than those applicable to non-teachers. The consequences involved in teaching that which is false are fatal; and those who have not properly prepared themselves for such work, and who thus mislead those whom they affect to teach, must answer under “a heavier judgment,” than those not thus engaged. “But whoso shall cause one of these little ones that believe on me to stumble, it is profitable for him that a great millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be sunk in the depth of the sea. Woe unto the world because of occasions of stumbling! for it must needs be that the occasions come; but woe to that man through whom the occasion cometh!” (Matt. 18:6) The lesson for us is that leadership involves responsibility; and the greater the area of leadership the greater the responsibility. Teachers must, therefore, answer for a great deal more than those engaged in other Christian work. But, if the responsibility is greater, and the judgment heavier for those who misuse or do not properly use the occasion, the reward is greater for those who do properly teach and edify others. Paul described the Philippians as his “brethren beloved and longed for,” his “joy and crown.” (Phil. 4:1.) And John said, “Greater joy have I not than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth.” (3 John 4.) Daniel said that they “that are wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.” (Dan. 12:3.) Teachers, preachers, elders, all who have the obligation to instruct others, should take these matters carefully to heart, and to be mindful always of the weighty responsibility which is theirs in this respect. (Gospel Advocate Commentaries)
I am convinced that there is not a “hotter part of hell,” nor a “more glorious part of heaven.” All of hell will be fire and brimstone and terrible punishment throughout all eternity. All of heaven will be glorious and wonderful for the same eternity. If that is true, then what does the Bible mean when it uses such expressions as “greater condemnation,” etc.?
Ultimately, the punishment of the wicked will involve their capacity to remember the opportunities that they had while on the earth (the rich man of Luke 16 is an example). The mental torture of knowing that I had the great opportunity to be saved, that I had been, as the commentators often state, given an abundance of the light that could have kept me from eternal hell, will make the punishment faced even more horrible and torturous than it is for those who really did not have the same opportunities. I did not have to be here, but I chose to do so. Further, those who mislead and teach falsely will have to bear the fact that they are in hell, as well as many that they have led there. It is a mental torture that goes beyond others who did not mislead others by false teaching.
On the other hand, there is a marvelous blessing in eternity for those who taught and led others to Jesus, those who were careful and accurate in their teaching. They will be able to look around, in my opinion, and realize that many have joined them in heaven because they did their job well, and this will provide an even stronger satisfaction and enjoyment of heaven for them.
This is my view of “degrees of punishment and reward” in eternity. I believe that it is biblical, and I hope that it answers the question accurately.
[Editor’s Note: It is easier to observe that the Bible teaches degrees of punishment and reward than it is to discern from Scripture how exactly those degrees will manifest themselves. Brother Kelly may be correct, or we may find out more perfectly in eternity respecting these degrees of punishment and reward. In the meantime, each of us needs to prepare to meet our God in Judgment (Amos 4:12). ~ Louis Rushmore]