Among today’s evangelicals, it has become virtually commonplace for us to talk as if all sins render us equally guilty before God.
Perhaps we have bristled at a previous generation’s tendency to identify one or two sins as particularly hell-deserving. Perhaps we are looking for a way to winsomely engage a society allergic to the idea of sin. My guess is that many of us just want to do justice to Scripture’s universal condemnation of human sinfulness. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Should we really insist that some have sinned worse and fallen farther?
“The worst sinners in this world are those who go on sinning when they have every reason and opportunity to repent.”
But then we listen to Jesus and find, as usual, that like so many tables in the temple courts, he turns over our assumptions. Although Jesus warns us not to make hasty, simplistic conclusions about who the “worse sinners” are (Luke 13:1–5), he also warns us that some sinners, if they do not repent, will face “the greater condemnation” (Luke 20:47). He teaches that some will receive a comparatively “light beating” on the last day while others will receive a “severe beating” (Luke 12:47–48). He speaks of the final judgment being “more tolerable” for some groups than for others, though both are heading to hell. In short, he tells us that not all sins are the same, and that hell will be worse for some.
And who did Jesus have in mind when he warned of hell’s lowest levels? Not (as we might again assume) the Hitlers and Stalins of the first-century world, but rather ordinary, respectable religious folk. People perhaps like our relatives and neighbors. People, perhaps, like us.
More Tolerable for Sodom
Somewhere in the middle of Jesus’s ministry, he looks back on the cities of Galilee “where most of his mighty works had been done” (Matthew 11:20) — and be begins to denounce them.
Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! . . . And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. (Matthew 11:21, 23)
On the last day, he tells us, the judgment will be “more bearable” for Tyre and Sidon, and “more tolerable” for Sodom, than it will be for the citizens of these Galilean cities (Matthew 11:22, 24).
Tyre plundered Jerusalem after Babylon had laid it waste (Ezekiel 26:1–2), but better to be a marauding Tyrian on judgment day than to be a citizen of Chorazin. Sidon exulted with Tyre over the destruction of God’s chosen city (Isaiah 23:4, 12), but better to be a proud Sidonian on judgment day than to be a member of Bethsaida. The men of Sodom nearly battered down Lot’s door in order to rape his guests (Genesis 19:4–9), but — can it be? — better to be a lecherous Sodomite on judgment day than to stand with the city of Capernaum.
“Jesus tells us that not all sins are the same, and that hell will be worse for some.”
How can we understand this? As far as we know, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum were not renowned for their wickedness. These were small Galilean cities, neighbors to Nazareth. Capernaum was even Jesus’s “own city” during his ministry (Matthew 4:13; 9:1). The residents of these places were likely synagogue-attending, Torah-memorizing, Sabbath-keeping Jews. How could they possibly outdo Sodom in sin?
For this simple reason: when they witnessed the mighty works of the Messiah, God’s own Son, “they did not repent” (Matthew 11:20).
Jesus’s Galilean hearers carried with them a greater guilt not because their sins, considered in themselves, were especially heinous. To be sure, Scripture does not shy away from calling some sins especially heinous (see, for example, Leviticus 18:24–30; Jeremiah 16:18). But that is not Jesus’s point here. His point is that greater knowledge brings greater accountability. The more truth we have, the more damnable is our preference for lies.
The worst sinners in this world, then, are not necessarily those who live in rank debauchery, but those who go on sinning when they have every reason and opportunity to repent. Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, for all their wickedness, lived and died in gospel darkness. Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum saw the gospel’s blazing light — and they quietly closed the curtains.
The ancient pagan cities had not seen the Son of God cast out demons; Capernaum had (Matthew 8:16). They had not watched him open the eyes of the blind; Bethsaida had (Mark 8:22–26). They had not witnessed the paralyzed walk or the sick made well; Chorazin had (Matthew 4:23–25). If Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom had seen such wonders, Jesus tells us, “they would have repented long ago” (Matthew 11:21).
“The more truth we have, the more damnable is our preference for lies.”
The residents of Galilee may have watched with awe as Jesus worked his miracles, but they soon returned to life as normal — planting crops, raising children, performing religious duties, forgetting about the King who commanded repentance. In other words, they responded to Jesus with a sin worse than Sodom’s: polite impenitence.
Not Proximity, but Repentance
English bishop J.C. Ryle (1816–1900) applies the point to our own day: “It will prove more tolerable to have lived in Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, than to have heard the gospel in England, and at last died unconverted” (Matthew, 85). For England we might substitute America, or any other nation filled with the gospel’s light.
It won’t matter on the last day if we have lived near Jesus all our life. The citizens of Galilee could claim the same: “We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.” But if we have not repented, we will hear the same response: “I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!” (Luke 13:26–27). Repentance, not proximity, will be the mark of Jesus’s followers on judgment day.
Jesus is not addressing here those saints who have truly believed, truly repented, and yet find that their faith is little, their strength weak, and their need for mercy great. He will not break such bruised reeds, nor quench such smoldering wicks (Matthew 12:18–21). He is instead addressing those who, though familiar with Christ and his gospel, have not yet followed Jesus wholeheartedly, have not yet turned to hate their wickedness, have not yet forsaken their secret sins.
Have you heard Christ’s gospel, and watched his mighty works in the transformed lives of those around you, and repeated the creeds and confessions, and been washed in the waters of baptism, and partaken of the Lord’s Supper, and attended church all your life — but not actually repented?
Lukewarm, half-measure responses to Jesus will aggravate, not ease, the wrath of God on the last day. Better to have been lost in the fires of Sodom than to have heard, and watched, and repeated, and partaken of Christian things all your life, yet without repentance.
‘Come to Me’
Perhaps some of us need encouragement to finally, sincerely repent, while others need help to go on repenting every day. If so, we need only keep reading. Jesus’s woes against Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum soon give way to one of the warmest invitations he ever spoke.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28–30)
Come to me. No matter how many years someone has merely dabbled with the gospel, no matter how many opportunities they have trampled, no matter how many sermons and exhortations they have despised, Jesus says, “Come to me.” He invites those who rival Sodom in their evil, and he invites those who compete with Capernaum for their apathy. He invites those who have blatantly hated him all their life, and he invites those who have quietly rejected him.
Jesus is gentle and lowly in heart. He does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). Rather, he delights when the wicked, after long years of refusing him, finally come, ready to repent and find their rest in him.
Not all sins, and not all sinners, are the same. But they all have the same remedy: the Savior who came, and lived, and died so that no one who feels the weight of their guilt need finally go to hell.