Today’s question comes from Callum in Southampton, England. “Hello, Pastor John. After listening to episode 996, ‘Will Some People in Heaven Have More Joy Than Others?’ I remembered a number of passages in the New Testament where Jesus seems to suggest that there will be people for whom the day of judgment will be worse — even than for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah or Tyre and Sidon (Matthew 10:12–15; 11:21–24). And in 2 Peter 2:19–22, it describes people who ‘have known the way of righteousness’ and then turned back. To them Peter explains that it would be ‘better for them never to have known the way.’
“Revelation 14:19 describes the enemies of God being gathered and swept into the ‘winepress of the wrath of God.’ This doesn’t seem to leave much room for a ‘hierarchy,’ so to speak. I loved the explanation in episode 996 about the differing capacities for joy in heaven, about how the most joyful in the kingdom will in fact be the humblest. Amazing. But does something like this happen in reverse in God’s judgment? Are some people in hell able to perceive greater despair than others?”
“Able to perceive greater despair.” That may be true. I didn’t expect him to end with that phrase, but it’s a fascinating and helpful question to ask. What we’re actually not told in the New Testament is in what way the suffering will be greater for some than others. But we are certainly told that there will be degrees of suffering in hell.
“Every day is a precious opportunity to lay up treasures in heaven, not store up wrath in hell.”
It will be unspeakably terrible for everyone who goes there — just unspeakably terrible, without any experience of good, no sight of beauty, no pleasant sounds, no bodily pleasures, no gratified appetites, no satisfied desires, no hopes fulfilled. That’s everybody. Saying that there are degrees of suffering doesn’t paint a light picture for anyone. Those who joke that they’d rather be in hell drinking with their buddies than in heaven with stuffy saints are ignorant of reality in a terrifying way. It’s not funny. They will not be having a good time.
Despair in Degrees
But although hell will be without all good for all unbelievers, it will be worse for some. Let me just read a few texts. This is Luke 12:47–48: “That servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating.” That’s just a picture at the end of a parable, but everybody I’ve ever read says it points to greater or lesser torment in hell.
Here’s Matthew 10:15: “Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.” So, more or less bearable points to degrees or differences of suffering.
Here’s Matthew 11:21–22: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you.” More or less bearable signifies greater or lesser suffering.
Then, one more: Romans 2:4–5. This one’s so striking because of the word thēsaurizō, which means to store up. It’s usually used for storing up, like when Jesus says, “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:20). That’s the word, only here it’s used for wrath. Here’s what it says: “Do you presume on the riches of his [God’s] kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing [or treasuring] up wrath” — meaning, making investments in it, putting more and more away.
We’re supposed to store up treasures in heaven by doing good deeds day after day, but these people are doing the opposite: they’re storing up, treasuring up, more and more wrath — not treasures of blessing but wrath for themselves on the day “when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5).
Five Reasons for Stages of Suffering
In those four texts that I just read — and there are several more — I see two explicit reasons given for why some will suffer more than others. Then I see three implicit reasons that flow from those two explicit ones. Let me just name these five. These are reasons why it would be so that some are suffering more than others.
1. The more light you have, the more knowledge you have, the more truth you have, the worse your sin and punishment at rejecting it. That’s right there in the texts.
2. The more kindness God shows you, not just in giving you light in truth but in, for example, giving you many undeserved pleasures in this life, the more grievous will be your unbelief and sin, and the worse will be your punishment in hell.
3. If rejection of more and more light and kindness makes suffering worse in hell, then I infer that the more days you do this, the worse it will be. In other words, time comes into the picture. Day after day after day, you keep on rejecting light after light after light, kindness after kindness after kindness. The longer this goes on, the worse things are going to be.
4. There are kinds of sins that are more heinous, more destructive, more blasphemous than others, so that not only the amount of sinning over time makes things worse, but also the degree of ugliness and horror, heinousness, and blasphemy also increases the suffering.
5. In all of this, there’s a greater or lesser degree of high-handedness, arrogance — greater arrogance, greater conscious defiance and insolence, and therefore a consequent greater degree of punishment.
How We Respond to the Horror of Hell
Here’s my concluding question: What should we do with this information? Why are we told this? Is it to make us feel like the risk is not as great or make us feel better about lost people going there? What’s the point of this? What should we do? All five of these reasons send us trembling with joy to the cross of Jesus and to the grace of God, which holds onto us in the forgiveness that the cross gives. Here’s the way I think we should hear each of those five.
1. They make us seriously vigilant not to misuse greater light and truth. To whom much is given, much will be required (Luke 12:48). We should strive that the truth that comes to us would not come without humbling us, building our faith, increasing our love. In other words, don’t squander precious light that God gives you in his word and in his world.
2. We should be seriously vigilant not to misuse all the pleasures of this life by treating them as God or a distraction from God, instead of signs that he’s kind and is better than all of them together.
3. We should be seriously vigilant over every passing hour and day so that they don’t accumulate sins but accumulate the fruit of righteousness. Every day is a precious opportunity to invest, lay up treasures in heaven, not store up wrath in hell.
4. We should be seriously vigilant over our pride, lest we fall into patterns of arrogance and defiance and say, “It doesn’t matter. God can take his word and stuff it.”
Here’s a closing quote from Jonathan Edwards. If you want to walk with somebody who has thought deeply about hell, Edwards has a couple of sermons on this issue of degrees of suffering, one of them based on Matthew 5:22. Let me give you one closing quote. This is just an example of how seriously he took these things. He said in this sermon on Matthew 5:22, “The damned in hell would be ready to give the world if they could have the number of their sins to have been one less in this life.”