Why Is the Penalty of Hell the Same, Even Though People Are So Different?
The notion of Hell is incredibly controversial, even among Christians. Many believers struggle to reconcile the mercy and grace of God with the existence of Hell and have tried to redefine Hell in an effort to remove what they perceive as offensive. For some, Hell seems too inequitable to be possible. Would a Loving God punish everyone in the same way? Isn’t it unfair to send someone like Gandhi to Hell (simply because he was not a Christian) alongside someone like Hitler (who committed unspeakable atrocities)? A reasonable and just God would not be the source of such inequitable punishment, would He?
In one sense, it is true: All sin has the same consequence when measured against God’s perfection. Lying is just as significant as murder when it comes to assessing our imperfection relative to the perfection of God. Even the slightest sin demonstrates our inadequacy and need for a Savior. But make no mistake about it; some sins are clearly more heinous than others in the eyes of God (John 19:11-12). As a result, the God of the Bible equitably prescribes punishments for wrongdoing on earth and in the next life:
There Are Degrees of Punishment on Earth
When God gave the Law to Moses, He made one thing very clear: Some sins are more punishable than others. God assigned different penalties to different crimes, based on the offensive or heinous nature of the sin itself. The Mosaic Law is filled with measured responses to sin. God prescribed punishments appropriate to the crimes in question (Exodus 21:23-25). In fact, the Mosaic Law carefully assured that each offender would be punished “according to his guilt” and no more (Deuteronomy 25:2-3). The Mosaic Law is evidence of two things. First, while any sin may separate us from the perfection of God, some sins are unmistakably more offensive than others. Second, God prescribes different punishments for different crimes based on the severity of each crime.
There Are Degrees of Punishment in Hell
In a similar way, God applies this principle to the next life, prescribing a variety of punishments in eternity corresponding to the crimes committed in this life (Revelation 20:12-13). This is most apparent in Jesus’ teaching on the “Wicked Servant” (Luke 12:42-48). In a straight forward interpretation of this parable, those who reject the teaching and calling of God will be harshly punished, but those who have less clarity on what can be known about God (“the one who did not know it”) will be punished with less severity. There are degrees of punishment in Hell; God is equitable and fair when it comes to the destiny of those who have rejected Him.
Those who know more about God are held to a higher degree of accountability and responsibility. This is clear from the words of Jesus Himself (John 9:41, John 15:22-24) and the authors of the New Testament (Hebrews 10:28-19). But God has also given us enough information in the natural world (Romans 1:18-20) and in our own moral intuitions (Romans 2:14-15) to conclude He exists. For this reason, no one holds a legitimate excuse excluding them from the justice of God. The Bible is clear: While all who reject God will be separated from Him for eternity, not all will suffer the same form of punishment. The God of the Bible is equitable and fair, loving and just. He provides a pardon to everyone (through Jesus’ work on the cross) and fairly deals with those who have rejected the pardon.
J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, Christian Case Maker, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, God’s Crime Scene, God’s Crime Scene for Kids, and Forensic Faith.