DEGREES OF RESPONSIBILITY
There is a lot we do not know about Hell. So we must be agnostic about a lot of the details of what is happening there.
An important point in this discussion is that the Bible teaches that there will be degrees of punishment according to the degrees of responsibility of different individuals. This is a new thought to many Christians. They have learned that in God’s sight sin is sin and that when it comes to the matter of salvation, there is no differentiation between big sins and small sins. In the Bible it is not the individual sins that are of eternal consequence. It is the fact that we are sinners. Those who are dead in sin, are dead whether they are good people in the eyes of the world or not. I heartily agree with all this. That is why I have affirmed that, apart from faith in Christ, there is no hope for salvation for anyone.
Yet, along with this body of biblical teaching, we must also consider those Scriptures that teach that at the judgment some will receive a harsher punishment than others. Two criteria determine the severity of this punishment: the light one has received and the works he has done.
Let us look at some texts that declare that the degree of light unbelievers receive influences the degree of their punishment. Matthew 11:20-24 says that Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom were destroyed for their wickedness. But they did not receive the light that Korazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum had received. Jesus said that on the judgment day it would be more bearable for the wicked cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom than for the other three cities not famous for overt wickedness.
Christ’s words in Luke were even more explicit. He said that the “servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready [for his coming] or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows” (Luke 12:47) He had much light, but disregarded it. “The one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows.” He had enough light to be held accountable for his actions, so he was punished. But the master’s will had not been explicitly communicated to him, so he received few blows. The principle behind the reasoning here is that “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (12:48).
In Romans 2:11 Paul affirmed God’s impartiality: “For God does not show favoritism.” Then he illustrated how this impartiality is manifested in the judgment: “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law” (2:12).
We note that each of these passages states that those receiving less light will be punished. But those receiving more light will be punished more severely.
Hebrews 10:26-29 specifically states that the fate of those who reject the gospel will be worse than that of those who rejected the Law of Moses:
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the Law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot?
From these passages we conclude that those who reject the gospel, after understanding what it is, will face severe punishment. Those who have not heard the gospel will be punished for not living up to the light they received. But their responsibility is less or “diminished” (to use a word from the law court). The law decrees that those with diminished responsibility (owing to causes like insanity) are given a less severe punishment than others. We can expect a similar situation to exist at God’s judgment too.
Another body of Scripture teaches that all people will be judged according to their works. We know, of course, that a person’s works will not merit salvation. But evil deeds do merit punishment unless they have been forgiven and washed away by the blood of Christ. The principle behind this fact is set forth vividly in Galatians 6:7: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” Revelation 20:12-12 describes the process of the judgment of works: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened…. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.” Secret acts (Rom. 2:16), careless words (Matt. 12:36), ungodly acts (Jude 14, 15), in fact, all works, with no exception, will come under the judgment of God: “God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Eccles. 12:14).
We should not expect a devout Buddhist, then, who made some effort to live according to his principles, to receive the same punishment as a cruel tyrant who broke whatever principles he needed to break in order to satisfy his evil desires. The Buddhist’s religiousness, with its independence of God’s way, was an affront to God’s glory, and thus will not merit salvation. But the tyrant’s tyranny was a greater affront to God’s glory.
I do not think the Bible gives us enough evidence to speculate on the nature of the degrees of punishment and what form that will take. We can only say that all people are responsible for their lostness but that those with greater light and more severe wickedness will receive a more severe punishment. Here we find part of our answer to the questions relating to the fairness of God in saving only those who hear and respond to the gospel. Sin is such a terrible thing that no one deserves to be saved. In his mercy God saves some. Others will be punished. But those who tried to live up to the light they had will receive less punishment.