Dear Mr Wilkin,
In J. Sidlow Baxter’s article “Are All Believers Overcomers?” [in the August 1990 GES News] stated, “As there are degrees of punishment in hell so there are degrees of reward in heaven.” The fact that there are degrees of reward in heaven is clear; however, I had never heard before that there were degrees of punishment in hell. Since all personal sins were judged at the Cross and the unbeliever will be condemned to hell based upon his rejection of Christ, not on the basis of his personal sins, how can there be degrees of punishment in hell?
Your newsletter is great I look forward to receiving it each month. Keep up the good work!
Deer Park, TX
It does not necessarily follow that if unbelievers are condemned to hell because they reject Christ, they must not be judged according to their works.
Think of the reverse. Believers are justified because they accept Christ. Yet that doesn’t mean that we will not be judged according to our works. As you acknowledge, this is clearly taught in Scripture (cf. Matt 6:19-21; Luke 19:11-26; 1 Cor 3:10-15; 9:24-27; 2 Cor 5:10; 2 Tim 2:15).
Jesus spoke not only of degrees of reward in heaven, but also of degrees of punishment in hell. Jesus told His disciples concerning those Jews who would reject the Gospel which they preached, “Assuredly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city” (Matt 10:15). More tolerable indicates degrees of suffering. Some will experience more suffering than the wicked of Sodom and Gomorrah! That also implies, since Sodom and Gomorrah were such notoriously wicked cities, that some will suffer less than those of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Jesus also rebuked Chorazin and Bethsaida for rejecting Him: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!. . . . It will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you” (Matt 11:21-22).
Both Matthew 10 and 11 mention a coming day of judgment for unbelievers. That judgment is called the Great White Throne Judgment. At that judgment books of the deeds of unbelievers will be opened (Rev 20:12). We are specifically told that all unbelievers will be “judged according to their works” (Rev 20:12). The reason for this judgment is not to determine whether these people get into the kingdom or not. According to John 3:18 unbelievers are “condemned already.” All at the Great White Throne will already be condemned and already know that. The purpose of the Great White Throne Judgment is, rather, to determine the appropriate degree of suffering for each unbeliever. The worse an unbeliever lives in this life, the worse hell will be for him. While it will be bad for all, it will be more tolerable, to use Jesus’ words, for some than for others.
Jesus said in John 8:24, “If you do not believe that I am He [the Messiah/Savior], you will die in your sins.” Unbelievers die in their sins and are judged accordingly.
God is completely fair. While entrance to heaven is a free gift, rewards there will be proportional to the degree of one’s godliness. While entrance to hell is due to rejecting the free gift–not due to the poor quality of one’s life, degrees of suffering in hell will be proportional to the degree of one’s sinfulness. No one gets away with anything. In this light hell will be dreadful indeed for Hitler, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, and the like.
Notice, too, that greater punishment is reserved for those who had greater light and rejected it. Those who saw Jesus and His disciples and the miracles they performed and rejected the Gospel are due greater judgment. So the judgment will take into account opportunity as well as actual performance.
We in the Western world who have had greater light are more responsible than those in third world countries. While God is drawing all men and all who respond to God’s drawing will hear the Gospel and believe it, the unsaved in heathen lands who have less light will be given special consideration at the Great White Throne Judgment.
Thank you for your excellent question and your kind words. I’m glad we are having a positive ministry in your life.
We in the Free Grace Gospel movement do not all agree on our understanding of every passage or issue. While I personally place a high emphasis on the doctrine of rewards in my own life and ministry, others may not.
Our aim with these newsletters is to educate and motivate believers to share their faith more clearly. To accomplish these goals we often deal with controversial positions since any position on a problem passage or issue is controversial. That is why they are called problem passages.
Since we happen to believe that the doctrine of rewards is one of the motivations God has given us to share our faith clearly and often, we come back to this issue from time to time. Some may think we do so too often. Others may think we do so too infrequently. We have tried and will continue to try to maintain a wise and biblical balance in this.