Monday, November 27, 2023

Anonymous Asks (277)

“Will everyone in the lake of fire suffer to the same degree?”

Catholic theologians speak of mortal and venial sins, distinguishing between degrees of evil. Dante’s The Divine Comedy contemplated a hell divided into nine descending circles, with the worst sinners at the bottom, distinguishing between degrees of punishment in the afterlife. Greater sin in this life, greater punishment in eternity, or so goes the thinking.

“But much of Romanist theology has no basis in scripture,” you protest, “and Dante’s not the Bible.” Very true. If some Protestants view the lake of fire as a great equalizer, perhaps they are simply reacting to extra-biblical traditions proclaiming the opposite.

If the Catholics believe it, it must be wrong, right? Well, maybe not in this case.

Broken Window Theology

Evangelicals believe in a faith-based salvation, not salvation by works. To introduce works into the punishment phase of God’s judgment seems to some Christians like it doesn’t square with verses like this one in James:

“For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”

Looked at a certain way, that kind of sounds like God might prosecute all sinners for every one of the 613 offenses listed in the Law of Moses, whether or not they have committed them.*

If we view the Law of Moses like a pane of glass, one sin makes you a lawbreaker and guilty enough to spend eternity apart from God. If this is so (and it is certainly biblical), what does it really matter if it’s a single white lie or a mass murder rampage with dozens of victims? It all ends in the lake of fire, or so goes the thinking.

And, yes, if we insist on viewing the lake of fire like a big, hot swimming pool, then eternity for Judas Iscariot, Jeffrey Dahmer, Christopher Hitchens, your unsaved relative of choice and even Satan himself will most likely be all of a piece. After all, it’s the same experience. Estrangement from God is estrangement from God. It’s like pregnancy: you can’t be a little bit estranged. You either are or aren’t.

What’s wrong with this sort of “broken window” theology? Well, let me put it in legal terms. People who think like this are conflating the verdict with the sentence.

Verdicts and Sentences

Where sin is concerned, the verdict is the answer to a simple yes or no question: Are you a sinner or not? Guilty or Not Guilty? For Christ, God’s verdict was Not Guilty (technically, Well Pleased). He knew no sin, he did no sin, in him was no sin, and for this reason God raised him from the dead. For every other human being in history, the verdict is Guilty and the wages of sin is death. Not pleased at all. Basic theology: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” “By the works of the law no human being will be justified.”

Verdicts are simple. Sentences are not. Sentences vary. They depend on factors like what kind of crime was committed, how many crimes were committed, intent, the amount of understanding possessed by the guilty party, and even the victim. The view of the lake of fire as a giant, homogeneous vat of flaming misery ignores such details and reduces every crime to the crime of rejecting Christ, for which all the unrepentant are presumed equally guilty.

This is nothing like the picture the Bible paints of God judging our lives. Details are very important indeed to our God. “God will bring every deed into judgment,” wrote Solomon. His judgment is exhaustive, including not only every human action, but also wordsthoughts of the heart and even sins of omission. Why bother, if the first sin “breaks the window”, every sin is as offensive as every other, and the penalty for unbelievers who commit a single act of inhospitality is, for all practical purposes, identical to the penalty for leading the whole human race into centuries of sin?

Metaphors and Plain Statements

Let’s go back to the lake of fire for a moment. Personally, like the bread, the wine, the water, the rock, the dove, the sword of the Spirit, the armor of God, the Son, the Father and innumerable other things in scripture, I believe the lake of fire is a metaphor. It’s God’s best attempt to put an eternity of suffering, regret and awful isolation in terms human beings can comprehend. It’s the closest possible analogy the mind of man can conceive. Brother, you don’t want that!

But as with the other metaphors of scripture, if we wring out the lake of fire image like a sponge, we may find conclusions drip out of it that are not warranted by the teaching of scripture elsewhere, and have more to do with imagination than doctrine. For example, fire is bright and enables us to see. But a lost eternity is also repeatedly referred to as “the outer darkness”, where you obviously can’t see anything at all. How do we reconcile that? Will sinners be able to see in the lake of fire, or will they be blind?

Let me suggest it’s a silly question that only arises from stretching Bible imagery beyond its intended purpose. Like “lake of fire”, “outer darkness” is also a metaphor. Both metaphors describe aspects of gehenna, but you can’t milk them for meaning beyond the basic concept they were intended to communicate, or set them against one another and learn anything coherent. I say its probably spiritual fire and spiritual darkness, but your mileage may vary.

In any case, if forced to choose between two competing views of gehenna, the plain statements of scripture must always trump any fanciful conclusions we might draw from its metaphors.

So let’s see what scripture has to say about degrees of sin and degrees of punishment. It says a fair bit about both.

Degrees of Sin

First, we have the comment of Moses on the sin of Israel in the golden calf episode:

“Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold.”

Idolatry is a great sin. There’s probably a reason it’s the first commandment in the Decalogue. To say that serving an idol instead of the true God is a greater sin than the third pint, the careless injury of a kitten or the misogynistic ravings of unhappy men is not to argue that these things are not sinful. It’s just that idolatry is on a different level. It’s a great sin. Don’t do it. If all sins were equally great, Moses would not have needed an adjective. Oddly, he did.

He wasn’t the only one, just in case we think we are reading Moses’ personal opinion and not the truth of God:

“Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.’ ”

Here we have Jesus speaking to Pilate. It hardly matters whether he is indicting Caiaphas or Judas, both of whom delivered him over. For the purpose of answering our question, the Lord is quite clearly comparing sins and saying some are greater than others. I’m not sure it’s necessary to attempt to rank them. Our consciences know the difference between a small failure of charity due to an excusable state of distraction and conspiracy to commit murder. All we really need to know is: Don’t commit the big ones!

Degrees of Punishment

The Bible also plainly teaches degrees of punishment, which follows logically from the concept of lesser and greater sins.

1/ More and Less Tolerable

There’s little favorable said about the city of Sodom in the Bible, yet this statement stands out:

“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. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”

Chorazin, Capernaum and Bethsaida were all Galilean cities in which the Lord Jesus witnessed to his relationship with his Father in words and works. They rejected him. On the day of judgment, says the Lord Jesus, the cities of Sodom, Tyre and Sidon — wicked pagans doing the most wicked pagan things — will come out better than those of devout Israelites who rejected their Messiah.

There’s a principle here we shouldn’t miss: greater light makes for greater judgment if you don’t respond to it.

2/ Better and Worse

Then there is my favorite millstone passage:

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Why would it be better to drown horribly than mislead a believing child if the eternal punishment for one sin is the same as all others? The question answers itself.

Again, there’s a principle here we shouldn’t miss: the more defenseless the victim, the greater the punishment.

3/ Beating or Butchering

How about this one? Let me suggest this passage about servants has nothing to do with Christians, but rather with earthly responsibility and accountability. I believe it concerns Jews in positions of authority in the end times just before Christ’s return:

“Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful. And 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.”

Here we have three degrees of punishment: being cut in pieces, receiving a severe beating, and receiving a light beating. The first is fatal; the latter two are merely instructive.

The principle here is not complex: greater earthly responsibility, when abused, leads to greater judgment.

4/ A Rhetorical Question

Another passage from Hebrews:

“Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?”

The writer to the Hebrews doesn’t tell us how much worse eternal punishment will be for those who knew Christ is the Messiah and initially aligned themselves with him, then turned back to Judaism, in comparison with those who were merely put to death under the Law of Moses for breaking it, but it’s a rhetorical question. We are left in no doubt which of the two is worse and which offenders will have a worse time of it.

Another principle: those who rejected Christ under the old covenant are less guilty than those who reject Christ under the new covenant. What was once only a shadow has now been made explicit, and the punishment for rejecting explicit truth is worse.

5/ The Fate of False Teachers

2 Peter has this lengthy passage about the fate of false teachers:

“For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.”

These are men for whom “the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved”. They are not believers, and when he says, “it would have been better”, he is speaking of their eternal fate. But how would their fate be any different if everyone experiences hell the same way? Peter is saying that the eternal punishment of the ignorant is less than the eternal punishment of religious frauds, who should know better.

6/ Greater Condemnation

On a similar theme, our Lord’s words concerning religious fakes:

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Again with the adjectives. Greater for some implies lesser for some.

In Summary

There is really no coherent, biblical way to argue that everyone thrown into the lake of fire for eternity will experience it the same way. If we do, we are arguing with Peter, with the writer to the Hebrews, and repeatedly with the plain declarations of the Lord Jesus himself. Moreover, we are saying that our thoughts, words and deeds in this life really do not matter to God. This may be true with respect to our destination, which ultimately depends on what we do with Christ. It is not true with respect to the degree of suffering experienced in the lake of fire. Many passages of scripture make this perfectly clear.

Again, the verdict is not the sentence.

* Unless you take it, as I do, to be primarily concerned with teaching professing Christians not to use the law to try to justify themselves or judge others, which is what I think James was trying to say.

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