Q – If those of us who are saved for heaven all get the same reward, regardless of our works (except for the rewards of crowns that we’ll throw down before the throne), then does that mean that horrible people like Saddam Hussein who throw people in meat grinders feet first will get the same punishment as your general do-gooder who’s destined for hell? Is there any indication that there is worse punishment for some over others or do they too get the same wage?
Jim – In Dante’s Divine Comedy he spells out seven circles of hell, each worse than the previous one. Actually, that particular section of the Comedy is called The Inferno. And, I think that’s where most people get their notions of progressive punishment. The Bible says that, in the end, those who are judged by God end up in the Lake of Fire, which was originally designed for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41, Rev. 20:10-15). That’s also where people get their imagery of a fiery hell. But, we don’t see seven levels of punishment in Scripture.
Now, some folk do believe that “really bad” people will be judged more severely than “moderately bad” people and they base it on Hebrews 10:28-31. It reads:
“He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace? For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
Because of the phrase “how much sorer punishment,” people have speculated that punishment can be meted out in degrees. However, in context it’s clear that the contrast is between those who rejected Moses’ Law and were killed versus those would call the covenant of salvation by grace an unclean, unholy thing. God will surely judge such folk. So, the contrast is between physical death and God’s judgment – the “second death.” I don’t really think we can use that verse to advance the notion of progressive punishment.
But, I do think a case can be made from Mat. 11:20-24. It reads:
“Then He began to rebuke the cities in which most of His mighty works had been done, because they did not repent: Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you.” (NKJV)
Here, from Jesus’ own lips, we hear that those who saw the mighty works of Christ and rejected him will have a harder time in the judgment than Tyre, Sidon or even Sodom. Now, granted, Jesus is talking to communities and not individuals, but if you’re going to argue for levels of punishment, this is the best place to start.
Now, on the other hand, I do think we can make the case for levels of reward in Heaven. For instance, Paul wrote to the leaders of the church – the elders, the ones who preach and teach. And, he said to them:
“For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.” (1 Cor. 3:11-15)
Paul argued that good works will follow us into eternity and we will be rewarded for them. Others will lose their works (and the attendant reward) though they themselves will be saved.
So yes, I can make the case that God will punish and reward on the basis of works. Now let me be perfectly plain and clear: works will not save you, only grace can do that. But, God is infinitely gracious and looks for opportunities to heap blessings on His people. Nevertheless, other people are judged on the basis of the reality that they are indeed sinful and they will suffer punishment. But, the level and degree of both the punishment and the reward appears to be based on their relative works.
At least that’s how I see it.