In the previous two articles, I have begun to respond to a letter from Laurel Lotterman in which she asked the following questions:
If our good works profit us nothing, then why do we believe that there will be different levels in heaven?
What kind of levels are the levels of heaven? If heaven is perfect and we are perfectly happy, will the people in levels higher than us be more happy, or more perfect?
If all sins are equal, why are there different levels of hell? (or aren’t there?)
In my answers thus far, I have pointed out that even though we are not saved because of our good works, our good works do profit us. Although God does not reward us on the basis of our works, He does reward us according to our works. This means that God gives to us His blessings in a way that relates to the good works we perform. The more good works we do, the more blessings we receive.
In my last article, I spoke about the gracious reward we will receive at the final judgment. The fact that on that day God will reward us according to our works, indicates that there will be different degrees of reward in heaven. In heaven each of God’s people will be a vessel filled with God’s glory, so that each person will be perfectly happy and content. But some vessels will have more capacity than others, so that there will be different degrees of glory in heaven. The more good works we do in this life, the greater our capacity will be to shine forth God’s glory everlastingly in heaven.
This idea of different degrees of glory is illustrated for us every night in the stars. The Scriptures take the truth that “one star differeth from another star in glory” ( I Cor. 15:41 ) and apply it to the resurrection from the dead. Believers will shine as the stars. Some stars will be brighter than others, but each will perfectly radiate the light of God. Especially bright will be those who diligently strive to grow in spiritual wisdom, and faithfully witness to bring others to the way of truth.
And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever (Dan. 12:3 ).
That brings us now to the third question, “If all sins are equal, why are there different levels of hell? (or aren’t there?)”
Ways in Which All Sin is the Same
The third question assumes that all sins are equal, and then asks about why there would be different degrees of punishment in hell. Before answering the second part of the question, we must first consider whether it really is the case that all sins are equal.
There are certain things that are the same about all sins. First of all, every sin, no matter how small in our eyes, deserves everlasting punishment in hell. As Question 11 of the Heidelberg Catechism states, since sin is committed “against the most high majesty of God” it must “also be punished with extreme, that is, with everlasting punishment of body and soul.”
Secondly, Scripture states that when one sins against any of the commandments he sins against them all.
For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law ( James 2:10, 11 ).
The law of God is one. So whoever violates any of the commandments is guilty of all. Knowing this, the obedient child of God strives to keep, not only some, but all of the commandments, even though he knows that he will always fall far short of doing this perfectly in this life.
Greater Punishment for Greater Sins
But Scripture also speaks to us about differences among sins, and warns us that some sins are indeed worse than others. For example, a sin is worse when the one committing it has been instructed in the truth, and is conscious of the fact that what he is doing is evil. Our Lord made this truth very clear. After warning the people about laying up treasures on earth instead of laying up treasures in heaven, He went on to speak about the final judgment:
And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more ( Luke 12:47, 48 ).
To whom much is given, much is required. So one who has been taught the truth of the Word of God, and yet gives himself over to the pursuit of the lusts of the flesh, will receive a worse punishment in hell than those who did not receive this sound instruction.
This truth is also taught in connection with the crucifixion of our Lord. Against God’s holy Child “both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together” ( Acts 4:27 ). They were all guilty of crucifying our Savior. Yet Jesus Himself said that when they did this, the sin of some of them was greater than that of the others. While standing before Pontius Pilate, our Lord said to him “he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin” ( John 19:11 ). The unbelieving Jews, and especially their leaders, had received the Scriptures that spoke of the coming Messiah, and yet they were crucifying Him. Therefore, Christ says that their sin was greater than that of Pontius Pilate.
Similarly, when God raises up faithful men of God to preach the truth of Scripture, those who reject this Word are worse than the people of Sodom, and will receive a greater punishment. This is what Jesus said when He sent forth His disciples to preach:
But into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you not, go your ways out into the streets of the same, and say, Even the very dust of your city, which cleaveth on us, we do wipe off against you: notwithstanding be ye sure of this, that the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you. But I say unto you, that it shall be more tolerable in that day for Sodom, than for that city ( Luke 12:10-12 ).
When the truth is being preached to people, the kingdom of God is coming nigh to them. If they reject this truth, they commit a sin that is worse than that committed by the abominable people of Sodom, and therefore their punishment will be worse than that of Sodom.
An Application to Believers
We can take the truth that “to whom much is given much is required” and apply it also to ourselves as believers. A true believer knows that if he decides to play around with sin for awhile, he will experience God’s chastening rod. And the older he becomes, and the more he “knows better” than to do what he is doing, the more severe God’s heavy hand will come down upon him. Our heavenly Father is a just God, who sees everything we do, hears everything we say, and even knows everything we think, and rewards or chastens us according to our works.
This truth is actually a great comfort to us. As believing sheep we do not desire to go astray and walk in sin, and we are thankful that we know that, if we do, God will chasten us and bring us back into the sheepfold of Christ. Of course, we do not desire to have to learn this way. Rather we long to please our God and Savior, thinking on the great love and mercy that He has shown us in saving us from sin through the death of His only begotten Son. Furthermore, the thought of radiating more of our Savior’s glory encourages us to strive ever more so to deny ourselves and to do the works that bring honor and glory to His great and holy name.
I am very thankful for your questions, Laurel. Should you or anyone else desire to hear more on this subject, or on any other, please write and let me know.