Question: When an unbeliever dies will there be levels of punishment?
The Bible seems to teach people will be judged by the severity of their sins. For example Jesus pronounced judgment upon cities where He had performed miracles but they refused to repent and believe. Jesus speaking, Matthew 11:21-24 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 “Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. 23 “And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. 24 “Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.” They had received all the proof they needed to follow Jesus and yet they didn’t. The unbelieving people in these cities will be judged more severely than other cities because they had been given greater revelation but still refused to believe.
Again we see this same theme in the Book of Luke. Luke 12:47-48 [Jesus speaking] “And that slave who knew his master's will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes, 48 but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.” The more opportunities people have to believe in Jesus, when they reject, the greater the punishment.
God as a righteous judge will dole out punishment based on what they have done. Our justice system works the same way. A murderer will receive a more severe penalty than someone who stole a television. Where do you think we got that internal sense of justice that our court system is based on? God has written His moral law on our hearts and revealed it through the Scriptures. The Bible teaches the severity of the penalty should match the severity of the crime. It was a foundational principle of God’s justice system for Israel. Deuteronomy 19:21 “Thus you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” God’s pure moral nature is revealed through is righteous judgments.
In hell people will receive the penalty they deserve. God has recorded all the moral wrongs we have committed during our lifetime and either we pay the penalty for our sins or Jesus pays for them. In Revelations the Apostle Paul was given a vision of the future judgment of unbelievers in front of the great white throne judgment seat. Revelation 20:12-15 “And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. 13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” All unbelievers will be cast into hell and will receive whatever level of punishment their deeds demand.
In the end all unbelievers will get exactly what they deserve. They have rejected God and his pardon for sin and they will receive the due penalty for their moral crimes. However, the follower of Jesus doesn’t get what she deserves. The Apostle Paul writes that everyone commits moral wrongs. Romans 3:23 “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And yet through faith in Jesus she is pardoned by the blood and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He takes the penalty on the cross that we deserve. This is called grace.
The Apostle Paul gives us a glimpse of this grace and the justice of God. He is going to let us know that what we earn from our unbelief is eternal separation from God. He begins with the bad news and then follows with the good news. Romans 6:23 ”For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The bad news of sin is hell and levels of punishment and the good news is we will spend eternity with Christ as a result of the free gift of God.