Are there distinctions of sin in hell?
SPROUL: I think the New Testament makes it clear. There are at least twenty-five references in the New Testament that speak of the various degrees of punishment and/or reward in heaven relative to the degrees of sinfulness of sin.
Even though all sin is sin, there is still a clear distinction in the New Testament between those sins that are covered, the multitude of sins that love covers—the Roman Catholic distinction between “mortal” and “venial” is not something that we would hold, but it’s a distinction that we would agree with in part, that at least there is a difference between lesser and greater sins. And the New Testament follows that again and again.
The point that we’re talking about here is that we are heaping up our sins against the day of wrath—heaping up wrath, piling it up, “treasuring it up,” according to the apostle Paul (Rom. 2:5). And so it’s not like, “Oh, if I commit one sin…”—I’ve heard a guy say, “Well I’ve lusted after her. I’ve already committed that sin, so I might as well go ahead and finish the action.” No, no. You are just entering into a more egregious violation of that previous sin.
I once heard a psychiatrist speak a refutation of the ethics of Jesus “because Jesus said that every sin is equally heinous and anybody knows better than that.” And I said, “Jesus never said that every sin is equally heinous. Jesus said that every sin is real sin and a violation of the character of God,” and all the rest. But even when He says in His explanation of the Sermon on the Mount, “If you lust after a woman in your heart” (Matt. 5:28), He doesn’t say that is as bad as actually committing adultery. But what He is pointing out is that even if you’ve refrained from the actual act that does not mean that you have been totally obedient to the commandment.
So Jesus expands the implications and repercussions and consequences of the commission of sin, showing that the Pharisees in their oral tradition had a simplistic understanding of the prohibitions of God. But Jesus never said that all sins were equally heinous.
LAWSON: Just to add a couple of verses, Hebrews 2:2 says, “Every sin shall receive a just recompense.” So each individual sin would have the proper consequence to that sin. Some sins are greater, and there is a greater condemnation than others.
And we see that established in the Mosaic law: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Ex. 21:24). It means that the punishment fits the crime. It’s not an eye for a tooth or a tooth for an eye, but an eye for an eye, meaning that if you take out someone’s eye, then you must replace that eye, so to speak. Or a tooth for a tooth. It’s a matching up of the punishment for that sin.
Under the Mosaic Law there were something like twenty-one or twenty-three sins that deserve the death penalty where other sins did not deserve the death penalty. So there’s a distinction in God’s justice as He metes out the punishment for the crime. What is true in time will be true in eternity.
MOHLER: Paul tells us about God’s judgment being to each according to his deeds committed in the flesh (2 Cor. 5:10). If it’s according to each, that would indicate an individual judgment in which there would be some variation.
No one will be found innocent of anything less than guilty of an infinite assault upon the holiness of the righteous and omnipotent God. But I think R.C. put it exactly right. Even in the Sermon on the Mount it’s false to say, “Jesus said this is all the same.”
Lightly edited for readability, this is a transcript of Steven Lawson’s, R.C. Sproul’s, W. Robert Godfrey’s and Albert Mohler’s answers given at our 2016 National Conference. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, just visit Ask.Ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.