Will a generous and charitable grandmother who never got around to receiving Christ Jesus as Lord end up bobbing up and down in the lake of fire, next to Hitler, Stalin and Mao?
People who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb will undergo judgment by their works, but only to receive rewards or not. They will not be sent to hell, because of Christ’s sacrificial blood shed on the cross, and they have received him as Lord and Savior, but their useless works will be burned off from them (1 Cor. 3:1-15), and then they will enjoy Christ’s and God’s presence forever.
This post, however, covers people who have not been redeemed and are lost without God through Christ.
Let’s first review some Scriptures that reveal God will judge everyone by good and bad works. Then we’ll look at Scriptures that teach degrees of punishment and rewards.
I use the NIV here, but see Biblegateway for other translations.
Judgment by good and bad works
Let’s begin in the Old Testament.
The last verse of Ecclesiastes says that “God will bring every deed into judgment,” even hidden ones, whether good or evil (12:14).
The psalmist writes:
You reward everyone according to what they have done. (Ps. 62:12)
Jeremiah the prophet proclaims the same doctrine:
I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve. (Jer. 17:10)
Now let’s move to the New Covenant Scriptures.
Let’s take the words of Jesus seriously:
But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matt. 12:36-37)
In the next two verses Jesus proclaims the judgments of nations (probably the great white throne judgment), but they are still judged by works:
45 “He [the Son of Man] will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matt. 25:45-46)
Some believe the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man actually happened and reveals a clear teaching on the afterlife (Luke 16:19-31). Lazarus, who suffered from extreme poverty and disease, ended up in heaven. Nowhere does it say he had a personal, salvific relationship with Christ, or one would expect Jesus to have healed him. The implication is that Lazarus’s suffering lifted him up to heaven, by God’s mercy.
John 5:28-29 says that those who have done good will rise (be resurrected) to live, and those who have done bad will rise to be condemned.
In his epistle to the Romans, Paul writes two important verses, which I will reference again in the next sections:
6 God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger (Rom. 2:6-7)
See my extended discussion at this link:
In 2 Cor. 5:10 Paul says we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due us for the things we have done while in our bodies. Some say this is the judgment of believers only, for rewards, not to determine eternal destiny in heaven or hell. Others teach that everyone will appear before the judgment seat of Christ; the evil-doers outside of Christ will go to hell, while good-deed-doers in Christ will go to eternal life. Useless-deed-doers in Christ will have eternal life, but no rewards.
17 Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear. (1 Pet. 1:17)
The next verse is part of the great white throne judgment. Each person will be judged by what they have done.
13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. (Rev. 20:13)
Rev. 21:8 also teaches that ultimately people will be thrown in the lake of fire because of their evil works (see the next section for more discussion).
From all those above verses, it is easy to infer that people who have done good works will receive a lighter judgment than those who have done bad works; the latter group will receive a heavier judgment. In other words, degrees of punishment—and (possibly) even rewards for the unredeemed (see Rom. 2:6-7)—are built into those verses, or else why would God keep track of good or bad works in the first place?
For further discussion, see my post:
Now let’s turn to more direct Scriptural evidence for degrees of punishment.
Degrees of punishments
The Scriptures supports varying degrees of punishments.
In Gen. 18:2-33, Abraham questioned the Angel of the Lord about punishing the righteous with the wicked in his judging Sodom and Gomorrah.
Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right? (vv. 23-25).
Did the righteous people outside of the Abrahamic covenants have redeeming faith, like Abraham did (Gen. 15:6)? We can’t know for sure, but it is not likely, unless an interpreter has a presupposition that no one can do righteous deeds apart from redeeming faith. The main point about Gen. 18:2-33 is that God, in judging people, can distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, when both parties live outside his covenants (without circumcision). God will not punish the righteous with the wicked to the same degree and in the same way.
Matt. 10:15 says that the generation that rejected Christ’s emissaries will undergo a severer judgment than what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah.
Matt. 11:20-24 says that Jesus denounced cities where he performed miracles, but they did not repent: Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum. Therefore they will suffer worse judgment than cities like Tyre, Sidon, Sodom, who had less light of the gospel and knowledge of God shine on them.
Matt. 18:6-7 says stumbling blocks must come but woe to the ones who put them there; it would be better if a millstone was tied around their neck, and be thrown into the sea (cf. Mark 9:42; Luke 17:2). This indicates a severer punishment for the ones who actively do bad things.
Matt. 26:24 says that the one who betrays Jesus will experience worse punishment than those who did not.
Luke 12:47-50 teaches that servants who knew their master’s will but did bad things will get worse punishment than the servants who did not know their master’s will but still did bad things; the latter will get less punishment. Knowledge, accountability, and actions matter.
Luke 20:46-47 says that the teachers of the law who display their piety in public yet devour widows’ houses and then make long prayers “will receive greater condemnation” (v. 47; cf. Mark 12:38-40).
Bottom line: The unredeemed righteous will not receive the same judgment or punishment as the unredeemed wicked. There are degrees of punishment and (possibly) even rewards for the unredeemed (Rom. 2:6-7).
Questions and answers
But now let’s ask some questions and hopefully provide indications of answers.
If every unredeemed person gets thrown into the lake of fire in the end simply by not receiving Christ in the hearts (as many teach), then what was the point of God judging them by good and bad works at all (Rev. 20:11-15)? How can there be lesser or greater degrees of judgment and punishment in that case? There is surely not a “jacuzzi section” in the lake of fire, is there? No.
In reply, Rev. 21:8 says, “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” In other words, those who live in unbelief and do extreme wickedness are judged together and consigned to the lake of fire—whatever it may be, metaphorical, real, or otherwise. Yes, the words “faithless” or “unbelieving” is just one item on the list, but the context indicates that it is more than just never getting around to accepting Christ Jesus as Lord. The verse agrees with the first section which taught us that God judges people by good and bad works—in this case by very wicked deeds.
Let’s look at the possibility that the lake of fire and fire and darkness may be symbolic of a deeper truth. Here is a long quotation from Charismatic theologian J. Rodman Williams (d. 2008), a devout and Bible-respecting Presbyterian minister. He says fire and darkness are just metaphors, for separation from God and punishment. They cannot be taken literally. He writes:
These two terms, “darkness” and “fire,” that point to the final state of the lost might seem to be opposites, because darkness, even black darkness, suggests nothing like fire or the light of a blazing fire. Thus again we must guard against identifying the particular terms with literal reality, such as a place of black darkness or of blazing fire. Rather, darkness and fire are metaphors that express the profound truth, on the one hand, of terrible estrangement and isolation from God, and on the other, the pain and misery of unrelieved punishment. It is significant that Jesus in His portrayals of darkness and fire often adds the statement “There men will weep and gnash their teeth.” This weeping and gnashing … vividly suggests both suffering and despair. So whether the metaphor is darkness or fire, the picture is indeed a grim one, even beyond the ability of any figure of speech to express.
One further word: both darkness and fire refer to the basic situation of the lost after Last Judgment. However, we have already observed that there will be degrees of punishment; hence in some sense the darkness and fire will not be wholly the same. Some punishment will be more tolerable than other punishment: some people will receive a greater condemnation, while some (to change the figure) will be “beaten with few blows” [Luke 12:48]. Thus we should not understand the overall picture of the state of the lost to exclude differences in degree of punishment. Even as for the righteous in the world to come, there will be varying rewards, so for the unrighteous, the punishment will not be the same. (Renewal Theology, vol. 3, 470-71).
For the record, Williams did not believe in annihilationism (or terminalism) or universal reconciliation (or restorationism).
And readers are certainly free to interpret the images of the lake of fire and the fire and darkness literally. They may well be right. I won’t quarrel with them.
Next, where do people go who did magnificent works but who never heard the gospel because they lived before it came or far out of range, like Australia thousands of years ago? In reply, their good works will give them lighter punishments, for recall that Gen. 18:23-25 says that God will not judge the righteous and wicked in the same way.
Again see my post:
So how does this post help me grow in my knowledge of God?
Will your generous grandmother who gave time and money to charitable causes and did other wonderful things, but who never got around to receiving Christ as Lord, be burned forever in the lake of fire, bobbing up and down in eternal, conscious punishment, next to Hitler, Stalin and Mao? That is not fair.
Questions like this and our human sense of justice may explain why the Bible teaches degrees of punishment based on people’s knowledge, accountability and actions or works. Or stated another way: The Bible reflects God judgment, and humans have a dim glimpse of it by their moral reasoning and conscience. In any case, as noted, the unredeemed workers of righteousness will receive a lighter judgment and punishment (or possibly even rewards, e.g. Rom. 2:6-7) than the unredeemed doers of wickedness.
However, it is not clear to me (or to anyone else I’ve read) how exactly God will sort them out.
So let’s conclude with this verse quoted earlier.
Gen. 18:25: “Will not the judge of all the earth do right?”
The judge of all the world is God, and the obvious answer is yes.
Let’s trust God that he will sort out hell and punishments and (possible) rewards, based on good and bad works, for the unredeemed.
And let us, the redeemed, remain in Christ, so we can spend eternal life with him and escape painful separation and punishment apart from him.
Let’s end with these two illustrations:
God’s judgment is not like this:
But like this:
This picture of an English judge in full regalia is an (imperfect) representation of God in judgment, showing his protective wrath and love over his people.