Are sins equal or do they differ in degree? Will the people in Hell all suffer the same punishment? Or are there different degrees of punishment? And which verses of the Bible support this?
The Lord said that He would come and ” give to every one according to his work. ” (Rev. 22:12) Obviously people’s actions differ, and so therefore will their punishment. Even on earth, the Lord said in the Sermon on the Mount: ” And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’# shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.” (Matt. 5:22). From this it is clear that punishment differs with the difference in degree of the offence. St. Augustine also made this observation.
Concerning this difference in degree of sin, and the Church’s attitude towards it, St. John said: ” There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that.
All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death.” ( 1 John 5:16-17) So, a sin that does not lead to death, can be prayed for, so that the one who has committed it should be given life. Sins which do not lead to death come under the headings of unintentional sins, sins of ignorance and sins of negligence.
Obviously there is a great difference between the unintentional sin, and the sin which is carried out with full intent and determination. Just as there is a big difference between sins of ignorance and those committed in full knowledge. God’s justice requires that the punishment should be in proportion to the crime.
Sins are actually alike in that they exclude one from the Kingdom of Heaven, but even those who go to hell suffer different degrees of torture, which is why the Lord said, referring to all the cities which rejected Him and rejected the faith and rejected His disciples: ” Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!” (Matt. 10:15)
The words ‘more tolerable… than’ prove the difference in punishment based on the difference in offence.
The difference in sin can be clearly observed from the practical point of view. The person who commits adultery in his mind, for instance, is not like the person who commits the act of adultery, for the latter, by doing so, has defiled his own body and that of someone else too. And the person who commits the act of adultery, is not the same as someone who commits a violent rape, which is that much, more offensive. And a different case again would be that of someone who commits adultery with a relative whom the law has forbidden him to marry. (Lev. 20)
A person who wishes to do something violent, but doesn’t do it, and just keeps it in his mind, is not the same as someone who actually carries out his violence in physical or verbal form, who actually does harm to another person and, by his action, causes others to stumble. The one who only thinks about stealing, is different from the one who actually steals by force.
At this point, though, sin becomes multiple or compound, which means that it consists of a number of sins together.
The punishment for a multiple sin is greater because it does not rank as a single sin, but as a collection of sins. Someone who insults a person will have committed the sin of insulting, but someone who insults his father or mother, will have added to his sin of insulting, another sin which is that of breaking the commandment to honour your parents. Thus his sin is a compound one, and accordingly his punishment will be harsher. The Bible says in the law of Moses: “If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death and his blood will be on his own head.” (Lev. 20:9).
Likewise, someone who hit someone else, to whom he was not related, used to be subject, after being judged, to the rule, “an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth.” (Lev. 24:19-20). But someone who hit his father or mother used to be stoned and an even harsher stoning was given for sins committed against anything sacred.
If someone sins on a holy day, such as a day of fasting, for example, or a day of taking communion, is held to have committed a worse sin, therefore the punishment was more severe for the sins of the sons of Eli the Priest (1 Sam. 2).