Dante’s Inferno describes hell as nine circles that descend ever lower into more terrible torments. In Inferno offenders are punished with judgments the author saw as suitable for their their crimes. The condemned are imagined as bearing a punishment consistent with the wrongs they have done. Does the Bible teach degrees of punishment in hell? Do the worst sinners suffer the worst fates?
The Bible does not describe the structure of the Lake of Fire. We don’t know it is a series of circles, a celestial version of a concrete and barb wire penitentiary, a lake of flaming lava, or some other unimagined design. If there is a difference in punishment the Bible does not say how it is different. The Bible teaches that all in hell will suffer eternal torment. Everyone in hell will endure intense physical, emotional and spiritual agony.
At least two passages in the New Testament hint at differing levels of eternal punishment.
In Matthew 11 Jesus rebuked two cities for their rejection of Him. “Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.”
The city of Sodom is infamous for its destruction by fire and brimstone. Tyre and Sidon fell under the wrath of God for their idolatry and pride. Yet these cities that were destroyed by God’s wrath will find the day of judgment easier than the cities which saw Jesus and rejected Him.
In Hebrews 10 those who reject salvation are compared with those who committed capital crimes under the Old Testament law. “He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?”
The punishment of a murderer will not be as severe as that of one who knew and rejected the truths of salvation. Taking a human life is horrific but far more despicable is scorning God the Son and insulting the Holy Spirit. Which brings out a crucial point.
Any difference in punishment in hell will not be measured by the typical human understanding of the worst sins or by the popular cultural understanding of the worst sins. God is the righteous judge who will execute condemnation based upon His holy standard. Consequently, those who saw Jesus and rejected Him will suffer more than those who were incorrigible homosexuals.
It seems that eternal punishment, though terrible for all, will in some way be worse for some. Those who had greater opportunity to believe will receive greater condemnation.