Before we read that verse, we need to know the context. In verse 1 we read, “And when He had called His twelve disciples to Him, He gave them power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all kinds of sickness and all kinds of diseases.” In verses 5-7, He commissioned them to go “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (verse 5) and preach “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He also told them to “heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons” (verse 8), which would prove to their countrymen that the message they were preaching was true. He also spoke of the reception they would receive and what to do if men rejected their testimony. He said “if the household is worthy, let your peace return to you” (verse 13) and “whoever will not receive you nor hear your words, when you depart from that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet” (verse 14).

Now we come to the verse in question. The Lord spoke these solemn words concerning all who would reject His disciples and their message, “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!” This is quite a statement, for we know that the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were so wicked that God rained down fire and brimstone upon them and they were utterly destroyed. Yet here we learn that in the “final judgment,” when souls will be judged to determine their punishment in eternity, their punishment will be “more tolerable” than it will be for the inhabitants in Israel who rejected the Lord’s disciples and their message concerning the gospel of the kingdom. This surely teaches us that there will be “degrees of punishment in hell.”

This begs the question: How exactly will God determine these “degrees of punishment?” Again, when we think of the terrible sin of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah (i.e. sexual perversion of all kinds), how is it that the Israelites will be found more guilty (and thus deserving of greater punishment) than the sexual deviants of these two cities? We believe the answers lies in a principle found throughout Scripture, which is THE GREATER THE PRIVILEGE, THE GREATER THE RESPONSIBILITY. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah had very little LIGHT compared to the people who lived in Israel during the Lord’s days on earth. The cities in Israel were privileged to hear the glorious gospel of the kingdom and that their King was present with them, ready to establish His kingdom if they would receive it. This was accompanied by numerous miracles that confirmed the Word that was preached to them. Yet THEY REJECTED THIS GREAT MESSAGE OF THE KINGDOM and were thus were far more responsible and guilty than the immoral, sexual perverts of Sodom and Gomorrah.

In Matthew 11:20-24 we learn, from the lips of the Lord Jesus Himself, this same truth. That passage says, “Then He (the Lord Jesus) began to rebuke the cities in which most of His mighty works had been done, because they did not repent: ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, 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 to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you’.”

Let’s be clear, all that find themselves in hell will be there because they rejected God’s free gift of eternal life (see John 3:16 and Revelation 20:15). But in this “eternal prison” there will be, as we have seen, “degrees of punishment” according to the “degree of light received and rejected.” Let’s end this meditation by reading the Lord’s words in Luke 12:47 & 48, “And that servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be BEATEN WITH MANY STRIPES. But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be BEATEN WITH FEW. For everyone to whom MUCH IS GIVEN, from him MUCH WILL BE REQUIRED; and to whom MUCH HAS BEEN COMMITTED, of him they ASK THE MORE.” (264.9) (DO)