Many people are troubled when they hear of atrocities for which the perpetrators are not caught or, when they are caught, it is only after they have been able to spend many previous years living without punishment by society. A number of the people who played major roles in the Holocaust slaughter during the 1930s and 1940s are prime examples of those who seem to have escaped punishment, either entirely or at least for many years. In contrast, many faithful Christians have suffered for years with various types of adversities.
This seeming lack of justice or fairness raises several questions about punishment by God. Among these questions are the following:
- Are the adversities that people face during their life on earth the result of punishment for their sins?
- Do some sins result in a greater degree of punishment than others?
- Does God sometimes severely punish people for relatively minor sins?
- Are any sins not forgivable by God?
Are the Adversities that People Face during Their Life on Earth the Result of Punishment for Their Sins?
We live in an imperfect world. Just as the rain falls on both the just and the unjust, adverse things happen to both the righteous and the unrighteous. People we regard as righteous, as well those whom we regard as unrighteous, experience adversities of all types: financial problems, poor health, marital difficulties, etc.
The fact is that often God doesn’t miraculously intervene in people’s lives to either prevent adversities or to alleviate them, even if the people experiencing the adversities are living a righteous life. Adversities may be either sent or allowed by God to test His followers, rather than to punish or otherwise discipline them. The Bible gives accounts of a number of people who experienced adversities that tested their faithfulness. These people included David, Jeremiah, Joseph, Job, Paul, and others.
On page 57 of his book entitled Reaching for the Invisible God, Philip Yancey says,
The Bible gives many examples of suffering that, like Job’s, have nothing to do with God’s punishment. In all his miracles of healing, Jesus overturned the notion, widespread at the time, that suffering – blindness, lameness, leprosy – comes to people who deserve it. . . . Not once did Jesus counsel someone to accept suffering as God’s will; rather he went about healing illness and disability.
However, in many instances, God may allow adverse consequences, not to test people, but to punish or otherwise discipline them when their lifestyle has not been in accord with His will. This is evidenced by various biblical accounts in which individuals, groups of people, or nations experienced adversities – even death – because they violated one or more of God’s Commandments.
This leads to the question as to how we can know which adversities are sent or allowed by God as testing, in contrast with punishment or some other form of discipline. The answer is that we will not know the reason for any particular adversity unless God chooses to reveal it to us. Even if we pray earnestly for understanding, God may not always give us a clear reason as to why we are experiencing adversity. However, if we aren’t given a clear reason, it would nevertheless be appropriate – and probably beneficial – to meditate upon the question: What does God want me to learn from this experience?
Even if we pray earnestly for understanding, God may not always give us a clear reason as to why we are experiencing adversity. However, if we aren’t given a clear reason, it would nevertheless be appropriate – and probably beneficial – to meditate upon the question: What does God want me to learn from this experience?
Do Some Sins Result in a Greater Degree of Punishment than Others?
In Matthew 10:14-15, Jesus told His 12 disciples,
“[W]hoever will not receive you nor hear your words, when you depart from that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet. 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.”
[Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible (NKJ), unless indicated otherwise.]
Subsequently, in Matthew 11:21-24, Jesus declared,
“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.” [Note: Luke 10:10-15 provides a similar account.]
Thus, there will be different degrees of punishment for sin, depending how each person has responded to their knowledge about Jesus Christ. No one who lived in Sodom and Gomorrah before those cities were destroyed by God had an opportunity to trust in Christ for eternal salvation, since He did not come to earth until many years later. In contrast, many of the people living at the time that Christ was on the earth and those who have lived in the years since then have had opportunity to trust in Him. Those who have refused to trust in Christ will be judged more severely than those who never had the opportunity to do so.
Luke 12:47-48 has a somewhat different message. In this passage, after speaking a parable, Jesus says,
“[T]hat 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 worthy of strips, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to who much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.”
Like the prior two passages, Luke 12:47-48 makes it clear that the severity of punishment for sin will vary, depending on the circumstances. However, this passage seems to be applicable to sin in general, not just to the acceptance or rejection of Jesus Christ as Savior. In the parable, the degree of punishment was dependent on the extent of the understanding that each servant had about what their master wanted them to do. Likewise, people who don’t know God’s will with regard to what He wants them to do (or not do) won’t be punished as severely as those who know God’s will.
Revelation 20:12-13 pertains to the final judgment of mankind. The passage states,
And I [John, the Apostle of Jesus Christ] saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. . . . [A]nd each person was judged according to what he had done.
A number of biblical scholars believe this judgment applies only to people who have not trusted in Jesus Christ as their Savior (i.e., non-Christians), not to anyone who has trusted in Christ for eternal salvation. If this interpretation is correct, then non-Christians will receive differing degrees of punishment, depending on the nature and extent of their sins and/or good deeds.
However, Revelation 20: 10 and 15 state that everyone whose name is not written in the Book of Life (i.e., non-Christians) will be thrown into the same lake of fire as Satan, and that they will be tormented forever. In other words, these verses of scripture do not support the belief that there will be differing degrees of eternal punishment for people who are not Christians.
Furthermore, Revelation 20:12-13 seems to indicate that everyone who has ever lived, Christians as well as non-Christians, will be at the judgment. One reason for this belief is that there is no indication in this passage that the people being judged are only those whose names are not written in the Book of Life. Another reason for this belief is that verse 15 infers that not everyone at that judgment will be cast into the lake of fire. Otherwise, why would the verse not simply state that everyone at that judgment will be cast into the lake of fire?
Two other scripture passages provide additional support for the belief that the judgment mentioned in Revelation 20 will include both Christians and non-Christians. In Romans 14:10b, Paul says to the Christians in the church at Rome, “[W]e shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.” Likewise, in 2 Corinthians 5:10, Paul states to the Christians in the church at Corinth, “[W]e must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”
Since there is no account in the Book of Revelation of a judgment just for Christians, it seems reasonable to believe that there will be only one judgment. And, if Christians will be at the judgment discussed in Revelation 20, it is probable that they, as well as non-Christians, will be judged according to what they have done during their life on earth.
However, for Christians (i.e., the people whose names are written in the Book of Life), the judgment will determine the extent of the rewards they will be given during their eternal life. In contrast, for non-Christians (i.e., those whose names are not written in the Book of Life), the judgment apparently will determine only the extent of their punishment during eternity.
Therefore, we believe there will be different degrees of punishment for sin, depending how each person has responded to their knowledge about God in general and Jesus Christ in particular.
Does God Sometimes Severely Punish People for Relatively Minor Sins?
Most of the matters that result in severe punishment for what seem to be relatively minor sins actually involve violations of one or more of the Ten Commandments. Two examples are the killing of a person for not properly observing the Sabbath, or for being stubborn and rebellious to their parents (see Exodus 15:32-36 and Deuteronomy 21:18-21). Killing someone for either of these reasons seems unduly harsh, but God is sovereign and His judgment is sovereign and, therefore, He has the authority to decide the appropriate penalty for violating any of His Commandments.
One of the most controversial incidents that resulted in severe punishment does not seem to have involved a violation of any of the Ten Commandments. This incident is recorded in 2 Kings 2:23-24, which reads as follows:
And he [i.e., Elisha] went up from there [i.e., Jericho] to Bethel. And as he was going up the road, some youths came from the city and mocked him, and said to him, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” So he turned around and looked at them, and pronounced a curse on them in the name of the Lord. And two female bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths.
A footnote to verse 23 in the New International Version of the Bible (NIV) states, “By calling Elisha ‘baldhead,’ the youths . . . expressed . . . utter disdain for the Lord’s representative. . . .” Likewise, in their book entitled When Critics Ask, Norman Geisler, Ph.D., and Thomas Howe, M.A., state on page 191 that what the youths did “was no minor offense,” for they “held God’s prophet in contempt.” Both of these statements may be correct, but the scripture passage itself does not indicate that the youths knew Elisha was God’s prophet.
Geisler and Howe surmise that the youths “were wicked young men, comparable to a modern street gang.” On page 192 of their book, they speculate, “Elisha’s action was designed to strike fear in the hearts of any other such gang members. If these young gang members were not afraid to mock a venerable man of God such as Elisha, then they would have been a threat to the lives of all God’s people.”
Gleason L. Archer expresses a similar opinion. He states on page 205 of his book entitled Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties,
It was a situation of serious public danger, quite as grave as the large youth gangs that roam the ghetto sections of our modern American cities. If these young hoodlums were ranging about in packs of fifty or more, derisive toward respectable adults and ready to mock even a well-known man of God, there is no telling what violence they might have inflicted on the citizenry . . ., had they been allowed to continue their riotous course.
Archer goes on to theorize,
Perhaps it was for this reason that God saw fit to put forty-two of them to death in this spectacular fashion (there is no evidence that Elisha himself, in imposing a curse, prayed for this specific mode of punishment), in order to strike terror into other youth gangs that were infesting the city and to make them realize that neither Yahweh Himself nor any of His anointed prophets were to be threatened or treated with contempt.
Geisler and Howe concur. On page 192 of their book, they declare,
It was not Elisha who took their lives, but God who alone could have providentially directed the bears to attack them. It is evident that by mocking this man of God, these young men were revealing their true attitudes toward God Himself. Such contempt for the Lord was punishable by death. The Scriptures do not say that Elisha prayed for this kind of punishment. It was clearly an act of God in judgment upon this impious gang.
Although Archer, Geisler, and Howe express the belief that the youths were killed by the bears, at least several other sources give no such indication. The King James, NKJ, and NIV translations of the Bible all say the youths were mauled or torn by the bears, but don’t say the youths were killed. The translation by Strong’s Concordance of the Bible of the Hebrew word baqa that is used to describe the damage done by the bears indicates that the youths were ripped or torn. The word baqa does not infer injuries so severe that they would result in death. If the youths were not killed by the bears, it is easier to accept the position that the punishment fit the crime, especially if the crime was more than just simple teasing or name-calling.
What about 1 John 5:16-17, whichindicates there is a distinction between sins that will result in death and those that won’t result in death? The passage states,
If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He [i.e., God] will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a 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.
A footnote to these two versesin the NIV Bible says,
In the context of this letter directed against Gnostic teaching, which denied the incarnation and threw off all moral restraints, it is probable that the “sin that leads to death” refers to the Gnostics’ adamant and persistent denial of the truth and to their shameless immorality. This kind of unrepentant sin leads to spiritual death. Another view is that this is sin that results in physical death. It is held that, because a believer continues to sin, God in judgment takes his or her life. . . . In either case, “sin that does not lead to death” is of a less serious nature.
Also in reference to 1 John 5:16-17, John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible states,
[A sin unto death] is not only deserving of death, as every other sin is, but which certainly and inevitably issues in death in all that commit it, without exception; and that is the sin against the Holy Ghost, which is neither forgiven in this world nor in that to come, and therefore must be unto death; it is a sinning willfully (sic), not in a practical, but doctrinal way, after a man has received the knowledge of the truth; it is a wilful (sic) denial of the truth of the Gospel, particularly that peace, pardon, righteousness, eternal life, and salvation, are by Jesus Christ, contrary to the light of his mind, and this joined with malice and obstinacy; so that there is no more or other sacrifice for such a sin. . . .
Unlike the footnote in the NIV Bible, John Gill’s interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17 indicates that sin unto death is what is often called “the unpardonable sin.” However, his explanation of that sin is different than what we discuss with regard to the next question.
Regardless, we believe that sometimes God may severely punish people for what are perceived to be relatively minor sins, but these sins may be much more serious to God than what we as humans realize.
Are Any Sins Not Forgivable by God?
In Matthew 12:31-32, Jesus states,
“I say unto you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the [Holy] Spirit will not be forgiven men. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.” [Note: The wording of Luke 12:10 is very similar.]
Likewise, in Mark 3:28-30, Jesus asserts, “Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation.”
These last two passages pertain to what is called “the unpardonable sin.” Both passages make it clear that the unpardonable sin is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. Webster’s Dictionary defines blasphemy as “profane or contemptuous speech, writing, or action concerning God or anything held as divine.” Strong’s Concordance indicates that the Greek word that is translated as blaspheme may be even more maligning than what Webster says. According to Strong’s, the Greek word means “to vilify,” which suggests attacking or injuring the reputation of the Holy Spirit by false and/or malicious statements.
With regard to sins in general, the Bible infers that even if a person is a Christian, God will not forgive that person’s sins unless the person confesses those sins to God. 1 John 1:9, which most biblical scholars believe was addressed to Christians, states, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” If only confessed sins will be forgiven, then any unconfessed sins will not be forgiven. . [For a discussion of why we believe 1 John 1:9 is applicable to Christians, rather than to non-Christians, please see the appendix to this article.]
Strong’s Concordance notes that the Greek word that is translated as confess in the scripture passage denotes “to confess by way of admitting oneself guilty of what one is accused of, the result of inward conviction.” In other words, confession involves more than just saying “I’m sorry.” Sincere confession also necessitates remorse, which should result in repentance.
Genuine repentance is more than being sorry for having sinned or done wrong. Webster’s Dictionary states that “repentance implies full realization of one’s sins or wrongs and a will to change one’s ways.” Among the scripture passages that call for people to repent in regard to their sins are the following: Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15; 6:12; Luke 13:3, 5; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 8:22; 17:30; Revelation 2:16; 3:19.
Another relevant scripture passage with regard to sins that are not forgivable by God is Matthew 6:14-15, in which Jesus Christ declares, “[I]f you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
If we are not willing to forgive someone who has sinned against us, Matthew 6:14-15 infers that, unless we are subsequently willing to forgive that person, God will not forgive the sins that we commit until we are willing to forgive the person who has offended us. However, it may be appropriate to wait for the offending person to ask for forgiveness before we forgive them, provided that we are willing to forgive them when they ask. [For a discussion regarding forgiveness, click on “Judging, Anger and Forgiveness.”]
We believe there are several circumstances in which God will not forgive a person for their sins, even if he (or she) is a Christian. If our sins remain unforgiven, God will punish us – or perhaps give us less generous rewards – when we enter eternity, although we are still assured of our eternal salvation. [For a discussion of the basis for believing that a Christian cannot lose his (or her) eternal salvation, click on “What Must a Person Do to Be Assured of Eternal Salvation?
It behooves every Christian to regularly confess their sins and sincerely repent. Consistent confession and repentance should reduce, if not eliminate, a Christian’s concerns as to what the consequences might be if they were to have unconfessed – and, therefore, unforgiven – sins when they stand in judgment before God. Furthermore, each time a Christian confesses their sins and repents, their ability to have fellowship with God will immediately be restored, enabling them to restore the joy of their salvation.
In many instances, we probably will not understand why we are experiencing adversity, which may or may not be a result of one or more specific sins that we have committed. And, probably there will be different degrees of punishment for sin, depending how each person has responded to their knowledge about God in general and Jesus Christ in particular.
Although Christians won’t lose their salvation if they continue to trust in God, they need to realize that sometimes God may severely punish them for what they perceive to be relatively minor sins that are regarded much more seriously by God. Therefore, Christians would be wise to regularly confess their sins and sincerely repent, assuming they want to avoid whatever the consequences might be if they have any unforgiven sins when they stand in judgment before God.
Was 1 John 1:9 Written to Christians or to Non-Christians?
Some people argue that the first chapter of 1 John, most notably verse nine, which pertains to confessing sins, was written to non-Christians, and that the subsequent chapters were written to Christians. However, we believe that a completely objective study of 1 John will provide no credible support for this argument. Among the reasons for our belief are the following:
- When a reasonably intelligent person writes a letter only a fraction of which is intended for one group of people while the bulk of the letter is intended for another group of people, the writer can be expected to indicate for which group each part of the letter is intended, so confusion by the readers will be avoided. Although there is no clear indication in chapter one of 1 John as to whom that chapter was intended, several verses in chapter two (e.g., verses 1, 7) make it sufficiently clear that John is writing to Christians. Therefore, in the absence of additional plausible evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that not only both of the first two chapters, but also all the subsequent chapters in 1 John, were written to the same group of people, and that these people were all professing Christians.
The following are among the commentaries that indicate 1 John was written to Christians or, at least, to those who professed to be Christians: Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible, John Calvin’s Commentaries on the Bible, Adam Clarke Commentary, John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible, David Guzik’s Commentary on the Bible, Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible, Peter Pett’s commentary on the Bible, Matthew Poole’s English Annotations on the Holy Bible, and The Pulpit Commentaries.
- In verse 4 of chapter one, John states, “And these things we write to you that your joy may be full.” If the entire first chapter of 1 John was written to non-Christians, the chapter is grossly inadequate in explaining the gospel and, therefore, it provides non-Christian readers essentially no information to help them understand how they can receive the joy to which the John refers. Surely, John would have at least mentioned the need for non-Christians to trust in Christ so they could experience such joy.
- In chapter one, if John was writing to non-Christians, his consistent use of the pronoun we in regard to each of the matters discussed in verses 6-10 – particularly in verse 9 – does not make sense, because John, who obviously was a Christian, would be placing himself in the same current spiritual state as that of the non-Christians. Therefore, John almost certainly would have referred to the non-Christians using the pronoun you, to distinguish his spiritual state from theirs.
Let’s take a closer look now at 1 John 1:9. The New King James Version (NKJV) of the Bible translates this verse as follows: “If we confess our sins, He [God/Christ] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
David Guzik’s Commentary on the Bible provides the following insightful perspectives regarding this verse of scripture:
Our sins are not forgiven because we confess; if this were the case – if forgiveness for a sin could only come where there was confession – then we would all be damned, because it would be impossible for us to confess every sin we ever commit. We are forgiven because our punishment was put upon Jesus, we are cleansed by His blood.
However, confession is still vital to maintain relationship with God, and this is the context John speaks from. As God convicts us of sin that is hindering our fellowship with Him, we must confess it and receive forgiveness and cleansing for our relationship with God to continue without hindrance.
Confession must be personal; saying “God, if we have made any mistakes, forgive us” isn’t confession, because it isn’t convinced (saying “if we made”), it isn’t personal (saying “if we made”), it isn’t specific (saying “if we made any”), and it isn’t honest (saying “mistakes”).
In other words, even the sincere confession of sins to God by a person who is not a Christian is not sufficient to result in God’s forgiveness of those sins. Sincere trust in Jesus Christ as Savior is necessary to receive God’s forgiveness. It is only after a person becomes a Christian that their confession of sin, accompanied by genuine repentance, will result in God’s forgiveness of the sins that person subsequently commits.
Regardless of the previously stated reasons to believe otherwise, some Christians argue that 1 John 1:9 applies just to non-Christians. This position is generally based on the belief that when a person trusts in Jesus Christ for their eternal salvation, all of their sins are forgiven – past, present, and future. Christians who have this belief may think they don’t need to confess the sins they commit after becoming a Christian, since they assume they will not be held accountable for those sins. As a result, they are more apt to live a lifestyle that is inappropriate for a follower of Christ, thinking they won’t suffer any adverse eternal consequences for doing so.
Some people may argue that a person who has made a sincere profession of trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior (i.e., becomes a genuine Christian, not just in name only) will not commit “serious” sins. However, even genuine Christians commit serious sins, because God regards all sins as serious sins. With the exception of the so-called “unpardonable sin,” nowhere in the Bible is a definite distinction made between the seriousness of one type of sin versus another, insofar as eternal consequences are concerned. (There are, however, distinctions between the types of sin insofar as temporal punishments that are to be imposed.)
We want to make it clear that a person who makes a genuine profession of trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior does not need to be concerned that they may lose their salvation (see 1 John 5:11-13.)
It is nevertheless important to keep in mind that the Bible states there are eternal rewards that Christians will receive, based upon their deeds (see Matthew 5:46; 6:1, 4; 10:41-42; 16:27; Mark 9:41; Luke 6:35). The more the good deeds (as judged by God), the greater will be the eternal rewards. Conversely, the fewer the good deeds and the more the unconfessed sins (i.e., bad deeds), the very best that can be expected is lesser eternal rewards. This added perspective is inferred by Romans 2:6, which (in the NKJV) declares that God “will render to each one according to his deeds.” Furthermore, Romans 2:8-9, which is in the section of Paul’s letter that is generally acknowledged to be written to Christians, indicates that the consequences for some types of sins may be much more severe than merely lesser rewards.
In light of the foregoing considerations, we believe that 1 John 1:9 was written to make it clear to Christians that God wants us to regularly confess our sins, rather than to be apathetic about them. God is ready to forgive our sins, but He wants us to admit that we have done wrong. Furthermore, we believe that God wants us not only to confess our sins, but also to repent (i.e., feel genuinely sorry for having sinned), which demonstrates the sincerity of our confession.