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 early-to-mid 1940s are prime examples of those who seem to have escaped punishment, either entirely or at least for many years. Meanwhile, many faithful Christians and other people who have sought to live righteous lives have suffered for years with various types of severe adversities that they do not seem to deserve.
This seemingly lack of justice or fairness raises several questions about punishment by God. Among these questions are the following:
- Are the severe adversities that people face during their life on the earth punishment for their sins?
- Do some sins result in a greater degree of punishment by God than other sins?
- Are any sins not forgivable by God?
Are the Severe Adversities that People Face during Their Life on the Earth Punishment for Their Sins?
Most people realize that we live in an imperfect world. Just as the rain falls on both the just and the unjust, both the righteous and the unrighteous are faced with severe adversities of all types: financial problems, poor health, marital difficulties, etc.
The fact is that often God does not intervene – miraculously or otherwise – in people’s lives to either prevent severe adversities or to at least alleviate them, even if the people experiencing the adversities are living what we regard as a righteous life. Adversities may be either sent or allowed by God to test His followers, rather than to punish or to otherwise discipline them. The Bible gives accounts of a number of people who experienced severe 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 severe adverse adversities, not to test certain 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 severe 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 severe 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 by God than Other Sins?
In Matthew 10:14-15, Jesus Christ told His inner circle of 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 on 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 Jesus 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 Jesus Christ was on the earth and those who have lived in the years since then have had opportunity to trust in Him as their Savior. And, those who have refused to trust in Jesus 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 than the previously mentioned scriptures. In this scripture, 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 scriptures, Luke 12:47-48 makes it clear that the severity of punishment for sin will vary, depending on the circumstances. However, this scripture seems to be applicable to sin in general, not to just 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 do not know God’s will with regard to what He wants them to do (or not do) will not be punished as severely as those who know God’s will.
With regard to the final judgment of mankind, Revelation 20:12-13 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 Bible scholars believe this judgment applies to only people who have not trusted in Jesus Christ as their Savior (i.e., non-Christians), not to anyone who has trusted in Jesus 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 their 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 final judgment. One reason for this belief is that there is no indication in this scripture 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 this verse not simply state that everyone at that judgment will be cast into the lake of fire?
Two other scriptures provide additional support for the belief that the judgment discussed 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.”
Also, insofar as we can determine, there is no account anywhere in the Bible of a judgment just for Christians, so it is reasonable to believe that the judgment discussed in Revelation 20 will be the final judgment for everyone. And, at that judgment, Christians as well as non-Christians, will be judged according to what they have done during their life on earth.
For Christians and anyone else deemed by God to be righteous (i.e., the people whose names are written in the Book of Life), the final judgment will determine the extent of the rewards they will be given during their eternal life. In contrast, for non-Christians and anyone else who is regarded as unrighteous by God (i.e., those whose names are not written in the Book of Life), the final judgment apparently will determine the extent of their punishment during eternity. And, we believe that the extent of this punishment will be determined after taking into consideration how each person has responded to their knowledge and understanding about what the Bible teaches.
[For additional perspective regarding the final judgment, click on “What Will Occur at the Great White Throne Judgment?”]
Are Any Sins Not Forgivable by God?
In Matthew 12:31-32, Jesus Christ 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 Christ 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 scriptures pertain to what is called “the unpardonable sin.” Both scriptures 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, 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 1 John 1:9 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. And, 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.” [For a discussion regarding repentance, click on “Are Both Confession and Repentance Necessary?”]
Another relevant scripture 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 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 us to do so. [For a discussion regarding forgiveness, click on “Judging, Anger and Forgiveness.”]
Thus, we believe there are several circumstances in which God will not forgive a person for their sins, even if that person is a Christian. If our sins remain unforgiven, God will punish us – perhaps, by giving 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?”]
Therefore, 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 sins that have not been forgiven 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 severe 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 and Jesus Christ.
Although Christians will not lose their salvation if they continue to trust in Jesus Christ, 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 that 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 and 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 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.
Now we will take a closer look at 1 John 1:9. The New King James Version (NKJV) of the Bible translates this scripture 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 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 do not 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 not appropriate for a follower of Christ, thinking they will not 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., they become a genuine Christian) 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.)
In any case, we want to make it clear that a person who genuinely professes 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), provided that they do not apostatize. [For an in depth discussion of this matter, click on “Can Christians Forfeit Their Eternal Salvation?”]
Nevertheless, it is 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, not 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.