The idea that there are different levels of punishment in hell is graphically portrayed in The Divine Comedy, written by Dante Alighieri between 1308 and 1321. In that poem, the Roman poet Virgil guides Dante through the nine circles of hell. The circles are concentric, representing a gradual increase in wickedness, and culminating at the center of the earth, where Satan is held in bondage. Each circle’s sinners are punished in a fashion befitting their crimes. Each sinner is afflicted for all of eternity by the chief sin he committed. According to Dante, the circles range from the first circle, where dwell the unbaptized and virtuous pagans, to the very center of hell reserved for those who have committed the ultimate sin—treachery against God.
Although the Bible does not specifically say there are different levels of punishment in hell, it does seem to indicate that the judgment will indeed be experienced differently for different people. In Revelation 20:11–15, the people are judged “according to what they had done as recorded in the books” (Revelation 20:12). All the people at this judgment, though, are thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:13–15). So, perhaps, the purpose of the judgment is to determine how severe the punishment in hell will be.
A clearer passage is Luke 10, where Jesus speaks of comparative punishment. First, Jesus says this about a village that rejects the gospel: “I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town” (verse 12). Then He speaks to Bethsaida and Chorazin: “It will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you” (verse 14). Whatever punishment the former residents of Sodom, Tyre, and Sidon were experiencing in hell, the Galilean towns that refused to hear Christ would experience more. The level of punishment in hell seems to be tied to the amount of light a person rejects.
Another indication that hell has different levels of punishment is found in Jesus’ words in Luke 12: “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (verses 47–48).
Whatever degrees of punishment hell contains, it is clear that hell is a place to be avoided.
Unfortunately, the Bible states that most people will wind up in hell: “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13–14). The question one must ask is “which road am I on?” The “many” on the broad road have one thing in common—they have all rejected Christ as the one and only way to heaven. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). When He said He is the only way, that is precisely what He meant. Everyone following another “way” besides Jesus Christ is on the broad road to destruction, and the suffering is hideous, dreadful, eternal, and unavoidable.