Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve heard people say that in God’s eyes, there are no big sins or little sins. Instead, all sins are equally bad and result in our (hopefully) temporary and (hopefully not) eternal separation from Him. I still think there’s a lot of truth to that, but as I got to studying the Bible on my own, I came to realize that the Scriptural picture is considerably more nuanced.
First, though, let’s address the how-it’s-correct part. As James points out in James 2:9-11, a transgressor of any part of God’s law is a transgressor of that law generally. The murderer is guilty as a transgressor, but the adulterer is too. Similarly, in the famous words of Romans 6:23, the wages of sin is death. When we sin, we are earning spiritual death for ourselves.
However, there is also Biblical evidence that God regards and treats different sins differently. He appears to be less concerned with the nature of a particular sin and more concerned with the heart and the attitude of the sinner. Look, for instance, at Jesus’ words to Pilate in John 19:10-11. According to the Lord, the chief priests who delivered Jesus to Pilate to be crucified sinned more greatly than Pilate did when he went along with their evil plan.
In both cases, the outward sin is at least similar. Both the Jewish leaders and Pilate knowingly condemned an innocent man to death. However, they did so for different reasons. Caiaphas and his crew were motivated by hatred, envy, and the desire to hold onto political power. They actively desired to destroy the object of their malice.
Pilate, on the other hand, was motivated primarily by fear. He worried about the Jews starting a riot, and he worried even more that they would get word to Rome that he had tolerated a man who claimed to be the king of the Jews. He sinned in consenting to Jesus’ death, but he did so reluctantly.
Additionally, our understanding of God’s will appears to play a big part in the way that He will punish us if we fail to follow it. This is most obvious in the parable of the watchful servants in Luke 12:35-48.
In its original context, this parable is probably about the coming of Jesus in judgment against Jerusalem in AD 70 (see, for instance, 12:49, 54-56). However, much of what the Bible says about any specific judgment of God applies to all His judgments generally. Even today, for instance, we should take the warning of 12:35-36 to heart. Who knows but that our lives will end tonight, or that the Lord will return tomorrow?
There’s no textual reason not to make a similarly general application of the rest of the parable. In it, Jesus explains what will happen at the master’s coming to five groups of people: faithful servants (12:37), wise managers (12:42-44), wicked managers (12:45-46), willfully disobedient servants (12:47), and ignorantly disobedient servants (12:48).
When the master comes, he will deal differently with each of these five groups. Faithful servants will be rewarded, faithful managers will be greatly rewarded, unfaithful managers will be cut in pieces, willfully disobedient servants will be beaten severely, and ignorantly disobedient servants will be beaten lightly.
It’s not terribly difficult to tease out the identity of these last three groups from the parable. The ignorantly disobedient servants are ignorantly disobedient people, those who sin because they don’t know any better. The willfully disobedient servants are willfully disobedient people, fallen-away Christians or at least those who have been taught the truth but choose not to obey it. The wicked managers are church leaders (the “for us” of Peter’s question in 12:41) who misuse their position for their own benefit.
Apparently, the punishments that these various groups of wicked people will undergo will be different too. We know from other passages that all of these groups will be bound for hell, but their experiences in hell will not be the same. The more we know, the more we have been given, the more we will suffer if we end up there. The Bible doesn’t reveal whether this greater suffering will be the result of different torments or simply of greater mental anguish, but the greater our opportunity, the greater our suffering will be if we blow it. As Peter says in 2 Peter 2:21 (possibly thinking of hearing Jesus’ words in Luke 12), it’s better never to have known the Lord than to know and turn back.
The point here is not that ignorance is bliss. Hell won’t be blissful for anybody! Instead, it is a sobering reminder for us that once we take up the cross, there is no way out but upward. In our knowledge of salvation, we have been given a priceless gift. If we squander that gift, we will find ourselves envying the ignorant.