by Al Maxey

Issue #413 ------- September 20, 2009
The punishment shall fit the offense.
Cicero {106-43 B.C.}

Battering With Lesser Blows
Doctrine of Degrees of Punishment

Luke 12:47-48 is a powerful passage "peculiar to St. Luke, and every word is full of profoundest interest." So wrote Dr. Charles John Ellicott (1819-1905), a man who served faithfully for many years as the Bishop of Gloucester (a distinguished English theologian and acclaimed academic), in his monumental commentary on the Bible [vol. 6, p. 304]. The primary reason why this passage has drawn the attention of so many Christians over the centuries is because Jesus seems to be strongly suggesting that there will be degrees of punishment at the time of the Final Judgment of mankind. Most men clearly perceive that degrees of punishment in the temporal realm are quite common, but suggesting that these varying levels of punishment and/or suffering just might also be the norm in the eternal realm troubles some who believe the Final Judgment will be a rather black-or-white event: one is either lost or saved; life or death; heaven or hell ... with all men fully experiencing (each to the fullest degree) one or the other. This statement by Jesus, though, seems to promote a much different perspective.

As was noted above, we are all familiar with the concept of one's punishment being proportionate to one's crime. Among fair-minded, justice-seeking peoples the world over, this is reflected in their laws. One is not executed for going five mph over the speed limit in a residential area, for example. Nor is a serial killer fined only twenty dollars for his crimes. True justice demands that the punishment inflicted must fit the crime committed. Among the people of Israel, for example, the Law of Moses recognized varying degrees of punishment depending upon the offense. "If the guilty man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall make him lie down and have him flogged in his presence with the number of lashes his crime deserves, but he mustn't give him more than forty lashes" [Deut. 25:2-3]. The Jews of Jesus' day were so careful not to inflict punishment beyond this limit (40 lashes), that they would often stop at 39, just in case they had miscounted. In other words, lesser was considered preferable to greater with regard to the inflicting of a painful punishment upon an offender. "For petty offences the Jews in many cases inflicted so few as four, five and six stripes" [Dr. Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 5, p. 445].

A good many disciples of Jesus Christ, however, have long declared that such degrees of punishment (where the nature of the punishment is in direct proportion to the nature of the crime) will NOT apply on the day of Final Judgment. I actually had a leader within the Non-Institutional wing of our movement inform me that the person who ate a cookie in the church building would experience the same "eternal torture" as Adolf Hitler! If this is truly reflective of the nature of the "justice" of our God, then, frankly, we're all in trouble!! It is my strong conviction, however, that such a perception of our loving God (and certainly the proclamation of such a perception) is nothing less than blasphemous! It proclaims a deity that is neither just nor fair nor merciful, but rather one that is a cruel, vindictive, nit-picking ogre who would not hesitate to inflict unimaginable torment upon others for the least imaginable triviality. Little wonder that such men often reflect in their own dealings with others this concept of their God.

"God is love" [1 John 4:8, 16], and divine love does not present itself as some would have us believe! Yes, those who have knowingly and willfully lived in rebellion against a holy God must answer for their actions, and if God judges them unfit for eternal life, they must experience the wages of their sin: death. Execution is never pleasant, although the suffering experienced in said termination of life may vary from case to case (to which I can personally attest -- having witnessed a number of people die, and having actually been present inside the death chamber, and at the side of, a man who was executed for murdering and raping a child -- Reflections #17). Nevertheless, an execution, no matter the amount of suffering that precedes that death, is still a far cry from keeping a victim alive for the express purpose of inflicting endless conscious torture upon him. Many assume it is the latter that the just nature of God demands. I'm convinced, however, that Scripture proclaims the opposite. The wages of sin is declared to be death, not torture, although the second death will most assuredly not be pleasant, and will be far more unpleasant for some than others, depending upon the nature of their rebellion against God and crimes against humanity. For those who would like to pursue this concept further, as it is evidenced within the Scriptures, I would highly recommend a reading of the eighteen Reflections articles that I have written on this topic, which are listed on my Topical Index page under the heading "The Nature of Man and Final Punishment." I would also suggest a prayerful reading of The Maxey-Thrasher Debate -- Eternal Destiny of the Wicked: Perpetual Torment or Ultimate Extinction?

It is declared by some Christians that death is not a fearful enough punishment. Try telling that to the person being executed!! Others suggest that termination of life (extinction) removes any and all suffering. Again, try explaining that theory to the person being executed! "Extinction does not exclude the possibility of degrees of punishment" [Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi, Immortality or Resurrection? A Biblical Study on Human Nature and Destiny, p. 240]. Frankly, it seems to me that it accommodates that doctrine far better than the false notion of endless torture. Those who have committed greater offenses against God and man (like Adolf Hitler, for example) would expect to be shown less mercy in their execution than one who had committed lesser offenses. Yes, both are worthy of death, and death will be their eternal destiny, but the nature of the punishING that results in their final punishMENT may well be quite different in degree. On the other hand, if both are to be kept alive (immortal) in the fires of hell for the purpose of endless torture, I seriously doubt that ANY fluctuation in Fahrenheit is going to be perceived by either as very significant (never-ending torture at 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit is hardly less severe than never-ending torture at 20,000 degrees Fahrenheit).

But, regardless of what the true nature of final punishment proves to be (and I pray none of us will ever experience it), it appears rather certain from the Scriptures that our just and merciful and loving God will punish the wicked in some way that is fair and proportionate to their sins against Himself and their fellow men. As our Lord clearly states: some "will be beaten with many blows," whereas others "will be beaten with few blows" [Luke 12:47-48]. This concept is further perceived in Jesus' rebuke of the inhabitants of certain cities of His day. He told them, "It will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the Day of Judgment than for you ... it will be more bearable for Sodom on the Day of Judgment than for you" [Matt. 11:22, 24]. More bearable? Less bearable? This statement by our Lord clearly suggests degrees of punishment. Again, we can only speculate as to the exact nature of these degrees, but "here it will suffice to observe that, whatever be its accidents, the essence of eternal punishment is that it will be marked by varying degrees of severity, with each of us by his own use of opportunity providing his own criterion" [Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, vol. 2, p. 456].

"In this solemn passage (Luke 12:47-48) it is notable that degrees or grades in punishment are distinctly spoken of" [Pulpit Commentary, vol. 16: Luke, p. 338], and that "sinners are not to be cast indiscriminately into some common receptacle, but subjected to a series of graduated punishments of the most carefully adjusted character. According to a person's opportunities will be his doom" [ibid, p. 360]. Both this source and Dr. Hastings (see above) have linked how one responds to one's God-given opportunities with one's eternal destiny and the nature of the severity or blessedness of that destiny. I believe they are absolutely correct in their conclusion. Unto all men our God has given some degree of "available light" --- a bright light proclaiming His glory, radiating His divine nature, and reflecting unto His creation His will for their daily lives. David, the "poet king," wrote: "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world" [Psalm 19:1-4]. The apostle Paul quite astutely observed that "what may be known about God is plain" to the peoples of the earth, "because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities --- His eternal power and divine nature --- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse" [Rom. 1:19-20].

I have discussed this biblical doctrine quite extensively in Reflections #158 --- Grace and the Caveman: Pondering the Parameters of Divine Acceptance of Human Response to Available Light, a careful reading of which I would strongly recommend. The emphasis of this teaching, and this parallels the doctrine of degrees of both punishment and reward, is that there are degrees of revelation, enlightenment and opportunity, thereby necessitating degrees of accountability. It is an eternal principle that one is only accountable for what one has been given. The two talent man wasn't accountable for five talents, for example, but only for that with which he had been entrusted. Other servants would be accountable for more or less depending upon the nature of that with which they had been entrusted by their master. As Jesus Himself stated immediately following the text being examined in this study, "From everyone who has been given much shall much be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more" [Luke 12:48]. The apostle Paul informed the brethren in Corinth (and, by extension, us as well) that if a person had a desire to do what was right, the fulfillment of that desire would be judged "acceptable according to what a man has, not according to what he does not have" [2 Cor. 8:12]. Simply stated -- final judgment will be based upon what each of us individually have done with what we've been given (insight, ability and opportunity), NOT upon those things to which we had absolutely no access through no fault of our own. Such truth infuriates the legalists, for obvious reasons, but in the Final Judgment "penalty will be inflicted not as passion dictates, but as principle demands" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 1, p. 561-562]. The divine principles of love, equity and mercy clearly suggest the need for individual assessment in judgment based upon one's own response to available light, as well as God-given ability and opportunity. After all, as Lord Byron (1788-1824) astutely observed, "He who is only just is cruel; who upon the earth would live were all judged justly?!" I'm reminded of the cartoon depicting a husband and wife standing in line before the Judgment Throne of the Lord, and the wife is seen turning and whispering to her husband, "Now Fred, don't you dare demand to get everything that's coming to you!" If our God dispensed only what we deserved, the new heavens and earth would be devoid of any human life! Thank God for the truth that "mercy triumphs over judgment" [James 2:13].

H. Leo Boles opined, "It seems that people will be treated according to their opportunities and the light which they have. Opportunity and ability measure one's responsibility; some have greater opportunities than others; some have greater ability than others; therefore the responsibilities vary; so it seems that the reward and punishment will vary according to the responsibilities" [A Commentary on the Gospel According to Luke, p. 262]. Paul spoke of this principle that will be applied by our gracious Father at the Final Judgment in Romans 2:14ff. If punishment is deemed necessary for offenses committed, such "punishment will be proportioned to the powers, gifts, opportunities and knowledge of the offender" [ibid]. Adam Clarke declared, "Those who have had much light, or the opportunity of receiving much, and have not improved it to their own salvation, and to the good of others, shall receive punishment proportioned to the light they have abused. On the other hand, those who have had little light, and who had few means of improvement, shall receive few stripes --- shall be punished only for the abuse of the knowledge they possessed" [vol. 5, p. 445]. "All have some knowledge of God (Rom. 1:20), and God judges according to individual levels of responsibility" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 967].

"In the Final Judgment, each person will be measured, not against the same standard, but against his own response to the light received. Millions of persons have lived and are living today without the knowledge of Christ as God's supreme revelation and means of salvation. These people may find salvation on account of their trusting response to what they know of God. It is for God to determine how much of His will is disclosed to any person through any particular religion. It is because our God has written certain basic moral principles into every human conscience that every person can be held accountable -- 'without excuse' (Rom. 1:20) -- in the Final Judgment. A pleasant surprise will be to meet, among the redeemed, 'heathen' who never learned about the Good News of salvation through human agents. Ellen White states this point extremely eloquently: 'Among the heathen are those who worship God ignorantly, those to whom the light is never brought by human instrumentality, yet they will not perish. Though ignorant of the written law of God, they have heard His voice speaking to them in nature, and have done the things that the law has required (Rom. 2:14ff). Their works are evidence that the Holy Spirit has touched their hearts, and they are recognized as the children of God'" [Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi, Immortality or Resurrection? A Biblical Study on Human Nature and Destiny, p. 240].

Some have mistakenly, and perhaps even maliciously, suggested that this Doctrine of Available Light declares that ALL, indiscriminately, shall be saved. That is NOT what this doctrine declares. Just the opposite. It is not a form of universalism, but rather based upon the biblical truth that God reveals Himself to all men, thus leaving no one with any excuse whatsoever on the Day of Judgment. "Ignorance is no excuse where knowledge might have been obtained. The principle is that the demand of the Master is in proportion to the gifts dispensed, whether these be temporal or spiritual" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible, the NT, vol. 1, p. 338]. Unto every man some degree of light has been given, and it is whether or not, as well as in what manner, they choose to respond to that light that will determine their eternal destiny. All men who have ever lived (or ever will live) are responsible for what they have been given, although not all have been given the exact same amount of light, insight, ability and opportunity. Thus, they are accountable for what they have, not for what they do not have. Just as there are degrees of revelatory light, so are there degrees of responsibility and accountability ... as, indeed, there will be degrees of both reward and punishment. As to the specific nature and application of the latter, "we may well be content to leave that question to Him who spake the words (Luke 12:47-48), and in so doing gave the most convincing proof that the Judge of all the earth will assuredly do right" [Ellicott, vol. 6, p. 304].

Down, But Not Out
A Study of Divorce and Remarriage
in Light of God's Healing Grace

A 200 page book by Al Maxey
Publisher: (301) 695-1707

Readers' Reflections

From a Minister in Hawaii:

Aloha Brother Al, "Pondering Pastoral Perfectionism" was "spot on," and it is truly an article for all times! What a major milestone it is in a Minister's life to come to the realization that you have! My prayer is that your article will be read (and believed) by the many preachers and elders who presently labor under heavy loads of "great expectationism," both self-imposed and brethren-imposed, and that it will help many to overcome this sad obstacle to pastoral persistence and perseverance. Mahalo for this study! May your ministry continue to flourish! By the way, I've just ordered five copies of your book Down, But Not Out for some of the leaders here. When will you be coming back to the beautiful Hawaiian Islands?! I'd love to visit with you, and even arrange for a book signing party here for you!

From a Reader in California:

Brother Al, Just when I think you cannot possibly do better ... you hit another home run!! What incredible insight you have shared with us in "Pondering Pastoral Perfectionism." The examples you gave are the very reason I didn't pursue becoming a Minister. Your insights were also "spot on" with regard to how many people have turned their backs on religion in general as a result of the fall of their preachers (like Swaggart and Bakker).

From a Minister in California:

Dear Brother Al, The church where I preached in Florida had all of those expectations mentioned by you in your article. To make matters worse, the Minister who was there before me, and who had "retired" (though he stayed on in the congregation), insisted on his share of pulpit time, and even continued working 40+ hours a week doing everything I had been hired to do. Thus, the members were always comparing us, wanting me to basically mimic his ministry. When I moved to ------, California, where I served as the Minister for almost 15 years, I stated in my first sermon there that I would not please everyone and would not even try to do so. I got a standing ovation for that statement -- the first time a congregation ever applauded anything I said!! Jesus had twelve handpicked men, and not even He could please them all, so how does anyone expect a Minister to please a congregation of hundreds or thousands? It just can't be done! Al, I always appreciate the benefit of your study and research. May God's blessings be upon you, my friend. By the way, we had 18 people baptized last Sunday at our congregation. After one man's baptism, he then assisted in the baptizing of his wife, and she then assisted in the baptism of their two children. A wonderful Sunday all the way around!

From a Minister in Georgia:

Brother Maxey, Your latest Reflections hit me when I think I needed it most!! What I still struggle with is knowing what are healthy expectations for a minister. I'm rather introverted, so the more often I "put myself out there," the more awkward I feel, and the more I have those "foot in mouth" experiences! Anyway, that was an excellent article, as always!

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, Far too many of us put our money in a collection plate to be used to hire someone else to perform our Christian service for us, whether it be a preacher, missionary, elder, deacon, or whatever title. Then, as you say, we expect a perfection out of them that we have no intention of seeking to achieve ourselves. I call this "Super Hypocriticality." Let me share a personal experience. For years I watched and listened to a preacher whose pulpit presence and messages left one with the absolute conviction that he had never sinned, and never could or would. His virtues (self-professed) were the epitome of sainthood. After enduring that for some time, I left the church, intending never to return. My daughter intervened and begged me not to quit, asking me to at least agree to attend Richland Hills Church of Christ just once before I made the decision to quit church altogether. Through her influence I decided to attend there ... and have been serving there for the past 30 years!! I love you, brother!!

From a Preacher in Alabama:

That was a very good article, Brother Al. The only thing that I would add is that you might have included the wives of such men. They too feel the same degree of pressure of being placed on a pedestal and given unrealistic expectations: to be the perfect mom, cook meals for others, visit the sick, dress and behave in a certain way, etc. It can be very difficult, and I know many a leader's wife who has suffered depression and other difficulties just trying to live up to these expectations. And yes, the wives of such leaders are every bit as important to their work as the men themselves!! God bless you, brother.

From an Elder's Wife in Colorado:

Bro. Al, I just finished reading your last Reflections. Thank you several million times for proclaiming that it is acceptable to just be "me." Could not having to be a part of every activity that takes place among the members of the congregation apply to elders' wives, too?!! Please?!! Thank you for speaking out for all the people who wish they were able to say and do what you actually say and do!! We love you dearly!

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, I appreciate this latest Reflections. It is about time that we all stop expecting perfection from any/all of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Only HE was perfect. I think that most of us, having grown up in our heritage, have held our preachers to something not possible. In our past, it just didn't seem to be enough for us to simply accept each preacher as individually gifted (not all being made from the same mold). The preacher was never really allowed to be a fallible member of God's family like the rest of us! Keep up the great work, Al. You are continually an encouragement to me.

From a Minister in California:

Right on, Brother Al! I think every pastor/preacher/evangelist (whichever term applies) has to learn by experience that the only expectations that really matter are those of the God who shaped and gifted us to serve Him. When we learn that, and live to serve and please Him, ministry takes on a whole new dynamic, and true abundant living becomes a reality. Until we learn that, ministry can be a destroyer! Your insights are priceless, brother!! Thanks!!

From a Minister in Kansas:

Brother Al, One Cup man here. I appreciated the thoughts you shared with the church in your latest Reflections. I truly feel for all servants of Christ who are trying to lead and be a blessing to His church. I have personally seen many of them leave preaching due to the expectations of the church members. Too many members do absolutely nothing, yet they expect the Minister to do everything. "That's why we pay the guy!!" Looks like the Churches of Christ are no different than other denominations when it comes to compensation for their Ministers (low pay, long hours). Most church members would never work for the pay (and lack of benefits) received by preaching brethren!! God bless all the Ministers who've labored long hours in the vineyard for sub-standard wages!! Al, the annual meeting for the One Cup congregations who have been excluded from the Old Paths Advocate directory will be held September 18-20 at Lamar, Arkansas. This gathering is growing in number, and more and more congregations are now interested in hosting this event. Brother Al, thanks again for your willingness to place comments from the One Cup brethren in your Reflections. You have been a tremendous blessing to many in our group. I will pass along your greeting to all of these brethren at this meeting this week, and will also let them know that you will be speaking at The Tulsa Workshop this coming spring. God bless you!!

From a Minister/Author in Tennessee:

Bro. Al, Although I started out trying to please all people, I finally arrived at Paul's solution (Galatians 1:10) -- If I seek to please God, then those people who also seek to please God will be pleased with me! I have also been told (as were you) that I don't look or act very much like a preacher. They're referring to the fact that I am simply being myself, and not "putting on airs." I seldom wear suits, for example. About the only time is Sunday, or when I conduct a wedding or funeral. Most of the time I'll dress very causally. Years ago, one of my friends told me that I reveal too much of myself to other people. He said it would end up hurting me. Well, so far it hasn't.

From a Reader in Texas:

Very well said, Bro. Al. It is always folly to put too much faith in mere men. I don't really understand how it happens, but it does. I've personally watched as a local church has struggled for several years now following the retirement of their Pastor of 30+ years. He was an excellent leader, and I suspect, though I am not positive, that many of their struggles have been because his successors haven't "measured up." Please keep up the good work, brother! I really do appreciate you and your weekly Reflections. I believe they are a great blessing to many people. I know they are to me.

From a Minister in Alabama:

Brother Al, Don't forget -- you guys are also expected to raise your whole family in a two-room shack with an outhouse and no running water! Sadly, some of this thinking (preachers must take a vow of poverty) is still way too prevalent within the church, yet our members would NEVER imagine living such a life themselves; it's just for the preacher and his family. At any rate, I have personally made it a point to look and talk nothing like a preacher, or even "one of the boys." I'd rather just be like Jesus, who had "nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him." Ultimately, I do whatever I can NOT to draw attention to myself, but rather to Jesus, who lives in me. Great article, Al. Thank you.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Dear Brother Al, Many years ago we used to live in Okinawa. Right after we arrived we went to a Wednesday night meeting of the congregation, only to find that this particular evening the members were trying to fire their preacher, although he was preaching for them for free. They made him list all of his income (which was, basically, his military retirement) and all of his expenses. Never once did this man raise his voice or lose his temper!! The congregation expected everything of this man (just as you mentioned in your Reflections). Finally, cooler heads prevailed, and he continued preaching for them until at last the congregation appointed elders (which included me). He later got sick and had to return to the States in 1970, but during the time he was there with us he taught me much about patience!! When I asked him why he put up with such nonsense from the members, he replied that these people had never been taught anything previously but legalism, therefore they needed to be exposed to Truth so that they could grow. This preacher endured their persecution so that he might share God's love with them! Brother, your article was great ... as always!! God has given you a tremendous gift of writing!!

Note to Readers --- I received the following email a couple of days ago from the reader in the US Navy (see the final entry in the Readers' Response section of Reflections #411). Many of you were very touched by his letter, and have been praying for him, as well as for his family. I have been in contact with him a number of times since, and this particular email was great news. I wanted to share it with you so that each of you could be equally encouraged by it. Please continue to keep them in your prayers as they seek to serve our Lord. --- Al Maxey

Dear Brother Al, Just a word of thanks and an update. I took your advice. My wife and I visited the ------ ---- Church of Christ here in ---- --------, California, and this afternoon we met with the shepherds. You were right!! They are very grace-oriented! Their conciliatory nature and emphasis on being "in Christ," in lieu of being "the right church," was refreshing! I had never, ever experienced that. However, what I really wanted to tell you is that I have given some very serious thought to your Reflections article "Why Do You Stay?" -- Rationale for Continued Association (Issue #20). Actually, I have been reading several of your articles a day, and the argument you presented in this one for why you remain associated with the Churches of Christ really touched something deep inside my heart! When I read your words, it was as if time stood still. You shook me to my very core, and brought the realization that I cannot just run away. I have a duty to my God and to my brothers and sisters to stand firm and fight, with love and forbearing, those things in our movement that are wrong. We have a rich faith-heritage, and even with all of its flaws it is still worth preserving. You have cleared the path and have led the way, and with God's help I intend to follow the same course. My wife and I now have a congregation to call home here in ---- ------ until we are transferred to the east coast in December. On our way back across country we are planning to spend a night or two in your community at Holloman Air Force Base, and want to assemble with your brethren at Cuba Avenue Church of Christ. We would especially love the opportunity to visit with you, and I have a special gift for you from the Boxer Expeditionary Strike Group. Thanks again, brother, and may our God richly bless you and Shelly.

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