Question: "Are there different levels of punishment in hell?"
Answer: The idea that there are different levels of punishment in hell derives primarily from The Divine Comedy, written by Dante Alighieri between 1308 and 1321. In the 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 so, it does seem to indicate that there are different levels of punishment in hell. 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. Whatever the case, being thrown into a slightly less hot portion of the lake of fire is not much consolation to those who are still doomed for eternity.
Another indication that there might be different levels of punishment in hell is found in Jesus’ words: “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” (Luke 12:47–48).
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, whether or not there are different levels of punishment in hell, the suffering is hideous, dreadful, eternal, and avoidable.