Are there greater and lesser sins, and punishments for sin?
In John 19:11, this verse talks about a greater sin. Does this mean there are greater and lesser sins? Are there greater or lesser punishments for sin?
In 2 Peter 2:20-21 are these verses saying there will be greater degrees of punishment for those leaving Christ and going back into the world and a lesser degree for those having never known the way of truth?
We really have two questions under consideration. First, are there greater and lesser degrees of sin? Second, are there greater and lesser degrees of punishment for sin? Let’s deal with the first question, then the second. In John 19:11 we read, “Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.” By the phrase “greater sin” do the scriptures imply that any one sin is worse than another is? Can one sin condemn a person more than another sin? Are some sins less harmful than others are?
The Bible clearly teaches that it is sin that separates man from God regardless what kind it is. Isaiah 59:2 says that sin separates man from God. Romans 6:23 says that the wages of sin is death. The example of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden clearly illustrate to us that sin results in separation from God. It does not matter what kind of sin it is. It does not matter whether it is a big or a small sin. My mother used to tell me that the smallest lie would condemn one to hell just as easy as murder. She was, and is right. God will not look upon a little sin and say, “Well, I suppose no real harm was done, so you don’t need to worry about it.” God simply cannot do this. Our God is a holy and righteous God and there is no sin that can be committed that he will accept. As soon as that sin is committed, we are condemned. In this sense, there is no such thing as a little sin or a big sin. Regardless the size or extent of the sin, they are equally harmful in that they separate us from God.
While all sin results in separation from God or condemnation, not all sins have the same consequences. Some sins are less consequential than others are. For example, one may sin by making an illegal U-turn. While there may be consequences to this, we all recognize that it is not as consequential as the sin of murder. There are definite consequences associated with murder. There are consequences associated with an illegal U-turn. These are two different sets of consequences. One has greater consequences than the other does. The Old Testament recognizes this principle under the Old Law. There are different punishments given for different types of transgressions. Leviticus 24:20-21 sets forth this principle. “Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again. And he that killeth a beast, he shall restore it: and he that killeth a man, he shall be put to death.” We only cite this verse to show that there are some crimes that are less consequential than others, and the principle of the punishment fitting the crime shows this to be true.
There is also a sense in which our sins are not as great due to our participation or involvement. For example in 2 Samuel 11 we have recorded the murder of Uriah the Hittite by David. There were others who were involved in this murder as well, yet David was the instigator. Each was still guilty of sin, but to a lesser degree given the different roles and levels of knowledge. Our laws today recognize this as well. We hold all participants guilty, but there are different punishments associated with different activities. If a person is merely an accessory to a crime he will receive less punishment than the instigator. Notice that this does not hold anyone less guilty of the crime. However less involvement merits less punishment. This is likely the sense of which Pilate was guilty of lesser sin because his involvement was not one of instigation, but of accessory.
Of course, the whole question of greater or lesser sins raises the issue of greater or lesser punishment in eternity and that is the second question posed. If there are indeed greater and lesser sins, are there greater and lesser punishments given for sin in eternity? The Bible does seem to indicate that there will be different levels of punishment in hell. Several passages stand out in this regard. In Luke 12:47-48 at the conclusion of the parable of the faithful steward, we read, “And that servant, which knew his lord