Article by: Thomas Schreiner
Is God more displeased when you cause another person to sin than when you sin yourself? Or are all sins the same? This issue arises when we think of a verse like Matthew 18:6. Jesus said:
But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to fall away—it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea. (CSB)
Is there a greater punishment for someone who encourages and leads others to sin?
Answering a question like this is tricky since it depends on what we mean by “worse.” Worse in what way? If we commit sin and don’t repent, we will suffer the second death, the lake of fire. If we cause others to sin and we don’t repent, we will suffer the second death, the lake of fire.
We could say, then, that neither is worse than the other, for in both cases the end result is hell. Sin is sin, and sin leads to judgment. So in one sense, no sin is worse than another if we think in terms of our final destination—of whether we go to heaven or hell.
Yet some sins are worse in terms of their consequences, at least in this life. Jesus taught us that anger is as bad as murder in that both lead to hell (Matt. 5:21–22), but the earthly consequences of murder far exceed that of anger. We certainly wouldn’t say to someone, “Since anger and murder both lead to hell, there’s no difference at all between them. You might as well murder someone you’re angry with.”
The same logic applies to adultery and lust. Again, Jesus taught that both lust and adultery may lead to final judgment (Matt. 5:27–30), but it would be foolish to say that if you lust you might as well commit adultery. When you commit adultery, another person participates in sin with you, and the consequences of the sin are more far-reaching than in the case of lust. A whole web of relationships is affected when one commits adultery.
Worst of the Bad
Circling back to Matthew 18:6, it’s evident that causing a little one who trusts in Jesus to fall away warrants severe condemnation. Actually, the word “fall away” here has to do with departing from the faith, with committing apostasy—apostasy that leads to destruction.
Space is lacking to explain why no true believer ends up committing such a sin. I suspect the language of belief here is phenomenological—the little one gave every appearance of believing in Jesus.
Causing another to fall away is an exceedingly grave sin. No wonder Jesus’s next words are, “Woe to the world because of offenses. For offenses will inevitably come, but woe to that person by whom the offense comes” (Matt. 18:7). Both the one who falls away and also the one who causes the falling away will end up in hell. But surely the one who incites another to sin bears a heavier responsibility, which explains why a millstone should be tied around his neck.
Another fascinating text surfaces in Jesus’s trial. Pilate asks Jesus about his place of origin, and becomes angry when Jesus doesn’t answer (John 19:9–10). Jesus reminds Pilate that the authority Pilate exercises is from God, and yet the one who handed Jesus over to Pilate “has the greater sin” (John 19:11).
The person who has the greater sin could be Annas, Caiaphas, or even Judas, but for our purposes it doesn’t matter. Jesus clearly thinks the person who handed him over committed a worse sin than Pilate did. Both Pilate and this other person sinned, yes, but some sins are worse than others. The one who betrayed Jesus to Pilate took the initiative to do away with Jesus, while Pilate reacted to a situation he found himself in.
We can also think of the kings in Israel and Judah. One of the messages of 1–2 Kings is that the nation goes as the king goes. A godly king has a good effect on the nation, but a wicked king drags a nation down and oppresses it. As Proverbs 28:15 says, “A wicked ruler over a helpless people is like a roaring lion or a charging bear.”
In 1–2 Kings, the downfall of Israel has many causes, but the author repeatedly returns to the sin of Jeroboam, son of Nebat. He bore a special responsibility as the first king, the one who led the nation into idolatry and wickedness. Surely rulers who lead their nations into sin bear a special responsibility. We can think of the horrific consequences of the rule of men like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong.
Or consider the many pastors who have abandoned the gospel and led churches down a path where orthodoxy is repudiated. Our country is filled with churches presided over by clergy who teach a false gospel, and they are leading people to eternal ruin.
Same Judgment, Different Levels
In the end, the quiet and nearly invisible unbeliever who doesn’t seem to affect anyone else, and the leader who turns many away from God, both end up in hell. Yet it seems those who cause others to sin bear a special responsibility, and are uniquely guilty for turning people from righteousness.
We do have some indication from Jesus that those who sin more grievously will endure a greater punishment:
That servant who knew his master’s will and didn't prepare himself or do it will be severely beaten. But the one who did not know and did what deserved punishment will receive a light beating. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be expected. (Luke 12:47–48)
It seems fair to deduce from these verses that there are different levels of punishment in hell. Those who have sinned more grievously—which surely includes those who incite others to sin—bear a heavier responsibility.
The most fundamental issue is one’s eternal destiny: heaven or hell. Still, for those who have led little ones astray—who have caused others to renounce the gospel—their punishment will be more intense in some way.
God is just, he does all things well, and his righteousness endures forever.
Thomas Schreiner is the James Buchanan Harrison professor of New Testament interpretation and associate dean for Scripture and interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. You can follow him on Twitter.