One book that I remember reading in high school and enjoying was Dante’s Inferno. Actually I read the whole Divine Comedy . It details a fictitious trip through Hell, then Purgatory, and finally Heaven. Within the Inferno section of the poem was a description of Hell containing nine levels. On each sinners experienced eternal punishment that fit their crimes. At the very bottom was Satan chewing on the classic traitors of history.
Interesting book but not biblical. Yet Jesus says a few things that suggest that Hell is not a uniformly miserable experience. For instance, when sending out his disciples on their first mission trip, Jesus instructs his disciples to shake off of their feet the dust of cities that will not welcome them. He says of these cities:
I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.Matthew 10:15(NIV)
Descriptions of Hell are very few. Really the most detailed descriptions are of Sheol/Hades. Revelation refers to the “Lake of fire” as the final place of judgment that we call “Hell”. Jesus’ words above refer to the “day of Judgment”, so he is not talking about experiences in Sheol but rather post-judgment day. So how could they differ? Both would include being forsaken by God, for that is the penalty for sin.
In the next chapter Jesus says,
Woe to you Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No you will go down to (Hades) If the miracles there were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.Matthew 11:21-24 (NIV)
It would seem that the opportunity to believe and be saved that should have been enhanced by seeing miracles performed, actually creates a more grievous punishment if the miracles are ignored, rationalized away, or attributed to Satan. It is the later that most likely happened in these places.
Jesus suggests that seeing miracles would have at least prompted a temporary repentance if not salvation in some of the classic places of sin. This is not true in some devoutly Jewish towns.
What makes their experience “more bearable”? This question remains unanswered. It is not necessarily that there are circles of more intense suffering or longer sentences (because they are all eternal). The suffering of Hell is primarily psychological. It is being forgotten and excluded by God. To have nothing but to remember that Jesus was right there proving himself with miracles no less and you did not believe has to be an agonizing thought.
Might there be other circumstances like these? Perhaps a person ignored the love and constant witness of family out of pride or rebellion. Maybe others were among the ranks of the clergy and rejected their faith for flimsy reasons. In the quotes above both Bethsaida and Capernaum were the home towns of original disciples (Andrew and Peter respectively). Ignoring a witness or being offended by it because it came from family might be a source of greater “intolerability”.
In Dante’s fiction the punishment was made to fit the crime. In the end, the crime of damned will end up being rejecting the sacrifice the Son of God made to forgive their many lesser sins. One level suffices for all. Only the knowledge that this was easily avoidable makes it worse.