Hell is not a concept that many of us like to contemplate. And for most people in the world it hardly rates a mention, except as part of an oath or a joke. One time the word does get used is when people speak of “a special place in hell”. This phrase is used to capture the inherent wickedness of a particular person or a particular crime.
People might say there is a special place in hell for murderers, or pedophiles, or Hitler or Stalin. The people or crimes worthy of this “special place” are considered to be the worst of the worst. And even though most people don’t like to think anybody will go to hell these objectively evil people, if such a thing as hell were to exist, would occupy a special place in it.
It would appear that Jesus agrees with the concept of a “special place in hell”, but as for those who will occupy it, He has an entirely different class of people in mind:
And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that 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 11:23-24 NIV)
Jesus is telling us that this “special place in hell”, this harsher judgment, will not necessarily be for those who have murdered, or abused children, or committed atrocities. It will be for those who have seen Christ, who know that He is who He says He is, and yet do not repent. These could be the most moral people in the world. They could literally be Mother Theresa, but if they knew the gospel but refused to repent and trust in Jesus, then they will, according to Jesus, occupy a special place in hell.
The more knowledge we have, the harsher will our penalty be if we reject it.
For this reason Sodom will be better off than Capernaum. Wicked Tyre and Sidon will be better off than the Jewish towns of Chorazin and Bethsaida. And people who died in sin without ever hearing the gospel will be better off than the people who grow up in the church but never repent.
There is a special place in hell. It isn’t for the Aztec priests who sacrificed babies on the alter, it’s for people who sacrificed Christ to pursue their own pleasures. It’s for people who turned their back on the only name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved. It’s for people who say they are Christians but are not. It’s for people who claim to know Christ but do not. It’s for those who say they have received salvation but have not.
Because although they knew Christ to be God, and they saw Him at work in the lives of others, they did not turn away from their sin and put their trust in Jesus.
Jesus is warning those people to repent, before it is too late, and they end up in a special place in hell.