Eternity… life after the grave… Heaven and Hell… This refresh of an earlier article begins a two part series into exploring the reality that as immortal beings, we will live forever, in one of two places. It follows from an earlier two part series, “What Does It Take To Get Into Heaven – Part 1 and Part 2.
Francis Chan used an illustration of a very long string where only the first inch represented our time on this earth. Eternity awaits all of us regardless of what we may or may not believe or be willing to accept. More importantly perhaps, our time to decide where we spend eternity must be made while we are on this earth.
Regardless of where we end up, Heaven or Hell, the question addressed in this series is:
Will there be differences in our individual experiences as we settle into eternity?
Do Americans Believe in Heaven?
It is beyond the scope of this article to provide evidence for the existence of Heaven other than to acknowledge that this theological construct begins with an acceptance of the reality of God, followed by his Word (the Bible) which presents a brief yet cogent picture of life after the grave.
At the outset of a discussion on whether Heaven will be different for each believer, it is worth noting American opinions of its existence.
A recent Pew Research study in November of 2021 of 6500 American adults (including 1421 Evangelicals). In it they found that 27% of those polled did not believe Heaven existed. Further, 39% believed that “People who do not believe in God” can still go to Heaven while only 32% agree that a belief in God ism required for eternity in Heaven.
Breaking the data down by denomination, the following groups hold the opinion that those who do not believe in God can still enter Heaven:
- 21% of Evangelicals
- 56% of Mainline Protestant
- 68% of Catholics
So, from the perspective that Heaven is a real place and one that some will spend eternity in, the next logical question would be, what will it be like.
Heavenly Differences Between Biblical Christians
There have been numerous books written on what Heaven will be like. One of the thickest and perhaps most interesting, is Randy Alcorn’s, “Heaven: A Comprehensive Guide to Everything the Bible Says About Our Eternal Home…” In the book, Randy uses his “sanctified imagination” to paint a beautiful picture of what Heaven will be like for the Believer. It has been some time since I read the book, however, Randy also has a blog, offering his insights on whether Heaven will be different for each of us.
Let me begin this discussion with some background. Heaven is eternal, making those of us who are residents, immortal beings (John 3:16). It will be a place beyond our imagination (1 Corinthians 2:9), and a paradise (Luke 23:43). However, as wonderful as Heaven is, the question remains, will we all experience it in the same way?
To be more specific, are there levels of Heaven? Or, said another way, will we be rewarded differently once we get there? Will God show more favor to some than others, perhaps based on our works while on the earth?
To Be Clear Salvation is not by Works…
To be clear, we are not talking about earning our way to Heaven by the works we do while on earth. Our works, whether we are a good person, compared to others, has no bearing on our passage from this life to the next (Rom. 3:20). We are all sadly destined, by our sin nature, to be separated from God for eternity. It is only the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and our acceptance of Him as our Lord and Savior that allows us the opportunity to enter Heaven.
Ephesians 2:8-9 makes it clear that God’s grace, and our resulting faith, provides the gift of salvation. This is not made available to us by any human effort. No one can boast that they earned a place in eternal paradise. This theology of ‘grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone’ represents a watershed difference between true saving faith and the false theology that is rampant in our culture today. Romans 10:9-10 summarizes where we need to put our trust.
Three Questions to Answer
- Are there levels or varying rewards in Heaven?
- If so, how are they determined?
- Finally, what will the different rewards be?
1. Are there rewards in Heaven
Are some going to be better off than others in Heaven? One pastor I remember referred to these rewards as “different levels of honors”. However, some believe everyone is treated equally, regardless of our works on earth. They use the Parable of the Vineyard Workers in Matthew 20 for scriptural support.
Parable of the Vineyard
Matthew 20:1-15 presents a landowner who hired servants to work his fields at three different times during the day. At the end of the day, as the servants came to receive their wages, the landowner paid each the same amount of money. The amount was considered standard for that type of labor, for a whole day’s work. Those servants who worked a full day, grumbled against the landowner because they compared their efforts against the work of those servants who began in the fields late in the day. In the context of Heaven, some theologians interpret this parable as implying that all will be of equal status, regardless of our level of service for God while on the earth. Scripture summarizes this conclusion in Matthew 20:16 by saying “the last will be first, and the first last.” I would respectfully disagree with this conclusion.
Looking at these verses more carefully, they’re not referring to equal rewards in Heaven. As with so many passages, one must read the context surrounding the parable to understand what God is referring to. In Matthew 19:30, just before this story of the landowner, Scripture concludes the chapter by saying, “but many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first”. Looking at the context, this is a reference to those Gentiles coming into the knowledge of the kingdom (Heaven) later than the Jews (God’s chosen people) and yet, receiving salvation as the same reward. It is not referring to rewards once one arrives in Heaven.
The parable that follows in Matt. 20 is an illustration of the blessed fact that both Jews and Gentiles will receive the opportunity to spend eternity with God. In its original writing, the Bible was a continuous document, having no chapter or sub-chapter headings. Therefore, taking chapters 19 and 20 together, Jesus is making a point that the kingdom of God is available to all, both Jews and Gentiles. It is not suggesting all would be treated exactly the same in the Heavenly realm.
Scripture that Supports Levels
So, again the question remains, will the Saints receive different rewards in Heaven from each other? Let’s look at some Scripture passages that speak directly to this question.
- Matthew 11:11 I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.
- This passage implies relative positions in Heaven.
- 1 Cor. 3:12-15 If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.
- Some services we do on this earth for the Lord will be burned up. That’s because they are performed from false motives or are against what God has called us to do. This verse implies that others will be rewarded.
- Luke 12:33b-36 “Provide … a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
- This could imply earning treasures (or rewards) in Heaven, again by our actions on this earth, rather than to just accumulate worthless material possessions. Further, this would imply, different folks earn different rewards.
- Mat 6:3-4 “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
- This would imply that we will be rewarded more in Heaven for the secret things we do for others. Since each of us has the potential to do more or less based on our free will. it would suggest the rewards for these efforts will be different as well.
- Matthew 18:4 Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
- Matt. 5:19 Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
- Other Verses that possibly show varying levels of rewards in Heaven include :
- Mark 10:40, 2 Cor 5:10, Matt. 5:11-12, Matt. 6:16-20, Romans 2:5-6, Proverbs 24:12, Daniel 12:3,
- Finally, there are numerous references to those who have earned various Crowns in Heaven, suggesting that not everyone earns every crown.
- Crown of Life – Rev. 2:10, James 1:12,
- Crown of Rejoicing – 1 Thes. 2:19
- Crown of Righteousness – 2 Tim. 4:8
- Crown of Glory – 1 Pet. 5:4
- Imperishable Crown – 1 Cor. 9:24-25
Add to those above, Mat. 6:1,5, and 16 which suggest the removal of heavenly rewards based on praise offered while on earth. The bottom line is that it would appear likely there are varying rewards in Heaven. So, the next important question is, what are the criteria for these rewards?
2. How are heavenly rewards or levels determined?
The first question to be answered is: are rewards determined by God, based on His sovereignty, or by man, based on his works? My view is that it is a combination.
Perspectives from Theologians
Using Matthew 20:23 as a guide, John MacArthur states, “Determining rank in the kingdom of Heaven is entirely God’s prerogative.” Interestingly MacArthur states in another one of his books regarding this same verse, “He [Jesus] has a perfect right to hold those in lowest esteem who have a low esteem for the Word.” This suggests MacArthur acknowledges that the way we treat Jesus while on the earth, at least in part, determines our rewards in Heaven.
Vernon McGee offers this insight: “At the end we will stand in the presence of God and give an account of how we use what He has given to us. The Lord is not going to ask us how much we have done for Him but how faithful we have been to that which He wanted us to do.” The implication from McGee is that each of us will be evaluated based on what we have done with the talents He has given us while on the earth.
The Heavenly Position of Prayer Warriors
However, it is important to keep in mind that the highest level of Heaven may be reserved for prayer warriors who are unknown by everyone but God. To use an example at the risk of being inflammatory, Billy Graham may be lower on the reward totem pole than the quiet prayer warrior, since Dr. Graham was given so many talents by God and so many accolades while on earth.
Rewards from Persecution
There are numerous citations in Scripture encouraging those who suffer while on this earth will receive Heavenly rewards. Through these verses, there is the suggestion that earthly persecution increases heavenly rewards.
Luke 6:22-23 offers insight to those who are hated for their Biblical Christian faith. That they should rejoice rather than weep as their “reward is great in Heaven”. This was repeated, and thereby reinforced in Matthew 5:12.
However, there is much controversy from theologians on who controls our actions while on earth.
Predestination vs. Free-Will
This tension between God’s sovereign will and man’s works is just another example of the theological concepts of predestination and free-will, discussed in more detail elsewhere. In the end, what we need to keep in mind is Ephesians 2:8-9, which makes it clear that salvation is a gift from God, having nothing to do with man’s efforts. Since that is true, I believe we are drawn to the cross by the Holy Spirit (John 6:44-65, Romans 8:29-30), however, I hold this theology tentatively and with humility. Nevertheless, once one has been saved by the work of Christ on the cross, and the calling of God into our lives, there remains clear scriptural support for levels of Heaven in the hereafter.
However, our relative status in Heaven remains largely dependent on how we view predestination vs free will. Do we believe God has determined all our actions and responses before we were even born? In other words, all our behavior has been predestined by God. In that case, we would have to acknowledge our place or rewards in Heaven have been set exclusively by God.
On the other hand, we might believe God has perfect knowledge of how we will respond in every situation, but WE have been given the free will to make our own decisions on how obedient we are to the works He has called us to do. In that case, we exercise some control over our eventual eternal rewards.
The answer, in my view, is a mix of the two. God takes his hand off us at times, but still knows how we will respond because He is omniscient. We need to pray like our rewards in Heaven are dependent on God, and work as if our rewards in Heaven are dependent on our efforts. What makes prayer so important is that it actually supports both, predestination and free will (John 6:44,65). God calls us to pray (1 Thes. 5:17), so we can express our heart to serve Him (free-will) and so He can exercise what He already has set up for us to do (predestination). When we see how these efforts seemed to be timed so perfectly, we call it miraculous.
3. What will the different rewards in Heaven be?
As noted above, Scripture speaks a great deal about various rewards in Heaven. However, very little is said about what form these rewards might take. Below are some thoughts…
- Time – Perhaps varying rewards in Heaven have to do with the amount of time we could spend with God.
- Joy – We all know there will be joy, peace, love, a new body, a place to live, etc. But what form will the relative differences be between each of us? Differing amounts of joy are expressed in Luke 15:7.
- Responsibilities – From the Parable of the Talents in Matt. 25… A man left funds to three of his servants and went on a journey. Two invested the funds and earned interest on their investments. The third put the money in a hole in the ground. To the first and the second servants who earned a return from what was given them… (Matthew 25:21) “His master replied, ’Well done, good and faithful servant!” Some interpret these verses as a prosperity gospel for rewards while on earth. However, the context of the verses strongly suggests the perspective is from Heaven. To the third servant who returned what was given him…. Matthew 25:30 “And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” Matt 13 & 24 – we know “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is a reference to behaviors in Hell. So, the benefits accruing to the first two servants were from a Heavenly perspective. Matthew 25:21 concludes the parable by saying, “His master replied, ’Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’” From this it would seem greater rewards equates to more responsibility, as well as happiness.
If there will be varying rewards in Heaven based on our works on earth, how should that affect our behavior? We simply need to follow the Greatest Commandment:
Mat 22:37-40 Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”