Every day people give honor to distinguished service and scorn laziness. The idea of different levels of recognition and reward for different levels of service does not seem to be very controversial to most people.
However, some people seem to have a problem when the rewards in question are not physical rewards in this temporary world of ours, but eternal rewards. There are several reasons why people might take issue:
- Maybe it is because these rewards are eternal, so the overall consequences are larger.
- Maybe because people are familiar with the correct teaching that salvation comes by grace through faith and not by works, they think things must work exactly the same here.
- Maybe they want everyone to be rewarded the same because if we are instead rewarded according to service they will not do very well!
Whatever the reasons, this idea of different levels of eternal reward for different levels of service seems to be hard for many people to accept. The goal of this page is to briefly put forward some of the scriptural evidence for the concept and deal with some common objections.
A general overview of the teaching
Scripture is quite clear that upon Christ’s return, judgement will be rendered as to the works of men. For example:
For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.
The Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory. His angels will come with him. And he will reward everyone in keeping with what they have done.
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
We must all stand in front of Christ to be judged. Each one of us will be judged for the good things and the bad things we do while we are in our bodies. Then each of us will receive what we are supposed to get.
“Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.”
“Look! I am coming soon! I bring my rewards with me. I will reward each person for what he has done.”
All these passages speak of an evaluation of our works. It follows naturally that if some people have “better works” than others, then they will receive more reward. There is no other way to responsibly interpret these passages.
Paul gives us some more detail on the process of evaluation in 1 Corinthians 3:
10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 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. 14 If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. 15 If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.
10 God has given me the grace to lay a foundation as a master builder. Now someone else is building on it. But each one should build carefully. 11 No one can lay any other foundation than the one that has already been laid. That foundation is Jesus Christ. 12 A person may build on it using gold, silver, jewels, wood, hay or straw. 13 But each person’s work will be shown for what it is. On judgment day it will be brought to light. It will be put through fire. The fire will test how good everyone’s work is. 14 If the building doesn’t burn up, God will give the builder a reward for his work. 15 If the building burns up, the builder will lose everything. The builder will be saved, but only like one escaping through the flames.
After the fires of judgement, only those things we build upon the sure foundation of Jesus Christ will remain. (This applies to words and thoughts as well as actions: compare Matthew 12:36–37). This passage in 1 Corinthians teaches that those who build with gold, silver, and precious stones have works that survive the fire. On the other hand, those who build with wood, hay, and stubble have works that do not survive the fire. The fire represents God evaluating the things we do in this life, and the things left behind represent our reward (see verse 14). For this reason, this passage clearly teaches that some people receive greater reward than others.
Finally, consider the passages that teach that many of the last will be first and the first last:
“But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
“But many who are first will be last. And the last will be first.”
“Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”
“Then the last will be first. And the first will be last.”
These passages directly teach that there is ranking in heaven. If we were all the same in eternity, it would not be possible to have people who are first and last.
The parable of the talents and the parable of the minas
These two parables also clearly teach that the level of our reward in eternity is dependent upon what we do here on Earth:
The parable of the talents
14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. 15 To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. 17 So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. 18 But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ 21 “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!’ 22 “The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’ 23 “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!’ 24 “Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ 26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. 28 “ ‘Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. 29 For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
14 “Again, here is what the kingdom of heaven will be like. A man was going on a journey. He sent for his servants and put them in charge of his property. 15 He gave $10,000 to one. He gave $4,000 to another. And he gave $2,000 to the third. The man gave each servant the amount of money he knew the servant could take care of. Then he went on his journey. 16“The servant who had received the $10,000 went at once and put his money to work. He earned $10,000 more. 17 The one with the $4,000 earned $4,000 more. 18 But the man who had received $2,000 went and dug a hole in the ground. He hid his master’s money in it. 19“After a long time the master of those servants returned. He wanted to collect all the money they had earned. 20 The man who had received $10,000 brought the other $10,000. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you trusted me with $10,000. See, I have earned $10,000 more.’ 21“His master replied, ‘You have done well, 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!’ 22“The man with $4,000 also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you trusted me with $4,000. See, I have earned $4,000 more.’ 23“His master replied, ‘You have done well, 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!’ 24“Then the man who had received $2,000 came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest where you have not planted. You gather crops where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid. I went out and hid your $2,000 in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ 26“His master replied, ‘You evil, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not planted? You knew that I gather crops where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money in the bank. When I returned, I would have received it back with interest.’ 28“Then his master commanded the other servants, ‘Take the $2,000 from him. Give it to the one who has $20,000. 29 Everyone who has will be given more. He will have more than enough. And what about anyone who doesn’t have? Even what he has will be taken away from him. 30 Throw that worthless servant outside. There in the darkness, people will sob and grind their teeth.’
The parable of the minas
11 While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once. 12 He said: “A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. 13 So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas. ‘Put this money to work,’ he said, ‘until I come back.’ 14 “But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, ‘We don’t want this man to be our king.’ 15 “He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it. 16 “The first one came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned ten more.’ 17 “ ‘Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.’ 18 “The second came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned five more.’ 19 “His master answered, ‘You take charge of five cities.’ 20 “Then another servant came and said, ‘Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. 21 I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.’ 22 “His master replied, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?’ 24 “Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.’ 25 “ ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’ 26 “He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away. 27 But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.’ ”
11 While the people were listening to these things, Jesus told them a story. He was near Jerusalem. The people thought that God’s kingdom was going to appear right away. 12 Jesus said, “A man from an important family went to a country far away. He went there to be made king and then return home. 13 So he sent for ten of his servants. He gave them each about three months’ pay. ‘Put this money to work until I come back,’ he said. 14 “But those he ruled over hated him. They sent some messengers after him. They were sent to say, ‘We don’t want this man to be our king.’ 15 “But he was made king and returned home. Then he sent for the servants he had given the money to. He wanted to find out what they had earned with it. 16 “The first one came to him. He said, ‘Sir, your money has earned ten times as much.’ 17 “ ‘You have done well, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘You have been faithful in a very small matter. So I will put you in charge of ten towns.’ 18 “The second servant came to his master. He said, ‘Sir, your money has earned five times as much.’ 19 “His master answered, ‘I will put you in charge of five towns.’ 20 “Then another servant came. He said, ‘Sir, here is your money. I have kept it hidden in a piece of cloth. 21 I was afraid of you. You are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in. You harvest what you did not plant.’ 22 “His master replied, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you evil servant! So you knew that I am a hard man? You knew that I take out what I did not put in? You knew that I harvest what I did not plant? 23 Then why didn’t you put my money in the bank? When I came back, I could have collected it with interest.’ 24 “Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his money away from him. Give it to the one who has ten times as much.’ 25 “ ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten times as much!’ 26 “He replied, ‘I tell you that everyone who has will be given more. But here is what will happen to anyone who has nothing. Even what he has will be taken away from him. 27 And what about my enemies who did not want me to be king over them? Bring them here! Kill them in front of me!’”
While these two parables are not identical in all the particulars, they teach more or less the same thing. When interpreting a parable, an important first step is identifying exactly what things in the parable stand for. With this in mind:
- In both these parables, the master represents our Lord, Jesus Christ.
- In both these parables, the servants represent believers. An exception is the servant who buries his money and is subsequently thrown into the darkness (see Matthew 25:30). This servant did not do anything with all that God had given him. As the Bible makes clear elsewhere, faith without works is dead (compare James 2:17). That means faith without works is not true faith at all. (As a sidenote, it is sometimes helpful to put this dead faith in scare quotes when discussing it, as this “faith” can otherwise get confused with actual faith).
- In both these parables, the money given to the servants (us) represents all that God has given to us. This would include talents/aptitudes, material possessions, opportunities, and so on. (In truth, all we have in life comes from the hand of God, in Whom all things hold together — Colossians 1:17).
- In both these parables, the going away of the master represents Christ’s ascension to be with the Father in heaven. We can no longer see Christ directly just like the servants in the passage cannot see their master, as he is far away. The return of the master represents the second advent of Christ.
- In both these parables, the rewards given to the servants after the master’s return represent the rewards that will be bestowed upon believers after Christ’s second advent in the judgement and reward of the Church.
These parables pose issues for the false doctrine of the pre-tribulation rapture
While far from the most direct or convincing evidence against the false doctrine of the pre-tribulation rapture, it is nonetheless true that these passages must be explained away if one is to adopt the doctrine of the pre-tribulation rapture.
The doctrine of the pre-tribulation rapture typically holds that there is some sort of pseudo-return of Christ before the tribulation, and that it is at this point that the Church is raptured. (The tribulation is an event in the book of Revelation where the world suffers calamity and judgement as the Antichrist comes to wield and use power. The rapture is an event described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17 where living Christians are “caught up” in the air with Christ, and dead Christians are raised).
According to the doctrine, Christ does not fully return at this point. The doctrine holds that the “coming” or “return” of Christ mentioned in Matthew 24:27, 37; 1 Thessalonians 4:15; and elsewhere instead happens before Armageddon 1 at the end of the tribulation.
The word translated as “coming” or “return” in these verses is the Greek word παρουσία. When the second coming of Christ is mentioned in the New Testament, this is the word that is used. This, along with the observation that there is not anything on the surface that clearly indicates that the usages of παρουσία across verses are referring to different events, is one of the strongest arguments against the doctrine of the pre-tribulation rapture.
In the period between Christ’s pseudo-return/the supposed pre-tribulation rapture and Christ’s full return/Armageddon, the doctrine of the pre-tribulation rapture holds that Christians are spared from the judgements on the world described in Revelation since they are not on Earth but in heaven.
Based on all this, what supporters of the pre-trib position must explain in relation to these two parables is as follows:
If they take the return of the master to be Christ’s supposed pseudo-return before the tribulation
Let us say that the return of the master represents the supposed pseudo-return of Christ put forth by the doctrine of the pre-tribulation rapture. (This would then mean that the the judgement and reward of the Church precedes the tribulation, since in the parables the servants are rewarded at the time when their master returns). The problem with this idea of a pseudo-return is that the return of the master in The Parable of the Minas is presented as permanent/absolute. In Luke 19:15, the master is said to return “after receiving the kingdom.” This sounds like something more final and permanent. In other words, people don’t receive kingdoms and then immediately leave. But that is exactly what you would have to believe if you identify the return of the master with the pseudo-return of Christ in the the pre-tribulation rapture position.
In Luke 19:15, the aorist participial phrase λαβόντα τὴν βασιλείαν is modifying the returning master. It is very common to translate circumstantial aorist participles temporally. Here, that would mean that λαβόντα τὴν βασιλείαν would be translated as “after receiving the kingdom.” The meaning is also perfectly clear if you keep the participle in English – “having received the kingdom.”
Taking it causally (“because/since he received the kingdom”) makes no sense here, and taking it concessively (“although he received the kingdom”) doesn’t make any sense either.
Any way you look at this verse, then, you can’t escape the fact that the returning master of Luke 19:15 receives the kingdom and then judges His servants.
If they take the return of the master to be Christ’s full return before Armageddon
A supporter of the pre-tribulation rapture position might then decide to identify the return of the master in the parable with the full return of Christ before Armageddon rather than with the pseudo-return of Christ before the supposed pre-tribulation rapture. However, there are problems in doing this too! Let us say that the return of the master represents the full return of Christ before Armageddon. (This would then mean that the judgement and reward of the Church happens before Armageddon, since in the parables the servants are rewarded at the time when their master returns). The problem with the interpretation now is related to the timing of the evaluation of the servants/Christians. The parables present the judgement and evaluation of the servants’ production as the first interaction between them and the master, a person whom they have not seen in a long time. However, the doctrine of the pre-tribulation rapture necessitates raptured Christians being in the presence of Christ for years before being evaluated. (If Christians are raptured before the tribulation starts, and Christ returns before Armageddon at its end, then we have ~7 years according to Revelation).
Conclusion: the rapture must happen at the end of the tribulation, when Christ returns before Armageddon
Neither of the above interpretive issues from the parables are present if you say that the rapture happens at the same time that Christ returns: before Armageddon at the end of the tribulation. (This puts forward a single return of Christ without any prior pseudo-return/pre-tribulation rapture). In this correct interpretation, Christ returns permanently and immediately judges the Church (the servants of the parables) based on their production. (Note that this interpretation means that Christians are on Earth during the judgements of the tribulation. Compare the Israelites in Egypt as God sent the plagues on the Egyptians).