Even though most people don’t have issues decorating only certain particularly worthy soldiers for exemplary service, for example, many seem to have problems when that idea is mapped onto the concept of eternal rewards from the hand of God. Despite the skepticism, scripture is actually pretty clear on this specific question, so for all who are truly willing to look at what the Bible says, it becomes quickly apparent that God will in fact reward some individuals more than others in eternity, based upon the quality of their Christian walk here in time.
Merit-based rewards are not generally controversial
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, when the rewards in question are eternal, people seem to be a bit more skittish
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 spiritual rewards. There are several reasons why people might take issue:
- Maybe it is because these rewards are eternal, so the overall consequences are much larger.
- Maybe because people are familiar with the correct teaching that salvation comes by grace through faith and not by works, they think eternal rewards must work in exactly the same way.
- 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 merit-based service seems to be hard for many people to accept. The goal of this short study is to briefly put forward some of the scriptural evidence for the concept.
Some general passages dealing with differing levels of eternal reward
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.
More on the process of evaluation: 1 Corinthians 3:10-15
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 built 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 3 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 lead to reward for us (see verse 14). For this reason, this passage clearly teaches that some people receive greater reward than others.
Eternal ranking is implicit in “Many of the first will be last, and the last first”
Finally, consider the passages that teach that many of the first will be last, and the last first:
“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.